Buxus sempervirens

The year ends as it began, although everything has changed. I am in a garden with a glass of chilled champagne – one of my favourite sentences in the English language. I am expecting friends. I am alive again.

The box tree is dressed with lights which turn its dark evergreen leaves into spheres of shadow. Joyce wrote of dusk that it is the light which falls, not the darkness. I’ve always wondered if that was an observation born of his myopia. I wonder some more as I sit waiting. It could be that the darkness rises from the earth, that the true state of the garden is not one of the colours of the leaves and the flowers, it is chthonic. As Badiou writes in Black, ‘Let’s see what the satyr’s eye enables us to understand. Let’s see what plants […] are:’. The tracery of the naked Fagus sylvatica trees, the dense twiggy stems of the Crataegus coccinea like a witch’s broom, are dark against the sky. The windows of the hotel are leaded and light spills out, and my mind jumps to Mondrian. The trees testify to a simple truth – that plants take light and make it solid and, in so doing, give us life. And I think of what the Czech playwright Capek wrote in his The Gardener’s Year, that gardeners do not tend flowers, they tend the soil. That the most important element of a garden is the one least seen, least considered.

I have written elsewhere of the three elements which define a garden – the boundary, the intention, the gardener. All the elements of a garden are here. The boundary, an old stone wall, less than 2m/6′ tall wraps us in its arms. Its shelter is emotional more than physical. A simple fountain falls water into a basin, giving the garden a voice. Two blackbirds greet the coming night with rapid scolds as they seek their roosts. I am a gardener, but today I am enjoying all the care of another’s labour: the weeded beds and the low, clipped hedges, the paving swept of leaves. The roses and wisteria on the walls, yet to be pruned – those tasks are just around the corner. It is a space to be still, a place for conversation, and companionship.

When the year began, I did not know what my subjects would be each week. Of the forty-eight postcards, as I think of them, anachronistically, only ten of my subjects have been UK natives: our garden-culture is globally rich as befits our maritime history. Ten have been trees, which surprises me. I love trees, but I didn’t quite realise before just how significant they are to my aesthetic life. I have given you the botanical names along with the common as the botanical names require no translation. Like mathematics, they are one of our attempts at a universal language.

I remember a time before I was a gardener. I would walk around a place and it was like walking through a crowd of strangers. Now, I can be in any city in the northern hemisphere and I greet old friends with their names, names familiar from the gardens of home. I hope these short pieces have given you some pleasure. And some names with which to greet new, but now familiar friends.


Viscum album

It is easy to understand why ancient peoples considered mistletoe magical. It seems to appear in trees all by itself and grows without roots. In truth, Viscum album, European mistletoe, is a hemiparasite spread by birds. Its evergreen leaves and stems contain chlorophyll and it does photosynthesise to a degree. The mature plant is entirely reliant on its host for water however, and for the majority of its nutrients. It achieves this by penetrating the bark of its host – a process that can take up to a year – and tapping into the connective tissue of xylem and phloem with a specialised growth known as a haustorium.

I gardened for many years in Herefordshire, which has taken mistletoe as its county flower. It is entirely appropriate. It thrives in the wet climate and seems especially fond of growing on apple trees of which Herefordshire has millions, being a cider-producing county. It was a constant battle to keep our orchards clear of it, and not one I was winning. A heavy infestation of mistletoe will weaken a tree, even to the point of death. The visible mistletoe can be cut and has a value in the weeks before Christmas, but it will regrow. To eradicate it from a tree, the wood which has been penetrated by the haustorium must be pruned out and sometimes not very much tree remains. I suspect, in the years to come, mistletoe will prove to be an indicator species for climate change. There is a clear line across the country, south of which mistletoe thrives.

The tradition of hanging mistletoe over doors has a very long history and was a feature of the Roman Saturnalia – a December festival involving feasting and the giving of gifts. For the Romans, it was a symbol of peace and understanding a meaning, oddly enough, which the later Vikings shared. In Viking mythology, Loki tricks the blind god Hodur into killing his otherwise invincible brother Baldr with an arrow or lance of mistletoe wood. When order is restored, mistletoe becomes a symbol of reconciliation. For the Greeks and the Celts, the white berries were symbols of divine male fertility and thus human male fertility by extension. These different strands of myth seem to have found a synthesis in the English practice of claiming kisses under a bunch of mistletoe at Christmas, removing a berry for each kiss exchanged.

