Perch Hill and Batemans

Sarah Raven’s cutting garden in East Sussex is near the village of Burwash on the outskirts of which stands the old stone manor house once owned by Rudyard Kipling. I visited both last Friday.

Perch Hill

The open day at Perch Hill started with lunch served on Emma Bridgewater crockery in an open sided marquee decorated with bunting. Nasturtium flowers and Dahlia petals decorated the salad.

The varied palette of colours compensated for the overcast conditions.

The Dahlia garden is a treasure trove of shades and flower types.

Unusual roses in the rose and herb garden include the two tone ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

Pot gardens and individual containers abound.

These Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’ were grown from seed 4 years ago

Perch Hill isn’t just about Dahlias: the roses are fragrant as well as beautiful.

Container lined arches add height and echo the wavy hedging to the rear.

Narrow stepped paths connect the terraces in this hillside garden.

Everything in the garden is clearly labelled.

The beautiful High Weald lies beyond the garden: note more wavy hedging.

Grasses and single-flowered dahlias in the perennial cutting garden.

Rare breeds in the chicken run.

The profusion of flowers in the garden is powered from the compost ‘palace’.

A rich burgundy Salvia in a metal container, and Sarah herself re-filling the seed display in the shop.

Batemans

The first thing I spotted when we arrived at Batemans was a sign quoting the following lines from Kipling’s 1911 poem, ‘The Glory of the Garden’.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.

Putting to one side the patriarchal tone of the poem, when read in its entirety*, it does evoke the atmosphere of an Edwardian country house garden tended by dozens of gardeners. How sad to think that so many of them left estates such as Batemans within three years of the poem being published to fight in the trenches, never to return.

How much hands-on gardening was undertaken by Kipling I do not know, but he designed much of the garden layout himself. The formal water garden consists of a round pond surrounded by roses from which a cherub fountain feeds a short rill leading to the large waterlily pond.

The house dates from 1634, the entrance framed by a profusion of shrubs and perennials.

A majestic dovecote highlights this peaceful scene.

Exuberant planting in the walled garden includes fountain grass combined with statice.

 *The Glory of the Garden

OUR England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye. 

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You’ll find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dung-pits and the tanks,
The rollers, carts, and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise ;
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows ;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray 
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away ! 

Rudyard Kipling, 1911

Sissinghurst in September

What more can be said about Sissinghurst that hasn’t been said before? On this occasion I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves. I’m in East Sussex for three days of garden visits and Sissinghurst was the first port of call. The newly opened area Delos is as impressive as I expected from recent TV coverage and a great deal larger than I’d imagined. The Mediterranean planting amongst ancient architectural artefacts contrasts with the lush planting in the other garden rooms.

As in the rest of the garden, the Tower is visible from Delos.

Greek island meets the Kent countryside: oast houses roofs gleam in the late summer sun.

Another highlight: the tapestry of zinnias along the Moat Walk. Note the sheep wool mulch to deter slugs and snails.

The still air and warmth today encouraged a fine display of pollinators throughout the garden.

I’m envious of Vita’s Flower Room complete with Belfast sink….

…..and Harold Nicolson’s book room.

September must be the best month to see the sunset colours in The Cottage Garden.

The gardeners are busy keeping Sissinghurst immaculate.

No visit to Sissinghurst is complete without seeing The White Garden.

They made a garden: East Lambrook Gardens (and a vertiginous bluebell wood)

I’m gradually discovering what a beautiful and interesting county Somerset is. I visit regularly to see my niece and her family (with whom I’m in a bubble) and it’s been a joy exploring with them some nature reserves and gardens over the last couple of years. During my last visit a week ago we fitted in trips to a magnificent bluebell wood and a garden with a special place in twentieth century garden history.

The wood, to the east of Taunton, is managed by the RSPB. On the morning of our visit the sun had emerged after a heavy shower, the weather this month being more characteristic of April than May. The scarp walk we followed was aptly named, taking us up steep slopes, with steps built in in a couple of places. Bluebells flourished beneath the broadleaved woods, the blue haze interrupted here and there with other wildflowers.

East Lambrook Manor Gardens was created by Margery Fish and her husband Walter in the 1930s and is an exquisitely planted showcase for the English cottage garden style which she championed in her garden writing. Narrow stone-paved paths wind through the various rooms of the garden, allowing you to admire the treasures planted throughout. The immediate impression is of informality, until you reach the avenue of tightly clipped egg shaped evergreens. Thinking at first they were yew, closer inspection showed they were in fact conifers and I have since read on the website that they are Chamacyparis lawsonia fletcheri, raised from cuttings of the original ‘Pudding Trees’ planted by Margery Fish.

