Turning sand into soil

July 20, 2017

Looking inland from the sea-dunes, pines of the lette before the forest. Curry plant in the foreground

We have just been three days by the sea where the pine forest of the Landes meets the Atlantic on a beach a hundred miles long, dazzling sunshine slowly giving way to a misty sea fret and the relief of a faint breeze.

The Landes, or rather their forest, is a feat of man versus the environment. One million hectares of shifting sand and swampy waste were tamed during the 19th century. It was a desert known only to the shepherds who crossed it on stilts. The first experiment in stabilizing the sands were made in the 18th century, planting marram grass along the shore. Even now when you walk where nothing grows the fine white sand shifts and squeaks under your feet.

But the grass fixed the sand enough to plant pines, the local pin maritime, Pinus pinaster, a rugged two-needled tree with copious resin (collecting it for turpentine became the local industry). In due course they were followed by holm– and cork-oak, by arbutus, phillyrea, sea buckthorn, gorse and broom, willows and of course brambles. All contributed to the sterile dunes in stability and fertility. Their humus turned sand to soil.

Some of the dunes along the coast are still shifting, and so steep that you slide one pace backward for each two that you climb. There is an unexpected smell of curry in the air; curry plant is one of the pioneer sand-fixers. Then comes ‘la lette’, a shallow valley protected from the sea wind where pines, gorse, brambles and willows have a firmer hold. Then the forest, low at first, grows taller as you go inland and humus accumulates. The regular array of pines lets in enough light for what becomes quite a lush understorey. In places the arbutus, shining bright green, is the dominant plant, above acres of ferns.

It is hard to believe that only ten years ago, in 2007, 320,000 of the one million hectares were devastated in a gale. It was a regional catastrophe. There was no means or manpower to tackle the chaos of fallen and broken trees. The price of timber fell with them. We expected to see devastation still – and there are places where land has been newly cleared and cultivated; the sand has become soil enough to raise crops. But the vast expanse of forest, one the greatest feats anywhere of land reclaimed, still stretches to each horizon.

Plants and the man

July 16, 2017

If anyone deserves the title of the plantsman’s plantsman it is Maurice Foster. We visited him at White House Farm in the green depths of Kent last month, after an interval of ten years. He hasn’t changed: still the rather impish, beaming figure with an unparalleled flow of botanical fact and anecdote to keep you happy all day. Maurice can recall every moment in the finding, naming, provenance and propagation of every plant in his collection of – I can’t remember how many thousands of taxa. His passion goes far beyond trees; he will be as eloquent on a rose, a grass or a lichen – well, maybe not quite as eloquent on a lichen..
The garden of White House Farm encompasses some four acres, a stretch of woodland a further three, and the arboretum beyond it seven. On Monday mornings, Maurice told us, two helpers get a briefing for the week; the heavy work to be done. The rest he does himself; a dizzying prospect as you look around you.

In ten years the arboretum has grown from a field of sticks to a leafy heaven of prodigious variety. Certain recurring genera amount to comprehensive collections; hornbeams in a variety no one would have thought possible; tilia, quercus, magnolia the same, berberis and philadelphus…. But a list of genera can sound like a dull plantation, and this is a magic wood of surprises and questions – to which Maurice has the answers.

Ten years is nothing in the life of a garden, or a gardener. At Saling Hall I was still planting more trees after forty years – closer and closer together. When I started I put them far too far apart, before I discovered that the thing trees (not perhaps all trees) like best is each other’s company. Every perambulation raised the question of priorities: does the beauty of that tree take precedence over the rarity of its neighbour? One or the other has to go. There were occasional duels, but I tended to let the happier tree win. The context, though, was different. I was trying to paint a landscape; in a landscape it is the spaces, more than the details, that count.

In the end an arboretum is a wood of different trees. In a good arboretum they are congruous; themes emerge, comparisons are close enough to be useful. White House Farm has all the beauties of a wood, but one where your eyes are constantly drawn to details of design you never expected to see.


