On the cusp of spring

Three days in the New Forest on the cusp of spring brought moments of ecstasy; Wordsworth moments. ‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’. True, there are blowsy daffodils, and self-conscious little ones with long noses; the true excitement for me comes where our modest little native shakes its pale head in spreading crowds. Ten thousand? I couldn’t count, but they spilled over paths, into the gullies brimming from days of rain, clustering under oaks and mobbing the young beeches.

Our little oak wood (perhaps one hundred trees) is threaded with streams that rarely run, but raced to fill three ponds on the way down the hill. The floor is still bare under the hazel coppice; there are bare bushes, and others dripping with bright buff catkins. Among them we have planted a hundred seedlings of Acer palmatum, now four-foot saplings, to see what colours or eccentric shapes of leaf they will produce as they grow up.

We have lined the streams with Rhododendron luteum, the plain yellow azalea, to flower with the bluebells that carpet the wood at the beginning of May and whose leaves are already starting to green the ground. Here and there, as examples to the rank and file, we have planted the two cheer-leaders among acers: Seiryu, delicate-leaved, yellow, green and occasionally orange, and Osakazuki, reliably November scarlet.

The Tokyo cherry, Prunus yedoensis, is ten feet high and already in swelling bud. I have high hopes for the weeping version of Prunus subhirtella, which we have seen stooping low over a pond in a garden near Rome, and which we hope to see admiring its rosy reflexions among the shoals of bright green duckweed. The tall weeping willow on a tiny island is sparse-leaved in the shade of the oaks, dangling its long streamers like the flimsiest of curtains. Young rhododendrons, generous gifts from Exbury ten miles up the road, are yet to show their colours; for the moment it is yellow and blue that dominates among the grey pillars of veteran oaks.

It’s the nice irony of spring that its bright colours and sweet scents arrive simultaneously with biting cold air. Not cold enough, happily, to discourage the heroic little autumn cherry. It takes hard frost, harder than any we have seen in London for many seasons, to spoil the tiny flowers that keep coming from well before Christmas, even late November, until March, or even April.

It’s far from being an original choice, but limited to one tree in a little town garden, is there any better? Its modest presence, light structure, good health, but above all the charm of its months-long flowering has no real rival. If there is a secret to managing it, it is to keep it fairly small. Discourage any hearty growth. Mine is restricted by a 14-inch plastic pot buried in the ground. I’m not sure what goes on down there; I imagine a tight-curled ball of roots. Once it tried a break-out; a root leap-frogged the rim of the pot and began a vigorous freelance career before I noticed it (and a corresponding vigour in the canopy) and chopped it off. Bonsai treatment, in fact, but with no ill results. It forms a delicate pink centrepiece in the green winter garden; I can scarcely ask for more.

Its name, though: Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. Whichever botanist coined the name shared the tin ear of many colleagues – but also their short sight. ‘Hirtella’ means ‘hairy’. ‘Sub signifies ‘slightly’. So we are celebrating the slight hairiness of the twigs of a tree that is regaling winter with its mass of delicate flowers. The Japanese have a more expressive name for it. They call it ‘Higan’, the spring equinox, more or less when it is in full bloom – which also means ‘the far shore’, where our ancestors are to be found. So in future it’s Prunus ‘Higan’ for me.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum pendulum

The front of this house is screened from the street by something remarkably like wooden rain, falling into and around the purple flowers just emerging on our magnolia. The rain is the cascading branches of the extraordinary weeping Cercidiphyllum japonicum, growing just on our neighbour’s side of a central camellia hedge. The two, the cercidiphyllum and the magnolia, flower in unison and in contrast: the former (Katsura in Japan, where it is the largest native tree) with tiny pale fringe-like flowers preceding its delicate heart-shaped leaves.

Soaring above them both, as high as the house, is the Council’s double flowered gean, England’s wild cherry in its showiest form. No signs of spring here; just the naked scaffold of disordered grey branches, four of them trunk-like but without a trunk’s conviction, knobbly flower-buds apparently not yet feeling any urge to open. There is a Caucasian maple in the nextdoor front garden, too, another tree left unsupervised to grow errant competing branches and end up a winter eye-sore. The katsura thankfully makes up for it.

Nobody can explain why this street is a sort of linear arboretum with scarcely two trees the same, and three or four decidedly rare. Who do I thank for four seasons of enduring intrigue?

Its biennial tree-pruning time. It’s not the tree that’s biennial, but the massive operation of cutting it down to size. The sycamore at the end of the back garden was a wartime baby. Its girth of 80 inches means it was a sapling in the 1940s, a typical weed sycamore on, I guess, a compost or rubbish heap. There is an unsolved puzzle about our sixty-foot garden: The far twelve feet are four feet higher than the rest, paved, balustraded and reached by four stone steps. They are four feet higher than the surrounding gardens beyond the walls too.

How, and why? The sycamore is on the higher level. Did its seed germinate on a rubbish heap (not unlikely, during the war)? But does it seem probable that someone would pave and balustrade a rubbish heap? Were they simply respecting the roots of a young tree? Many London gardens end with a buried air-raid shelter; there is not one here. For whatever reason our garden is on three levels, the kitchen on the lowest, with the greenhouse on the middle one. It certainly gives it character.

