Dream come true

November 30, 2016

Painshill: the prospect from the Turkish Tent

If the Hon. Charles Hamilton was rewarded for his eminent taste with a sojourn in heaven, yesterday he and I were looking at the same scene. Painshill, his Surrey Elysium, was looking more perfect than he can ever have imagined it; trees grown taller in more variety, lawns smooth-shaven, follies secure in gleaming perfection and only his Temple of Bacchus still a building (or rather rebuilding) site. The brilliant low sunlight flooded each monument; Gothic eminence, craggy grotto, five-arch bridge, Chinese bridge, mausoleum, Turkish tent and the naked Sabine struggling in the bronze arms of her naked Roman captor.

It glittered on the lake in crystal reflections, picking out every detail of proud swans and gilded autumn trees. It lit the black platforms of the tallest Lebanon cedar in Britain and the bare vines of his vineyard tipped towards the water like Johannisberg towards the Rhine. When Hamilton last saw it, 250 years ago, the trees were young, the buildings they now shade and embower self-consciously new. Now he must swell with pride, and search anxiously for each new American plant, shipped with such care from Mr Bartram in Philadelphia, to see how it is acclimatising 3,000 miles from home.

His ingenious waterwheel, pumping water to the lake from the river Mole below, slowly turns like the hands of a clock marking the years, drops from its mossy paddles glinting in the sun. A team of gardeners rakes oak leaves into russet piles. Time is on holiday here – which is its habit in heaven.

Going quietly

November 25, 2016

Kensington's biggest field maple, by the Serpentine

I’ve never really believed Marie Antoinette said ‘Let them eat cake’ or even “What’s wrong with croissants?’ I prefer the story where she looks out of her window with a cry of delight and sends for the gardener who had the pretty idea of scattering yellow leaves on the lawn. That was on the day the staff at Versailles had downed tools.

The last leaves are hanging in the sycamore as I write. Three weeks have seen countless thousands fall. We have filled ten bin bags for the council to take away. It’s no way to run a sustainable garden, I know, but where do I make a compost heap in this tiny space, how much use is sycamore compost, and where would I use it?

Everyone agrees that the south has seen a glorious autumn, a slow glow in calm weather for weeks on end. We haven’t seen frost or strong wind; few trees have excelled as brilliant individuals; instead they have all concurred in gradual transformation through fading green and yellows to a uniform dull gold. One of the most sustained performers, in buttery yellow, has been the humble field maple. Liquidambars, the usual motley stars, have gone quietly; Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’, the pavement pear, is the exception round here, turning brilliant pale orange with touches of red. The magnolia in our front garden, with huge leaves, A4-sized ovals some of them, provoked by a spring haircut, is the last to shed. The plain swept surfaces, when all the leaves are gone, have their own appeal – though Marie Antoinette might not agree.

Grandpa’s Shed

November 17, 2016

They tease me by calling it ‘Grandpa’s Shed’, but I can take it. The fact is I love it. I go into my little greenhouse in my little garden and feel liberated. I have a different relationship with the plants in pots, sharing this little roof. They are my dependents; they need me every day. They look up with doggy expressions. And I give their loyalty back.

For one thing plants on a bench are at the ideal level to touch and inspect. A fatigued flower or a less than sprightly leaf is obvious – and your fingers can take care of the problem straight away. You must, of course, conjecture about the roots; glass pots would be revealing; I wonder if anyone uses them – keeping them in some sort of sleeve, of course. They wouldn’t like light.

We’ve just moved the plants I’ve been nurturing for the house in the hope that they’ll do their stuff at Christmas. Our favourite cream-flowered cymbidium has had its summer in the shade and recently six weeks in my shed. Now it’s the centrepiece of our little library table, among piles of books, and the excitement is spotting the flower-spikes as they start to emerge; six so far.

The Veltheimia has served for twelve Christmases now, still in its original glazed pot. Its gloriously glossy and wavy deep-green leaves are an ornament as soon as they appear in September. At the moment it sits under the glass roof of our north-facing verandah, its flower spikes of pale pink bells forming, keeping company with a Sasanqua camellia called ‘Paradise Pearl’ full of promising pink and white buds. Perhaps sasanquas are not quite as showy as most camellias, with smaller, less glossy leaves a little like a phillyrea, but they start flowering in autumn.

Meanwhile in my shed a seven foot standard Fuchsia boliviana that lives outside in summer, dangling scarlet bells, shelters for the winter among various pots I pity, and the Ozzie Hardenbergia violacea clambers up into the roof, preparing (I hope) to turn purple in February.

Croeso y Cymru

November 7, 2016

And the food's not bad either

I was surprised (and perhaps a little alarmed) that they’d noticed, when The Lonely Planet Guide chose North Wales as number four in a list of the world’s top ten regions to visit in 2017 – the only one in Britain, which is of course absurd.

Until then I had supposed I was alone in finding that our mountainous area ticks all the boxes. A large chunk of it is the Snowdonia National Park, stretching from Conway on the north coast to Aberdovey seventy miles to the south, and twenty or thirty miles inland. I’m sure what the Lonely Planet people like is the hiking and biking , the rock-climbing and the vast beaches, although they do describe it as ‘a haunt of in-the-know foodies’ – which will surprise most people. Incidentally, they’re quite right.