July 4, 2017

The first limes at Boughton were planted in 1707

Christopher Woodward has a taste for the grandest gardens; fair enough, they were usually the ones with the longest history. He has just led his coterie, supporters of the Garden History Museum, to what is in some ways the grandest garden in England. The fourth Literary Festival was held in perfect weather (another of Christopher’s trademarks) at Boughton House in Northants.

In modern garden history Boughton is best known for the remarkable horti-couple who lived there: Sir David Scott and his wife Valerie Finnis. He was a nephew of one Duke of Buccleugh and great-uncle (I believe) of another. He gardened there with love and style and industry until he was 99. His was the ‘wild’ garden; Valerie’s the alpines.

Meanwhile the 10th duke (Duke Richard to his staff) has taken a new look at the more than impressive landscape. His commission of Kim Wilkie to design a contemporary take on the mighty earth-and-water works of the past is already famous. Matching the noble mount (the corollary to a noble pond) Wilkie dug a hole of corresponding size. Its name is Orpheus (who you remember visited the underworld to retrieve Eurydice). So the square pond at the bottom is the entrance (and in Orpheus’ unusual case exit) to/from Hades. The Orpheus depression (hole sounds too banal) has perfect acoustics. We sait on the grassy bank in early evening sunshine to hear I Fagiolini sing madrigals. Fa la la indeed!

If anything even more impressive than the glittering great plans d’eau are the avenues. The first duke planted limes in tens of thousands. The planting still goes on. With some of them three hundred years old, maintained (by topping, if necessary) at a height of 130 feet and astonishingly uniform, they are the ultimate garden accessory. Something like 30 miles of them.

But we were there to hear writers, a score of them, enlarging on their books. They ranged from Roy Strong to Alan Hollingshurst (who spoke on Assignations in the Garden. Maud was not the only who was wooed), from Anna Pavord to Michael Heseltine, Roy Lancaster and the Bannermans.

The strength of the symposium lay in its philosophical and poetic undercurrents. It was about the Why, not the How, of gardening, and it bore prolific fruit.


July 2, 2017

Oh, the blessed IT. I bought a new iMac to speed Trad along only to find it crawled slower than its predecessor (or should that be predewordprocessor?) The jolly little beachball – if you have an iMac you’ll know what I mean – turns and turns whenever I hit a key. I know it must be my fault, but it’s not Apple’s style to rush to the rescue. Except to sell me another of their devices. Hence Trad’s unaccustomed reticence recently.

Next step; a website on more modern lines, now under construction. Meanwhile a cheering photo of the judges at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Far more than cherries on the cake

June 16, 2017

'Prince Charles' smothers a bay tree

The walls are the real driver of a little London garden; you see more of their surface than the diminutive beds. Walls, and pots. I counted just now: we have sixty two planted (not including the green house). Yes, it’s intense; it needs a lot of watering, prinking, daily adjustments. But what else does a gardener want to do? Go abroad, sure. Visit other gardens. You need friendly neighbours and willing helpers. So far, so good. And we’ve learned that a happy climber is worth any number of pots.

This spring I went back to clematis. I’ve seen them in the past as the cherry on the cake; an extra touch of colour on something more structured and essential. What isn’t essential, though, in a garden you can take in at a glance? The trellises that carry the walls up another four feet are the backdrop to all the planting. Neither we nor our neighbours want transparent walls.

One trellis panel has always been bare. There is a mere scrap of bed below to plant in. A Cotoneaster horizontalis reaches up gamely above the wall, but seven feet is a fair stretch even for this marvellously accommodating plant. I’ve heard snide comments: it’s boring, vulgar, even ugly in its fishbone formation. Rubbish: it’s vigorous, designed like no other plant, bright in spring with little white flowers and in autumn with red berries. A little pruning will even make it turn corners. Something evergreen, and rapid, was what we needed to grow through it and on upwards.

