General Situation

June 11, 2020

We used to look at weather forecasts as vague indications of what to expect. If there was a great black low over Ireland rain might happen: with wind in the northeast it might not. The General Situation map with isobars was probably the best guide, though it didn’t help much in a Test Match.

Now the app Dark Sky knows where you are and will tell you ‘Rain starting in 3 minutes, ending 17 minutes later.’ You can set your stopwatch, sit at the window and say it’s rubbish: it was six minutes and 15 minutes. But it was your weather, the rattling on your leaves. What’s more the app asks you what you’re seeing and then builds it into its forecast for wherever your cloud is heading next.

Precision like this makes it feel even worse when the rain you are longing for doesn’t happen. Today its confident forecast was for ‘light rain all day.’ ‘Light’ has meant ‘just perceptible’. A change from all day hot sunshine, certainly. But it will take a lot more to put any green into the tawny hide of Kensington Gardens.

I shouldn’t be surprised. In 1979 I wrote in my Principles of Gardening “It never rains when you want, but it rains in the end.” Pretty resigned for a novice gardener who had only been at it for eight years, but at least it showed my grasp of the law of averages.

Scolyte, a name to dread

June 5, 2020

Just the edge of it

A friend who knows me well once said “You really are arboreally insatiable.” He was right. I can’t see a space without thinking what tree would suit it, or a tree without thinking of a site for it. Over the past sixty-something years I have planted or caused to be planted thousands of trees in dozens of places, and tried to keep track of their progress. Start early, is my advice. I started at nineteen, so I have fifty foot oaks to my credit. They’re no better of course than anyone else’s, but the mental zoom from sapling to fifty-footer is exhilarating.

But when things go wrong it can be devastating. I’ve just heard from the friend in France who bought our property in the Centre fifteen years ago. With encouragement (not to mention grants) from the French government we planted something like seventy acres with oak and pine, Scots, Corsican and Maritime. The friend rang to tell me that over fifteen acres of Scots pine are dead. In France they are not ‘Scots’, they are pins sylvestres, wild pines, and indeed they are native everywhere in Europe from Russia to Spain.

Our old place has some steep slopes. One just behind the farmhouse scared me every time I took the tractor out to mow it. I should have left it to sheep, but I wanted to tame the broom and gorse. My old Massey Ferguson was what I called the sports model: no cab, not even a roll bar. Several times, turning on the scary slope, I almost baled out. Its soil was appalling, just shallow grit over granite.

Eventually we planted it with pins sylvestres. They far exceeded my expectations; twenty years later they had made a dense wood of straight trees. Then Mark phoned me. They are all dead, first dried by drought and heat, then mined and killed by a bark beetle I had never heard of, called in French Scolyte. The beetle takes advantage of the desiccated tree and in one season it is dead. I googled scolyte, to learn far worse news: tens of thousands of hectares in the Vosges mountains, the Moselle and the Meuse have been devastated, their spruce and pine ‘scolyté’. Their dry timber has little value; the forests must be felled and replanted, as many were after the First World War. Perhaps they should be planted with species from the Midi, accustomed to hot dry summers. Perhaps we should all be thinking along these lines.

The urge to know

May 21, 2020

Confession: I’ve never been a fan of most modern poetry, Ogden Nash apart. TS Eliot? I reckon he made it up as he went along. “Peach’ rhymes with ‘beach’; couldn’t we all do that? Now and then, though, I meet a poet with no great pretentions who says something directly and neatly and memorably; something Alexander Pope would approve. (Pope wrote ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest’).

Six or seven years ago I wrote about Jay Appleton, the geographer and landscape philosopher who coined the idea of Prospect and Refuge. To recap, he said certain views are inherently pleasurable because they answer to basic instincts. They give us notice of approaching threats (and opportunities) and at the same time give us the sense of being protected from behind. The view of a valley from a cave-mouth, for example. Or indeed a Palladian temple.

