The long view

Image of Robin Lane Fox

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My garden is just celebrating its 20th birthday. I suppose that celebration is the right word. Undoubtedly I have killed far more than I have retained and the casualties outnumber the successes. I can, however, look back with a real understanding of the value of a long-term view. Many of you lay down wine. Some of you lay down disasters, which you reclassify as unquoted investments. I want to urge you to lay down a garden.

Here are my top 10 selections, all of which improve with age. They are prefaced by a straightforward bit of advice for which designers would charge the most curious sums. It is: plant plenty of evergreen box and use it as the backbone for your garden. It survives the new hot summers and it can be clipped into flat squares, well-spaced pillars or any geometric pattern you want. There is no need to buy big bushes and even the small edging variety can be set about a foot apart. Too much box in this country is being packed too tightly together because the owners are impatient.

Seasonally, my 10 choices begin with the unbeatable Winter Cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis. Once again its clouds of pink-white flowers are magnificent in this warm winter. It makes a big tree in 20 years, but bushes are also available. It is a brilliant cut flower and grows anywhere.

With it, patient gardeners need to include the slow-maturing Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox. It belongs on a wall, but only where you can easily see or smell it. I prefer it as a freestanding bush at the base of a wall where it falls over gravel or paving. It takes about seven years to flower but it will then never let you down. It is not impossibly big. It is a wonder from China.

Long term, my next choice is the most important, a mass of Magnolias. On my rotten soil they are still small, but I was right to make them a priority. No variety can beat the pure white soulangeana Alba but there are dozens of others. Never be afraid of them.

On acid soil, many of you will want a really big world-class rhododendron. My answer is still the marvellous Loders White, the most spectacular sight in May and an extremely willing flowerer. It improves with age and will outlive you all.

My next choice needs patience but I have lived with an ageing one in Oxford and watched it become better and better. Davidia involucrata is the famous Pocket Handkerchief tree from China but it is wrongly believed to dislike lime and exist on damp soil. It needs well-prepared ground, deeply dug with manure. Plants are usually bought when small, but they are a great investment for young country house owners with a bonus.

I now name two excellent climbers. One is the familiar Wisteria, but only in the long-flowered form now correctly called floribunda Multijuga. Its lavender-blue bunches of flower are just 2ft long and they improve
as the plant ages. It is vigorous but excellent on any support,
but it would also grow into a
big tangle of branches if planted as a freestanding specimen.

Patient planters will also know the great rewards of a climber with huge heads of white flower, like a Lacecap hydrangea. It is called schizophragma and it grows well on an east wall. Just believe that it will develop with age and leave impatient gardeners wondering why they never chose it many years ago.

Ten years will do wonders for the ornamental trunk on any of the stripy Snakebark Maples. As they thicken, the white stripes on the bark become more pronounced, a pleasant reminder to the planter of passing years. None of them likes very dry ground but they will develop quite well if left alone on neutral soil. One of my favourites is Acer capillipes.

In early September I have to envy the sweet-scented, slow-maturing Clerodendrum. Its flowers are mainly white and have the most divine scent on small trees, which will fit into any garden. The usual one is trichotomum, which has several good variations. Act at once and you will not regret it in 10 years.

Visualising autumn, I have to end with a great colourer, which is usually sold as a young plant. The ginkgo is the most distinguished tree, equally at home in dirty towns or open country. How wise the planners were to plant so much of it in some of the streets leading to the Met Museum in New York. The ginkgo develops an upright main stem with these unique green leaves, which remind me of upmarket wafers in old-fashioned ice creams. They are the most brilliant yellow in late autumn.

Here and there I have planted all these slow developers and visit them now in their various gardens with increasing pleasure. I also have a long-term companion, which I hope will never broadcast its memoirs or speak to the press. In 1975 I acquired a small-variegated plant of the evergreen Osmanthus heterophyllus and since then I have moved it just once, when I changed gardens. When it came to me, the young Margaret Thatcher was still speaking with a soft, implausibly simpering voice. She then toughened up and perhaps that is why my Osmanthus rebelled for 20 years and refused to develop. Only now has it reached 3ft of height, mostly in the past two years. Perhaps it has picked up a new compassionate conservatism in the air. If it goes on, I will have to give it a really ruthless haircut.

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