On a wall near you

April 18, 2018

In the old days, with scant regard for the rules, we just called it ‘Japonica’. Scarcely a garden was without this obliging little bush that bursts into bright colours at tulip time. Like forsythia, it is easy to overlook or dismiss as a cliché, yet about the time of the blackthorn winter (a fortnight later, like everything else, this year), long before the azaleas, or its cousins the roses open their flowers, and even on dank north walls, Japonica is up and doing.

Chaenomeles is not hard to say, but more important is to remember which variety you have, or would like to have. My clear favourite is the pure white “Nivalis”, which also seems, round here, to be the earliest in flower; even this year, in London gardens, performing in late March. There is something touching about its simple five virginal petals spreading wide so soon.


The showiest, and I suspect the most popular, are C. Knap Hill Scarlet and Crimson and Gold, both as full-on as tulips in confronting the grey of the end of winter. We inherited the only one I would have chosen not to plant, a rather washed-out tangerine flower which I think is called Cameo. Pastel orange just doesn’t go with anything else in the garden – unless perhaps I were to add Ballerina tulips.

Instead I’m trying to offer it some complementary blue. I’m watching a young Clematis alpina inching up into its branches; hoping that will justify its out-of-context orange. Come to think of it, why not Ballerina next year? And for that matter blue Scilla sibirica? Better to make a real point of something than to wish it weren’t there.


Yellow Peril

April 12, 2018

“If you have pleasant memories of these ancient capitals, I hope you will cherish them.”

My Japanese correspondent is writing about Kyoto and Nara, Japan’s most historic and beautiful cities. “(Kyoto) is one big busy theme park; centuries-old temples and shrines being attractions not unlike Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The signs saying ‘No food’, ‘Do not take photos’, ‘Do not step on moss’ are the only way of telling that this is a historic place of worship. Even ‘no drones’.

It’s a serious problem, and it applies to all the world’s most famous and accessible tourist honeypots. Have you been to Florence recently in summer? Have you seen the cruise liners towering above San Giorgio Maggiore, then disembarking 5,000 passengers who, notoriously, ‘bring their sandwiches.’


Cambridge is another victim of its own success, recently made more acute by, of all things, a dead poet’s fan club. Xu Zhimo studied at King’s in 1922 and was moved by the beauty of the Backs to write a poem about the Cam, rather better, it must be said, than Rupert Brooke’s The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, written ten years before. Two lines of the poem are inscribed on a white boulder by the bridge and willow he describes, perhaps unfortunately inviting the reader to go punting. He can hardly be blamed for the resulting queues.

Chinese students are welcome, of course, but they don’t account for the crowds that at times make King’s Parade a bear garden. Remembering the special flights from Tokyo to Marseille to worship at the shrine of Peter Mayle and A Year in Provence, I dread to think what will happen when China at large starts to apply for tourist visas.

Fighting Follette

April 6, 2018

Beaulieu Sur Mer is nearly a thousand miles south of London, but it is no more spring here than at home. The precursors, and the excitement, among the limited range of plants that tolerate this extreme climate, are the wisteria, just opening early buds, the irises (and I’ll talk about the purple one in a minute) and the iconic rose of the Côte d’Azur, La Follette.

Is there anything to match this precocious outburst of pink petals? There is a pink pigment through the whole plant – its new shoots and opening leaves are a tender pink-green – and a spring time surge of vigour that puts other roses to shame. Its flowers first appear here in mid-March, often high in tall olive trees, sometimes in a sublime combination with the delicate precocious white-flowered broom and later with the early purple buds of wisteria.

Often you spot its pure piercing pink blooms displayed naked against an azure sky. It seems such an essential part of the Côte d’Azur that I’ve delved into its history. It takes us straight back to the founder of the Riviera as a resort and a cult, Lord Brougham, Lord Chancellor of England. He discovered the village of Cannes in the 1830s and bought farmland going down to the sea on the Fréjus road, the ancient Via Aurelia, where he built a classical villa. It was the prototype for the thousands that followed; he called it Eléonor-Louise after his daughter, and employed a head gardener, Gilbert Nabonnand, who went on to breed roses, import exotics, and found a famous nursery business on Cap d’Antibes. Nabonnand was succeeded at Villa Eléonor (this is in Brougham’s grandson’s day) by an English – or possibly American – gardener, Jesse Busby. Rose-breeding was still a Brougham passion, and Busby experimented with the monster Chinese Rosa gigantea, introduced (to Lisbon) in the 1880’s, which can produce shoots thirty feet long in a season. In 1910 or so he came up with La Folette (or Follette, or sometimes Sénateur La F.) Could this be have been ‘Fighting Bob Follette’, a radical Republican senator and Governor of Wisconsin, who died in 1925? In which case there are two Fs, and my hunch that Busby was American has some grounds.