Appleton’s verse was published in 2009 in a little book called A Love Affair with Landscape, published by the Wildhern Press. Wordsworth he is not, but this is something for a gardener:

Deflected Vista

The thing I like about an avenue
Is how it takes possession of the eye,
Steers it directly where it’s going to –
That faraway, magnetic patch of sky.
But if that vistal corridor is bent,
Thus cutting short the visibility,
It doesn’t seem to put us off the scent;
It merely feeds our curiosity.
We humans daily struggle to survive.
By instinct we are programmed to explore;
It’s part of how we keep ourselves alive.
That is what curiosity is for!
Deflected vistas therefore serve to show
How overwhelming is the urge to know.

Expense no object

May 12, 2020

The sums spent on gardening by the royal family, or in other words the taxpayer, over the past four centuries would make you gasp and rub your eyes. The later Stuarts and early Hanoverians had no qualms whatever about laying out billions on their gardens. An Economic History of English Gardens, a fascinating recent book by Roderick Floud, spells out exactly how many billions of reckless spending it took to give us the great gardens we so enjoy today, from the Royal Parks to such aristocratic extravagances as Blenheim and Stowe. Capability Brown was by no means a one-man band: his account books (in the Lindley Library) show the scale of his enterprise, and he was one among many.

This all seemed particularly relevant at a time when our whole nursery industry was put on pause. Awkwardly, plants can’t be told to stop growing (except, that is, in fridges waiting for Chelsea). Billions were at risk. Closing nurseries, along with locking churches, was one of the government’s least well-advised anti-Covid moves. Surely praying is as private an activity as you can imagine.

Half the country’s gardeners, on the other hand, will scarcely have noticed; the half that lives in its green bubble where no one thinks of actually spending money to buy a plant. Vegetable seeds, maybe. But plants? They osmose their way from garden to garden as little swaps, or little presents, in a quiet interchange between neighbours and friends. Far from the world of from-scratch designer layouts and planting by numbers, in the deep-rooted culture of proper gardeners every plant has its own family tree.

This one came from Charlie across the road; this turned up at the village fete. This one started as a thumbnail cutting on holiday in Devon. This was grown from a seed found in a pocket after a National Trust outing. The garden is as much a collection of memories as it is of plants. ‘Cottage’ garden is the rather condescending label of this category, where plants grow as individuals for their own sakes rather than brush-strokes in a painting. The label, then, logically applies to the garden of a botanical magpie on any scale. It may spread to hundreds of acres and have a coherent plan, proportions, perspectives and all the grown-up attributes, but it is still a cottage garden at heart.

Too much of a good thing

May 6, 2020

Jasminum smotherens

It used to signal the beginning of the end of winter. The conservatory was filled with its heavy scent. The little jasmine we treated as an indoor plant, J polyanthum, began to open its pinky purple buds in late February. As the white flowers opened the scent expanded until it flooded the room, a thrilling sign of things to come.

If there is a single proof of climate change here it is this frail creature becoming a rampant menace. This May morning I couldn’t escape the smell, lying heavy on the air, drowning out the morning freshness, the sweetness of roses and the different sweetness of wallflowers. Last year it put out ten foot shoots through the tapestry of ivy and hydrangeas, bursting out on top of the trellis in an eruption of purple and white and the scent I’m beginning to call a pong.

But then in London nothing seems tender any more. There was only one day below zero all winter – if you could call it that. Nothing flinched. I kept the fuchsia tree we’re rather proud of in the greenhouse until late April, fearing a late frost, but it might as well have stayed out all winter. Already it has little red flower buds dangling among the leaves. As for our veteran Meyer lemon on the veranda, we are thinning its thick crop of incipient fruit.

