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 irise; 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.
La Provence Verte is well-named. The rocky regions round Aix, the Montagne St Victoire and Les Baux are more populous and have inspired more painters with their ochre tones, but up in the higher parts of the Var a certain shade of green is universal: the colour of the Aleppo pine. Its forests are a monoculture over range after range of hills. They reach down to the Cote d’Azur and up towards the Alps, a rug of a pale green the colour of a Bramley apple, slender trees whose thin needles let the light filter through, reaching up on pale trunks the colour of aluminium. Dotted among them around habitations or cultivation come the dark verticals of cypresses, often so slim and so trim you would swear they were clipped. The two make one of the happiest, most apt, two-tree combinations I can imagine.
We are just home from a week with friends at a modest chateau deep in these hills, perhaps more strictly a maison de maître or a gentilhommière than a chateau; no pediments or battlements, a tall plain house of the 19th century, yellow with grey shutters, standing as it were on a podium in a grove of planes that must have been planted when the house was built. They reach as high as the roof, despite having been pollarded as youngsters to produce three or four soaring trunks. Their bark has peeled into a jigsaw of bone-yellow and grey and green, shading the gravel ready raked for a game of boules.
This limestone country is slashed by dramatic gorges. The little river Argens, which many days later will glide slowly into the sea at Fréjus, has cut a winding trench a hundred feet deep that goes by the mournful name of Le Vallon Sourn. Where the valley widens out and it reaches the light you are met by the different green of vineyards and the grey of olives.
A village here is a narrowing of the road into a gorge of tall narrow houses of that quiet ochre colour that dramatizes the blue and red of awnings over the hard chairs of the cafes. A tractor will fill the whole width of the street. You will smell its diesel and hear its trundling roar till the quiet floods back. On a still day of sunlight and dark shadows time dawdles here. And we follow the example of time.
A new arena for veg
I’m usually in too much of a hurry, whizzing down the Portsmouth road en route to Hampshire, and miss the turning. The exit to get to Wisley comes soon after the M25. A little brown flower sign is the clue; fork left, then things get complicated. Several roundabouts and apparent back-tracks later you re-emerge onto the busy Portsmouth Road, heading the other way, before forking left again into the relative calm of woodland. Then you have only the vast carpark to deal with before you reach the entrance. But it’s worth it.
I went the other day to see the new Hilltop Science Centre, up the long lawn to Battleston Hill, then right, into an area I had never visited before. Going straight ahead over the hill, where the old Trials Ground used to be found, you are confronted by a nascent lake, currently a vast trench with an island, soon to be filled with water from the roof of the Science Centre. Will it ever attract enough ducks to quack out the noise from the A3? Beyond the Science Centre, and it’s not-very-ambitious restaurant, lies the new vegetable garden, a circle planted with everything edible and sprinkled with arches. How many Surrey gardens grow sugar cane?
Wisley today is all action; construction everywhere. No Entry signs divert you from customary routes. Was it £160 millions the RHS said it was spending? The dear old body I remember when gardening was new to me has almost disappeared in a frenzy of activism. Does it mean that members get more for their subs? Those who make the journey to Wisley certainly do.
“The moving moon went up the sky
And nowhere did abide.
Softly she was going up
And a star or two beside.”
For the past week the Ancient Mariner has been on repeat in my head. as night after night in the mild weather of early October the full moon has lighted our bedroom into the early hours. Our French windows face due south. I don’t understand her itinerary, but for several nights she did indeed abide straight ahead, nudging the second brightest heavenly body, Jupiter (or so I believe).
The sun, meanwhile, has become positively aggressive. Driving west in the afternoon is uncomfortable; driving east can be worse; the sun catches your driving mirror and blinds you. Shadows are impenetrably black. Photography is almost impossible. It is the one time of year when I long for cloud cover, at least in the afternoon.