The sycamore, however, is an expensive feature; at more than a thousand pounds every other year you could say a luxury, and one we can’t avoid. Today’s entertainment (and summer shade) is our reward: two athletes up in the canopy, cutting and dropping every whiskery shoot, and two helpers on the ground gathering them and carrying them through the house. There is no side entrance so they come through the narrow hallway, stripped of everything we can move.

When it gets dark at teatime and I need a mac even to reach the greenhouse, I have an unfailing source of garden interest. It may be nearly two hundred years old, but The Gardeners Magazine chatters away about just the things we discuss, over the fence or in the pub; the whys and wherefores of plants and soils and weather.

I just opened the 1842 volume to see what was on the agenda at the end of that year. The answer is chemistry. Great minds were pondering the importance of basic elements in the soil and the atmosphere on the growth of plants. It was all pragmatic stuff – what a Californian actress would no doubt call ‘lived experience.’ Why did plants in pots sulk in sifted soil but perk up if you added stones or grit or turf? Ditto with the effects of mulching plants in the ground. ‘The Conductor’ (who of course was the encyclopedist John Claudius Loudon) managed to have correspondents all over Europe, and even as far away as Australia. And correspondence in those days meant quill pen and inkwell. It was in 1841 that Rowland Hill introduced the penny post, the one price universal stamp that got everyone – or at least far more people – writing. Loudon reflects on the likely effect of this simple system on gardening. Suddenly sending seeds to friends became cheap and easy. Plants can travel from Cornwall to Scotland for a penny.

The 1840s were indeed a time of great changes. But what decade doesn’t see itself in retrospect as a turning point of some kind? Loudon mentions Sir Humphrey Davy, who had recently discovered oxygen, and the French chemist Chaptal as the master-chemists of the previous age. Now it was Liebig’s turn. Liebig’s great discovery was that the carbon which forms the structure of plants comes simply from the C02 in the atmosphere, not from any ground-based source. Justus von Liebig also not only discovered or invented fertilizer, but beef extract, how to preserve (ie corned) beef and even how to manufacture mirrors. You could call him Germany’s Pasteur.

The tulips on the kitchen table are called ‘Texas Flame’, magnificent yellow and red flowers, flaring their pointed petals as they gradually slacken their stance. When they were bolt upright they were almost stately, but their gradual relaxation is a joy to behold, until they droop, their stems becoming concave as they strive to keep their heads up and their petals start to fall. I managed to discover their name, but know hardly any of the succession of equally beautiful tulips that bring joy to the house all winter long. I read that there are 8,000 varieties. The flower barrow at the top of the road always has three or four, but I scarcely mind what colour they are; the succession on the kitchen table is a continuous pleasure.

We have an even greater treat, though, in the greenhouse and almost ready for its entry. Each year I plant a wide and rather deep pan with as many ‘tommy’ crocuses as I can fit in. They are just showing their first colour as I write. In the kitchen they will extend and expand and luxuriate until there is scarcely room on the table for our wine glasses. Eventually they loll drunkenly (is it the fumes?), spilling over their bowl in extravagant curving gestures. The pictures on the packet show bulbs in their party suits, ties straightened. They are different characters when the party really gets going.

Someone asked Christopher Lloyd, the gruff guru of Great Dixter, when was the best time for some garden operation. ‘When you have the time’, he answered, brusque as ever.There’s lots of time now, with the world seemingly asleep. So what shall I go out and do?

In a garden prone to serious cold it might not be a good idea to start snipping, or even to tidy up too much. The hydrangeas are provoking me; their green buds prominent and prime, you would think, for a spot of triage. As I see it, you can decide whether you want big flowers or lots of smaller ones, leaving a longer shoot for lots or cutting right back for few and big. Indecisive as ever, I do a bit of both.

Gossip (which to my mind always holds an element of malice, or at least scandal) is not Trad’s scene. But it can be fun to see surprising connections – especially about public figures. Such as our new queen. Being a gardener with a taste for wine I enjoy the fact that her grandfather, Morton Shand, wrote an excellent book about wine, and her first husband was the grandson of the author of classic gardening books, E.A. Bowles, who is remembered for such plants as Bowles’ Mauve wallflower, a crocus, a snowdrop, a phlomis, a golden grass and a periwinkle. More plants, in fact, than any other amateur I can think of. His garden, Myddelton House at Enfield in the Lee Valley, has been almost miraculously preserved. Will the Palace, I wonder, reflect these two most civilized preoccupations?

The naked fleshy flowers for the magnolia have their fur jackets on, grey against the orange streetlights. The radio says minus six or so tonight. The greenhouse is shut down for the first time in nine months. The big fuchsia from Bolivia should have been shoehorned into the greenhouse last week; all this year’s three feet of green growth will have to come off.

