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.

 

 

 

 

Always Meadowsweet

When my parents arrived as newly-weds in Billericay in 1951 it was a small, rather sleepy Essex town, on the railway line from London’s Liverpool Street Station to Southend on Sea. This was long before the advent of Essex man and woman and the brash image of the county promoted by TV shows such as The Only Way Is Essex. Ian Durie had yet to pen ‘Billericay Dickie’ and the writers of the wonderful sitcom partly set in Billericay, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, had yet to be born.

My parents’ first home was a pretty cottage with a long narrow Rhododendron hedged garden with a boggy area at the far end, beyond which lay the local park, Lake Meadows. A wooden sign hung in the front porch with ‘Meadowsweet’ written in pokerwork. My dad and a neighbour discovered a spring at the foot of their adjoining gardens, hence the damp area of land, and dug out a pretty stream over which they built picturesque rustic bridges.

When in 1959 we moved to the larger town of Brentwood a few miles away, the sign was hung over the door of the wooden shed at the far end of the garden, and bore witness to many a cycling lesson, bonfire and the memorable occasion when my dad hurled a collection of precious Fuchsia plants out of the shed which had failed to survive the  winter. Many years later my parents left Essex for Hampshire, where a new garden shed was christened ‘Meadowsweet’ using the same sign. Sadly the sign is lost but that first home survives in the form of a treasured wooden musical box, modelled on the original cottage. Almost 70 years later, the sentimental strains of Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’ ring out as clearly as ever when I lift its tiled roof.

‘I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.’

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Until recently Meadowsweet was what the sledge Rosebud was to Citizen Kane, a symbol of a vanished childhood. But last week, whilst carrying out a little gardening work for some local friends, I discovered a cultivar of the plant which inspired that Billericay cottage’s evocative name. Meadowsweet or Filipendula multijuga ‘Red Umbrellas’ is a very attractive foliage plant. Its serrate edged palmate leaves are prominently veined in deep burgundy, in contrast to the lime green of the leaves. Growing in a terracotta container, it reminded me of some similarly marked cultivars of Heuchera. Reading about the plant I learn that it has fluffy pink flowers from July to September although the specimen I saw was not yet in flower.

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Another species of Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, seems a more likely inspiration for the house name, given that it is ideal for boggy areas of the garden or beside water, and I like to think that an earlier owner had named the house for the creamy-white flowered plant growing at the foot of the garden in suitably damp conditions.

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With white flowers in mind, I recently came across another plant with which I was not familiar, Viola cornuta, or the Horned Pansy. It was planted in combination with a low growing Pittosporum and Verbena ‘Lollipop’. Its delicately scented pure white flowers are about 3 cm wide with long spurs and its foliage is evergreen. It grows to a height of 15cm and I understand that it is susceptible to slugs, snails, aphids, powdery mildew and pansy leaf spot. Perhaps that list of potential pests and diseases accounts for its apparent rarity. That said, I was able to find a couple of beautiful plants at North Hill Nursery this week and which I plan to include in two late summer/ autumn hanging baskets which I am planting for a client next week. I would hope that the altitude will at least deter the molluscs.

I have found the epithet ‘Chameleon’ applied to a couple of plants recently, one of which I grow in my own garden and the other I saw in a garden I visited in Northamptonshire last week. The chameleon in my garden is Houttynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, which grows profusely in my garden and is a very good ground cover plant in a sunny or partially shaded position. It has a tendency to spread by underground stems and I can understand why it is recommended that it be grown in containers to control its progress. It bears tiny yellow flowers above white bracts, but for me its most attractive feature is the foliage which is heart shaped and variegated with splashes and margins of cream and often heavily flushed in red. Until I researched the plant for this post I had forgotten that when crushed the leaves smell strongly of orange.

Colourful foliage is the feature of the next chameleon plant: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Chameleon’. A member of the rose family, Rosaceae, this deciduous shrub grows to a height and width of about 1.5m. The leaves emerge green in spring but as the season progresses, the green darkens to wine red before turning deep purple and brown. Another plant for full sun or partial shade, the location in which I saw the similarly hued cultivar ‘Diablo d’Or’ in The Old Rectory Garden, Sudborough, was in dappled shade on the margin of the garden pond which is fed by a tributary of the river Nene. There is a great deal more to say about this exquisite garden which I shall reserve for a later post but in the meantime I shall let this image speak for itself.

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Purple days

Betrayal, remorse, death: and yet such beauty. Cercis siliquastris is said to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself after turning Jesus in to the authorities having identified him with a kiss, and in return for 30 pieces of silver. The Judas tree as it is commonly called is planted throughout the various gardens of the Alhambra in Granada: in those beside the Nasrid Palaces, the ramparts, the monastery of St Francis (now a hotel) and across the valley in the Generalife which my guidebook translated as ‘the garden of lofty paradise.

