Making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 1 Asia and New Zealand

Join me today for the first leg of a round the world tour. In case you’re thinking that Weeds Roots & Leaves didn’t receive the email about staying at home, this tour, like so many of our activities during this period of lockdown, is virtual. The itinerary covers the Far East, South and North America, New Zealand and Europe. There is even an optional side trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

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One of the many joys of a visit to Kew Gardens is reading the country of origin of the plants in Kew’s vast living collection. The distinctive black labels with their indented white lettering include not only the botanical and sometimes the common name of the plant, but the country or region from which it comes. For example, in the Davies Alpine House you might see a wild tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) from southern Spain planted between a gentian from the Alps and Ipheion, a member of the onion family from South America.

With Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew out of bounds it occurred to me that a botanical Cook’s tour is still available even closer to home, in my own back garden. Many of our classic garden plants are not native to these shores. The plant hunters of yesteryear braved inhospitable terrain across the globe discovering new species of plants, some of which were found to have horticultural merit and now grace our gardens. I have calculated that on this tour of a plot measuring 5m x 8m you will encounter species from six continents. So pack your virtual bags and be prepared for some surprises en route. The first part of the tour is predominantly centred in Asia emphasising the influence plants from that continent have had on our gardens.

From western China comes Sarcococca confusa with its elegant narrow evergreen leaves and the shiny black berries which in late autumn succeed the cream flowers the scent of which give the plants its common name of sweet box. I planted this small shrub about a year ago having been given a well established cutting by a client in my street. It seems happy in a semi shaded position. A new plant to the garden and one first found in China and Japan, is Daphne odora ‘Rebecca’ which I bought in the Kew plant shop a couple of months ago. It is still in flower with its waxy, intensely perfumed pink blooms that to my mind throw all other winter-scented into a cocked hat. The fragrance is fresh yet intense, sweet but with a hint of citrus. The light margins to the leaves attracted me to this plant since I anticipate they will lighten a shady area long after the flowers fade.

Until researching the itinerary for this tour I confess to not having given a lot of thought to the provenance of the ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile) but I find that this too hails from China and Korea. At this time of year the fleshy young leaves form a dense crown low to the ground. By late summer bright pink star-shaped flowers in flat clusters or umbels will be attracting bees and other pollinators. I always leave the flowerheads over winter for structure in the garden.

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Notwithstanding the second part of its name (the species epithet) Pieris Japonica originated in eastern China and Taiwan. My specimen is at least 20 years old and has occupied the same large container for much of that time. When I first moved here in 1992 I created a very small pond in a sunken plastic half barrel. That has since been replaced with a larger rectangular pond stacked with bricks at one end to aid access for the annual influx of frogs. I repurposed the original container to house this handsome plant. Growing Pieris in a container makes it easier to top up with ericaceous compost each year. The soil in the rest of the garden is neutral. I think Pieris is at its best now with the new growth emerging in vivid pinks and reds and the lily of the valley like flowers spilling forth in generous clusters.

Planted side by side are two more plants linked to Japan but the first of which the textbooks indicate is of garden origin: the white form of Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’ which will flower in late summer. The other is Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica which I am training against the fenceThe flowers of this are a deep peachy pink and have been going strong for a good couple of months.

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You can see the buds developing plumply in the Wisteria planted in the far right-hand corner of the garden. This popular climber is an import from China, Korea and Japan. About two months ago I spent several hours pruning back the spurs to two shiny scaled buds and eliminating any long bud-free stems which escaped the autumn trimming back. Close examination of the spurs reveals those brown scales being forced outwards to reveal the emerging flowerheads. Over the course of this week I have seen the latter increasing in girth and length. By the end of April the garden will be suffused with the perfume I most closely associate with the month of April and the fence, which in this part of the garden tends to look a little bare in the winter, will be clothed with delicate pale green leaves and blowsy racemes of lilac flowers.