You can grow it in England if you have the space. Peer Beales lists it. We grew it in the conservatory at Saling Hall and it even tolerated potted life for a few years – though never as well as the sumptuous yellow Maréchal Niel. It has been a success outside in Sussex, and with our weather getting warmer it could be wonderful on a sheltered pergola.

The iris is the other treasure of the moment. It is pure deep purple, the whole flower. The local gardeners, Lucien and Pascale, have perfected its cultivation in a metre-wide bed of stony soil on the edge of an old olive terrace, alone, with no other plants of any kind. Every other year they dig it up, divide the tough brown rhizomes and set them back on the unpromising surface. With memorable results.

Child’s Play

April 4, 2018

The perfect skidpan

Children see gardens differently. How differently you only appreciate when you watch them at it: their alternative interpretations can be amusing – could actually be inspirational – or can be just plain annoying. It’s the go-karts that get to me.

Our careful creation in the New Forest, 20 acres of it, has infinite play potential, from swimming and toy boats in the pond to tree-climbing, stream-damming and just plain mud pies. Small children stay closer at hand, of course, and wreak havoc in the herb garden by the kitchen door. At five or six they find steps amusing: how many can you jump at one go? At seven they (and their friends) are keen on leaping streams, and anything containing water. A flight of garden stairs branching to enclose a water tank and splashing spout is good for a running leap onto the path below, sending the gravel flying onto the lawn. It wasn’t a good idea to plant primulas on the brink of a pond just at the take-off point to jump to the little island, either. Building a dam in the carefully-adjusted overflow from a pond comes naturally (irresistibly, in fact). Then the flooded margin makes a good splashing ground with excellent mud pie potential.

The deer have seen to it long ago that lots of our trees are multi-stemmed and prime for climbing. It’s only natural to kick footballs at flowerbeds and try to hit the bedroom windows with them. The logpile is a builder’s yard with intriguing construction possibilities, including, of course, ladders. And the circle in the gravel drive is the perfect go-kart skidpan. In the decibel stakes a go-kart comes just below a leaf-blower, but it’s a close thing.

Did someone suggest planting beans? The magic of germination comes a poor second behind stream-damming in child-appeal.

Snow in champagne

March 20, 2018

The snow settled on the camellias, flakes perching on petals, too cold to melt. It blew in misty clouds among the tall magnolias, their petals, happily, still furled in swelling buds. It gusted and spiralled and stooped in twirling white petticoats into the valley hiding the sea. I have a new measure of cold: when the snowflakes landing in your champagne pause before they melt.

The champagne was to toast a Williams family quartet of auspicious dates. Julian is 90, Charles is 60, John is 30 and Isla Rose has just been born. Roy Lancaster cut the tape to open a two-acre plot of new planting on the steep bank just above Caerhays Castle, commanding a grand view down to the sea. It foamed, brown and white, on the rocks sheltering an inlet perfect, I thought unworthily, for a spot of smuggling.

It is just as well the big Asiatic magnolias that are Cornwall’s pride are a good two weeks late this year. A few precocious flowers had already been frosted. A spell of cold like this, the wind chill taking it down to -8’, would have finished the great display. Camellias, though, seem to just shine all the brighter – and the supply and variety of them around here is overwhelming.

The Woodland Garden at Antony, near Plymouth, shelters the National Collection of Camellia japonica in a steep-sided valley, its little stream clattering down to the River Lynher and Plymouth Sound. Big oaks and beeches form the roof; the ceiling is painted with Magnolia campbellii and its kin, and the gleaming dark green of camellia leaves forms the background for all the girly colours, and the ruffled whites and deep bloody reds of the tribe.

Antony is far more than a great plant collection. Humfry Repton instructed the succession of glimpses of seawater framed by the trees. There is the oddity of an 18th century stone bathhouse supplied by opening sea sluices. There are formal yew walks, the biggest black walnut I have seen and what is surely England’s finest cork oak, seventy feet high and spreading far wider than that. The Antony mansion, grey, cool and precise, a statement of the Age of Reason, now belongs to the National Trust but is still home to the Carew Poles.

Snow curtained off the views of Plymouth across the water and lodged on every branch. The views from the train home, the combes of Devon and the levels of Somerset, white under gently settled snow; fields and fences, roofs and trees, were Breughel revised by S.R. Badmin.

A dream

March 10, 2018

A few of the pre-Victoriam camellias at Chiswick House

Here’s my fantasy. A hackney cab picks up a nurseryman from his Brompton Road nursery. They call at a house in Park Lane to collect an important customer who is a fanatical collector of new plants from China. Together they rattle on, down to the Strand to take a wherry to the new docks at Blackwall, just opened in 1806 for the biggest merchant ships of all, the 1000-ton East Indiamen. The Cumberland, Captain Euen Campbell, has been signalled from Gravesend, where she had stopped to lighten her cargo. Her huge four-deck bulk is being handled through the dock gates into the Import Dock. Our plantsmen go aboard to collect their prize from the captain’s hands; two new camellias never seen before in Britain.

