The queenly quince and languishing lilacs

November 9, 2006

There is a large basket full of quince fruits on the larder floor waiting to be made into delicious jelly, that invaluable addition to the cheese board. I picked them in Somerset soon before I went to the funeral of an old friend, an exercise that helped, just a little, to brighten a sad day. The golden yellow fruits of the common quince (Cydonia oblonga), with shapes varying between apple and pear, have a luscious appearance, and a tree covered in fruit could have jumped out of a page of an illustrated medieval document.

Now that my eyes have been fully opened to the beauty of this tree, I will soon plant one, although it is described as being susceptible to mildew, fireblight, brown rot and quince leaf blight. That’s enough to put anyone off, but the trees I saw growing in Somerset looked pretty healthy despite the fact that I found them in open positions on low-lying, flat country, a far cry from their natural habitat, woodland margins and rocky slopes in south-west Asia. Somerset is just a little wetter than Oxfordshire, or anyway used to be before the weather went mad, so I’ll just have to wait and see.

Oh, that I could afford to be a 100% organic gardener and do away with sprays altogether. Well, I can’t, especially when it comes to the removal of perennial weeds on the gravel drive and in cracks in paving. For a while, I used to pour, slowly and gently, boiling water from the kettle directly onto the crown of such unwanted guests every time I made a cup of tea, and very effective it was, too. All that energy expended on heating the water, I told myself, was not wasted because it successfully killed two dandelions with one stone.

But then it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to because the telephone rings or you are distracted by yet another machine that rules your life these days. So I squirt with a glyphosate-based spray from which I derive comfort in the knowledge that it becomes inert when it comes into contact with the soil. I have always found such an application to be more effective if applied in the autumn. I remember a gardening guru, now departed to that great garden in the sky many years ago, telling me that glyphosate is more effective in cooler conditions at about 11×C.

A friend rang up just now in desperation about a neighbour who has planted a bright blue eucalyptus, possibly gunnii, slap bang outside her kitchen window in rural Oxfordshire. I am sympathetic, as I have always maintained that such Antipodean introductions fight with our indigenous trees which, after an exciting array of fresh greens in spring, settle down to matte green for the rest of the summer. It could also be argued that the steely blue foliage of the Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica Glauca) also shouts with a loud voice when planted in such a landscape.

October is a busy month. It is a good time to attack a lilac if it has overgrown its allotted space. The trouble with lilacs is that they become untidy, having the appearance of neither tree nor bush or rather, both at the same time. An approach is to remove everything with the exception of one or two main trunks chosen for their shape. I prefer to remove smaller growth below the ground, tearing it off from the root as you would do with a rose sucker. This can take some time, but it is worth it.

The stumps of older growth (and this is something you can do with any tree of similar size, such as common elder) can have a black bucket placed over them, weighted down by a heavy object. When growth starts again in the spring, the young vigorous shoots that will inevitably burst from the stump will soon give up the ghost in the absence of light. I have never known anyone else do this so I could, I suppose, claim it as my invention. It is particularly useful in a case like this, as you avoid using stump killing poisons that could otherwise damage the parts of the plant you wish to retain.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on November 9, 2006