The pudding trees

Tempting as it is to keep looking downwards at the wealth of herbaceous perennials in the garden, there are several trees to admire which would look well in small and medium sized gardens. For example, Cornus florida which I fell in love with in Kew Gardens many years ago, distinctive for its large white bracts in April and May. Another favourite. of which there is a sprawling specimen in Kew’s Mediterranean Garden, is the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastris). East Lambrook’s specimens are far daintier.

Many of the interesting plants in this plant lover’s garden are sold in the plant centre. Just beyond the stands of plants for sale is a raised bed built from what looks like the hamstone which features in much of the architecture of south Somerset. This showcases specimens of a couple of dozen geraniums, all clearly labelled, a perfect way to compare colours and leaf shapes, scale and habit. This display is just one example of the way in which this garden inspires the keen gardener: so too do the absence of lawns, the myriad of herbaceous perennials, the planting combinations.

On this occasion I shall let the photographs demonstrate the beauty of this peaceful garden. What they cannot convey is the soundtrack of birdsong and the clip clop of horses’ hooves along the village street just beyond the walls of the garden. As soon as I got home I ordered Margery Fish’s We Made a Garden to learn more about the genesis of a very special place.

Tulips in Fairyland: Part 2

I left you at the end of my last post on the threshold between the Collector Earl’s Garden and the rest of the extensive grounds of Arundel Castle. This part of the estate is called the Landscape and nestles at the foot of the castle fortifications. According to the Gardeners’ Chronicle article of July 1875 I mentioned last week, this part of the grounds

was used as a kitchen garden, but Mr Wilson, the present gardener, did away with it as such and and laid it down in grass, planting on it a considerable number of coniferous trees

Cork oak in The Landscape

The ‘present gardener’ Martin Duncan has planted hedges and areas of perennial wildflowers. Swathes of spring bulbs sweep through the wooded areas, in which I spied an impressively gnarled cork oak (Quercus suber). Turning our backs on the castle walls, we entered The Fitzalan Chapel’s White Garden, bounded on one side by a flint wall and on the other by the perpendicular style windows of a former priory now a nursing home. The focal point of the garden is the huge stained glass window of the chancel of the parish church of St Nicholas. Thought to be unique, the building combines the Church of England tradition in the main part of the church and the Catholic in the chancel, the resting place* of the Earls of Arundel and Dukes of Norfolk.

Wall shrub Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ clothes the walls of this peaceful space, and the densely planted border is crammed with White Lizard and White Triumphator tulips and the oddly named Summer Snowflake, (Leucojum aestivum) whose white bells resemble elongated snowdrops. In the lawn opposite the border stands a plain rectangular tank pool, its corners marked by Chusan palms. The haunting silhouette of a soldier stands guard, one of thousands erected across the country in 2018 in the ‘There But Not There’ campaign to commemorate the first centenary of the First World War.

Our route to the Rose Garden led us past the longest stretch of cloud-pruned hedge I’ve seen, trimmed we were told with hand shears, its bumpy bulk lightened by airy pink blossom.

Cloud-pruned box hedge

Planted on the site of what was the Jacobean bowling green, the Rose Garden entrance is formed by a perpendicular arch clothed in the climbing rose Adelaide d’Orleans. In keeping with the eye for detail evident everywhere in these gardens, a similar arch stands opposite it, sheltering a black seat backed with triple gothic arches, echoing parts of the castle architecture. Crisply clipped box edging surrounds the beds, each centred with a tall obelisk entwined with climbing rose The Generous Gardener. Now that I’ve studied my photographs more closely the gold hoops topping the obelisks remind me of quidditch goals, not surprisingly perhaps, given that in part 1 of this blog, I wrote that these gardens have a magical atmosphere! Indeed, in her account of our visit, one of my fellow Garden Media Guild members, Laura, one third of the brilliant 3 Growbags, likens the gardens at Arundel to a fantasy film-set.

The rose beds have been filled with a very generous manure mulch, through which grow Delft blue hyacinths and yet to open Angelique tulips. In another of his video tours, Martin Duncan guides us through the Rose Garden at its summer height and shares his prescription for healthy, blackspot-free roses: 2 tablespoons of Epsom Salts (high in magnesium) dissolved into 8 litres of water administered monthly in April, May and June.

Next stop on the tour was the newest part of the gardens to open to the public (July 2020), the Stew Ponds. In contrast with the formality of the White and Rose Gardens and the manicured grandeur of the Landscape, these water gardens are a haven for wildlife and wild flowers. But nature has had a helping hand here: last autumn the garden team planted 1,500 water plants, wildflowers and bulbs in this area. Two large ponds are divided with a wooden boardwalk, to one side of which nesting swans zealously guard their nest. In 2020, six cygnets hatched and recently moved out to give way to this year’s brood which it is hoped will emerge soon. The ponds are fed by a spring and at the far end of each stand wooden thatched buildings: a boat house and a round house, the latter used for education groups.