Some of the camellias flowering in the Conservatory at Chiswick House this month are the plants brought over in the Company’s ships. Looking at the towering bush of Rubra Plena, one of the first to arrive, you can see what the excitement was about: a shiny-leaved evergreen bearing countless double bright red flowers. Moreover camellias are marvellously genetically unstable. You never knew what their seed might produce in the way of colours. You could pay £5000 for a plant with brightly blotchy red and white flowers; its offspring could be indifferent pink. The plant named as Variegata produced a seedling that is now called Alba Simplex – the name describes it perfectly. Not variegated at all.

The Duke of Devonshire finished his beautiful 300 foot long conservatory in the 1820s, a few years after my fantasy starts. Some of the camellias flowering in it today are originals; have seen the Southern Ocean. Most are their offspring, or at least descendants. Some have names referring to their importers, or the captains or the ships that carried them, like the ancient madeiras, another precious cargo, still to be seen in Savannah, Georgia. Others lost their identity along the way. Some now have trunks six feet round.

Fifteen years ago they were on their last legs. The conservatory was falling to bits; they were starving and infested with scale. Then the Camellia Society rode to the rescue. Today they are worth travelling to see. Are they the only camellias with this kind of pedigree? This month the Camellia Society is coming to Holland Park to see the dozen veteran plants along the wall of the Victorian orangery. It would be good to know their history, too.

Curtains for olives?

March 2, 2018

This will be the test of what we smug Londoners call ‘hardy’. I was young (and hardier myself) when I last saw streets and gardens full of snow like this, or felt this sort of cold.

Luckily the snow had already started to lie before the temperature dropped to minus 5; there will be an element of insulation for what’s in the ground. Our fears are for what is exposed, and specially for our fruitful Meyer’s lemon tree; now 30 years in its pot, having spent the past five deprived of any sun on our north-facing veranda (but carrying a promising crop of juvenile lemons).

We shall see how this, an oleander and a four-foot rosebud pelargonium stand up to it. We have wrapped the lemon up these past two nights in a shroud of fleece – which won’t of course, improve the temperature; it will simply moderate the wind-chill.

There’s nothing I can do to protect our precious blue Potato Bush, Solanum rantonettii, waving its many stems high above the wall and the greenhouse. All its leaves have gone now, some into the goldfish tank (where I hope they won’t prove solanaceously toxic). My other worry is for Iochroma (or Acnistus) australe, come to think if it another potatoid plant. There is a well-established bush in the Chelsea Physic Garden that flowers all summer, but down by the Thames these things are famously favoured. There was a big olive tree there long before they became common decorations. What, I wonder, will happen to all the dinky olives in pots on doorsteps? Our iochroma has been many years in a 10 inch pot, trained as a little standard, lovely when hung with its long blue bells. Frozen roots are not a good idea.

In due course we shall see the butcher’s bill. This looks like a costly winter for gardeners, and possibly a prosperous spring for the nurseries.



Sweet and singular

February 23, 2018

Edgeworthia chrysantha and Daphne bohlua

There are winter scents that can stop you in your tracks. Sarcococca is perhaps the most frequent these days; it seems to have matriculated from confidential to common in the past few years. Mahonia japonica has its sweet lily of the valley smell; daphnes are indispensable, viburnums almost universal. Winter honeysuckle becomes effusive indoors. Which insects deserve this outlay of perfume I’m not sure; the garden is certainly not buzzing with them. I would add Edgeworthia to this pantheon. It should, in the time-honoured phrase, be planted more often.

I have one particular plant in mind; one that shares a narrow north-facing London front garden with a champion Daphne bohlua. The edgeworthia measures nine feet across and six or seven high, a nest of twenty pliable, rather bare stems, yellowish in colour, each terminated by a white and bright yellow knob, covered  all over with silky white hairs, containing fifty or so little tubular flowers. Scents are notoriously hard to describe; this is sweet and singular, with a hint of lilac, and in combination with the daphne, crosses the roadway to arrest you.

Edgeworthia chrysantha is the one you will see most (but not very) often. There is a bright orange scarlet (presumably Welsh) form called Red Dragon, but I found that hard to grow. Who was Edgeworth? An Anglo-Irish adventurer who ended up as a police chief in British India, He found his plant (and many others) in the Himalayan foothills. He sounds an unusual policeman, corresponding with Darwin and Hooker and the Linnean Society. His sister Maria, meanwhile, (there were 24 Edgeworth children in all), wrote novels about Irish life (Castle Rackrent among them) that rivalled Jane Austen’s.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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