It is best to leave the eating of the berries to the birds though, as all parts of the plant are toxic. One of the joys of winter in Herefordshire was seeing the orchards fill with mistle thrushes, feasting on the bounty and ensuring future bounties would be there for them in years to come, as they spread the seeds from tree to tree.


Hedera helix

Ivy is a much maligned, but highly useful plant in the garden. Although it can be slow to establish and often sits still twiddling its thumbs for the first three years after planting, once it does start to grow in earnest, it soon scales whatever wall or structure has been provided for it. One of the most effective uses I have encountered in in the gardens of the Palais Royale in Paris. There, it grows through a chainlink fence and transforms a rather ugly feature into a visually solid, but narrow barrier – it must be 10cm/4″ thick at most. Its reputation for thuggery is due to the damage it can do to a poorly maintained wall. A recent ten year study by the University of Oxford on new walls, however, showed that the ivy-clad wall was in better condition than the bare wall at the finish. Like other climbers on walls, in provides insulation against sound and temperature. Being evergreen, it insulates the wall through the coldest months of the year, thus reducing frost shale on the bricks. And, although ivy does no harm when growing up the trunks of mature trees, it does conceal problems. I do cut my ivy from roadside trees, but those within the demesne are safe.

It is an amenable plant for the gardener. It can be pruned at any time of year so can be adapted to fit the demands of the wider garden. There are times I try to avoid, of course. Birds love to nest in it, so I tend to leave it alone between the months of March and August. The abundant green-yellow flowers attract clouds of flies and wasps, so it is safe from my secateurs then too. In time, these flowers set berries which ripen into pleasing clusters of round black buttons on which wood pigeons gorge. I was in Worcestershire at the weekend and a friend had cut an enviable bucketful of berried ivy for a Christmas wreath. I am only seventy miles south, but my ivy berries are resolutely green, as pictured, and will not be ripe in time.

Hedera helix is an unusual plant in that it has two very distinct phases of growth – the juvenile and the arborescent. As the latter adjective suggests, the stems thicken and become self-supporting to a greater extent, and the leaves become less indented. If cuttings are taken from ivy at the juvenile stage, the resultant plants will mature accordingly, but if cuttings are made at the arborescent stage, the plants remain arborescent. This has fallen from favour, but in the Victorian era, propagation by this method provided another texture for topiary plants, particularly in locations where other species could not grow, such as in deep, dry shade, or under the toxic drip of a Taxus baccata, the common yew.

Ivy composed the thryssos of Dionysos, oddly, I’ve always thought, as he was the god of wine, among other things and I’ve never understood why ivy grew entailed in his iconography. It is more commonly encountered these days in the English carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, which competes with ‘Jerusalem’ for the crown of ‘most pagan song sung in church’.


Cortaderia selloana

I do not like Cortaderia selloana and I’m not sure why. It reminds me of my childhood, growing up in the seventies, when the range of plants available to the English gardener was a fraction of what is on offer now. Incongruous clumps of it would sit in the middle of otherwise perfectly reasonable lawns and I, being a curious child and quite possibly a slow-learner, would poke around in it, lacerating my hands with fine, deep cuts which stung for days.

A sizeable clump or drift of pampas grass, preferably at the back of a border, can be a handsome thing. The one pictured is in Oxford University Parks and stands at 3m/10′ tall. It’s foreground was a mixed bed of other South American natives, salvias, fuchsias and lobelias – all of which have been finished off by the frosts. Its magnificent culms, in size and shape, if not colour, remind me of another feature of my childhood – fairground candy floss. They come into their own at this time of year, not simply as the last plant standing, but the culms catch the light, particularly in late afternoon, and it is not unpleasing.

