Water feature

September 19, 2016

Are we making the most of what water we have in our gardens? Here is Celia Fiennes, a gentlewoman garden touring in the 1680’s, describing Wilton House.

‘…the river runns through the garden that easeily conveys by pipes water to all parts. (A) grottoe at the end of the garden…. its garnished with many fine figures of the Goddesss, and about 2 yards off the door is severall pipes in a line that with a sluce spoutts water up to wett the Strangers; in the middle roome is a round table, a large pipe in the midst, on which they put a crown or gun or a branch, and so it spouts the water through the carvings and poynts all round the roome at the Artists pleasure to wet the company; there are figures at each corner of the roome that can weep water on the beholders, and by a straight pipe on the table they force up the water into the hollow carving of the roof like a crown or coronet to appearance, but is hollow within to retaine the water forced into ti in great quantetyes, that disperses in the hollow cavity over the roome and descends in a shower of raine all about the roome; on each side is two little roomes which by the turning their wires the water runnes in the rockes you see and hear it, and also it is so contrived in one room that it makes the melody of Nightingerlls and all sorts of birds which engaged the curiosity of the Strangers to go in to see, but at the entrance off each room, is a line of pipes that appear not till by a sluce moved it washes the spectators, designed for diversion.’

Have we lost our sense of humour?

Vaut le voyage

September 14, 2016

Border incident: Miscanthus nepalensis with you-know-who

To Kew to see how the Broad Walk borders – all 2000 feet of them – are coming on towards the end of their first season. Wonderfully is the short answer. It wasn’t the ideal day to go; promenaders were very few; it was 91 old-fashioned degrees in the shade – of which, of course, there was precious little. A parasol-seller would have done good business.

The borders do have a relatively shady end, the one nearest the Palm House and the Victoria Gate. Big trees provide a reason to plant less light-loving plants, from ferns and hellebores and epimediums to lilies and (the stars of the season in so many places) Japanese anemones. The beds are based on eight huge circles, each dedicated to a theme, usually a plant family. In each circle a yew pyramid forms a focal point – and points you to a clever illustrated key to the planting. Grasses are used (but not overused) here and there throughout; the bright gold tassels of Miscanthus nepalensis were one of the highlights.

The Orangery end is as sunny as can be; penstemons and crocosmias were firing it up, while the bed dedicated to the daisy family, the Compositae, was a banquet of heleniums, asters, rudbeckias, heliopsis, helianthemum and all things that have sun in their name. Along the whole thousand foot length colours have been mixed masterfully in long satisfying sweeps. It is plantsmanly, it is painterly; in short it is a triumph

Travel hopefully

September 11, 2016

Discuss: Lower your aspirations and achieve a higher success rate. Its logical; baying for the moon has never had a success rate at all. Content is most easily found by starting with low expectations. It’s a good excuse not to frequent three-star restaurants.

I am, I admit, that kind of gardener. Or at least part of me is. I can’t quite bring myself to admire groundsel (except for its example as a profligate survivor) and I don’t weed random seedlings until I’m sure of what they are or might be, I can accept half-hearted flowering in a plant I am fond of. delay dead-heading and leave fading plants standing in the hope of some aesthetic justification for their remains. You won’t find me dropping everything to go and tidy up; you will, on the other hand, find me loitering with secateur s when there’s a deadline at my desk.

Perhaps this is the moment to say that I am pleased (or not displeased) to be harvesting my total crop of eight tomatoes. Tiny ones at that (but red). They have endured a small pot, intermittent watering, a life lived in 80% shade, and an attack of whitefly. So I shall enjoy them as a minor triumph.

The process of gardening is more important than the result – until, that is, you open for the National Gardens Scheme. Who was it who said ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’? A bonus point for the first to put up their hand. I had to look it up too: it sounds rather ‘Confucius he say’, so I was surprised to see that it is one of my favourite authors, Robert Louis Stevenson. As a youngman he wrote sententious essays, collected together as Virginibus Puerisque. That’s where you’ll find it.

Is it, though? Better than to arrive, I mean. What is a gardening arrival? The moment when the shutter clicks and you have something for your album? The moment you pour yourself a drink and sink into a chair? What will you be thinking about as you take a sip? Whether you can get away without mowing before the weekend.

Even Japanese Zen gardens haven’t arrived. Daily raking is existential for them. The Grand Condé’s chef Vatel killed himself because the fish was late. Gardeners take heart; there is no gardening equivalent.

Too quiet by far

August 20, 2016

King's Bench Walk has some of London's finest planes

The lawyers’ gardens of the Inner Temple usually keep a low profile. According to Shakespeare the Wars of the Roses started there in 1455. The RHS held flower shows here in Edwardian days, then a reprise nine years ago. Otherwise they remain a spacious and serene place by the Thames where lawyers go to (I imagine) cogitate, discuss their briefs or have a picnic under the exceptionally tall planes. Until Bazalgette built the Embankment, the Temple Gardens, like the Chelsea Physick Garden , went down to the tide. There must have been lots more gardens along the banks of Westminster and the Strand that originally stretched down to the water, too.

