Fowl play

July 4, 2008

Visitors ignored the roses the other day, spurned the delphiniums, bypassed the hollyhocks and looked straight through the astroemerias. All they were interested in was the mother partridge parading her brood of fifteen chicks. Her nest was hidden just beside the greenhouse, filled with fifteen eggs perfectly broken in half, all at the same moment, it seems.

Somehow or other she manages to gather all fifteen under her body and wings for a nap, choosing an open spot with a clear field of view: the middle of the lawn or the potato patch. Why, though, do mother fowl take their chicks on route marches? The partridge is not as bad as a mallard who covers hundreds of yards in a day. No sooner is her family bobbing on one pond but she marshalls them all up and leads them the length of the garden to another, nippers falling by the way like grenadiers retreating from Moscow.

Now the partridge family has disappeared, though we can hear cheeping from deep in the Mahonia nervosa. I expect they’ll reappear tomorrow miles away – but not, I fear, anything like fifteen of them.

Of crags and roses

June 23, 2008

Work in progress

The scary part of any design project is when it starts to take concrete (or timber, or stone, or metal) form. In the mind’s eye it is fluid, on paper easily modified, but when the plans are drawn up and work begins on the ground it is a brave designer who has no last minute doubts.

I have been planning a garden for three years now in one of Europe’s most spectacular locations, high above the Mediterranean, on terraces between immense craggy cliffs and the sea. Cap Ferrat and the waters of Beaulieu Bay lie below, and above a steep wild hillside where old grey olive trees and deep green Aleppo pines lead the eye up to ochre limestone crags. The terraces still bear survivors of the old culture of olives and vines and lemons. It is a long garden, the narrow top terrace 125 metres, rising in three long steps to the monumental olive tree that brings it to its mysterious shady close. From under its branches, looking back along the terraces, the eye embraces the whole panorama of cliffs, garden and sea, where Cap d’Ail is a long finger on the horizon.

This spring the garden took its definitive shape. The centre part of the top terrace is a tunnel of vines trained on a simple arched metal pergola. From the house, two terraces below, it appears as a cloister of shady voids and green columns backed by a high stone wall. At its lower end the cloister leads to a boule court shaded by ancient olive and bay trees. Going  the other way it opens to a simple formal space where a central box-edged path leads between orange and lemon trees, filtering the view of the sea, and a broad bed of Hydrangea quercifolia and agapanthus. Agapanthus is the default summer flower here – at least in the early stages, before we are tempted to diversify. I hope we manage to keep all the planting simple. The pergola

continues as a single row of metal arches, rose and vine covered, concealing and revealing the great open view directly down to the bay and across to Cap Ferrat.

At each break of level, three times where the long terrace climbs across the mountain slope, a plain iron pipe splashes water into a concrete reservoir, a repeated thread of water that leads the eye and ear upwards. Rough tufa catches the splash, absorbs it and provides a home for moss and ferns. Beside each tank stone stairs, with a barrow-ramp up the middle, lead up to the next level. At the bottom, two terraces down, the water reappears as the source for a grey-blue swimming pool, pergola’d off from the house with climbing roses and a bed already brimming with blue and purple, Salvia uliginosa, Verbena bonariensis, and white Japanese anemones.

The doubts? Can we maintain the sense of ancient agriculture, of working terraces and reservoirs, while embowering them in flowers? Can we do anything but trivialize what is already an epic panorama by horticulturizing it?

Sharp focus

June 10, 2008

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A week away in early June and you come back to a different garden. It was wet while we were gone, and warm enough for plants to make their main thrust of growth, to bulk up and cover ground. Last night, just home, I walked round in a daze of excitement, surprise, shock and, I confess, dither. So much needs enjoying, so much needs doing. Instinctive priorities are new plants, just planted. Have they survived my disloyal absence?

A fresh eye for your own garden is never easy to achieve. Homecoming gives you your best chance. Has the fatsia grown too bulky (yes), or the hedge too tall? Does the Robinia ‘Frisia’ shout too loud beside the purple cotinus? This is the moment to decide. But how do you prevent yourself from stopping to pull up an egregious weed…. Then another and another? Contemplation and quiet consideration go by the board once you start stooping – which is why they are fragile commodities around here.