Eventually I worked through the options to Clematis armandii, the Chinese evergreen that can become a matted mess if you let it. I won’t. Early progress, though, has been frustrating. Its first long shoot shot up, but not till summer and was still unripe when frost came. It perished. This year three shoots managed five or six feet in April, then stopped. When does it want to grow?

This year’s success has been a lemon-peel clematis, C. tangutica ‘Helios’. The corner by the greenhouse has been more than filled by what the vulgar might call a potato-bush, the purple-flowered Solanum rantonnettii, a cutting from our daughter’s garden in the South of France. ‘Not quite hardy in Britain’ say garden dictionaries. ‘Rampant in London’ say I. It waves slender shoots in full flower, purple on green, high above the greenhouse. Just the place, thought I, for a yellow-flowering clematis. And up she goes.

Rose ‘Bantry Bay’ is the climbing frame for the lightning-fast Clematis viticella ‘Kermesina’ – too red, perhaps to be cheek by jowel with a pink rose. Then I think of Matisse. Two more viticellas scramble with abandon up and through the tangled ivy and Hydrangea petiolaris on the right hand trellis. ‘Polish Spirit’ is a deep, almost brownish purple, hanging in swags. Two or three weeks later comes C. ‘Alba Luxurians’ with its odd white-and-green flowers (or sepals, to be pedantic).

Two other slightly larger-flowered varieties keep the season going: the peerless Perle d’Azur and Prince Charles, like a paler, slightly anaemic version. Oh, yes, and I planted C. wilsonii, like a rather late C. montana, to light up Hydrangea petiolaris on the wall before its turn comes. Finally, to complement an apricot-coloured Chaenomeles I don’t much like, the blue C. alpina. Next year I expect I’ll find room for more.


June 8, 2017

Box problem captioned by John Henslow

The ancient Romans had box bug problems, too. No sooner had I written my recent column on the menace of the box-eating caterpillar than I paid a visit to the new herbarium at Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden to be shown, by its curator, Christine Bartram, a box shoot under attack – two thousand years ago. John Stevens Henslow, the creator of the garden, found it in a Roman tomb at Chesterford, near Cambridge, in the 1830’s.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Henslow, as a scientist (indeed the very word ‘scientist’ for what had been up to then called a ‘natural philosopher’ was coined by one of his colleagues.) Henslow was Professor of Geology, then Professor of Botany in the University. In the 1830s he developed the new, much bigger botanical garden in the country a mile from the first.

His particular interest, in fact his obsession, was the question of what constitutes a species (and what a variety). The religious view (he became a clergyman) was that God’s creation was, you might say, specific. But when he took his pupils round the countryside collecting herbarium specimens their primroses (for example) were not all identical.

He wondered what this  meant. In planting the botanical garden he went further: there is still an imposing group of Pinus nigra as he planted them, specimens from Corsica, Austria and the Crimea: the same species with quite different habits of growth.  All this was in Charles Darwin’s mind when his tutor, Henslow, declined a berth on the Beagle and nominated Darwin to go in his place. It was the origin of The Origin of Species.

Darwin gave his herbarium, collected on the five years voyage, to Henslow. The university has held their two herbaria, along with, for example, John Lindley’s, for getting on for two hundred years. Then came John Parker, director of the garden from 1986 to 2010. He was determined to tell this story and give the university’s unique herbarium a fitting home. I was briefly involved in a fund-raising campaign (the garden had no public building or education space in those days). I remember our application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was turned down (not enough buses from surrounding schools, if I remember right). The Fund’s offices were two streets away; in summer its staff ate their sandwiches in the garden.

What small beer our fund-raising efforts became, though, when the munificent Sainsburys appeared on the scene. Their Gatsby Trust (the Fitzgerald link eludes me) very much got the idea. It sees Cambridge (with the Wellcome DNA institute nearby) as the world centre of genetic studies. £82 million later the result is a laboratory building like no other, in the garden, a splendid affair of stone and immaculate concrete, to house the iconic herbarium and related studies (also a cafe and facilities for public education). The box? It still has problems.