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The next stop on our itinerary is in the wooded foothills of the Himalayas from where hails the most hard working shrub in my garden, Skimmia. My cultivar is S. confusa ‘Kew Green’ named I assume for its colour rather than the pretty open space and cricket pitch that lies on the south side of Kew Bridge between the South Circular Road (A205) and the Elizabeth Gate entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This shrub has been poised to flower since before Christmas. The tiny individual flowers densely packed into what botanists call a ‘panicle’*, were firmly closed until recently in a shade of cream that reminds me of Cornish ice cream, but last week’s warmth encouraged many of them to open. This cultivar is said to tolerate full sun, unlike most other Skimmias. However I moved it from a very sunny bed into its present shady position about 18 months ago because the leaves were yellowing and it wasn’t thriving. Since the move it has doubled in girth and its dark green leaves are shiny and healthy.

The other Himalayan native is Sorbaria sorbifolia which I featured in a blog post last year. Its ferny leaves are now emerging in shades ranging from pink to chartreuse.

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Before we journey to the Antipodes there are a couple more Asian plants in the garden. Both herbaceous perennials, the first is Thalictrum delavayii from Tibet and western China. Its dainty cup-shaped mauve flowers with contrasting yellow stamens held on slender but surprisingly strong 1.5m stems will emerge in June. In the meantime the prettily shaped blue/green leaves are developing into a tidy mound at the edge of what I grandly call the woodland garden, which centres around the only tree in the garden, of which more when we return to Europe in the next instalment of this blog.

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The rear of the woodland garden is occupied by a favourite plant, Epimedium x versicolor. This is effectively a non-shrubby evergreen and when not in flower it retains its interest via the heart-shaped leaves with a prominent drip tip held about 50cm from the ground. As these mature they take on a reddish tinge. The frothy lemon flowers in March and April tend to be hidden by the older slightly leathery leaves which is why a fortnight ago I cut back the leaves to display the flowers to best advantage.

Australasia is represented by only one plant in the garden which was new to me until last year when I was researching suitable trailing plants for window boxes and hanging baskets. Muehlenbeckia complexa  is commonly called New Zealand wire vine and I like it as an alternative to ivy in container arrangements to soften the sides of the container. It has small dark green disc-shaped leaves arranged along fine but strong purplish stems. This is essentially a climbing or creeping shrub, and because garden designers recommend introducing small-leaved plants into smaller gardens to create an impression of space, I have planted the vine in a sunny position near the end of the garden where it is beginning to disguise the boards of the fence. According to my RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants, in summer M. complexa bears ‘greenish white flowers in racemes* 2.5cm-3cm long, followed by fleshy white fruits 5mm across’.

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In my next post I shall resume our tour, when we travel to the Americas and Europe, to find two kinds of sage, a plant resembling a cup and saucer and an elegant plant named after a very wise man.

 

 

*Gardening, like other professions and pastimes, has its fair share of jargon and I thought it would be useful to include in your tour documents an extract from Brian Capon’s ‘Botany for Gardeners’ (ISBN: 9780881926552) showing the distinction between a raceme and a panicle. 

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Turfing it out

Extracting weeds from an artificial lawn requires a very different technique to that applied to a lawn of real grass. I soon found this out when I tidied a neighbour’s back garden last week. For a start, a hand fork or trowel is unnecessary since the weeds seem to embed themselves into the weave of the material to which the ‘grass’ is attached. No need here for a sharp implement to loosen the soil around the weed’s roots before yanking the weed from the ground. Instead, the weed needs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger and gradually pulled up with a final gentle twist to keep the roots intact. I have never seen roots so clean! I was surprised to see that even an artificial lawn can host weeds but the weeds I removed were ephemeral weeds like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and hairy bittercress (Cardamina hirsuta). No ‘lawn spoiler’* to worry about here like greater plantain (Plantago major) . And I suppose that is the merit of an artificial lawn: even if some enterprising little weeds manage to embed themselves into the surface of the material, the long-rooted perennial weeds cannot penetrate the thick polypropylene base.

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This was my first experience of working with synthetic grass and although I’m by no means a convert, I can see that compared to a real lawn there is no need for cutting, edging and feeding. This lawn looked particularly authentic and included material which seemed to mimic the straw-coloured thatch that accumulates at the base of grass stems over time. In a real lawn this has to be raked out from time to time to make room for fresh blades of grass to grow.