My friends groan when I tell them I love weeding. After propagating, though, it accounts for my happiest gardening hours, most absorbed and closest to my plants. There is gross weeding, when I straighten up all sweaty with armfuls of goose grass and nettles and dock, and fine weeding which scarcely fills a trug but leaves a bed looking like a jewel box.

Both make me focus and concentrate. Weeds rampaging intertwined disguise themselves as their betters. Tiny seed leaves, mere hints of a plant, challenge me to identify them. And decide whether they are going to add to or subtract from the picture in question.

Herb Robert its everywhere at the moment. Who can possibly dislike this lusty little geranium, so agile in

scrambling? It fragile pink stems, forking and forking again, its leaves, dividing and subdividing into more andmore palmate parts, its tiny pink flowers and its odd smoky smell have a potent charm, whether procumbent, when it is a great improvement on bare soil, or clambering up on the shoulders of a stronger plant. Its giant exotic cousin, Geranium maderense, almost identical in construction and behaviour, is after all a showpiece we have been proud to welcome to our ever-warmer gardens.

Tom Stuart-Smith, speaking about his triumphant Chelsea garden last month, said how important it was to finish planting several days ahead of the show, so that plants could settle down and adopt their natural positions – a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. Of course flowers and leaves turn to take best advantage of the light, maneuvering in relation to one another like people in a crowd. It is easy to see where something has been added, or if you are weeding, subtracted. Even easier to see where the gardener’s boot has been. It is one of the joys of this time of year that beds brim with leaves in pristine condition and perfect alignment, flowers stalks getting ready to go, as blithe and beamish as schoolchildren.

Intricacy can’t be taken in quickly; a fact that Tom S-S’s garden eloquently expressed. There were brilliantly decisive touches: a single white peony, for example, against one of his grey rectangles of perfectly polished water. But between there were passages of soft planting to slow down the eye. It is a fact of garden making that big and simple is quick and easy – not necessarily satisfying for longer and quieter contemplation. The natural embroidery of many kinds of leaves rewards focussed concentration – especially, for that matter, when some of them are weeds.

Augustine blues

May 18, 2008

We were in Snowdonia for the spring: all six days of it. We went in what felt like the end of winter; branches all but bare, fat flower buds on the ashes but not the oaks (last year it was the other way round). We came home in early summer; the biggest difference of all being the beeches, which had managed to unfurl, shake out and spread at least their first four leaves per twig. They were still in that state of infinite tenderness when the shoot is a slender, silky green-grey extension weighed down by almost transparent wisps of leaves, but the sky was full of them, green in the majority over blue as you looked up. Bluebells, open only on sheltered primrose banks before, were jostling in deep violet crowds. Birches and larches were a haze of bright yellow apple green.

I admit I felt cheated. I need leisure to revel in spring. A long day at the office and I would have missed the best part of it. Happily I was in the woods, trying vainly to capture the metamorphosis on my camera. I lay under a rhododendron under a beech, knowing that the picture could fail dismally to convey the filtering light, the pale purple, paler green and intense sky blue woven in restless shades, knowing that the only way really to see is to put away your camera, stop even thinking, and live in your eyeballs.

The rhododendron is R. augustinii, the nearest (admittedly not very near) to blue. Among the shades of violet and lilac, in dappled sun and shade, they can seem as blue as bluebells. When we acquired our wood, 13 years ago, I planted a dozen R. augustinii along streams and by little waterfalls. I pretty much left them to take their chance. A wood is not a garden; the dustpan and brush have no place in forestry. Despite neglect nine of the twelve have flourished. Last autumn I cleared the invading birch, gorse, bracken and brambles around them. This spring their slender framework and little flowers, as elaborate as orchids, graced the shifting light under beeches and larches like puffs of smoke. I shall plant more. To plant anything else would be gardening.

Of course we went to Bodnant. I had never been there at the cusp of the rhododendron season before, and was ébloui (there are English words, I know, but don’t you love the French?) by the colours, the scale, the mastery of this extraordinary garden cum forest. It made me concentrate on the question of colour. It goes wrong when a bright or strong colour is isolated. A single red flower among pinks is effectively a weed. Red and white are the colours to be most careful with: they need careful grouping with plenty of green. One path in the upper garden is dedicated entirely to red rhodos, with truly regal effect. Down the cascade by the old mill, on the other hand, red fights pink and white, not so much a patchwork as an outbreak of measles.