I can’t deny that our own little corner, our woods, suspended above the estuary of the River Mawdach, is beautiful. Over the too-silted-up estuary rises the granite wall of Cader Idris; to the left the peaks around the Dinas pass, to the right the sea, Cardigan Bay and from the top, on a very clear day, the Wicklow Hills. Behind lie the Rhinogs, not specially high but dauntingly wild; miles of bog and rocks with no tracks except the Old Harlech Road, scarcely visible on the ground but marked by an 18th century milestone: XI miles.

Our woods have won two gold medals at the Royal Welsh Show, in 2005 and 2016, perhaps for careful forestry, but as much, I suspect, for the pleasure they give the judges. They could hardly be more varied, in trees or topography: rushing streams , little lakes, remnants of old oak woodland in the valley bottoms, lots of beech, some red oak and higher up larch, Douglas fir, and of course the spiky Sitka spruce that will produce timber even on bogs and rocks. Everywhere birch , rowan and the pale green larch seedlings. Gorse, too, of course. I forgive it its barbs when I breathe the honey scent of its flowers. From each of our high points, views to make you catch your breath.

I don’t know how the Lonely Planet found out about it, though.

Neverland and after

November 3, 2016

A good starting point

In their time Haseley Court and Folly Farm have both been among England’s most influential gardens. I visited them both in June with the patrons of The Garden Museum. One is a classic of the Edwardian years of Lutyens and Jekyll, the other a masterpiece fifty years younger. But ‘in their time’, it struck me, gives quite the wrong impression. Their time is now.

Folly Farm in Berkshire has been restored with great pains and immense scholarship, seemingly regardless of cost, by Jonathon and Jennifer Oppenheimer. The house is famous in itself as one of Lutyens’s typical excursions into the Neverland territory he shared with JM Barrie and Randolph Caldecott. I have always loved Lutyens, and believe the secret of his juggling with ideas as modern as his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright and as old as English vernacular materials is really his sense of humour.

He loved catslide roofs, fantastic chimney stacks, huge oriel windows and little dormers in improbable places – almost as though he were illustrating a book for children. In the garden his trademark – or one of them – is ingenious changes of level involving curving, sometimes almost circular steps, beautifully made of mixtures of brickwork and carved stone.

Folly Farm has all these things, originally planted by Gertrude Jekyll, no doubt in her intricate palette of colours. Now Dan Pearson has had a go – and the result is, to my mind, a marvellous match for Lutyens’s whimsical grandeur; decisive, original and harmonious. Small ideas or fiddly colour arrangements would be wrong. Colour schemes are brave enough to embrace massive spaces, and often the plants themselves are supersize, too.

Haseley Court in Warwickshire belongs to a later era, the lean years after World War II. Nancy Lancaster, who made the garden, was the American socialite decorator who gave grand houses permission to be shabby and shabby ones permission to strike grand attitudes.

Her ideas live on, at one end in the Mayfair showrooms of her firm, Colefax & Fowler, still the headquarters of chintz de luxe, at the other in such establishment as the Hotels du Vin, where gaps in the floorboards are justified by expensive soap in the bathroom. Shabby chic signalled aristo confdence; easier to do indoors, you’d think, than out. Somehow just not weeding doesn’t cut it.

Haseley Court became a beacon of good taste not because it was neglected, but because the Lancaster eye used powerful signals of ancestral glories and gardened gaily around them with no apparent inhibitions.

Ancient topiary was a good starting point. Nothing says long tradition like a whole chess set of crisply cut yews. Visiting Haseley with her successors, Desmond and Fiona Heywood, I realised how deep the Lancaster style has sunk into our psyche (or certainly mine). From the walled garden, brimful of what seems random planting around old apple trees, colours from Matisse, to the long canal with green banks under willows, I recognised my own efforts at Saling Hall – or rather what inspired them.

Folly Farm and Haseley Court represent two different approaches, attitudes, indeed cultures. Both have fed into the garden norms and expectations of today – and in turn been refreshed by them.

The Big Apple

October 18, 2016

October is the month to visit New York. The sun is bright; the air is clear and relatively cool – though this year I was too early for the firing-up of fall. September was abnormally warm and dry, like ours. Then some rain; the general picture was still all green.

My favourite room in New York looks down from the 19th floor onto Central Park. The lake glints just below, embosomed in trees. The towers of Manhattan stretch out beyond. The bookcases filling the walls contain a glorious library of books on the history of gardening and landscape. This is the office of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the person who revived the Park from its nadir in the 1970s. Now she is President of the Institute for Landscape Studies.This is where she edits Sitelines, its magazine.

We first met when I was touring radio studios to promote my wine atlas and she was on a parallel course, discussing her first book: The Forests and Wetlands of New York. It was as though she was the first person to notice that all the concrete lies in a spectacular landscape of woods and cliffs, marshes and islands. Look out of the window as your plane lands at JFK. Below you lies Jamaica Bay, a vast wildlife refuge that competes with Essex for its wandering muddy shoreline, home to (they say) 300 species of birds, not to mention horseshoe crabs, terrapin and mosquitos. In the distance are the Manhattan skyscrapers, beyond and around them the Hudson and the East River and Long Island Sound, Staten Island, the cliffs of the Palisades…. a dramatic natural context that city people easily forget.