As I carefully removed the weeds I began reflecting on the growing popularity of artificial grass and not only in domestic gardens. A mile and a half from here, were it not for the Coronavirus crisis, the newly built stadium to be shared between Brentford FC and London Irish RFC would soon have opened its doors for the first time. We hope it will still open in time for the new season in the summer.  Having read somewhere that many modern football pitches are created using a hybrid of real and synthetic grass, I determined to find out more. I approached Nity Raj, a parkrun friend and director of Brentford FC, to ask him about the system used at the club’s current ground, the dearly loved Griffin Park, and at the new Brentford Stadium at Kew Bridge. Little did I know as we chatted on Saturday mornings over peppermint tea after the weekly 5k run at Richmond’s Old Deer Park, that Nity knew anything about this topic. Here he generously shares what he knows about football pitch technology:

The current pitch at Griffin Park is a stabilised natural grass pitch.  The stabilised element comes from a plastic weave which was woven into the turf before the grass was grown and the turf was cut and relaid at Griffin Park.  It looks a bit like a tennis net, but with smaller squares.  The plastic matrix significantly reduces the amount that the surface is broken up during play making the regular pitch works much easier to manage and  repair of damage more effective.  We haven’t always had this kind of stabilised pitch.  Until the summer of 2015 the pitch was a normal seeded grass pitch.  We worked with specialists to re-lay new drainage and an entirely new pitch, incorporating the plastic matrix.  Since then I am told we have had the best pitch we have ever had in our history, with significantly less damage visible, especially during bad weather periods, when previously the pitch was prone to getting very badly damaged especially in the high traffic areas of the pitch. 

In the new stadium we are installing a Desso Grassmaster pitch.  Desso are the leading pitch tech company and their pitches are used in many of the most prestigious football and rugby stadiums in the world..  Desso have a different system from the one used at Griffin Park in that it involves a machine injecting fibres into the ground.  We believe this kind of system will best suit the pitch being used for football and rugby.

It’s worth saying that the pitch at Griffin Park and the pitch at the new stadium are both virtually indistinguishable from ordinary grass pitches.  The pitches look, play and smell exactly like grass pitches except for their ability to rejuvenate and resist damage.  Without careful management by our excellent groundsmen, they would also be susceptible to weeds, just like any wholly natural grass surface

The list of venues in the Grassmaster Wikipedia entry reads like a roll-call of world-famous soccer and rugby grounds and includes Wembley, Twickenham, Old Trafford, Parc des Princes, the Emirates Stadium and Anfield. And it will soon be joined by Brentford Stadium.

The hybrid pitches installed for playing professional football and rugby are a far cry from the artificial lawns which are becoming increasingly popular in domestic gardens where the lawn is laid rather like a carpet. Indeed, I’m told that some householders have been known to vacuum their Astroturf! I’ve already mentioned that there is no use for trowels or forks when weeding artificial turf. Nor for a rake as I discovered last week when I initially tried to clear away an accumulation of dried bamboo cane sheaths and leaves. I soon found that a stiff bristled brush is the ideal tool for this purpose. I confess that seeing a green expanse entirely devoid of weeds after a few hours’ gardening was surprisingly satisfying.

Am I now a convert to the pseudo sward? The answer is no, because for all its benefits- neatness, hygiene, consistency- this inert material lacks two of the essential elements of real grass. The coolness under bare feet of grass on a hot day cannot be replicated, nor can the scent of newly mown grass. In the last day or so I have detected that distinctive smell drifting across from neighbouring gardens where the instruction to stay home has prompted many householders to cut their lawns for the first time this year. And to Dig for Victory and grow vegetables, but that’s another story and one I shall address in a future blog.

*William Edmonds ‘Weeds Weeding (&Darwin)’ ISBN-10: 0711233659

 

Clean, Calm and Camellia

Camellia oil? It sounds like a luxurious product I should be applying to my face after a hard day’s gardening. But it’s my precious hand tools which will benefit from a treatment with Niwaki’s Camellia Oil. Made with oil from the cold-pressed seeds of Camellia oleifera, it is a traditional Japanese method to protect tools from rust.