Can there be a gene linked to tomatoes? A human gene, that is. What else can explain the passion that runs through my family, from my father (who ate a mixture of scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast every day) to me, always scouting for the sweetest and ripest, and my elder sister, who spends the summer cosseting her tomato garden – and, of course, makes papa’s dish every day? Gill, now ninety, has French doors from her kitchen, facing southwest, almost inaccessible through the gridlock of pots now toppling with their scarlet crop.
In the supermarkets it was a long struggle to find tomatoes worth the name. Trad mounted a campaign, maybe thirty years ago, complaining that the universal shiny red globes of nothing they then offered were a travesty of the noble fruit. Others must have agreed. Correspondence with press departments at Sainsburys and Tesco gradually saw a glimmer of interest. It must have been three or four years later a message came from a press officer, announcing that for the first time in history tomatoes had sold more than bananas – to the bafflement of the Board. Looking at the Trad index (you can look up any topic in it online (www.tradsdiary.com), I see I wrote about it in 2014 and 2011.
You must go to Italy, southern Italy, though, if you want to taste tomato in excelsis. Naples knows. Provence has good ones, and even the Isle of Wight is trying hard and doing well – in the proper season. September is the moment. There are many versions of the perfect tomato salad. Mine is made with beefsteak tomatoes, with slices two or three inches across, a few very thin slices of the mildest and sweetest white onions, a big pinch of salt and a great slosh of olive oil. Basil is a good substitute for the onion (which we rarely find sweet enough in England). No vinegar. Nothing more.
It came as a surprise, I remember, when the finest bushes of Iceberg I ever saw were in one of the warmest gardens. It was at Loggerheads, the hospitable home of one of Australia’s greatest wine men in the Hunter Valley. Len and Trish Evans were a redoubtable couple, ‘always at loggerheads’, as Len put it. Their house was largely built of reclaimed materials; not from everyday houses but churches, railway stations, and anywhere where the materials and the details were larger than life. Each lavatory was a throne.
The Hunter Valley is way north of Sydney, with an almost subtropical climate tempered by abundant cloud. It is also a coal-mining region. The view from the Evans garden on its hilltop took in the green geometry of vineyards, the glitter of lakes and the scattered gum trees of the bush that, oddly, cast practically no shade, because their leaves hang vertically. Kangaroos, big and small, bounce about among the trees. A rose garden could hardly look more exotic.
It is not only Iceberg that has enjoyed this halcyon summer. Our shady little garden borrows roses from the neighbours, flowering in the sun far above their supporting walls in colours that add a gypsy counterpoint to our more conservative palette. There is pink and yellow, another shade of pink and one which is outright guardsman scarlet. Among them twines the unstoppable jasmine whose scent permeates everywhere.
The scent of the moment to me, though, is the late-summer smell of phlox. Phlox ‘White Admiral’ is a lynchpin in any border that I plant. I can’t pass it without stooping and asking myself again, what does this mild spiciness remind me of?
Harold (later Sir Harold) Hillier was a god-like figure in my gardening youth. By happy chance 1971 was the year he brought out the most complete catalogue of trees and shrubs for sale ever (I imagine) produced. It was also the year I wrote my ambitious International Book of Trees. Hillier’s Manual was my bible; I could not have attempted my book without it. II have my original copy (now bound in leather) beside me, with double ticks beside the plants I ordered for my growing collection and a single tick for ones I recognised and would eventually write about. I scribbled notes as I went. The Manual was, I now know, largely the work of Hillier’s young assistant, Roy Lancaster.
I remember Hillier at the time talking about Ventnor and the benign climate of the south coast of the Isle of Wight. He was sending, he said, a lot of his marginally hardy species for planting on the seaside undercliff, where frosts are relatively rare. It has taken me fifty years to get round to it, but we have just visited what is now the considerable botanic garden that now thrives around them.
