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