Why do they call them the Low Countries?

October 15, 2008

I’m not sure how much more grass I can take. I was as interested as anyone when it (or rather they) first featured in fashionable borders. I think it was in Munich, perhaps 20 years ago, I first noticed that street-planting had gone tasteful, with pale grasses, white flowers (and not many of those) and variegated foliage. The Englischer Garten looked anything but English with its waving prairie beds, as tousled as their predecessors had been primped. I couldn’t see it catching on at home, but it was well worth the detour.

By the time Piet Oudolf was doing the two enormous Glasshouse beds at Wisley, I suppose we all realized that times had changed. Ecological awareness obliged us to pretend out habitat was the prairies. Wind-rippled mounds of stiff perennials and soft grasses were becoming routine, and late summer, when all this came together, the peak of the season.

Piet Oudolf’s school of all-season sensitivity, with plant skeletons rimed by frost as important as flowers, is Holland’s principal contribution. He has applied it to places as different as a Yorkshire walled garden (Scampston Hall) and Battery Park in Lower Manhattan – always with a half-horticulture effect, as though gardeners were only helping nature along.

At the same time (though with an earlier start-date) Jacques Wirtz and his two sons, from the other Low Country, have made ingenious hedges and quiet planting their trademarks. The two-volume album of photographs they published in 2003, with text by Patrick Taylor, is hypnotic: off-centre formality in misty air is a memorable, and eventually depressing, formula.

They have crept into our consciousness, these blurred borders and abstract hedges. To a degree they have chased out the intricacy, the intimacy and the sexual chemistry of flowers. Christopher Lloyd threw out his roses for a different reason. I hope neither tendency finally prevails.

The subtropical north

September 29, 2008

Just home from a weekend in Wigtownshire. That’s the first time I’ve ever written that, and I feel the word wet should come into it somewhere. But no, Stranraer was sunny, and so was Ayrshire when we visited Culzean en route from Prestwick.

Culzean produced the first surprise: its name. How come I had never heard of the prime treasure of the National Trust for Scotland? Because you pronounce it Cullane. Imagine Powys Castle perched on a cliff top facing, across an untroubled sea, the Isle of Arran and the Gibraltar-like shape of Ailsa Craig, Robert Adam rooms and a close-to-subtropical garden. The subtropical theme only intensified as we drove south, eventually, to Logan, in the final south-western spear of Scotland, where the Edinburgh Botanics have their most exotic outpost, 300 miles north of the Scilly Isles (but you’d never notice).

So it was a weekend of envious awe, mighty specimens of our conservatory treasures thriving among plants I didn’t recognize at all. Every 20 years or so, they told us, it really freezes and they lose precious plants, but frosts strike the Canary Islands occasionally without depleting their flora.

An extremely exotic garden is like a museum; you marvel and learn but it is hard to engage. The garden that captured my heart was a great domaine in just that state of marginal decay that induces romantic sympathy. Castle Kennedy occupies a ridge between two lochs near Stranraer with an unexpected Hanoverian signature: massive earthworks carved and scythed smooth in clearings in the woods reputed by legend to represent the battle plans of Marlborough’s war. Apparently the second earl of Stair found his regiment unemployed in barracks and turned them out for a bit of digging.

That earl’s castle is now a ruin, but remains the centre of gardens with long rides of hydrangeas and camellias, rhododendrons and Japanese maples under avenues of oak and (in one case) giant monkey-puzzles. Its centre is a walled garden, isolated (as Scots walled gardens usually are) from any habitation, and all the more dreamlike for standing alone in the midst of woods.

In late summer all its tender colours were on display; flowers from South Africa and South America, tall watsonias and luxuriant fuchsias, salvias with small flowers in primary colours, dahlias and kniphofias, a giant euphorbia fifteen feet across, roses in their softer second flowering ……. but the harmony matters more than the botany. Davina, the dowager countess (still of Stair) patrols these borders with a painter’s eye. They glow with the light of horticultural passion. It is a garden I shall recall many times – and imitate so far as I can.

Niwaki

September 23, 2008

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For years the only secateurs I have used have been a Japanese pair given to me by a friend in California. They are plain grey steel, unadorned but like Japanese knives perfectly balanced and frighteningly sharp. Clipping them, in their holster, onto my belt is as instinctive as putting on boots.