It hasn’t rained since the walnut and sycamore that keep us in shade all summer dropped their leaves; they sift around on the dry paving. I’ve stuffed most of them into the Council’s blue bags; the rest are deep on the beds, slowly settling around stems of roses and the ever-taller Fuchsia magellanica from the lower reaches of the Andes, still carrying some little flowers. I’ll be bringing Fuchsia boliviana in from the cold; in fact I should have done it already, but it’s so long since we had serious frost that I’ve lost any sense of danger. There is no problem in moving this little tree; it has been in the same pot for nine years now, a heavy ornate Tuscan one it needs to balance its heavy head of annually lopped branches. For years they reliably carried their long scarlet tube-flowers all summer. Last summer it failed to flower: too long in the same pot? I shall top-dress it with manure in the spring. Meanwhile it just fits on the wall side of the green house where a potted plumbago has spent the summer.

The greenhouse benches are packed with pelargoniums. Its lucky I’m a leaf man, as their flowers have been scant this year. All the space between them is now taken up with little pots of bulbs, irises and crocuses – though I’m never sure if they’d be better left outside for a good soaking and chilling. Gardening is one long experiment: some are in, some out. The most exciting leaves on the benches are the shiny, nay gleaming, straps of Veltheimia capensis. They have hosta quality, in that to me the flowers, in their pink spikes, are of secondary interest. No other plant has such immaculate coachwork presence; you feel the chauffeur is lurking with his duster.

Exciting is scarcely a word you would apply to a Nandina. Nor is ‘glamorous’. ‘Worthy’ is perhaps the word for them. Their moment comes late in the year with a possible crop of scarlet, or on one variety yellow, berries. They are more respected in the Far East, where they are even called Heavenly Bamboo (though they are not remotely bamboos; rather a relation of berberis, which seems almost as unlikely). In Japan they have symbolic value, as the equivalent of Welcome doormats. In Japan there seems to be one on every doorstep.

Mine, though, is different. It does excite me. In fact it is positively sporting. I grew it from seed I collected in the botanic garden at Kobe, the port city near Osaka. It lives in a pot (by the front door, of course) and has led a blameless life for years. This year it got frisky. It has put up an extra vigorous shoot, which has turned a bright plummy red, with a lovely bloom on its leaves and handsome purply stem. This is not its autumn colour, strangely enough, which tends more to green: there is a greening tendency now in some of its leaves. I’d love to propagate it, but I’m nervous about chopping off this precious shoot.

Elsewhere, I’m putting little bulbs in tiny pots to put on the table in the New Year. I remember the dining table at Château Mouton-Rothschild, where Baron Philippe de Rothschild used to decorate his table at dinner with irises; just one Iris reticulata or danfordiae in a tiny terracotta flowerpot by each place. He was a perfectionist, not only in his sumptuous claret and his unique museum of objects relating to wine, but even with his front drive. It was deeply covered in white pebbles. You couldn’t help leaving footprints in them when you arrived for dinner. When you left they had all been raked away. They do that in the most prosperous Japanese temples – less the dinner, of course. Not so often in France.

It blew on the Solent for three days and nights, Force Seven on the Beaufort Scale: “Near Gale. Sea heaps up, waves 13-19 feet, white foam streaks off breakers. Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind”, with patches of Force Eight: “Gale. 18-25 ft waves, edges of crests begin to break into spindrift, foam blown in streaks. Twigs breaking off trees, generally impedes progress, and even Force Nine,” waves 23-32 feet, sea begins to roll, dense streaks of spray may reduce visibility. Slight structural damage occurs, slates blow off roof.”

Where do you stand to measure the height of waves? I’m not sure whom the Beaufort Scale, with its graphic images of what happens when the wind gets up, is for. For mariners, worrying about their gardens back home, or landlubbers, fearful their seafarers may never return? The next step up is Ten: “Storm. Seldom experienced on land. Trees broken or uprooted. Considerable structural damage”. Last week the “trees broken or uprooted” part certainly happened.

Where it happens, I’ve almost always found, is where a tree, for one reason or another, is weakened. A graft is often a weak point, particularly a graft at ground level where the leverage of the swaying trunk is at its maximum. Here a decent-sized ‘cockleshell’ beech, the one with round and scalloped leaves, snapped at ground level. Where a branch tears off you will usually find a weak point, often caused by rot.

When the wind died the floor was covered with twigs, some leafy, mostly just dry. A Monterey pine was uprooted – or more accurately, its windward roots severed. The ground there was undrained; roots had simply not pushed out in the wet soil. The fork of a substantial oak split open, otherwise branches light enough to carry littered the ground.

Foresters talk about a ‘wind-firm edge’. It is asking for trouble to fell part of a plantation and give the wind access to trees that have been sheltered by others all their lives. There are lone trees at the seaside pushed to crazy angles by the prevailing wind but firm as a rock. They have had, you might say, plenty of exercise.

Birds have their different reactions to a gale. Little ones hunker down in a hedge. Flocks of commuting geese heading west, twenty or thirty in a formation, were at full throttle and double flap to make headway, yelping encouragement to each other. It seemed to be crows who enjoyed it most. A dozen of them were jumping high into the wind from the shelter of a copse, soaring, skidding and sliding like kids in a playground.

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

World Atlas of Wine 8th edition

I started work on The World Atlas of Wine almost 50 years ago, in 1970. After four editions, at six-year…

Friends of Trad

The Garden Museum