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.

Litany

August 15, 2008

I visited an old friend in Burgundy: Pierre Poupon, a winegrower and writer who has captured the soul of this ancient and complex part of France in a score of books over the course of fifty years. At 90 he moved from his house in the Meursault vineyards to a flat in the suburbs of Beaune. When he went he wrote the following litany to the plants he was leaving behind in his old garden.

Let us always remember

The thujas with their fine scented leaves

The bushy red-leaved prunus

The syringa covered in white stars

The Japanese quince with blood red flowers

The mauve lilac above the gate

The forsythia, first to flower in the spring

The cherry tree grown huge, majestic, prodigious

The prunus that flowers early and gives us red plums

The three birches with pale trunks and dancing leaves

The cherry with sour fruit so good in pies

The rather scruffy apple tree with a worm in each fruit

The upright hornbeam straight as a cypress

The purple beech turned green by early frost

The cherry starved by the roots of the beech

The tender almond with its immaculate flowers

The old lime tree, our neighbour, that loses its leaves at the end of summer

Remember all these gifts that we pass on to others

They are the ill-assorted collection you will find round any ordinary French house, adding up to a nondescript garden. It is a moving litany, none the less. He knows them, he loves them for all their faults, and he misses them.

France très profonde

August 4, 2008

Utter originality, you would think, is a tall order in the world of gardening. Influences are all around us: we copy, we refine borrowed ideas – everything comes round again.

Not so at Orsan. The Prieuré de Notre Dame pretends to be in the monastic style of six centuries ago. It certainly evokes in shapes and symbols a strict and devotional mood. No priory or abbey, though, ever had a garden like it. It came from the imaginations and the drawing board of two Parisian architects to transform a tranquil valley in the almost abandoned centre of France – and to lodge in my mind as a piece of perfection to emulate and aspire to.

The architects, Patrice Taravella and Sonia Lesot, found and bought the one-time priory in the same year, 1991, as we found our French property, 30 miles away. It was an off-shoot of the great Benedictine Abbey of Fontevraud by the Loire to the north. Its setting would have suited the Cistercians: buried deep in wild country, among woods and stream, like Tintern or Citeaux or Rievaux.

There was no church left, and certainly no garden: just a three-sided court of dignified stone buildings open to a shallow pastoral valley, a stream and high woods. The architects’ minds, though, immediately parcelled it into a grid of strict formality. ‘Every designer’, says our friend Tara, ‘must start with un trame’ – a word that means a weaver’s pattern, suggests underlying order, and in this case is a set of squares imposed on the country like monastic discipline on unformed novices.

We have almost forgotten what pleasure lies in discipline, regularity and repetition. It is so far from the fashions of our times. What we forget,

perhaps, is that a pattern preordained, predictable and precisely applied feels

like a straitjacket only until it is accepted. Once it seems normal it has the opposite effect: it solves all problems and leaves the imagination free to wander. The hedge-walled cloisters of Orsan can become a gardener’s spiritual home.

Symbolism is important, too. You enter through a garden of simples: healing herbs in beds like a pharmacist’s stockroom. Windows in high hornbeam hedges reveal an inner courtyard where only beans and wheat grow, in strict-ruled rows; then another where the one crop is grapes, from vines trained on chestnut trellis copied from a Book of Hours. The Hornbeam walks dividing and linking the spaces are cut with rigid precision, then ornamented with roses, also precisely trained in elaborate figures. No shoot but is tied in, often to a chestnut trellis that soars up above a hedge or describes some whimsical figure to break the pattern. Whimsy plays the role here that it does in illuminated manuscripts: the gardening monk is allowed his little jokes. One is a potager that turns out to be a maze, another a wicker orchard chair far too big to sit in.

At the crossing point in the centre of these green enclosures stands the fountain. Not a glittering display of the beauty of water, though; just a sober pedestal with four pipes dribbling barely enough to wet the stone. The subliminal message is that water is precious, scarce and to be carefully conserved.

We stayed at Orsan, in the modern hotel Tara has installed (and where he is chef for his own produce) in the priory buildings. Walking at night and waking in these decorous surroundings is a kind of cure. There could scarcely be a garden so different from my pragmatic and unruly domain. Yet coming home I felt revitalised by its real, intense, marshalled and directed forces.

Gardens Illustrated

August 3, 2008

ALL BAMBOOS OF ONE SPECIES,
the story goes, flower at the same time and then promptly die. You may have been a witness. It certainly happened here, 15 years ago, when our three clumps of the common Fargesia nitida blossomed. Tiny as each flower is, they transform the plant, dying it smoky purple and freighting each culm with tiny
dangling wheat-like seeds that arc it almost to the ground. Within six months all three were dead, and gardeners far and near reported the same – with feeling: digging out the remains of clumps five feet across was no joke. Mysteriously, replacements were available. I should of course have asked the nursery how and whence, since
obviously not all fargesias had perished. For reproductive purposes the flowering seems a great waste of effort: the millions of seeds we must have had produced only one seedling, which to this day is
barely waist-high. My replacement plants, mean while, have flourished, grown, and to my horror, this spring flowered again. 15 years is surely far 
too short a lifetime for a bamboo.

This time, though, I cut out the flowering shoots just as they reached the low-bowing stage and gave the depleted clumps a feast of food and water. That was in April. To my delight the few
remaining shoots have put out new leaves: recovery seems possible. And just in case, I have planted a clump of the near-related (and perhaps even more beautiful) Fargesia murielae.

Light

July 23, 2008

Illustrating this column, and feeding the insatiable Flower of the Week and Tree of the Month pages, gives my camera an unaccustomed amount of exercise. It is also reminding me that the only thing you can photograph is light. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but I find it more than useful; I find it essential in deciding whether a shot is worth the exposure.