I happened to be walking by the other day, through the Inns of Court, past my father’s old chambers in Kings Bench Walk, when I saw that the garden gate was open. It usually is, I gather, from 12.30 to 3.00. What’s more the head gardener , Andrea Brunsdorfer, was just inside, examining here great herbaceous borders with a critical eye. They are masterful; bold, jolly and original. Original? Who else plants little pines in the front row, then prunes them low to display their tufts among the flowers? The beautiful soft green and blue Pinus parviflora is a more inspiring plant to have at your feet than catmint. But all her choices keep up a chromatic and textural eyeful.

How wonderful, I thought, that London still has places like this (though not many) at its heart. Then I remembered the threat of the ‘garden’ bridge, and its promoters saying the Embankment was rather quiet in this stretch and could do with some tourist activity. I pictured the scene on Westminster Bridge, which you can hardly negotiate for the crowds taking selfies in front of Big Ben. Someone wants to visit this bedlam on the Temple?

There may if course be lawyers who would like a short cut to the National Theatre. I suspect they are outnumbered by those who value the historic tranquillity of their college. I have yet to meet a gardener (though Dan Pearson must be one) who likes the idea, or believes that a good garden can be maintained, in perpetuity, in the most exposed conditions you could devise. You would think the intellect and the influence of a thousand lawyers would be up to quashing the whim of a smiley actress. Why, I wonder, don’t they?

Be forearmed

August 13, 2016

Two ‘pencil’ cypresses of my acquaintance have just died, quite suddenly – and they were both strapping young trees; the bigger one a good 20 feet high. One was my sister’s, a 10-footer, rather shaded by a magnolia but looking fine in the spring. She reports ‘caterpillars’; I see no sign of damage. The other, three gardens away, has the equivalent of the Plague’s black boils, the fatal mark of a brown stain spreading up one side. It looks exactly like the phytophthera that carried off our Irish juniper alley, all forty of them, one by one, at Saling Hall.

Naturally I gave my own small cypress (another 10-footer) a close going-over. There were brown needles here and there, and a lot of the small inner branches were dry, but there is no sign of pest or disease, While I was up the ladder I snipped out all the brown material. A lot of brown needles (not an accurate description, but leaves is hardly the right word either) were snagged in the branch

forks and clinging to the trunk. Thoroughly snipped and brushed down the tree looks a trifle sparse, but I shall be able to spot any sign of trouble straight away. Whether there is anything I can do about it is another matter.

It’s not so easy with box hedges – or any box, come to that. We and all our neighbours are on high alert for the boxtree caterpillar which eats the leaves and can denude a bush in a few days. He is tiny, with a dark green and yellow body and a black head; the yellow part is what to look out for; he is a demon at concealment. We were only away for a week last August when he attacked; already he had spun tiny webs al over the hedge and eaten the leaves inside. Now it’s a daily inspection, with Pyrethrum (sold as Py) at the ready.

You hear of gardeners panicked by the mere threat, and rooting out their hedges (as Roy Strong did at The Laskett at the onset of box blight). It would be tempting if there were a box substitute; in reality the Ilex crenata, the little berberis and hebe that nurseries propose, let alone the santolina or lavender I see suggested, can only remind us of the timelessness of box. A box wipe-out would be an international catastrophe. I think of great formal parterres and shudder. But we can dwell too much on threats. If every stag-headed oak is a premonition and we start at a dead branch in an ash the risk is that we stop enjoying all the glorious growth around us. Be watchful; be forearmed.

Selfies of a sort

August 5, 2016

Top: the Cascade des Planches, and below it Stourhead

It’s the sound of God washing his world. Gently rinsing it, rather, with a night of unemphatic rain. I am out on the verandah at midnight, mingling the scents of orange blossom and Pauillac, my bedtime glass. The rain is a cocoon, soothing away all other sounds. Time to reflect on a month away on visits to gardens, houses, churches and the seaside. A dry month, at times too hot; hence the luxury of this healing rain.

My iphone has become my chief remembrancer; shameful to admit, but the snaps in its camera are my garden notebook; more than that; almost my diary. What’s more it knows where and when I took them.

It tells me that in the past month I’ve been to the Loire, Burgundy, Arbois in the Jura, Champagne, Kew, Suffolk, Exbury, Dorset and Stourhead.. The photographs recall people, plants, places…but in that fatally selective way that (if you’re not careful) screens out more complete memory. It’s an obvious trap. We laugh at Orientals and their selfies in front of iconic views: endless smiles; how many memories?

There are, of course, occasions when photography becomes the main object. Then I will circle round an object, or investigate a garden or a building, for hours in the hope of a telling angle and the right light. The camera fills up (only it never seems to) with alternative shots that are impossible to edit properly on its tiny screen, and are usually disappointing downloaded at home. Choosing the best shots of a sustained session takes longer than the shoot itself.