There is none of the formal apparatus of a conventional botanic garden here; no order beds, in fact little botanical order. The thirty-odd acres are informally divided, mostly by geography: Australia at one end, Japan at the other. Within their zones plants are allowed, or encouraged, to let rip. It creates moments of hallucination: under the gum trees, your feet scuffing the noisy leaf litter, you are in Australia. Then Australia’s fierce botany gives way to banks of hydrangeas, before you are ducking the heavy fronds of scores of Kiwi tree ferns concealing a deep gully. Further on, splendid specimen trees, Hillier’s legacy, perhaps, surround an open lawn which was actually green in parts – thanks to their shade and seaside moisture. Further on again the spires of echiums form tall palisades, before a vine tunnel through an olive grove. Perhaps ecology is more apt than botany for such an album of plants and their habitats. To me it was a magical journey.
My oldest schoolfriend, Lawrence Banks, died in June. His funeral took place in the village church at Kington in Herefordshire, on the Welsh border; a packed church and more attending online as befits a man of strong character and wide influence. He was a major figure in gardening circles, as much for his extraordinary ability as a plantsman as for leadership of many horticultural bodies, among them as treasurer of the RHS for many years.
Memories merge when we remember our friends. Was the rather chaotic and inky schoolboy the same as the senior City banker and intellectual powerhouse of international bodies and charities? We proved it when we were together and quoted the same words from the schoolmasters we shared. Two masters at Rugby licked us into being competent writers; I’ll name them: Jim Willans and Tim Tosswill. We went to different universities but met up again in the context of gardening. I would go to stay at the Banks family’s estate, Hergest Croft, where I remember his father, Dick, inheritor of England’s finest private arboretum, as a tall, benign presence who won a schoolboy’s admiration. Times spent with him among his trees made a deep mark on me, and inspired me to start looking at and writing about trees. It was an honour I still treasure to pay a tribute at his funeral in the church where we just remembered his son.
The Bankses, father and son, and grandfathers before them, were passionate and practical plantsmen. Dirty fingernails run in the family. Edward, who inherits the collection, shares the unusual family trait. There are now some 5,000 species and varieties of trees and shrubs at Hergest Croft, many of them the biggest of their kind in the country – and they are widely propagated and generously shared.
We had to follow Lawrence’s funeral online, sadly. I was not surprised by the choices of my own favourite aria. Ombra mai fu, from Handel’s Serse, or the lesson read by his widow Elizabeth, who was the first woman and first landscape architect to be president of the RHS. Ecclesiastes 3 contains the words ‘A time to plant and a time to pluck up’. The service ended with the supreme hymn, Now thank we all our God.
Trad wrote about Hergest Croft on October 18, 2010, September 3, 2013 and May 9, 2019,
all available to read online at tradsdiary.com
Back, after a three year gap, to our old place in the heart (perhaps depths is a better word) of France. It is thirty years since we bought the almost-derelict farm with its 190 acres and splendid old barn, and fifteen years since we sold it to the Anglo-French couple who are now family friends. In a rare moment of sound judgement we had, with the help of the Office National des Forêts, made a statutory management plan for the whole property, which our successors have painstakingly followed. To see one’s plans coming to fruition is one of life’s great and rare pleasures. The plantations of oak are just as I hoped: a generation of trees now four metres high, lusty, deep green and well able to take care of themselves.
Our pine plantations (Corsican and what we call Scots and the French pins sylvestres – or wild pines) have been more affected by the endemic drought on miserable soil. Some have died; others are shabby and thin. Old woodland that we thinned to encourage the more valuable trees seems to have changed remarkably little. It is almost always oak that does best, gradually outgrowing the hornbeam, the wild cherry and the wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) that keep them company. Here and there in the woods we found rather pathetic traces of our over-ambitious landscaping: a lonely azalea or Japanese maple by the remains of a little pond, long since rewilded by deer, boar or escapee cattle.
The most spectacular and satisfying developments are round the farmhouse and barn, utterly bare and un-treed when we arrived. Willows, cypresses, horse chestnuts, planes and tulip trees look thoroughly at home; the cypresses in perfect pencil shape now twenty metres high, a tulip tree pushing its succulent greenery into the apertures on the barn. The box parterre we improvised in the awkward space of the old farmyard wears the air of long establishment, hydrangeas flourish in stone troughs and roses have grown too tall and bosomy for their spaces on the walls.