LGB Tree

May 29, 2017

A sycamore is nobody’s first choice of a tree for a small garden. It’s messy in spring with drifts of pollen and the detritus of flowering. Then comes the sticky deposit of aphids and deep summer shade. The autumn leaves, curling and brown, form useless piles; and far worse are the seeds, obscenely fertile, germinating like grass in every chink of soil.

But we have a big one, seven feet round and fifty high, and no seedlings. Come to that, no flowers. We respect it like a London plane, light up its peeling trunk at night, and suffer its shade – if not gladly, at least patiently. What’s the trick?.

See if you can understand this account of its sex life. “Most inflorescences are formed of a mixture of functionally male and functionally female flowers. On any one tree, one or other of these flower types opens first and the other type opens later. Some trees may be male-starters in one year and female-starters in another. The change from one sex to the other may take place on different dates in different parts of the crown, and different trees in any one population may come into bloom over the course of several weeks.” (This comes from Wikipedia).

Part of the answer is in its fashionable hesitation about its gender. If only it would decide to be a boy how happy we would be. But the main reason it lacks a sex life is that we prune its shoots back brutally every winter to limit its spread over other people’s gardens (and our own). I suspect its wood never ripens enough to get to the flowering stage. It’s an expensive solution.

Best of Show

May 26, 2017

Trad's choice: wide

“Best of Show’ is always a well-debated subject, and Trad’s annual Chelsea award, over several decades, has not always coincided with the official verdict. This year my friend James Basson, who scored so highly last year with his delicate evocation of Provence, was given the gong for his Maltese quarry. It was a memorable image, dominated by its ziggurat or cenotaph, but how it qualified to be called a garden I’m not sure. The plants were chosen with absolute botanical rigour, but I fear most of them were what friends call BIO (for Botanical Interest Only). Perhaps the spec for entries doesn’t mention ‘garden’, though heaven knows it’s a broad category. Sadly there was less competition than usual this year: the RHS had to fill the empty spaces in the Main Avenue (and frequently elsewhere, even in the Great Pavilion) with champagne bars.)

Trad’s Best of Show was tucked away among the ‘Artisans’, by the woodland picnic area in Ranelagh gardens. I’m afraid most visitors will have missed it. A pity; it was a piece of Japanese artistry worth going a long way to see, and almost never seen outside Japan. The designer, Kazuyuki Ishihara, has won gold here before, but this year’s tiny jewel was exceptional, in concept, in truthfulness, in precision and in expressing such a love for its materials that I found it moving. Even the back of his stand was exquisitely gardened.

The other moving moment of the day was Michael Heseltine’s speech at the President’s lunch. He started ominously by telling us there were no jokes coming, then in ten absorbing minutes told us why gardening matters and what we should do about it. In a sense we have heard it all before. Give a schoolchild a bean and they will never forget seeing its first leaves pop up. The moral effect of engaging with the natural world.

‘Gardens’, he said, ‘in whichever form, are expressions of ourselves. They are statements of pride and responsibility. They are definable spaces often requiring easily acquired skills. They provide talking points for communication with neighbours. They impose a year round discipline. They provide a therapeutic escape from daily pressures.’

Lord Heseltine has worked hard and persistently on the revival of communities gone to the dogs. He has huge experience in the hard slog of restoring hope and pride, work that is long on boring admin, tricky politics and often slow returns. He is totally convincing on the need for life-changing inspiration, hard to conjure, patchy in its results, but vital in ‘helping people feel a sense of purpose, an interest in what their life holds. There are no simple answers to complex questions, but gardening can play a part. Derelict land is all too present. Provide them with the tools to plant it. If they plant it they may feel a pride in what they did. They may wish to defend it, even extend it. The work requires little skill but it offers ladders.’

His sentiments and a piece of loving artistry made me leave the showground with a sense of fulfilment – and a sense of purpose.

Trad's choice: detail

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