My favourites from July? A wonderful waterfall we found near Arbois on the river Planches, where a cascade crashes out of a forest to form a staircase of pools and line them with marble-like tufa. An octogenarian topiarist in Burgundy carving yew piéces montées in blazing sunshine, a cave of ancient wine bottles belonging to an avant-garde sculptor at Jasnières on the Loir. Then our old garden and woods in the Auvergne, a German military cemetery in Normandy with a thousand mophead maples in parade order in the rain, a girl in a restaurant in the Jura, the magnificently austere cathedral of Laon in Champagne, isolated on its hilltop, and back in England, sailing down the Beaulieu River past Exbury gardens, Christchurch Priory and Sherborne Abbey for glorious medieval vaults, Stourhead for its lake and its magnificent tulip trees. You can travel a long way and see no finer sight than Stourhead.

London and the Med

August 3, 2016

Tulbaghia violacea, Cap Ferrat, and a chance of rain

We (the collective we) go south in summer for sun because we can’t be sure of it in England. It’s a taste our grandfathers would have found puzzling. They went south, if they could afford it, in winter and spring. There was and is lots to do at home in summer, and frankly not a lot in the overheated summers of Provence or the Côte d’ Azur beside splashing about in the tepid sea.

I am on the gorgeous Blue Coast now. It’s too hot to be outside, except in the pool. Air-conditioning is as disagreeable here as anywhere else. Shade and a breeze is the sum of my desires. And eye-soothing green is not to be found. It hasn’t rained, I’m told, for three months. The grapes hanging on the pergola are shrivelled but not ripe or sweet.

Admittedly the Iceberg roses are splendid, but there is little else in the garden to admire. I’ve often puzzled about the iciest roses lapping up the hottest weather. The rather lanky solanum bush (S laciniatum, I’m pretty sure) with purple flowers the size of your thumbnail is worth seeing – but so it is in London; a cutting from this very plant. Indeed my plant palette seems to have got a bit bogged down with duplicates in Beaulieu sur Mer and London W8. Japanese anemones, and the Tulbaghia in front of me now, little umbels of pale pink flowers on long stalks over a chive-like clump of leaves, waving at horizon level over the blue of the bay, Pale Perowskia is not happy in our London shade, and here the hydrangeas were over weeks ago.

What are we left with? Lavender, lemons, apples, persimmons (not in London). No bougainvillea in London, either; luckily I don’t much care for it. Plumbago, though, I would certainly try if I had a sunny south wall. There are one or two salvias that come close to its pale sky blue, but nothing on its scale.

Kew, and blue

July 23, 2016

Agapanthus 'Northern Star' . More purple than blue in this photo, but a glorious colour.

To Kew to see how the mammoth new herbaceous borders are coming on. When they were inaugurated in April, after a year or so of preparation, they still looked enigmatic.. Three months has been enough to turn promise into spectacular performance: surely one of the horticultural wonders of the world. The two borders together total over 2,000 feet of planting; I heard someone mention 30,000 plants. The scale of the project and its ambition, to make an immense tapestry of interwoven plants, of well-considered colours, without hesitation, deviation or repetition, is almost Victorian. Follow the planting schemes carefully and you can see how conditions change with the influence of the other plants around. At the Palm House end there are big trees closing in; the choice of plants tends towards the woodland. It will be fascinating to see how the components knit together and form new patterns of colour. What a job taking care of it will be for some lucky gardeners.

The sight of the Broad Walk disappearing into the distance, thronged with families and lined on both sides with splendid planting, makes me think of the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and the confident achievements of Victoria and Albert. For sideshow there is The Hive, the new pavilion promoting the work of bees in fertilizing (among other things) 80% 0f our food plants. The Hive is a rather beautiful structure formed of aluminium struts, suggesting the complexity of a beehive – and buzzing and throbbing with the amplified sounds of the bees in Kew’s actual beehive nearby.

In the first really warm days of summer, after more than generous rainfall, Kew was looking wonderful. It is Lime Time (Tilia Time to botanists) when the air is sweetly dense with scent from millions of flowers decking some of the biggest trees.

It’s pretty good in the garden at home, too – all 900 square feet of it. The warmth has brought plants into full flower that have been looking tentative, in some cases for weeks. It has pressed the release button on reluctant roses. Salvias and agapanthus are loving it. I am always on the lookout for blue flowers. I home in on them in every garden I visit and in every nursery. There is a (short) book to be written about their allure – and relative rarity. Salvias and agapanthus provide some of the best. Each summer I keep my fingers crossed for Salvia patens to reemerge, and this year I was delighted to see S. vitifolia (big furry vine-shaped leaves and caerulean flowers) had survived the wet winter. We came back from France with a new agapanthus acquaintance: the positively sapphire Northern Star which a friend had planted in big pots, repeated forty times around the terrace of their 18th century hunting lodge, each, with the sun behind it, a gleaming gem. We modern gardeners don’t know how spoilt we are; our ancestors had nothing like this.

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’

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The Garden Museum