I first heard about Niwaki when Jake Hobson addressed the Kew Mutual Improvement Society in December 2017 on ‘The Art of Creative Pruning’. Jake’s artistic approach to shaping shrubs reflects his origins as a sculptor, and his work combines both Japanese influences and traditional topiary techniques. I recall inspiring images of the extraordinary topiary garden at Levens Hall in Cumbria and cloud-pruning both here and in Japan. In addition to his creative pruning activities, Jake Hobson co-founded Niwaki which supplies Japanese garden and kitchen equipment with an emphasis on cutting tools and accessories. When I started Weeds Roots & Leaves 18 months ago I invested in a pair of the company’s hedging shears which are light, very sharp and are supplied in a substantial leather holster. They have been invaluable when shaping and maintaining large yew and Cotoneaster dammeri specimens in two of my client’s gardens.

I chatted to a company representative on the Niwaki stand at last week’s Garden Press Event at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I asked if I could hold and weigh in my hand the Hori Hori, which translates from Japanese as ‘dig dig’. This narrow, asymmetrically bladed trowel is very versatile and I can see how useful it must be for tackling long rooted weeds (I’m thinking bindweed, both ‘hedge’ and ‘field’) as well as for planting bulbs.

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The Hori Hori

The tool was on sale at the shop located next to the exit of the sculptor Antony Gormley’s exhibition at The Royal Academy last autumn. It somehow didn’t feel incongruous to see this elegantly designed garden tool displayed in such a venue, particularly in conjunction with a show where many of the exhibits were executed in steel. After all, designer William Morris famously wrote ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

At the event last week, as well as the Hori Hori, I admired some rather more expensive implements which were hand-forged, the blacksmith’s hammer marks being clearly visible on the intriguingly shaped Japanese trowel and axe. As I left the stand I was given a ‘Crean Mate eraser’ with which to clean rust and sap from my hand tools. I tried it the other day on my secateurs and as the images show it is very effective. The gently abrasive block can be dipped in water or Camellia oil before being rubbed across the area to be cleaned. I used water but have now bought a 100ml bottle of the oil with which to protect the secateurs (and the shears mentioned above) in between gardening sessions.

In my recent blogs I’ve commented on how mild the weather has been this winter and I can see that the buds on the camellias currently in flower in local front gardens and along Camellia Walk in Kew Gardens are undamaged by frost. They have unfurled into perfect blooms, without the browned petal edges which can occur in severe winters when the buds are subjected to very cold conditions.

I included the word ‘calm’ in the heading to this blog not only for alliteration (and a rather laboured pun on the title of Culture Club’s hit single in 1983), but because the good old cuppa is made from the leaves of another species of camellia, C. sinensis. Amidst the current uncertainties, when a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’ helps us to keep calm and carry on, it’s comforting to know that the cup that cheers is another product of this useful and beautiful genus of plants.

Capital embellishment

I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.

Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.

Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.

It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.

Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.

Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.

I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.

Cutbacks and Restructuring

No, not financial restraints or a cabinet reshuffle, but the theme of most of the jobs I’m doing at this time of year. Before spring arrives in earnest it’s time to cut back herbaceous perennials, prune most roses and some species of shrubs, and restructure woody climbers or old shrubs needing renovation.

Recent cutbacks in my garden have been directed at the Japanese anemones and Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum). Using well-sharpened secateurs is essential, to avoid damaging the new growth already emerging from the crown of the plant at ground level. I support the vogue for keeping last year’s herbaceous perennials for as long as possible, particularly those with distinctive silhouettes, so as to provide structure in the garden in winter.  When Jack Frost visits, he deposits an icy halo around their seedheads or spent flowerheads and outlines any remaining leaves with a silver rim. Although in the mild winter we’ve had to date in south-west London, there have been few icy mornings, meaning fewer frosty photo opportunities and, thankfully, less windscreen scraping.

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Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) in the Cutting Garden at Osterley on 7 February 2020 

In the Cutting Garden at Osterley, we have taken the name of the garden literally on February Fridays, by cutting to ground level the rows and rows of stems which didn’t make it last year into the 65 floral arrangements created for the house every week in spring, summer and early autumn.

We loaded barrow after barrow with sheaths of Verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, Echinops, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. In what might be deemed a botanical restructure by taxonomists, another of the plants we cut back, Michaelmas daisies,  have been reassigned from the genus Aster to the genus Symphyotrichum.