Even blue, soft as it is, is best played alone.

Fellow gardeners

May 13, 2008

The R.H.S. is evolving at a dizzying rate these days. It has to, of course, to keep up with a world that spins faster every year. I sometimes wonder, though, if in its headlong expansion it risks losing sight of the quiet pleasures that attract so many gardeners. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, reacted to the arrival of the first Golden Arches in Rome, with a boom worthy of his friend Pavarotti. ‘Food,’ he thundered, ‘should be slow’ – and pronounced it ZLOOOOOW. Gardening, too. Slow means tranquil, private, considered, personal, uncompetitive, contemplative…….. all the unfashionable adjectives you can think of. Show gardens are one thing; showing off is what they do. Private gardens exist to nourish the soul of an individual.

Does the R.H.S. recognize that among its members there are many (how many?) whose love of plants and nurturing them is a lifelong affair, going far beyond fashion? Its earlier members (earlier than the 1980s) used to be called Fellows, until that came to seem an inflated appellation for every recruit.

Wouldn’t it be an apt recognition, though, for those who remain loyal to the Society for, let’s say, 20 years? Seniority, you may say, proves nothing. Some of us will be ignorant and idle however long we live. Perhaps Fellowship should be earned in some more demanding way. It will always be a very long way from the Victoria Medal of Honour, which is held by only 63 outstandingly distinguished gardeners at any one time. There is such a thing as Honorary Fellowship, awarded to a select few. It seems a pity, though, for the concept of Fellowship of what remains, at least in part, a learned Society should go by default.

Paradise Island

April 16, 2008

If spring has been uncertain here, it has been the same all over Europe, the moods of April testing gardeners’ nerves and creating memorable effects of sun and rain in the same picture.

Are you ever reluctant to test the reality of a cherished dream? That must be the reason we had left the Italian Lakes for so long unvisited. So long, in fact, that my mental pictures of them were mainly in black and white: memories of parents’ photographs of their honeymoons. Could such an innocent dreamland still exist?

It depends when you go. The Lakes are on Milan’s doorstep. In summer the coaches, I’m told, are bumper to bumper and the cafes round the boat-landings no fun at all. In early April, with trees just starting to green and little squalls corrugating the water, visitors are as tentative as flower buds. It is the magnolia moment and the camellia climax, and yet (at least on weekdays) a good proportion of them are born to blush unseen.

We went with a party from the International Dendrology Society. Dendrologists walk with heads high, eyes on the treetops. Some even carry tapes to measure any specially girthy specimen. Parts of the Lakes have the sort of rainfall combined with summer warmth that makes trees luxuriate. The biggest tree of all, though, and one of Europe’s most famous, had had a terrible accident. The Kashmir cypress on Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore was brought down by a freak tornado in 2006. It was worth the journey to see the efforts being made to save the life of this marvellous creature. Winching its 70 tons from prone to upright was only the beginning. Step two was to cut off most of its glorious blue tresses while feeding its roots with the rarest delicacies. It towers again over the palace of the Borromeo family on the summit of their garden-island, surrounded by white peacocks – and so many other remarkable plants that a dendrologist is left reeling.

The two islands transformed by the Princes Borromeo into gardens are a mere brisk boat-row apart. Isola Madre is the plantsman’s island; Isola Bella the famous architectural fantasy of a galleon riding the waters, a garden of amazing ingenuity, fantasy, craftsmanship and

panache. Strict formality was the original plan, as the head gardener, Gianfranco Giustina, explained. The extravaganza of its terraces and statues, fountains and cascades was to be coloured by bedding and punctuated by pots but .unobscured by climbers and trees. Vain hope. More romantic ideas prevailed in the 19th century. Little trees grew lofty, wisteria mounted the terraces and the cult of rhododendron brought towers of scarlet blooms. The massive Borromeo palazzo still forms the prow, and the poop is still a soaring theatre of baroque statuary; in between and all around horticulture holds sway.

