The ever-gracious Lady C writes from Hampshire to ask if Capability Brown, that special signor of sensibility, used mound planting at Langley, Bucks.
The question intrigues me because if we could only pin down the stylistic tricks and techniques that Brown invariably – or even frequently – used and that might be said to characterise his work, we could place ourselves in a commanding position to determine in any site what he did and didn’t do.
Mounding is a method of tree planting too seldom used. The turf around the new site is removed, the roots of the young tree are then spread out on the top soil, and earth is then mounded up around the tree. The great advantage over digging a deep hole and dropping the rootball of the tree into it is that the soil structure is not disturbed and the roots do not find themselves trapped in a sheer-sided hole. Mr. McDonald of Dalkeith, a fine practitioner of the art, has argued that it prevented the roots from getting so soon down to the subsoil. I recall his saying that that always produced canker in the plant. Whether Mr Stephens mounded for the same reason at Langley Park, Bucks, I do not know, but I have admired some fine specimens of the practice there, and it seems to have been used there for over a hundred years: on early 18th century oaks, mid-19th century apples, and even late 19th century Wellingtonias.
Alas Lady C, although Brown had two campaigns at Langley Park, the conkers and plane trees around the lake (some of which might have been planted in his day) look as though they were planted on mounds, rather than mound-planted. The fact of the matter is that Brown doesn’t seem to have used mound-planting – either there or anywhere else. I must confess that I cannot call to mind anything that is uniquely characteristic of his work. You may wish to conclude that this amounts to an admission that the great man was not an innovator, and I dare say you would be right so to do.