Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

Time and the Clee Hills

‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift

I’ve heard people say that during this lockdown time seems to have been passing unusually quickly. I didn’t work for the first three weeks. Every morning the day stretched ahead with limitless opportunities: to learn a language, watch a play, visit a museum. Every night I went to bed feeling I’d achieved very little. Despite that each week sped by and before I knew it I was in the queue for the supermarket again, bracing myself for the weekly shop. Since mid April I’ve been able to work in clients’s gardens  (thanks to side entrances and social distancing). Far from time weighing heavily upon me, the past three months have flashed by in a blur of news bulletins, Zoom calls, weeding and watering. Perhaps anxiety contributes to the sensation of time passing faster than normal?

It seems appropriate that while time, like everything else, has developed a new normality, I read a book one of the central themes of which is the nature of time itself. The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift is a beautifully written account of the creation since 1988 of a garden in Shropshire.

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But it is far from just the story of the making of a very special garden. It can also be read as a meditation on time itself. The book is structured around the monastic Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Before settling in Morville, the author worked as a rare book librarian, latterly at Trinity College in Dublin. Even the book’s cover design, depicting a symmetrically designed canal garden under a clear blue sky, emulates the richly illuminated Books of Hours containing the prayers and psalms to be recited in each of the eight ‘Hours’. In the vivid pages of one of the most famous Books of Hours, ‘Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry’, the months of the year are represented by images of a magnificent chateau whose noble inhabitants hunt and party, whilst in the surrounding gardens and fields serfs plough, prune, sow, mow and harvest.

Similarly, Katherine Swift charts the progression of the garden and the surrounding countryside through the seasons. She describes winter nights when a fox leaves dainty paw prints in virgin snow in a yew hedged area of the garden, spring days when may blossom breaks over the hedgerows resembling ‘long rolling waves peaking and cresting like the foam of Atlantic breakers’. In one memorable scene she works into the night in sub-zero temperatures, frost fringing her coat, to plant hundreds of tulip bulbs.

In hearing the story of the garden, we also learn something of the author’s life story and that of her parents. How, in finding Morville, she finally put down roots, her childhood having been punctuated by moves from one end of the country to the other. The families  who once lived in Morville House (now a National Trust property) and in Katherine Swift’s Dower House also weave through the pages of the book. Here too is a larger history: the formation of the landscape, the geology of nearby Wenlock Edge, the early inhabitants of the county of Shropshire.

When I examined the map of Shropshire at the beginning of the book I noticed that Morville lies about ten miles north of the tiny hamlet of Neen Sollars to which my paternal grandparents moved in the late 1950s from a suburb south of Birmingham, via a brief spell in Essex. Old Forge Cottage was two stone cottages joined together and had two staircases, one at either end of the house. As a child I was fascinated by the quirky layout, the brass warming pans on the walls, the high feather mattressed beds. Between Neen Sollars and Morville lie the Clee Hills,  which are mentioned frequently in the book.

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Katherine Swift gently educates the reader about numerous subjects, but is never  didactic. Here are enough ‘ologies’ to please Beattie in those old BT adverts: archaeology, meteorology, ornithology, mythology. As well as horticulture and agriculture we are introduced to apiculture. Botany rubs shoulders with poetry. This is a book rich in details and imagery. How better to describe an early spring dawn than: ‘Slowly the garden begins to emerge, like a photograph lifted dripping from the developing tray’. Rich too is the vocabulary. We are introduced to ‘azimuth’ and ‘myrobalan’ , an arc of the horizon and a kind of plum respectively.

In one of his classes, Hector, the inspirational teacher of Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’, comments that ‘the best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met….And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. I experienced this sensation several times when reading this book, particularly when the author muses upon gardening: ‘That’s the other thing I really like about gardening: the silence. Not that silence out of doors is ever really silence. But absence of words, space for the thoughts to come. A silence that enables you to listen’.