You couldn’t, as far as I know, get them in this country until recently, but this summer in Dorset I came across Jake Hobson, who has made himself our domestic expert on Japanese gardening techniques and now imports the proper tools. I illustrate two of them here, my old secateurs and a life-changing pair of shears, bought from Jake www.niwaki.com and already well-used. Short sharp shears are exactly what you need for cutting back perennials or any softish growth, much faster, cleaner, more accurate and less dangerous to the fingers than secateurs.

Another Hobson introduction to this country is the Japanese tripod ladder; the kind they use for the intricate bonsai-like topiary of (principally) pine trees. Being a tripod it is untippable and wonderfully manoeuvrable into any corner – outdoors or in.

Jake worked in Japanese gardens and nurseries to learn the craft and write the clearest book I have read on the pruning of trees to produce idealized models, mannerism made marvellous as only the Japanese can. Idealized trees are known as Niwaki, the title of his book.

Niwaki by Jake Hobson was published by Timber Press in 2007 at $34.95 or £25.00.

Avant garden

September 16, 2008

I hope gardeners understand the message in the formaldehyde. Art has moved on; it is time for gardening to follow.

Not that the market for millionaire kitsch is new. Asprey’s has been in the animals-and-diamonds business for years. The significant shift is to the other side of Bond Street. What sold at Asprey’s now sells at Sotheby’s, with lengthier and more portentous titles.

I am making a start at keeping my garden relevant. The gnome floating face downwards in the pond in his little gold trousers brings to mind Damien Hirst’s favourite quote: ‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time’.

Paint job

September 12, 2008

There is no prescribed interval for repainting a conservatory. I have a weakness for paintwork with the patina of time, with streaks of green, rubbed edges, peeling a little. It reminds me of Mariana in the moated grange:

‘With blackest moss the flowerpots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable-wall.’

Would there be a Garden History Society if I were the only one to harbour such thoughts?

But the conservatory. It is 28 years old and has had, so far as I remember, three fresh coats of white paint in that time. It was high time for another, and not only paint, but a total refreshment, glass and all. Eventually moss and general detritus builds up uncleanably where the panes overlap; putty falls out and glazing bars rot, blinds disintegrate …. Time for a total overhaul. It’s happening as I write.

The result will be an improvement on the original. We are lucky enough to have a builder in the village who loves old buildings.

Steve (his name is Stephen Gooch) visited the ‘lost’ garden of Heligan on his holiday and brought back a video of its restoration. It was the greenhouses he was interested in: the roof panes are cut with a curved lower edge to create a fish scale effect. The glaziers were filmed cutting them freehand on site: it looked easy. Why didn’t we do the same?

We did, and discovered the practical advantage of the fish scale design. Raindrops flow to the centre of each pane and form a stream down the middle. Formerly, the water crept to the edge and ran down the rafters. Moss accumulated at the bottom of each rafter, damp stayed there and eventually they began to rot. Old practices that look merely cosmetic (cornice moulding is another example) nearly always have their origin in practical experience.

 

The blinds need replacing too. They are expensive and take a bit of managing, but blinds outside the glass are twice as effective as blinds inside. Once the sunshine penetrates the glass it heats the air inside: only exterior blinds prevent this happening. Cedar lath blinds are best and longest-lived. Happily the firm that made our first set (they last about 10 years) are still in business: Tidmarsh & Co of Harlow http://www.tidmarsh.co.uk/ import western red cedar, alias Thuja plicata, as logs from British Columbia, saw the laths and join them together with copper links. They are hung from and rolled up to a bar just below the opening lights. The dividend is the gentle stripes of light on a sunny day.

The watershed

September 3, 2008

Cyclamen in August feel premature to me; an unwelcome hint that summer is coming to an end. Their miniature brilliance suddenly appearing in the dustiest parts of the garden is always a surprise. It was a disappointing high summer – not high at all, in fact. But not well-watered either, here: an inch and a half of rain was all August brought us, while the rest of the country sploshed about disconsolate. It was not cold, but warmth is not much use without radiation, and you scarcely ever felt the direct rays of the sun.

The spiders celebrated September 1st with a cobweb festival, spangled with what seemed a double dose of dew. Seldom is there such an unmistakable gear shift; I swear leaves have tilted differently, reflect light differently, their chloroplyll less vibrant as their energy ebbs back into their organs of survival. Fruit takes primacy: suddenly spindle dangles fruit I hadn’t noticed, rowans are orchard trees, climbing roses fertile as vines and vines heavy with harvest.