These summer days, under a sky of sailing clouds in brilliant blue, you can choose the sunlit moment or the cloudy one. One gives bright highlights and deep shadows, the other a more sober picture, not necessarily truer but easier to read for information: to see the precise shape of a plant and its parts. Which is more informative about a garden? There is no categorical answer. In a sunlit photograph the lighting and shadow certainly distort the volumes and voids. They can convey, on the other hand, the sort of vitality that makes you want to visit.

Looking through such a collection of near ideal photographs as, for example, Andrew Lawson’s in The English Garden (2007, with Ursula Buchan) I find that more appear to have been taken on overcast days than under direct sunshine. The appearance is probably deceptive: filters can modify over-dramatic contrasts as well as correcting colours. Nothing, on the other hand, can penetrate the blackness of  shadows created by strong direct light. The goal is lighting as even as possible without dulling the brilliance of colour and detail that brings a picture to life. Light from behind a plant often shows its character best of all.

Trees are my biggest problem. It is almost impossible to show the whole of a big tree without including far more sky than helps the picture. The light of the sky kills the detail outlined against it. A storm sky can offer the perfect solution: a tree sunlit against dark clouds is inevitably beautiful.

The other answer, of course, is to be a painter. The Edwardian gardens immortalized by such watercolourists as George Elgood and Margaret Waterfield never existed in such perfection. A painter can illuminate, edit, distort, correct and embellish as no camera can – not even a digital one.

Better in pots?

July 16, 2008

Did you know that gardening journalists get together in secret session to elect the plants we are going to grow? Nor did I, until I was invited to a Bulb of the Year lunch organized by the International Flower Bulb Centre. I’ll give you three guesses where the IFBC lives. Clue: a flat little country across the North Sea. The twelve writers, or someone representing them, each nominated a spring- and a summer-flowering bulb and recited its merits. Cross examination followed. Why, Anna Pavord, do you put forward Ornithogalum ‘Nutans’? Rob Cassy of The Times advocated Triteleia ixioides ‘Starlight’. Both have modest wildflower charm, the polar opposite of Tulipa ‘Black Hero’, for example, championed by Kathryn Bradley Hole of Country Life.

I was not surprised to see the blue Camassia esculenta on the list: it seems to have found its own way into fashionable plantings already. I was surprised by how many of the most formal tulips, essentially cutting flowers, I would have thought, were put forward (as well as the lovely white selection of the species Tulipa clusiana called ‘Lady Jane’). I certainly couldn’t choose between two nerines, the white N. undulata chosen by Anna

Pavord or Stephanie Donaldson’s choice of the more common sugar-pink N. bowdenii. I thought the former for a pot, the latter for a border. But schizostylis, the truly flashy Gloriosa ‘Rothschildiana’, a strange dowdy red Calla lily, two dahlias, an eremurus, a gladiolus, galtonia and two eucomis all got an airing.

It was good to see relatively obscure bulbs battling it out with some obvious choices. The panel were given three formal criteria: Appearance, Versatility and Ease of Growing. I can hardly think of a bulb less versatile than a flaming parrot tulip, one with less striking appearance than Ornithogalum ‘nutans’, or many less easy to grow than Gloriosa ‘Rothschildiana’. The purpose of the conference, though, was simply to focus readers’ attention on bulbs at the time the catalogues come out. I tried to think of parallels with the other business I know: wine. The big difference is that bulbs don’t have vintages. Hence this scheme for an annual renewal of interest.

Quick, quick, grow

July 7, 2008

Yesterday we were praying for rain. Three weeks of dry, if not hot, weather had stopped the garden growing. In frustration we resorted to the only effective rain-dance: inviting friends to lunch in the garden. That worked, with unusual precision; a squall at one o’clock. It only measured 2.5 millimetres, a tenth of an inch, in the rain-gauge, but by tea time the new growth was measurable on almost every plant.

How do plants produce new shoots instantaneously? It is most remarkable, I always think, on oak trees. Pale, usually reddish or pinkish, ‘lammas’-shoots break out all over the dark green crown. I measured one three hours after yesterday’s shower; eight inches of pale shoot with 15 new leaves had appeared from nowhere – or rather from inside a tiny bud at the end of a twig. Was it already formed, packed in there in micro-miniature? How do cells spring into instant action, forming all the diversity of twig, leaf-stalk, leaf, and indeed new buds containing all these things again, within minutes of water being available. What principle, and what urge, starts, plans and determines growth?

I can only imagine that roots in the ground when soil moisture is in short supply are like runners on the starting-block, primed to sprint. Rain dampens the surface, even as little as a few millimetres, and the signal goes out: get growing. The pent up sucking-power of billions of tiny root hairs, all intertwined in the soil, hoovers up the molecules of water, they shoot at incredible speed up the cambium corridor of every plant and cells start their programmed growth. How do they know how much to grow, or how many molecules their allowance will be? They are miraculously able to seize the opportunity, start and stop again as supplies are turned on and off. I went slowly round the garden last evening, smelling the dampness and the growth, finding evidence of movement in almost every plant I looked at.

Pines are an example of a plant that has no active buds until next spring, and no way of making adventitious ones – which is why rain doesn’t make them grow, and when you cut one down it can’t recover: a felled pine is a dead pine. Not a yew, though, or almost any other plant. The yew hedges are covered in spots of pale new growth. The border flowers are surging; the roses and every other shrub breaking out in tender growth. But strangest and most wonderful of all is that only rain can make this happen. You can water your plants as much as you like; they still only react like this to a shower.

So lots of garden parties.

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