Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Arrival - Scorched Earth - The Enchanted Forest

A new year and a new garden. After six long seasons working in gardening TV, filming other peoples' dreams and neglecting my own, I find myself finally doing what my heart had been quietly but consistently tugging me towards; pulling on work boots, secateurs in frayed back pocket, and hands about to get very dirty....

The villa is an old stone house perched on a rocky hillside covered in ancient olive groves. We’re over a thousand feet above sea-level here, overlooking the Bay of Cannes, Cap d’Antibes, miles of olive groves, and hundreds of cypresses that catch the afternoon light casting wonderful shadows. Corsica is visible on the horizon on a clear day.

Straight in at the deep and, I join C (the Head Gardener) and Peter clearing the forest that grows above the cliffs at the top of the garden. At first it seems a daunting, thankless task, full of snaring thorns and the roar of chainsaws.  Slowly as we clear, light streams in and the beauty that was there all along makes itself readily apparent. The woods largely comprise some of the most perfect evergreens - plants we really treasure in Britain - Bay, Strawberry Tree (Arbutus) and Holm Oak (Quercus ilex).

Each has its own character - bays soaring skyward, their pale grey trunks almost like the beeches in the Chilterns where I grew up. Arbutus are stockier, shaggier, and the holm oaks make beautiful multi-stemmed trees. All regenerate strongly when cut - so we’ve decided to topiarise the new growths to maintain the open-ness of the woodland, mimicking the rocks with ‘green boulders’.

The Arbutus are particularly wonderful. Some of them have fantastic fluted, twisted trunks [possibly a result of climbers twining around them when young). The old bark is rough and reddish - peeling off in strips to reveal bright orange new bark below. I help this where possible by gently scraping it away. C has left the best as waist-high stumps that have sprouted vigorously at the top and bottom; so I’m trimming the low ones to keep the trunk visible and ‘tipping’ the tops to encourage bushiness.
The common name for Arbutus, “strawberry tree” is a bit of a misnomer - it presumably refers to the fruits which are in fact more like tiny scarlet lychees. And the bell-like flowers hint at the its place in the heather family, Ericaceae. (Incidentally it’s one of the very few plants in this group that can tolerate lime in the soil). The most strawberry-like thing about it is the deep pink blush of its heartwood.

I blush too as we cut them down... But cut we must...