As an adult, I have been asked to remove established clumps from gardens and when a mechanical digger has not been available or was unsuitable, I’ve found setting them on fire quite effective, prior to manual excavation of what remains. They are tenacious. For the first time ever, I have been asked to plant Cortaderia rather than destroy it, and I have twenty small plants lined out in the nursery where they will stay until March when I will plant them in what will be an unusual meadow, seasoned with a variety of exotics for display in the final quarter of the year. We are developing a spring/early summer-flowering meadow down by the river which bounds the property – this will be native species.

A garden is many things, including a theatre for the exercise and nurturing of virtues such as patience – the work of gardens rarely brings an instant beauty to be enjoyed, turfing aside, but even that is a sleight-of-hand: the newly turfed lawn hides hundreds of hours. I have included Cortaderia in my English garden because it cultivates tolerance within me. I do not need to tolerate that which is agreeable to me, but that which I might find difficult and challenging. And faced with the challenge of using pampas grass creatively, I can see that I might feel differently about it as the work matures. It will, at least, be in a community of plants composed with a unity of purpose, and already, as I write, I am imagining how this space will be formed. I could create a ‘perfect world’ garden in which no weeds grew beyond their cotyledon leaves and only my favoured plants were present – it is possible, but this would not be a ‘real world’ garden. And, if physically realised gardens have anything in common, despite their infinite variations in form, they are realist compositions. Otherwise, they fail.


Bents and Fescues

The fine lawn grass species are the most common evergreens in the garden and yet are often overlooked and taken for granted, which is a pity as lawns are probably the hardest working feature of all. Herbaceous borders are not required to be beautiful and suitable for ball games or sitting on, but that is what we expect from a garden lawn.

Laying turf is one of the most enjoyable projects in a garden. As ever, soil cultivation and ground preparation are the most important parts of the process and take far longer than the turfing itself. I like my clients to go out on the day I lay the turf. They leave an area of bare level earth and come back ta-da! to a lawn. Because, if the preparation is done well, and the turf is good quality, it goes down like carpet.

The green expanse of a lawn is a useful fore-grounding to the colourful display of the flower borders and the sward can both frame the other feature and help to calm the colours down, to buffer them. But lawns are things of beauty in their own right. Mowing at different heights creates contrasting textures which can be used to guide the eyes or create patterns. Parallel stripes are the simplest of patterns, but mowing the area a second time on the perpendicular creates a chequerboard. The stripes are created by the roller of the mower laying the blades of the grass down in the direction of its passage, which causes the light to reflect differently. Like rainbows, which exist uniquely to each viewer, the stripes of the grass reverse depending on which direction they are viewed from. Each stripe is both dark and light. More complicated patterns are possible, limited only by the area available, the width of the mower, and the dedication of the person mowing.

A finer cut, and a better finish, is achieved with a cylinder mower rather than a rotary one. The rotary mower is, in essence, a scythe, but the cylinder mower is a pair of scissors. A freshly sharpened and correctly adjusted cylinder mower is a thing of joy. It will cleanly cut a single piece of paper inserted between its fixed plate and the moving blades, indeed, that is how to test it.

Lawns are often recommended as a low-maintenance solution, but only if the garden owner is happy with unkempt grass. To keep fine turf in top condition is time-consuming. In a previous garden, I had an acre of it under my charge. Grass grows at temperatures above 6 degrees Celsius and during the growing season, generally March to November, it was mown every three or four days, edged weekly (1km/0.6miles of edging) and fed monthly. In September every year it was scarified to remove moss and thatch, hollow-tined to improve aeration and drainage, and top-dressed with sharp sand; six tonnes of sharp sand. During periods of drought, it was irrigated carefully. This kept the lawns looking like a billiard table, albeit a very stripy one.




There have been frosts and the soil is cooling. It is time to plant tulips. I was taught, when I was training, that planting tulips after frost reduced the incidence of ‘tulip fire’, a fungal infection which distorts the leaves and flowers. Even if new bulbs are bought each year – and it is more economical to do this than to try and save bulbs year to year – I want to keep my soil ‘clean’, if possible. So, I have been planting tulips in the cutting beds: 4300 tulips.