We returned to the Collector Earl’s Garden via the motte, the dry moat which surrounds the castle. Strategically located atop a hill, this castle had no need for a water filled moat for defence. The steep slope beside us would challenge even the most sure-footed gardener, let alone an armour-clad attacker. We were told that the bulb planting on the steepest slopes was undertaken using some form of abseiling technique!

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Arundel Castle gardens, open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 5.00pm. Thank you to the Garden Media Guild for arranging a splendid visit there a fortnight ago: a very special way to celebrate the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions.

  • A day or so after my visit I heard Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ read on Radio 4, with its poignant final line: What will survive of us is love. Thinking that the mediaeval tomb which inspired the poet must be in the Fitzalan Chapel, I did an internet search and discovered in fact that the stone effigies of the third Earl of Arundel and his Countess (their hands entwined) lie in Chichester Cathedral a few miles to the west.

Tulips in Fairyland: Part 1

When she was a little girl, my niece, on the drive from Sussex to Hampshire to visit her Granny and Grandad, would look up to the Arundel skyline and call it fairyland. The spires of the cathedral and battlements of the castle still lend the view an other-worldly appearance. On Monday I visited the castle’s gardens and found that those apparently impenetrable walls do indeed shelter an enchanted space. With fellow members of the Garden Media Guild I was there to see the gardens in their spring livery and in particular the thousands of tulips which are planted every year.

Having been divided into small groups, our tour began in the courtyard of the Collector Earl’s Garden with head gardener Martin Duncan, whose enthusiasm and passion for his domain was infectious. The immediate impression is of a historic formal garden decorated with pavilions, pools and fountains. Closer inspection reveals that the pavilions and columns are built of oak rather than stone and Martin explained that this part of the garden was created only 14 years ago, by the design partnership of Isabel and Julian Bannerman. Dozens of pots of brightly coloured tulips stand at the foot of the classically styled ‘Hunting Temple’ which is decorated with deer antlers from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate. Noting from their website that the Bannermans had also designed parts of HRH’s garden at Highgrove, I saw that there too is a rustic temple constructed of green oak.

Thomas Howard the Collector Earl by Peter Paul Rubens

In November Martin and his team planted 180 different named tulip cultivars throughout the gardens: fringed, parrot, lily and peony flowered, Darwin hybrids and many more. Some of the larger pots contain 60-70 tulip bulbs which are treated as annuals and replaced each year.

This section of the garden is a tribute to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), known as the ‘Collector Earl’, who when travelling extensively on the continent on diplomatic missions, amassed a huge art collection. On one of his trips he was accompanied by the architect Inigo Jones of whom more later. Between the water garden, which represents the nearby River Arun, and a spectacular labyrinth of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, stands a double wooden pergola clothed in newly emerging hornbeam. Martin explained that in a week or so red Apeldoorn tulips will appear amidst the white Narcissus in the labyrinth.

The curving borders around the labyrinth comprise the Exotic Borders and are dominated with multi-stemmed Trachycarpus fortuneii, which were sourced in Italy. At a lower level, ruby Rheum leaves thrust through the foliage of orange Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and yet to flower Alliums.

On a raised terrace at the far side of the labyrinth, stands a turreted wooden pavilion topped by a dome. True to the magical atmosphere of the gardens, this is Oberon’s Palace. Inside is a shell grotto, the walls decorated with planted urn images fashioned from navy blue mussel shells with a bubbling fountain in the centre of the space. The plaque states that the building is based on a design by Inigo Jones for a masque first performed in 1611, ‘Oberon the Fairy Prince’. Martin drew our attention to the distinctively shaped planters on either side of the entrance to the temple, which he had commissioned and which resembled lead but were in fact made with distempered steel, and cost a fraction of the price.

From here the exoticism of the labyrinth borders gives way to the symmetry and formality of clipped yew hedges, forming compartments housing the herbaceous borders. Judging by a video tour on the castle’s website, again led by head gardener Martin, these look stunning in the summer months. Martin proudly pointed out that the yew spires which separate this part of the garden from the next, deliberately mimic the spires of the cathedral. Arundel’s Victorian cathedral church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, dedicated as a cathedral in 1965, forms a spectacular backdrop to this part of the garden.

Hidden by the yew spires is another enchanting area, the Stumpery, which, Martin pointed out, is in an open position and gets more sun than those which are usually built in shadier spots and are planted with ferns and hostas, for instance the stumpery at Highgrove. When I checked later I found that too was designed by the Bannermans. The massive upturned trunks, roots akimbo, are sourced from trees downed in the park during storms. Each stump provides several planting pockets into which are tucked exquisite specimens: a rosy coloured Hellebore, diminutive species tulips, snakehead fritillaries, dainty dog tooth violets (Erythronium), primroses and Thalictrum aquiligifolium. In a corner of this garden stands a willow bower fit for a fairy queen, the fresh new leaves beginning to clothe it in a green mantle.

