August 9, 2013 7:19 pm

How English gardens wield ‘soft power’ on the world stage

The country’s precious green land is the irreplaceable image of the nation for many admirers overseas
Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire©Alamy

Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire, a quintessentially English village close to the path of the proposed HS2 train line

We have had a roller-coaster of a summer for gardeners so far. The best of times, the worst of times. I have won some, lost some, and while you may be burning in Greece or lunar Tuscany I will be using the weekend to ensure a green and pleasant look for the second half of the season.

Until the heatwave began in early July, the conditions were as good for flower-gardening as I ever remember. I won the lot, roses, peonies in fabulous form, superb clematis, happy lupins and some truly awesome regale lilies at heights which I have never seen before. I am now saving their fresh seed as it germinates so easily and in two years gives even more flowering lilies for no cost at all.

Broken cloud, cool evenings and light sunshine showed everything at its British best. I mean “everything” as so much was run together after such a slow, late start to the year. Much has been said recently about the value of “soft power,” the diffused aura of class and high quality which Britain at times gives off to its global advantage. Proponents have said nothing about the worldwide “soft” drawing power of “English” gardens, though it has never been better on view than in this June. Even less has been said about the “soft power” value of the globally loved English countryside around it. The loss of its green beauty has not even been priced on the debit side of the fantasy maths behind the proposed high speed train line (HS2). In June, no price seemed too high for it. It is the irreplaceable image of Britain for so many admirers overseas, as I relearned earlier this year on a trip as far as Tasmania. When I asked people in Singapore about their mental image of “special” Britain they did not say multicultural West Ham. Like Sir John Falstaff on his deathbed, they “babbled of green fields”. Looking at high-rise Singapore and Hong Kong, I can well understand why. Instead of mispricing people’s working time on a train, why do we not price the loss of our great green asset into the negative equation too? My valuation formula is simple. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, that “prophet inspired”, rightly calls England a “scepter’d isle”, a “precious stone set in a silver sea”. If we calculate its remaining green surface area and then value it in terms of a similar surface area of precious green emeralds, we will have a capital value per acre of what we are trying to eliminate.

How quickly a foretaste of demi-Paradise recedes. July brought a sudden heatwave and put stress on everything except courgettes. It made life very hard for bedding-plants away from irrigation. After lovingly bedding out the zinnias in early June I lost most of them in early July to shrivelling heat. The damp-loving mimulus gave up. Some uninvited insect stripped French marigolds which I would have thought to be inedible. I have doubled up by taking advantage of clearance sales at local bedding-centres. I recommend them. Six good fuchsias for a fiver are a bargain in any season. My bet is for a cooler autumn when they will come into their own.

Milly van Hoboken©Hardy Plant Society

Milly van Hoboken

I am glad, too, to have been late in planting my new love, gladioli, in the main borders. They will not show until mid-September but the omens so far are excellent. The smaller varieties with names like Nymph are an even better buy. They are marketed now by bulb suppliers as “hardy”. They are gathered under the name Gladiolus nanus, but have yet to make it into the RHS Plantfinder, perhaps because their hardiness has been doubted. All I can say is that they have survived the cold of last winter in my exposed garden. As they are hardly 2ft high when in flower, their slender stems can be fitted well into beds which might otherwise lose their impetus in late summer. The bulb catalogues will be offering them next month although there is no need to plant the corms before spring. How can you resist the one called Carine, “creamy white with purple lips”? I fit small groups of her into the sort of gap left by hardy geraniums when they have been tidied and cut back. Those lips are purple-red, not a chilly purple-blue. You all need to wake up to these elegant plants’ potential. They are more persistent than tulips.

Tidying is crucial, as you will no doubt be pleased to hear on holiday. I see so many “good” gardens which are allowed to be spoiled by lax cutting, deadheading and reducing in mid-August. They are hugely enjoyable tasks. I think of my bigger flowerbeds as the settings for a four- or even five-course lunch. One course must succeed another throughout the year, but uncleared remains will spoil the next “plat du moment”. I have already reduced all hardy geraniums, except the ever-flowering Rozanne, to a neat central clump of green growth. Delphiniums had a superb first flowering, but all the spikes of dead flowers have long gone into the wheelbarrow. Many more of you now grow early-flowering poppies, of which I wrote earlier in the year. Do not put up with the dead stems they have now left behind. They need to be cut right back to the small ruff of green leaves which you will find at the centre, above the main tap root. They leave a precious clear space, just the place for those emerging gladioli. It is a big mistake to think that borders are only cut down in November after the frosts. Cutting down should go on discreetly throughout the four-course menu which a good border offers. We are still enjoying the third course, with a finale ahead which must have a clear run.

My third course is well stocked with phloxes. The respite from the hot weather was ideal for them. The further north you garden, the better they are. They are so responsive to intelligent deadheading, taking the first heads of flower back to the bottom of their short stem. I then feed them all with cans of liquid fertiliser, Miracle-Gro being my choice. In September many of the phloxes join the floral fourth course, flowering again on side shoots after their deadheading.

My problem has been their naming. Drifting off to sleep I have been tormenting myself with the half-remembered names of my best two pink-and-white varieties. They are ladies, but who exactly? One swims back to my somnolent mind, the excellent Monica Lynden-Bell who flowers so freely and has a fine contrasting eye of darker colour. In the past five years she has spread fast through the trade and is certainly one to buy if you are still stuck with a vicious ordinary pink form. What, though, is the name of the bigger-flowered, pale pink beauty at a distance from her? On a visit to the great open garden at Kiftsgate Court in Gloucestershire, I have just recovered the answer. It could hardly be better: Milly van Hoboken. I bet none of you knew her namesake in real life. She crossed to the right side of the tracks, somehow reached the Cotswolds and settled in Kiftsgate’s fine garden where I must have bought her years ago off the garden’s invaluable plant stall. Never fear, Milly: even when dozing, I will never forget you again. I only hope you do not catch mildew when the garden’s fourth course is on the table.

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