In the final chapter, the author modestly sums up the book as a ‘jumble of fragments tossed together like the made-up ground of the garden, this blackbird’s nest of cobwebs and sheep’s wool, this day in a life, this life in a day’. But I would argue that this book is far more than that. Faced as we all are by doubt and uncertainty, never has it seemed so important to cherish the small things, to appreciate our surroundings, to be mindful. The Morville Hours reminds us to look, to live in the moment. The chapter called ‘Sext’ concerns the garden at Morville in June, when the wealth of roses are at their height, including Blush Noisette which I grow in my garden. I have never read so detailed or perceptive a description of the structure of a flower (here a rose) culminating in the wise observation that ‘no one can be a gardener without really looking’.

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Rosa ‘Blush Noisette’

I was under not one but two deadlines when I finished this wonderful book which is as much about time as it is gardening. We were due to discuss the Morville Hours in book club that week and I also had to finish sewing a couple of pairs of scrubs for delivery to the local scrub hub. So I listened to, rather than read, the second half of the book. It was a mercifully unabridged version, read by the author herself . The book was literally read in the first person! I had to pause and rewind frequently to replay those passages where, to paraphrase Hector, a hand came out and took mine. This is definitely a book to which I shall return. And I’m already investigating whether a visit to Shropshire and the garden and landscape which inspired this book might be possible once we are able to plan trips further afield than the local garden centre.

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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.

Christmas reading: Gardens in London and Essex:

This rainy Boxing Day presented the perfect opportunity to dip into the two gardening books I received for Christmas. The one rich in sumptuous images, the other a treasure house of garden prose by a horticultural heroine.

The coffee table book format of ‘Great Gardens of London: 30 masterpieces from private plots to palaces’ by Victoria Summerley, is the perfect scale for showcasing stunning photography by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Ritson Thomas.

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An initial glance through it revealed a couple of gardens I have visited such as Eltham Palace (which I wrote about in my post ‘Daisy, Daisy‘) and Clarence House. But for me the appeal of the book lies in it featuring gardens of which I was unaware, such as the Downings Road Floating Gardens in Bermondsey which are open during Open Garden Squares Weekend (6 & 7 June 2020).

Tantalisingly, several of the gardens are entirely private and do not appear to open to the public, even just once or twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. One such garden is The Old Vicarage, Petersham, which looks glorious. However, its inclusion in the book has prompted me to check the date of Petersham Open Gardens (17 May 2020). I visited half a dozen gardens in this pretty village on the outskirts of Richmond on a very warm day in June 2018. I loved the contrast between the grander spaces such as Petersham Lodge and more modest gardens.

The garden of nearby Ormeley Lodge in Ham, features in the book. An aerial view of an exquisite Knot Garden and a shot of a peony and poppy filled herbaceous border have whetted my appetite for a visit to this garden which opens under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 21 June 2020.

The chapter devoted to Inner Temple Gardens includes an image of exuberant herbaceous planting in ‘The High Border’.  The use of Cannas, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and Spanish Flag (Mina lobata) reminded me of the late summer display in two of the four large beds in Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden. A woodland garden created in an area beneath plane trees at the Inner Temple, is planted with snowdrops (Galanthus) and I have made a mental note to visit this hidden gem one afternoon this winter.

With a cover design inspired it seems by William Morris and line drawings interspersed throughout the text, Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ is visually appealing even before you start reading.

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Devoting a chapter to each month, the writer describes her famous Essex garden and the seasonal tasks undertaken to maintain it and to stock the specialist nursery attached to the garden. Impressions of trees and plants are recorded as well as vignettes of birds and other wildlife. She can conjure a memorable scene with just a few words. This example is near the end of the January chapter: ‘The thinnest silver rind of new moon was drifting among violet puffs of cloud’. She goes on to describe beautifully that fleeting sensation one can experience a month or so after Christmas that a new season is approaching, with the light growing ‘stronger and longer every day’.

If I can capture in prose a fraction as limpid as Beth Chatto’s my impressions of the plants and gardens I encounter in 2020, I shall be a very happy blogger. Happy New Year.

TLAs, DMCs and AGMs

During a recent meal with friends I learnt a new Three Letter Acronym (TLA): DMC or Deep & Meaningful Conversation. And it struck me that like most activities, gardening has its fair share of TLAs, about which there may well have been some DMCs.