Among my gardening friends we generally agree that pruning is a favourite task. Not just because much of it can be done standing up, avoiding muddy knees and sore lower backs, but also because when done well, it results in a well-formed plant which enhances the overall appearance of a garden. For myself, I also enjoy the precision involved in identifying the stems to remove, i.e. those that are dead, diseased or dying (‘DDD‘), and those to shorten to an outward facing bud, ensuring the cut is angled downwards to avoid water resting on the bud. I even find chopping the cut branches and stems into smaller pieces to fit in the garden refuse sack satisfying. A fortnight ago I applied this treatment to the Wisteria which grows against the rear fence of my garden, cutting back the stems to a series of nobbly clusters bearing pairs of shiny black buds from which the flowers will appear in April.

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A recently pruned climbing rose framing a view of the cutback Cutting Garden

I wrote last winter about the benefits of training or restructuring climbing roses or rambler roses so as to bring stems as close to the horizontal as possible. This encourages bud break along the stems, resulting in more flowers at eye height and below. Left unchecked, roses grow upwards to find as much light as they can, giving the best view of their blooms to the birds and squirrels. To make this task more comfortable, I’ve invested in a pair of tough suede cuffed gauntlets and was very glad of them in a client’s garden last week when I tamed a very large and thorny climbing rose. Because ivy had entangled itself around the rose’s branches I had to remove as much of that as I could before pruning the rose and tying it into the trellis. One particularly stubborn section of ivy needed numerous cuts with the pruning saw before I was finally able to lift from the trellis post, Perseus style, a Medusa-like mass of several seasons’ growth of entwined woody stems.

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Perseus with the head of Medusa

Checking my diary for local gardening jobs scheduled for this week, I see that the cutbacks continue with herbaceous perennial trimming tomorrow and Hydrangea pruning later in the week.

Cork and Pork

Since Kew Gardens expanded its Mediterranean Garden about 15 years ago and created two new mounds criss-crossed with rocky paths between ancient olive trees, cypresses, lavender and cistus, I have been intrigued by another of the trees planted there, the cork oak, Quercus suber. What a tree! Every few years it is stripped of its unique corky bark, which gradually regenerates, only to have it peeled off again several years later: sustainability in action! The cork production industry is vital to the economies of rural communities in Portugal and south west Spain as well as parts of North Africa, southern France and Italy.

One of the most memorable interpretation displays I have seen in any museum (and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a museum, it’s just that its collection is living), was erected in the Mediterranean Garden to demonstrate the threat to the cork industry of the introduction of synthetic wine bottle stoppers made from plastic and metal. Visitors were invited to return with their used wine bottle tops and deposit them in one of three clear-fronted compartments to demonstrate which of the three methods of sealing wine bottles was most commonly used. This citizen science project proved surprisingly popular and the containers gradually filled over the course of the summer. I seem to remember that the natural corks container always appeared the fullest but I haven’t been able to find the official outcome of the experiment. It certainly drove home the message that far from plundering a natural product, choosing wine in bottles with natural corks supports a sustainable way of life.

A fortnight ago I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful area to the north west of Seville known as the Sierra de Aracena. Wooded hillsides protect quiet villages, the forests of cork and holm oaks providing rich foraging for the Cerdo Ibérico (popularly known as the Pata Negra), the black-footed pigs from which the region’s famous Jamón Ibérico is produced. The friend I travelled with lives in the New Forest and commented that it reminded her of the pigs which each autumn are allowed to roam freely in the forest snuffling for acorns, beechmast and chestnuts under the ancient tradition of ‘pannage’.

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‘Pata Negra’ foraging for acorns

Our base for three days’ walking was a small hotel, the Posada San Marcos, in the pretty village of Alájar.

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Alájar

The 18th century house on the edge of the village was restored about eight years ago, using sustainable building materials including cork. With fire-proof and damp repellent qualities, cork is apparently often used as an insulating material and has the benefit of conserving heat and acting as a sound-proofing barrier.

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Cork and sheep’s wool is used for insulation in building projects

The hotel’s garden ran down to a river, beyond which rose a steep hillside densely planted with cork oaks with smooth trunks to about three or four metres.

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The hillside beyond the hotel in Alájar

Undeterred by heavy rain on the first day’s walk, we followed a path through the forest towards a neighbouring village, Linares. Narrow and rocky, the path was reduced by the rain to a small stream in places bounded on either side by moss and fern covered stone walls beyond which grew the cork oaks.