There will be backward glances: days when the grass is warm underfoot and the shadows strong. But when michaelmas daisies break cover, chrysanthemums push up their buds, sedums show tips of colour and tall salvias sway above box hedges we are far past the watershed. They’ll be telling us soon how many shopping days to Christmas.

In memoriam

September 3, 2008

It turned from disappointing, not up to last year’s feisty form, to piquey, to desperate, to dead. What ailed the apple of my eye, the Cornus ‘Gloria Birkett’ I watched with such pleasure flowering late in spring last year and turning colour, glowing with red fruit, last autumn? I bought it from Peter Chappell at Spinners in the New Forest, the nursery where every good woodland plant seems perfectly at home. It was named after one of my favourite gardeners, alas gone, whose Sussex garden was a perpetual inspiration. If there was one plant I doted on, went out specially to see, and expected great things from it was this.

When it looked sick in July, leaves turning brown and newest shoots failing, I fed and watered it. Then I watered it massively, leaving the hose on it for 10 minutes. To no avail. There is no way, though, of knowing what’s going on underground until postmortem time. I dug it up, to find it withered in utter dust, all my water disappeared. Its hole, and its paltry root ball, were filled with the unmistakable dry brown roots of a conifer. Every scrap of goodness I had given it had been battened on by an incense cedar fifteen feet away.

I often wonder how roots share out, as they usually seem to, the goodness of the ground among themselves. You grow perennials, roses and annuals in borders (the roses don’t particularly appreciate it). You certainly grow trees and shrubs and lower things hugger-mugger in woodland. Beside this great incense cedar there is a hedge, a cherry tree, hellebores and sarcocca and a crab growing fruitfully. Bulbs proliferate. The cedar (more properly Libocedar) sends its brilliant green pillar up 30 feet or so; a sight I have treasured since I sponge-bagged it home from an Oregon forest 35 years ago. Not knowing where its roots were, I must have planted poor Gloria just in their feeding fringes, where they could profit by every rich dish I fed her, and all her water.

Tree health bulletin

August 27, 2008

How bad is this horse chestnut problem? Everyone wants to know. They are looking grim all over the south of England, at least; the leaves on their lower branches, and sometimes higher, motheaten and brown. They are worse this year than last. And some trees are dying of a distressing plague that makes their trunks bleed sap.

They are show trees, horse chestnuts, prominent in parks, solo performers in essential avenues. Paris depends on them, perhaps, more than London does, but from Hyde Park to the village smithy they are crucial to our landscape. And they are in danger.
It is not one disease that is threatening them – unlike the elms that 30 years ago were destroyed by a fungus carried by a parasite (and are still dying from it). The fatal chestnut disease is a canker. But the disfigurement you see everywhere is not connected. A little leaf-miner moth (or rather its larvae) is the culprit – first seen in this country in Wimbledon in 2002, and since moving on at about 40 miles a year. It feeds on the lower branches, eating the leaves from the inside, starting in late spring and moving higher up the tree – or on to another. It rarely reaches the top of a tall tree (so far) before leaf-fall. Then it winters on the ground until next spring. The only practicable measure you can take is to burn, bury or compost the leaves to prevent the critter (Cameraria is its name) from re-offending next spring.

Aesthetic disaster though it is, the leaf-miner will not kill (or even substantially weaken) a tree. Hopefully biological control measures will soon be available (says the Forestry Commission).

The canker is more serious, and more mysterious. Many tree species have cankers and many agents are at work. The chestnut one apparently started with a Phytophthora (related to the scary Sudden Oak Death) but is now blamed principally on something called Pseudomonas syringae var. aesculi. It causes weeping lesions in the bark, which become dangerous if they girdle the trunk – or indeed a major branch. Once girdled it dries out and is liable to break. Big specimens often survive, only partially girdled, and form strong scars. Small trees are more apt to die.

No doubt it is serious threat, with nearly half a million horse chestnuts in the country, but neither of these problems should be used as an excuse for felling trees. We have already seen it happen in this village: a farmer sees an unhappy-looking tree, unilaterally declares it dangerous and cuts it down. But then he’d like to do that to all his trees.

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