Central Park is there to remind them. Forty years ago it was neglected, overgrown, filthy and dangerous. Then Betsy was appointed Administrator, the first in the role. She instilled order, found volunteers to clear up, plant up – and give money. She inaugurated the Central Park Conservancy, recruiting the great and good to support the park. Not long ago one Maecenas signed a cheque for a hundred thousand dollars.

So the park is looking good, perhaps as good as it ever looked since Mr Omsted and Mr Vaux set it all in motion in the 1850s. We walked over from Central Park West to the Boathouse on the tree-fringed lake, through the Rambles, a supremely romantic piece of woodland landscaping where paths, some paved, some natural, wind up and down among what seem to be wild woods, though suspiciously floriferous with flourishing native flowers. It was Michaelmas daisy time; their delicate pale flowers scattered under the trees in pools of light. Great whaleback rocks are a leitmotif of Central Park; indeed the dark grey schist, its surface often polished by schoolboys’ trousers, is the necessary bedrock of all Manhattan’s towers.

A gondola from Venice glided by on the lake; under the spreading, just yellowing, elms of the Mall a piper played by the monument to Sir Walter Scott; a faint whiff from the veldt wafts over from the zoo, fountains play among banks of chrysanthemums. It will soon be time for the sweetgums, the maples and the oaks to catch fire. Much as I love Kensington Gardens, there is nowhere on earth like Central Park.


October 1, 2016

The tussle over The Garden Bridge continues. Those who first mooted it seem to be otherwise engaged. Those who authorized it are probably consulting their lawyers. Meanwhile a growing body of opinion is questioning how an actress, an admirer and a designer got so far in wishing such a crazy scheme on our capital.

I don’t need to tell gardeners how the middle of a major river, exposed to the four winds, is a poor choice of a site to nurture plants., or whether trees can be expected to succeed there. People will have made up their own minds about whether one of London’s grandest views, the great grey tideway with St Paul’s as its crown, would benefit from a window-box in the centre ground. Others will recognize the description of the designer, Thomas Heatherwick, as ‘the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Toytown’. Certainly passengers on his number 9 bus will have rued the day he was allowed to design it. And this is not even to examine where the money to pay for the bridge is to come from, or who will pay for its maintenance ad infinitum.

London does need more bridges, both upstream and down. The same mayor thought a cable car would do the trick. The need for a gimmick described as a garden bridge remains to be proved.

Current Affairs

September 29, 2016

Not London, surely? Battersea Park is going in for retro-gardening in memory of the Festival of Britain. I'm not sure Russell Page would want his name on this:

It’s the cyclamen, first of all, that convince me in it’s not all over. When everything is winding down they are popping up, in places you never saw them before or have forgotten about them. Suddenly there’s a spatter of white, or of pink, that bears no relation to what grows around it. There’s one in the barren soil under a box hedge, another in a damp corner full of ivy. They are individualists, solo or in congregations; they hold their heads at cheeky angles and their leaves (I speak of C. hederifolium) are painted haphazard. One I have in a clay pan came from Rassell’s Nursery, across Earl’s Court Road, a tuber the size of a Chelsea bun that showed no sign of life for a year, then started signalling energetically from behind the compost sacks under the greenhouse bench.

Perhaps the best colony I know is in the rarely-mown park of Château Langoa-Barton in the Médoc. It gradually paints the long dewy grass pink just when the sweet scent of fermentation starts to fill the air from the cuvier next door.

We are mourning a sudden and puzzling loss just now. One of our favourite plants at Saling Hall was the pale-purple flowering Abutilon vitifolium ‘Veronica Tennant’, an almost instant little tree, growing five feet in a year to 15 feet or so, with grey-felted vine- or maple-leaves and wide-open papery flowers like the most innocent of hollyhocks. True, it’s a short-lived plant, perhaps six or seven years, but in our narrow garden our plan was to grow it against a wall to help screen us from next door. I reasoned I could prune off any forward-facing growth and encourage the sideways branches to form a screen.

V.T. took some finding, and when she arrived, via Rassells, they warned me not to water it. Not even once. I argued that I had seen its parents growing in a Chilean rain forest; odd, I thought, for a plant with such fragile flowers. ‘Not a drop’, said Richard Hood. She,V.T. that is, started slowly in the dry ground below the wall, then after six weeks shot up in rude health to way above my head. Success, I thought, until one morning she was suddenly, obviously. dead. Had I broken the no-water rule? A couple of showers had, but also I fear a cavalier hand with the hose. This was no flood; the soil around seemed quite dry. But Richard was right. I can’t find a specific warning in my reference books, except in Michael Howarth-Booth’s still useful Effective Flowering Shrubs of 1970. He calls A. vitifolium ‘a miff’. What miffs it is evidently water.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

Friends of Trad

The Garden Museum