I should at this stage mention that the long gap between this and my last blog posting is due in part to the online English landscape garden history course that I have just completed. I found it incredibly interesting and absorbing, but the course, a busy period of spring tidying in clients’ gardens and a new web content writing role has left little time for the blog. One of the activities in week 8 of the course, when we studied Victorian gardens, was to dip into the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a weekly illustrated journal, to which we were given online access. I lighted upon the editions of 3 and 10 July 1875 and amidst advertisements for Calceolaria seeds and lawnmowers, a book review of a ‘Book for Beekeepers’, reports of onion trials in Chiswick, a weather report from Blackheath (29 June fine, but dull and cloudy throughout. Rain in early morning) and want ads for gardeners (wages £1 a week), was a two part article by T.Baines about ‘Arundel Castle: the seat of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk’. Featuring a history of the castle and a beautiful engraving of the castle, the article details a tour of the gardens which at that time consisted of extensive kitchen gardens and an arboretum.

The article describes numerous fruit and plant ‘houses’ for peaches, nectarines, vines (Muscats and Hamburghs), melons, cucumbers as well as flowering plants ‘for decorative purposes’ (presumably for the Duke’s apartments in the castle) such as orchids (Cypripedium and Dendrobium), pelargoniums and nepenthes. The author mentions no less than four ‘pine-pits’, each 45 feet long! Today the castle’s organic kitchen garden is impressive but more modest in scale, though it does have two very fine glasshouses, one a restored Victorian vinery dating from 1853. The garden was restored in the mid 1990s and is based on the design of the gardens at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park.

We were told that the garden is operated on a four year rotation for growing vegetables, and that there is extensive use of companion planting, with flowers such as Sweet Williams planted to attract pollinators and create a natural barrier to deflect pests like carrot fly. Martin pointed out an elaborate network of ropes almost at eye level along which gourds will be trained later in the season. The beds are edged in box and the walls shelter several fan-trained fruit trees: Morello cherry, plum (protected with a tarpaulin on the day of our visit which was unseasonably cold) and Conference pear among them. An arched frame running through the kitchen garden is trained with old apple varieties including the wonderfully named Peasgood’s Nonsuch. In one of the beds is a pocket meadow to bring in pollinators and there’s also a very fine house for that master slug-slayer, the hedgehog. At the foot of the long glasshouses stand a rank of cold frames all heaving with seedlings ready to be planted out once the risk of frost has passed. We were shown red-veined sorrel and a species sweet pea called ‘Tutankhamen’.

Leaving the kitchen garden, you enter a courtyard where a dense display of tulips in pots is massed beneath a flower-laden cherry tree: another magical touch in this special garden.

Like T Baines in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, I am going to leave you mid tour until next week. But before I go, in the 1875 article, after admiring the manner in which the fruit trees in the orchard were maintained, the author states that ‘here, as in each department of this fine place, are ample evidence of Mr Wilson’s ability as a gardener’. Were T. Baines to visit Arundel Castle’s gardens today I’ve no doubt he could say the same for Martin Gardner, his team of six gardeners and cohort of volunteers.

(Next time: The White Garden, the Rose Garden and the Stew Ponds)

Of scythes and sails

The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.

And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden.  This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.

How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.

And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.

Meadow at York Gate

Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.

The yew sails at York Gate

I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.

Gardening advice, 9th century style

Walafrid Strabbo, a ninth century abbott in what is now modern Germany, wrote a poem in Latin, Hortulus, in which he extols the virtues of gardening. I discovered the following extract during background reading for an online course I’ve started this week about the history of English landscape gardens. It contains advice as relevant to those of us lucky enough to have a garden in 2021 as it was 1,100 years ago. Though I do wonder if he penned the final line after a day shifting manure and before a restorative Epsom salts bath!

Though a life of retreat offers various joys,
None, I think, will compare with the time one employs
In the study of herbs, or in striving to gain
Some practical knowledge of nature’s domain
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not…..

The advice given here is no copy-book rule,
Picked up second-hand, read in books, learned at school,
But the fruit of hard labour and personal test
To which I have sacrificed pleasure and rest.  

Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

Two Men, One Rose

Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather. 

A precious archive

Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.

Harry Walker with my friend’s mother (approx. 1935)
Harry Walker with my friend’s sister photographed in the Rose Gardens in Ashton Keynes (approx. 1957)

Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.

Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.

Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers). 

By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’. 

At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations: 

  • R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
  • R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
  • R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
  • R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Rosa ‘American Pillar’

Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.

I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow the Eddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it. 

Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving. 

To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars. 

As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.

Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’. 

Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.

*ISBN-13: 97814746

**Description from David Austin’s website.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.