So before we all go MIA (Missing in Action) for the Christmas and New Year festivities, I thought I’d share a few of the obvious horticultural TLAs. When it comes to late winter  we can lavish much TLC (Tender Loving Care) on our gardens with an application of WRM (Well Rotted Manure). When pruning mature shrubs we should be using the mantra DDD (Dead, Diseased, Dying).  I would argue that useful as this is as a guide, it doesn’t include the reminder to eliminate those crossing branches which rub together, potentially creating a site for disease to enter.

Having prepared the garden to withstand the winter, during any quieter times ahead we can plan new planting schemes, perhaps inspired by a gardening book received as a Christmas gift. One of my favourite sources of ideas for combining shrubs with herbaceous perennials, is ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’* by Andy McIndoe published by Timber Press. The book groups garden styles and colour combinations, with the shrub suggestions supplemented by ideas for complementary herbaceous perennials or grasses. There are also expanded schemes for larger gardens. I heard Andy McIndoe speak at a lecture a couple of years ago hosted by the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS): a FLA? His enthusiasm for his garden in Hampshire and practical approach was infectious and inspiring.

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Many of the cultivars listed in my now well-thumbed copy of the book bear the epithet AGM indicating that they have been awarded the Award of Garden Merit by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society). This means the RHS has trialled the plant in question and that it fulfils certain criteria including that it is ‘excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions’, ‘of good constitution’ ‘stable in form and colour’ and reasonably resistant to pests and diseases (PADs?). It must also be available which of course makes perfect sense as there would be little point in bestowing the honour upon a plant no-one can get hold of. I have read that if for some reason it is not practical to trial a plant, the RHS might award the AGM after a roundtable assessment by a forum of horticultural experts who debate its characteristics and garden performance.

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I recently planted climbers in a couple of clients’ gardens, and each plant bore the reassuring AGM suffix. One was Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM, commonly known as Star Jasmine or Confederate Jasmine. I see from the nursery label that it has recently been renamed Rhynchospermum jasminoides. This perfumed white flowered evergreen ticks so many boxes in terms of being a good ‘doer’ for clothing a fence or wall. It needs some support whilst getting established, either on a trellis or strainer wire, but in due course it thickens up and supports itself and I have seen it entirely framing a friend’s back door.

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Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM planted in October 2019 supported on newly installed strainer wires.

The other AGM  climber I used was Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM whose flowers are described as velvety crimson-red on the RHS website. It looks unremarkable at the moment but I hope to see it in flower in the client’s garden in early to late summer.

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Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM

My client with the cottage style garden full of unusual shrubs (which I wrote about in a recent post entitled The Generous Gardener), told me a couple of weeks ago that she plans to plant an AGM shrub this coming year which she read about in the December issue of The Garden (page 82), Heptacodium miconiodes AGM. The common name of this autumn flowering tree is the wonderfully evocative ‘seven son flower tree’, which hints at its origins in China. This is another plant with fragrant white flowers and I understand they are very attractive to bees.  Pink bracts remain when its flowers fade, lengthening the season of interest well into the autumn.

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Heptacodium miconioides AGM

No doubt there are many more TLAs applicable to or peculiar to horticulture and I am now on the look out for some more to add to my list. Before I start my quest, I wish you a happy Christmas and a successful and satisfying start to the new decade.

*ISBN 978-1-60469-434-5

Oh no, knot another weed!

In the 80’s, 90’s and noughties, when the author’s life was more ‘Reads Books & Deeds’ than ‘Weeds Roots & Leaves’, the nearest a property lawyer came to horticulture when acting in the purchase of a house, was to enquire of the seller’s solicitors if that large tree in the garden was the subject of a Tree Preservation Order. Since 2013 it is standard practice for the seller of a property to declare whether  Japanese Knotweed*, Fallopia japonica, is present on the property in the Property Information Form. This means that it is the seller’s responsibility to check the garden for this invasive weed and if it is present to provide a management plan from a professional eradication company. Once a buyer’s solicitor has noted the presence of the weed when checking the form, and has notified the lender, the latter is likely to seek assurance that it will be eradicated, in the form of a management plan, before agreeing to fund the transition. Failure to disclose the presence of Japanese Knotweed or the lack of a management plan will delay the sale and increase the cost of the buying process or, the worst case scenario, give rise to a potential misrepresentation claim.