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A stone wall photographed on the second day of walking when the sun shone

Slick with rain, the lower trunks of the cork oaks resembled dark chocolate riven here and there by reddish gashes, with what resembled long sleeves of gnarly cork encasing the upper trunks and limbs.

 

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It was clear that the junction between the two surfaces was created by man, given the neatness of the margin between the flayed trunk and the lichen encrusted cork. The weather was fine and dry during our second and third days’ walking and I could see that when dry, the more recently stripped cork oak trunks are a beautiful reddish brown. I understand that the cork outer bark can be peeled away once the tree reaches 25 years of age, and the tree can then be stripped every nine to ten years without damage.

We stayed in Seville at the end of our trip and came across a chain of shops selling accessories made from thinly cut cork: handbags, fans, watch straps and jewellery. Very pretty but a far cry from the coarse surfaces of the trees 80k away in the shady forests of the Aracena. My favourite cork object were the rough-hewn (and very light) stools and bowls we found in a the small town of Fuenteheridos where we stopped for lunch during one of our walks.

When I returned to Osterley on the Friday after my holiday I went to see the Osterley Park Cork Oak, an impressive 250 year old specimen located beside the Middle Lake and protected with a metal railing barrier. It is designated as one of the ‘Great Trees of London’. Whilst the climate of west London cannot rival the hot and generally (!) dry conditions in the western Mediterranean, Osterley’s cork oak is thriving. As an ornamental it has not been shorn of its cork carapace and its trunk remains gloriously gnarled. With this and the specimens planted at Kew, it’s comforting to know that examples of this fascinating tree exist close to home, no passport required.

 

 

 

 

Blues in the site

‘Well, you’ve got just about enough to make a placemat!’ I’d been showing a retired art teacher friend the collection of blue and white ceramic shards unearthed from my garden and from those of clients, with a view to getting her advice on how to create a mosaic table top. Her reaction confirmed that I would need to up my game to accumulate enough pieces to achieve this. I mentioned my project to a few people and with contributions from allotment sites in Richmond and Ealing and a garden in Northamptonshire, the glass vase in which I keep these little treasures is three quarters full. Short of buying a willow pattern plate from a charity shop and embarking upon a Greek restaurant style plate smashing session, I anticipate it will take another 12 months before I have enough broken pottery to complete the planned masterpiece. And that’s fine: most of the fun of this exercise is in collecting the raw materials and in knowing that these ‘objets trouvés’ may have lain undisturbed for 100 years or more.

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It’s always a mystery to me how you can dig over the same area of soil year after year without finding pottery pieces and then suddenly your fork turns over a fairly substantial segment of an old plate or vessel. There are several theories expressed online about why so much discarded pottery is found in gardens. One school of thought considers that the pieces were applied to the soil to improve drainage. Another that in the absence of council recycling centres, broken blue and white tableware was dumped into a corner of the garden. Whatever the explanation, I always experience a frisson of excitement and curiosity when I spot a gleaming white or blue fragment when weeding or preparing an area for planting. So many questions occur to me. Did the plate smash accidentally or was it hurled across the room in a temper tantrum? How many cups of tea had rested on it before the saucer broke? Was a scullery maid hiding the evidence of a dropped cup from the mistress of the house? Where did the plate originate from: China, Japan, Stoke on Trent? Or was it imported from the near continent, part of a Gien de France tea set or a Royal Denmark dinner service? Was it bought in an exclusive shop or in Woolworths?

Sometimes the original pattern is discernible: a willow bough or part of an ornamental bridge, a chrysanthemum flower or sprig of lavender. One piece in my collection stands out as it is black and white and appears to be in Art Deco style. Another is solid turquoise: I found it last year in the cinder paths which lead to the Loder Valley nature reserve at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

Okay, so it’s not the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasure, but in their own way these chipped and misshapen fragments have a value of a kind because they have their own stories to tell. To me there is a mystery attached to every humble piece of china I find whilst I’m digging. Not least of which is what to call them. My late father, who hailed from Birmingham, used to call them ‘chinies’ but I’d be interested to know if there are other regional words to describe them.

In the meantime if anyone knows where I can source a smallish cafe table suitable for the garden on which I can create my first garden china mosaic do let me know! One thing is for sure, I shan’t be digging it out of my or anyone else’s garden.