When I visited in the third week of March, few deciduous trees were in leaf, highlighting the many evergreens across the estate, notably the ranks of cypresses silhouetting the upper terraces of the Generalife. Consequently, the deep mauve flowers of the Judas tree stood out boldly in the landscape. Close examination reveals that the pea-like blooms erupt from branches, twigs and even trunks of these remarkable trees, with the heart-shaped leaves emerging several weeks after the flowers making the colour of the trees  all the more prominent.

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Shades of purple predominated in many of the plants in flower during my visit to Granada: the irises in the foreground of this view of the city from the Generalife Gardens and the wisteria clothing ancient walls and perfuming the air with the unique fragrance which in this country I associate with mid to late April.

And it wasn’t only the purple flowers which were in bloom at least four weeks before those at home. The palest of pink peonies dominated a bed surrounded with clipped myrtle in one of the Generalife’s upper gardens, the Jardines Altos.

This garden was beside the intriguing Escalera de Agua, where instead of a banister rail, water flows along stone channels on either side of the steps leading to the wonderfully named Mirador Romantico. This feature reminded me of William Kent’s early 18th century landscape garden at Rousham House in Oxfordshire where the shallow zig-zagged rill’s source is in a woodland glade leading to the cascades and pools which eventually flow into the River Cherwell. In the Generalife and the palaces of the Alhambra the numerous rills connect the pools and fountains at the centre of the patio gardens, many of them cloistered with elegant pillared arcades, off which lead chambers decorated with intricately worked plaster and ceramic tiles in vivid colours.

In the final week of April, at home in west London, the two notable Judas trees in Kew Gardens have been in full flower. One spreads its branches dramatically at the foot of the steps from King William’s Temple in the centre of the Mediterranean Garden and the other overhangs the perimeter wall beside the Queen’s Garden at the rear of Kew Palace. The former forms a backdrop to some of the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly now erected in many parts of Kew Gardens, and to which I shall return in future posts. In my back garden at home I have been delighting in the extravagant purple and mauve swags of the wisteria, as well as its gorgeous perfume.

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A sacred strawberry tree

In a secluded area behind the Garden House at Osterley stand two tall trees with richly russet coloured peeling bark: they are Arbutus menziesii, a species of strawberry tree whose fruits are distilled in Portugal into a spirit known as ‘Madrone’. When I visited Seville Cathedral a fortnight ago I found in one of the numerous side chapels a relief called La Virgen de Madrono, the Madonna of the Strawberry Tree. A kneeling angel offers the infant Jesus a dish brimming with the fruit of the Madrono. I read that the tree originates on the western coast of North America, from British Columbia to California and can reach a height of 25 to 30 metres.

Rolling along within the walls

After a few months lying dormant, having been cleared, weeded and mulched, the four beds which occupy the centre of Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden are beginning to be planted for this year’s display of edibles and ornamentals. On 8 March gardener Ed rotovated the plots and the Friday team of volunteer gardeners raked the surface with landscape rakes to create as fine a tilth as possible. The next step was to even out the surface still further using a faded green garden roller, the ‘Ogle Roller’. This venerable machine was made in Derby at the Castwell Foundry but I’ve not been able to find an approximate date when these might have been in production. We discovered that it is easier to pull not push a garden roller on soil and that it required two of us to keep the roller steady and the lines straight, as well as achieving a neat turn at the end of each row. The latter involved a tricky manoeuvre where the two barrels of the Ogle came into play, with one remaining stationary and the other turning to help swivel the roller to a position alongside the previous ‘stripe’.

While we were occupied with this task, colleagues erected the hazel pole bean supports. Whilst the Climbing and Runner Bean plants will not be planted for a few weeks, we did plant a couple of dozen Broad Bean plants. These are the first of numerous vegetable and salad crops being raised from seed to be planted out when both weather and soil are a little warmer.

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As an experiment this year, on 22 March one of the walled garden’s plots was sown with ‘green manure’ seeds. In 12 to 14 weeks’ time the plants will be chopped down, dug in and the bed planted with crops in the cabbage family for harvesting during next winter. The plot was first divided off into four triangular sections the interior of two of which were sown with Alfalfa and the other two with Purple Clover, with Black (Japanese) Oats being sown along the intersecting lines.

Whilst this part of the garden looks slightly bare at this time of year, these preparations are the foundation of the second of Osterley’s three garden zones. The Osterley garden is virtually divided into three principal zones, both for seasonal interest and to make it as easy as possible to manage with a small workforce of one Head Gardener and two full-time gardeners, albeit supported by a large team of volunteers. From now until mid-summer the first zone or Mrs Child’s Flower Garden (about which more in future posts) will dominate the scene. The Tudor Walled Garden will be at its height from mid-summer to October, followed by the third zone, the Winter Garden.