Wisteria is a principal motif of the lakes and their gardens. Pruning it is an art Italians well understand. No pillar or plinth or lintel is too modest to be given its climber; the wisteria, though, with its potential to become forest-sized, is precisely pruned to fit its billet. Years of pruning give it astonishing character; with arabesques of branches under severe control, plump buds releasing curtains of scented purple. Thickets of camellias, parades (even pergolas) of lemons and forests of magnolias in voluptuous flower make such a feast of petals that your eyes turn almost with relief to the level waters of the lake.

A nasty swipe

April 14, 2008

What message (to use an ugly political term) does it send to our young people to brutalize hedges the way farmers and local authorities do? Uttlesford District Council is reputed to have one of the most privileged living environments in the country. The Dunmow bypass today is like a horrible wound; its trees (they were never a hedge) smashed, splintered and torn, jagged white wood wrist-thick mangled by the tractor, minced branches in tangled heaps. The beauty of spring, the sacredness of nature totally trashed – to save ratepayers’ money, as I’m sure the council would say.

Among the ‘services’ the council provides (with a profligacy that suggests spending other people’s money gives it no pain) could it consider training young people with nothing special to do to use a saw and a billhook? Working with nature is learning to love her. The brutalized roadsides seem to express nothing but hate.

At the Cape

March 26, 2008

You plan a winter holiday these days and find when you come home that you’ve missed a good chunk of spring. I’m not sure who is more confused; the plants or me. Back from two weeks in South Africa I find Magnolia sprengeri with one flower out, the big pink cup looking very sorry for itself, and rather absurd in incipient snow, while all its other flower buds had followed standing orders and waited. Anyone organized enough to have a timed detonation of colour must be cursing. I’m not at all keen on daffodils muscling in on the cold pallor of snowdrops. The white calm before anything so hectic as yellow appears is a precious moment. Not this year: and wasn’t that a bluebell I saw opening a tentative eyelid?

Down on the Cape there were days when the temperature was not so different from home. It’s been a wet summer, and a 30 knot easterly brought no cheer. It was the first time I had investigated the bizarre flora caught between mountains and sea known as the fynbos (and pronounced, near enough, ‘fainboss’). Its mixture of proteas, ericas and restios (various kinds of reeds, tall and short, green and brown) flourishes on thin sand and rock, Here and there I recognized a geranium, a heather or a buddleja salvifolia. There are arborescent and everlasting-flowered asters to confuse you, looking rather like people wandering up a hill with flowers in their hair. The nature reserve at Hermanus was an accessible place for a bit of botanizing, with good paths, useful labels and a charming garden of fynbos plants before you set off up the hills and into a ferny gully of assegai trees. A large part of the reserve had recently been burnt – but that’s the system. The fire restarts the cycle, clears the ground for seedlings and for alarming bright pink eruptions of amaryllis and nerines.

Inland, in the beautiful wine country of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, the hills are covered with what looks a similar

mixture of plants – although the species change, I was assured, almost by the yard. In one spot on the Simonsberg a fire five years ago had cleared the ground (including a vineyard) and set in motion a wonderful glinting grove of silver trees, Leucadendron argenteum. I’m not sure how rare they are: we didn’t see any others outside Kirstenbosch, the botanical garden on Table Mountain. Certainly the proprietor was proud of them. Nothing in the plant world is more exquisitely silver-silky. Convolvulus cneorum gives you the idea, but these grow upright to make handsome spiky trees.

This was at Rustenberg, a name well-known for wine, for Jersey cows and for being one of the loveliest and most fertile of Cape farms. My last visit there was 25 years ago, but I vividly remembered the English garden, the work of Peter and Pamela Barlow in the 1950s. It has gone full circle, from the formality of an almost Edwardian design, brick-walled and -stepped around a handsome white Cape Dutch manor house, through flowering profusion, English style, to an almost jungle phase, ready to be cut and cleared and started again by the next generation. Not the oaks, of course; at 60 years old magnificently shading the lawns. The surprise to me was how very English a garden can look here on the latitude of North Africa. (Africa is balanced across the Equator: the Cape and Tangier are both close to the 35th parallel). Given the water all our plants seem to grow here with vim and flower with abandon. The difference is the light: our pastel colours almost disappear by day, to emerge at dusk. The current Barlows, Simon and Rozanne, have created a new garden next door before starting on the old one at Rustenberg. Judging by the new creation the next cycle in the old garden will be as deeply romantic as the last.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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