Out of scale

May 1, 2020

More at home in a park

I think I’ve worked out why this little London garden has a tree in it as tall as the garden is long. It lends a certain gravitas to a modest patch to boast a tree the size of a Hyde Park plane, even if a sycamore is a rather lower form of life. But it was here when we bought the house and we would certainly not be allowed to cut it down. Indeed it’s an annual struggle getting the council’s permission to prune it. Each year we ask RBKC – as we call our local authority – for permission to climb the tree and remove most of the last season’s growth. If we didn’t it would reach out over five or six gardens by now. We then have to cut it into small enough pieces to carry through the house.

Why not, we ask RBKC, an ongoing licence, since the same problem arises every year? But no, Proper Procedures etc….. which this year took so long that it was too late, the tree was in full leaf and we shall have to wait a year in its shade.

At least I’ve discovered its probable story. It’s a war baby. We just measured its girth at breast height: 7” 3’. Following the rule of thumb that most trees put on an inch of girth a year, that makes it 87 years old. Oddly, its ground level is four feet higher than the rest of our garden, and the neighbours’. Its end of the garden has now been paved, with steps up to it. I suspect it was a weed seedling on a compost heap, ignored during the war and now formally incorporated, and an object of rather wry pride.

Covidia nonsensia

April 23, 2020

It’s not considered prudent or polite, it may even be treasonous, to question the government’s priorities during the Covid lock-down. But what on earth do they think they’re doing shutting down plant nurseries, and at the height of the planting season, when they’re bursting with stock that must either be planted out soon or condemned to rot? I’m peering through the fence at our local nursery, Rassell’s, at a feast of plants at their peak of beauty. The owner Richard Hood (who is watering everything, every evening) tells me he understands that if he sold fruit we could go in to buy it. Not a pansy, though.

What’s the difference between a nursery and a supermarket? You can do social distancing as well in one as the other. What’s more nurseries are outdoors, and locked-down gardeners are longing to be up and doing. Are they confusing plant nurseries with garden centres that sell more burgers and barbecue kits than living plants? By all means shut the hardware departments, but isn’t it essential to nurture living things?

There is a well-publicised consensus at present that nature is good for you; gardening is good for the nerves, not to mention the soul. We haven’t heard much from Number 10 about souls. I am longing to sit in our parish church, sixteen feet away from the next person if necessary, if only to absorb its atmosphere of holiness. Archbishop Welby should understand that, even if Whitehall is oblivious.

Share of sweetness

April 21, 2020

Until the last few years tulips had never really grabbed me. I seem to have rather discounted the shiny flowers in brilliant colours that come and go so spectacularly after the daffodils have made their golden statement. I think the reason is the way they are sold. They are almost always pictured nursery-perfect, as sleek and immaculate goblets just starting to open. Scarcely more than gravid buds, in fact. Dutch nurseries show kilometres of eye-wearying colour. Would you cross the sea just to see a square mile of scarlet? Nor me.

Tulips had their moment in history in 1637, in Charles I’s reign, when immoderate enthusiasm and speculation in ‘broken’ colours caused the first great financial crash, eighty years before our equally dotty South Sea Bubble. It was when tulips and Holland were so much in the news that one of my favourite poets, Andrew Marvell, wrote about a little girl ‘in a Prospect of Flowers’.

Meantime while every verdant thing
Itself does at thy beauty charm
Reform the errors of the spring.
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair
And roses of their thorns disarm
But most, procure
That violets may a longer age endure.

‘The errors of the spring’; he sounds like a gardener. ‘Give the tulips some scent ‘, is what he is saying. I always think the same about the camellias; I want to get closer to these lovely nests of petals, to commune with them. I put my nose to them; no response. Today there is at least one scented tulip – and one of the very best: Ballerina, slim, tall, warm orange and smelling of freesias, wallflowers…roses….. I can’t pin it down. But back to their usual image; too prim and buttoned up. Tulips become loveliest when they blow, in post-coital repose, their petals widespread, dishevelled, their stems in wanton curves, scented or not.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Trees

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

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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