Tower Bridge and the Floating Gardens

Yes, they exist.  Yes, they are wonderful.  For the full article, see the page headings above.

Flowers and trees above, offices and workshops below, and the water of the Thames below that...

Flowers and trees above, offices and workshops below, and the water of the Thames below that…

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When plants switch cultures.

Thoughts brought on by a visit to London’s exquisite Chiswick House:

The first Chiswick House long demolished.  The second largely too.  This is really just a very lovely folly, built by Lord Burlington.  Some of the original garden plan and buildings remain.  Enchanting.

The first Chiswick House long demolished. The second largely too. This is really just a very lovely folly, built by Lord Burlington. Some of the original garden plan and buildings remain. Enchanting.

We were here to see the camellias, much vaunted in the press, and, well, of much interest.  Basically a Chinese enthusiasm stretching back century after century, they were discovered by European gardeners in the 18th century, and living plants began to reach the West late in the century, and early in the 19th.  The plants were misunderstood.  In China, they were essentially florists flowers, nurtured in pots, and brought into houses and courtyards  at their fullest beauty, admired, then grown on elsewhere until the following season.

At first hugely expensive in Europe, they were also thought not to be hardy.  Grand camellia houses were built or old-fashioned orangeries were adapted to keep them from the cold.  Chiswick got a purpose built camellia house in the 1820’s, got stocked up with lovely things, and, amazingly, some of the original plants still survive.DSCN7030However, gardeners here soon realised that the plants were cold tolerant, and therefore began to grow them outdoors as part of the shrubbery.  But the Chinese gardeners knew a thing or two…  However tough the plants, the flowers themselves are not especially cold tolerant, and both open flowers and buds get damaged by frost.  Many sorts, being very double, soon get soggy and rot after rain.  Strong sunlight burns the petals.  The flowers don’t easily drop once they are finished, hanging on the bushes in brown dereliction unless encouraged to fall.  The bushes are densely foliaged, and the leaves, polished and darkest green, show no form or variation of tone: in the open garden, big bushes make solid dark objects, dotted with splodges of white, or pinks, cerises, scarlets (or brown).  Perhaps ancient gardeners get too critical; as a very young person I visited the huge camellia plantings at the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como in northern Italy, and didn’t see any disadvantages, just finding the flowers to be totally, ravishingly, lovely.

The ones under glass at Chiswick, being such early introductions, are of historical importance.  So much so that they were rescued and rehabilitated by the International Camellia Society.  Most had lost their names, and the oldest, ‘Middlemist’s Red’, named after the nurseryman who first marketed it, would in any case have had a Chinese name in China, and perhaps a very ancient history too.  However, the loveliest are now given, presumably by the ICS, rather generic Latin variety names, along the lines of  ‘Elegans’ or ‘Imbricata’.


Camellia ‘Elegans’


Camellia ‘Imbricata’

More enticingly, the Chiswick plants are being propagated.  This is both brilliant and alarming.  Brilliant because the gardener can buy, and grow, a lovely piece of garden history.  Alarming because both camellia ‘Elegans’ and ‘Imbricata’ are so appallingly beautiful that  I must have them!  Better still, potted and shifted indoors for flowering, another of their qualities can be captured, for some are also fragrant.

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DSCN7063It’s not happened before.  It has often been expected, but the springs haven’t been, for many years, this complicated: summer for a week, suntan, breakfast outdoors, then … winter.  OK, I was expecting the forecast snow, but no clouds formed, stars glittered, temperature fell.  And this morning the astonishing display on the magnolias, the best ever, is no more.

The two trees, both supposedly the variety ‘Susan’, must be fifteen or sixteen years old.  They were leftovers of young ones from an avenue I’d designed for the bottom walk of a client’s walled garden.  The remnants got heeled in here, higgledy-piggledy, rather forgotten, until they began to flower two or three years later.  We fell in love with them, and so they remained, grew, hosted the rose Ispahan, which had decided it was a climber, clematises, and more.  Branches hang over the high wall, and into the cobbled lane down to the fields.

And the avenue?  It should have been looking enchanting.  The client, impatient for flowers, chopped them down.  Perhaps not as overwhelming as the magnolias that arch over the steps up from the Jousting Green at Dartington Hall, but fun nevertheless.  Ah well…

So far, the magnolias’ flowers seem the only casualty.  The apple blossom, buds still tiny and crimson, seems ok.  By the lower pool even the weird, vastly veined, and just unfurling leaves of Rogersia tabularis seem fine too, though the first ones usually get killed by late frosts.  A new fern, Dryopteris labordei, with golden leaves, and which we had planted next to a stand of narrow arching and equally golden leaves of ‘Bowles Golden’ carex, looks mortally offended. Also, ah well…DSCN7072

Still, the cold snap can’t last for too long.  I hope not anyway, for a blackbird couple have furnished a nest on top of the wood pile, and there are only half a dozen logs we can now remove without destablising the whole thing and causing the nest’s ruination.

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At last!


At last!  After all the mists, the rain, the sodden leaves squelching underfoot, the urge to stay indoors by the stove, a clear day.  At last some bitter weather, the air so still and clear that it seems possible to see every twig on a tree five miles distant.

And then the mad, long put off, rush to get the tender plants indoors, and then the madder difficulty of trying to find where on earth to put them. And do I really need three large pots of identical cymbidiums to overwinter indoors, and any more that one rosette each of all those echeverias, and I’ve forgotten to take cutting of the geranium that swagged the huge celadon vases with glittering leaves and bronze-red flowers.  And so on…

hoya1There are protests if I balance more pots on the kitchen windowsills, and so I will have to turn executioner in the garden room.  Do we need the Hoya that sprawls over yards of wall, or its cousin, so like Spanish moss, but whose flowers, wildly beautiful when held upright, but which normally always face towards the floor, then fill our gardening boots with sticky rubbish when they shrivel and fall.  Or the gorgeous Fuchsia boliviana, now at two yards tall, and going fast, gone gangly and flowerless…  Murder, I’m afraid.

Well, not quite murder.  I think of Romulus and Remus abandoned on a hillside by their chill mother.  The same chill forgetfulness on my part has seen off splendid things: several overweening oleanders, grotesque begonias, justicias, even a cactus or two that I’d grown for forty years and which tended to topple into our arms if we passed it without sufficient care.  Left outside in the yard, with the promise of rescue, I simply forget until a frost does away with them for me.  Ideally, the frost kills the plant before it cracks the pot.

Of course, some plants have murder in mind anyway.  Ours, not theirs.  From a balcony in Italy’s deep south, I pinched a fragment from a huge tangle of skinny, only slightly spiny, cactus stems.  Heliocactus I think.  I should have taken note when it rooted swiftly after several vicissitudes, and then produced several yard long stems in its first season.  Forgotten for a season or two, it now almost bars the exit to the garden and, worse, where it has propped itself up against the garden room uprights, has produce a whole network of aerial roots that are stuck irretrievably to glass and woodwork, and combine into ropework thongs that look as if they penetrate the very wood itself.

Ah well…. Off with their heads!

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