Like a rower, I work backwards, and the distance I have planted waxes as the unplanted ground wanes. I find this easier as, whilst I work, I am at looking at the work done, not the work still to be done. My soil is clay marl and seems to absorb atmospheric moisture like a sponge, never mind the precipitation, which has been slight. I need to clean the blade of the trowel with my thumb between each penetration of the earth. When planting tulips to be cut for their flowers rather than for for their display in situ, a spacing of 15cm/6″ in appropriate. I line out two rows at a time as that is the furthest I can reach comfortably from the board which spreads my mass evenly over the easily compacted clay. Each bulb is planted 15cm/6″ deep – the same depth, the same distance, as the the length of the trowel’s blade. The tool carries my guide in its form.  At other times, I use my hand. My clenched left fist is 9cm/4″ wide, and thus my measure for sowing beetroot, for example. My span is 22cm – I have just measured it – but it was always a reliable 8″ which I would use for planting lettuces, removing half the crop as baby lettuce, leaving the rest to mature further.

Tulips are classed as a tunicate bulb, meaning they have a skin or tunic, a papery outer layer which protects the life within. Modern cultivars have a loose association with their coats and often arrive naked and white. Perhaps it is the time of year – a week after the Armistice Day centenary, or the manner of rowing them out before I plant, but there is something reminiscent of the simple white stones of the British cemeteries in northern France, stretching out in lines without apparent end. Planting bulbs is quiet work, patient work. I have settled to it and I am asking myself, why do we plant gardens for our dead? Or, why do we plant our dead in gardens? I am thinking too of the Thomas poem  – these ‘silent detonations of power without sin’. I am planting a minefield of future beauty, certainly. What does that make the tulip flowers of next April and May? – explosions of colour and beauty, for sure. Are they the resurrected soul of the buried bulb? Possibly. One of my thousand penetrations of the soil today brought up, on its return, a bright green caterpillar. It will be eaten by a bird or die otherwise – it won’t survive its exposure at this time of year. But, I realised as I worked, that I have no idea whether I am a caterpillar or a butterfly.


Cotoneaster x watereri

We have passed the autumn equinox. The year grows old and the light fails. In the garden, my eyes search out all sources of colour, of light, of warmth, of comfort. The autumn leaves are splendid this year; the trees being stressed from the drought, followed by some decent frosts to hone the colours. Their distress, physically expressed, is my comfort.  But, I suppose my eyes are searching for signs of life, even so, not the senescent leaves of trees and shrubs falling into slumber. I am seeing the berries: the berries are alive. Within them, future lives are stored in seed. The berries give life to others also. As I walked across the demesne this morning, the first flight of Turdis pilaris, fieldfares, filled the sky. They will have flown in from Scandinavia or Russia to feast on the bounty of berries here. The first sighting is one of the mileposts of the year – it tells me, we are here and all is as it should be. I expect cold weather within the next month – they are the prophets of winter. It is a reminder too, that latitude is relational. The British Isles are south and temperate for millions of migrants every year. They come here to live. Political territories, borders,  walls – these things are meaningless to them. Life is the imperative: and we are just fleas on the dog. A dog endures many generations of fleas.

The berried plants catch my attention. I see the hedgerow Crataegus monogyna, hawthorn, with fresh eyes. The humble Ruscus aculeatus, butcher’s broom, is transformed from a filler-in to something commanding attention. But, my particular attention is caught by the titular subject, Cotoneaster x watereri. Like the Ruscus, it is the chorus to the garden for most of the year. It provides body and depth, seriousness, possibly. Yet, for most of the year, like the god of the German theologians, it is experienced as an absence more often than not.

Type ‘artificial shrub’ into a search engine and numerous sites selling plastic plants will be generated. Cotoneaster x watereri is classed as an artificial shrub. Its parents may never have met in the wild – indeed, the parentage is disputed, or undetermined, at least. But, I feel its existence challenges our terminology in the same way that calling anything unnatural does. Surely, only natural things can exist. I stand with Terence, as so often before: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. My translation is free – I am a person, one of all of us, I recognise all of you. We are the same despite the differences.

I love Cotoneaster x watereri for its own virtues too. The arching branches are elegant. The ratio of leaf to berry is perfect to the eye, just beautifully balanced and proportioned, however complicated its breeding. The promise of the life in its berries gives me hope. A full life is a generous one.