I shall plot the progress of the planting in the Tudor Walled Garden in this blog over the coming months.

 

 

Dickie’s Border

My last blog post included a reference to a clock and ‘Tick Tock’ is the nickname of the gentleman after whom a very imposing border in the gardens at Osterley is named. Dickie Denton was a gardener at Osterley from 1948 who lived in a flat in the stables, a short distance from the border, and looked after the clock in the stables.

In this brief image-based post I share images taken last Monday 25 February of a few of the shrubs featured in the middle tier of the planting scheme in Dickie’s Border.

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Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ : Winter daphne
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Rhamnus alarternus ‘Argenteovariegata’: Italian buckthorn

 

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Arbutus unedo f.rubra:  Pink strawberry tree
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Teucrium fruticans:  Tree germander

Prunings

Secateurs poised, we stood, two students per rose bush, listening carefully to our tutor Mac. We could hear the traffic six lanes deep just a few yards from where we were standing . Tutorial over, we tentatively began to prune the Queen’s roses. Tidying up the plants in your own garden is one thing, but cutting into Her Majesty’s specimens is another matter altogether.

This was on the last Friday in February three years ago, the first day of the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Practical Horticulture course at Capel Manor’s centre in the Regent’s Park. After a morning in the classroom we had been marched through the park to the Crown Estate garden which consists of two half moons, north and south of the Marylebone Road, linked by a tunnel above the platform at Regent’s Park Underground station. We began to work, inwardly reciting the 3Ds pruning mantra ‘Dead Diseased Damaged’. I don’t think I made more than five cuts in my rose that cold afternoon. What with identifying the potential direction of stem growth to prevent crossing (which can encourage powdery mildew) and searching for the outward facing buds over which to cut (to maintain an open shape) I concluded that pruning is as much about looking as cutting.

I was reminded of this lesson this week when I pruned a mature Cox’s Orange Pippin apple tree in the garden of clients. It’s a beautiful tree, gnarled and branching out from waist height, with numerous fruiting spurs. ‘Achieve a good mix of useful wood of different ages’ counsels the RHS ‘Pruning & Training’ manual. I pruned the weak growth hard and the stronger growth lightly, and cut out a couple of older branches which were growing out so far from the central trunk they were in danger of splitting under their own weight. Again I found that I spent more time scrutinising the stems, spurs and buds than applying blade to branch.

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If the apple tree prune was conservative, that of its neighbour, a tall shaggy barked Deutzia, was definitely radical. The deciduous shrub needed renovation pruning to encourage it to produce its whitish pink flowers which I saw described on a label at a wholesale plant nursery I visited this week as resembling fairy’s dresses. Those juvenile specimens were a far cry from the much older plant I pruned on Tuesday. I thinned out older woody branches, cutting to as close to the base as possible, and lowered its height by a couple of feet so that the apple tree beyond it can now be seen from the house.

A day’s pruning was the perfect opportunity to try out the folding pruning saw a friend thoughtfully bought me for Christmas. It was ideal for taking out the medium sized branches. My sturdy Felco secateurs made light work of the slimmer stems. Coincidentally, the following morning, a friend demonstrated a very impressive long handled tree pruner made by Fiskars, with which he had recently pruned the magnificent Wisteria which clothes the house at ground floor level. He had not had to resort to using a ladder and was delighted with the by-pass pruner. I confess that when I tried to use it I found that I did not have adequate power in my arms to both hold the pole steady enough to make a cut and ‘pull the trigger’.

With perfect timing, the Osterley volunteers were treated this morning to a rose pruning refresher session with the head gardener, Andy Eddy. He ran through the basic principles of rose pruning before taking us to see the various roses throughout the garden most of which he has already pruned. Many of these are climbing roses and he showed us a beautiful Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ in the courtyard outside the Study Centre whose stems he has encouraged outwards in a gentle curve so as to encourage new stems to develop along its length.

IMG_6562In the seating area behind the cafe red flowered R.’Etoile d’Hollande’, a climbing hybrid tea rose, climbs several metres up and across, supported by a series of taut horizontal strainer wires, around which the rose’s stems are tied with a double loop of green horticultural twine.

IMG_6564In the Magnolia Bed, beside the Cutting Garden, Andy demonstrated a method of creating a beautiful rounded shape to a hybrid tea or floribunda rose by training it onto a framework of hooped hazel stems.

IMG_6567The  deep bed which backs onto the American Border sports two species rose, R.Banksiae and R. Glauca, both of which are left alone and not pruned. Until this morning I hadn’t appreciated the range of roses in Osterley’s collection and will enjoy seeing them clothed in blooms having studied them this morning in their naked winter state.