Something in the soil Posted on July 13, 2015

Quercus exceptional, a Berkshire native

It’s a problem photographing a tree like this one. But then there aren’t many. The trick is to ask a patient friend to stand by it and walk away until you can fit the whole tree in your lens. Communicate by shouting.

This oak is in a garden near Newbury in Berkshire. No one can see it without asking questions. How old is it? How wide? How high? But above all how? There are taller oaks, and girthier ones, but are there any so complete in their domes, with branches stretching so far in an uninterrupted circle?

Part of the answer may lie in the way it was evidently planted, it must be four or five hundred years ago, on a mound of earth. The sapling was planted on the summit of a mound some five feet high and perhaps thirty feet round. Why? The soil below is heavy clay; perhaps the gardener thought it would get away better on a hill of something easier for its roots to penetrate. There is another magnificent tree three hundred yards away on a similar mound. Yet curiously the woods around are full of strikingly tall straight oaks, big beeches, soaring Scots pines and lime trees of immense size. So why the mounds?

The rest of the garden, I should say, is in keeping. Many plants seem larger than life, and it is quite a collection, centred on a water garden round a large stone-edged water tank, ingeniously fed from a smaller and slightly higher tank in its centre so the water is always gently moving. The owner, Rosamund Brown, is a painter of memorable abstract landscapes; her sense of colour makes the planting sing – a tune that changes abruptly when you pass the door to the kitchen garden into a Mondrian world of primary colours and daring contrasts. Another smaller enclosure is planted entirely with cactus and sedums; the ultimate low-maintenance plants, but a startling display, and I guess a unique one in a garden.

Broad York-stone paths link the elements: formal to woodland to glasshouses and pools. And it is as though the fertile earth below resents their weight. Self-sewn volunteers push up between the slabs and are carefully edited, so that here verbascums, there agapanthus or daisies or campanulas embroider the grey stone.

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