How has a plant introduced from the Far East in 1825 as a garden ornamental, and praised by innovative William Robinson in 1879 as ‘one of the finest herbaceous plants in cultivation’, developed a reputation as a possible property deal-breaker? Had Japanese Knotweed confined itself to the garden, the story would have ended here, but it escaped from gardens to establish colonies beside railway lines, waterways, roadsides and on waste land. By shielding lower growing species from light with its dense canopy it obliterates local native vegetation and its fallen leaves form a dense mulch to suppress the growth of any incipient seedlings. In the UK it spreads not by seed but by a huge rhizome system, impervious to many herbicides and needing a saw to sever the rhizomes. I can understand why our gardening forebears liked this plant- it has an attractive and exotic appearance with up to 2 metre tall bamboo-like stems speckled purple, heart shaped leaves about 15cm long and sprays of small white flowers. It would fill a shady corner very satisfactorily were it not for its thuggish tendencies.

As well as competing with native species, it contributes to river bank erosion and increases the risk of flooding. In a residential or commercial property context, it can cause structural damage by forcing itself through paving and concrete foundations. Indeed under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 Japanese Knotweed is classified as controlled waste. This means that a property owner must prevent it from spreading into the wild and causing ecological damage. If it discovered on a property it does not have to be removed but the property owner can be prosecuted for allowing it to spread onto someone else’s property and will understandably wish to find a satisfactory means of control. The bad news is that such means are both drastic and expensive. A few examples follow:

  • Spraying, over a course of at least three years, with chemicals that are approved herbicides, until the underground rhizomes become dormant.
  • Burying the waste at a depth of at least five metres (!), having first sought the approval of the Environment Agency.
  • Arranging for the waste to be carried off-site by a registered waste carrier to be taken to an authorised landfill site.

Needless to say,  bio-security precautions are essential when dealing with this species and tools, boots and gloves require thorough cleaning and disinfecting after handling Japanese Knotweed to prevent pieces of plant material escaping and forming a new problem-laden clump. One recommendation I have read for how to deal with Japanese Knotweed is to move house! In light of the issues I have mentioned during the conveyancing process this may be easier said than done.

Before I move onto a more positive member of the knotweed family, I have seen the damage that an invasive plant can do to a building. In this case not Japanese Knotweed but the Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, whose roots had penetrated the foundations of a local church at the point where the wall of the building met the neighbouring path. I saw the plant material growing between the floor tiles inside the church! The tree, which was beautiful but unsuitable for planting so close to a building, has now been removed, but only after a protracted negotiation with the local authority.

Japanese Knotweed is a member of the knotweed family, Polygonaceae, which also contains the genus Persicaria. I planted a species of this plant in my garden earlier this year and I believe it is Persicaria amplexicaulis, or red bistort, I rescued it (with permission) from the ‘muddy clumps’ heap near the gardeners’ bothy at Osterley, a sort of holding area where discarded plant material is put before the garden team decide whether to compost it or use it for propagation. Although it did not flower until September, it put on a lot of vegetative growth during the summer, and has withstood a couple of overnight frosts and is still going strong this first week of November. The Royal Horticultural Society describe the plant as a robust, clump-forming, semi-evergreen perennial. All good qualities but I anticipate it might one day grow too large for this small garden. In the meantime I shall enjoy its narrow spires of reddish pink flowers atop a crown of pointed mid green leaves measuring 25cm with a slightly puckered appearance.

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The hard to photograph Persicaria

I am charmed by the idea that Persicaria hails from the Himalayas and can imagine it forming an understorey for Rhododendrons and Camellias on the mountains’ lower slopes. Quite a leap to a suburban garden, but the same can be said for many of our now familiar garden plants which originated thousands of miles away. And it reassuring to know that not all the plants under the knotweed ‘umbrella’ create a headache for the conveyancer.

  • Useful information about Japanese Knotweed and how to control it and dispose of it can be found at gov.uk and at RHS