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

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?*

During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.

*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.

29 April 2020.

A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon.  I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions. 

Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air. 

I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area. 

A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate. 

That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders. 

A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.

I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty.  But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary.                                                                                                                                    Weeds Roots & Leaves                  29 April 2020

The Temperate House viewed from the Chinese Fringe Tree
The Palm House Pond in summer 2019 with a Dale Chihuly sculpture reflected in the water.
Snowdrops in the Rock Garden in December 2019
The Magnolia Grove in March 2020, just before lockdown
The Broad Walk Borders in July 2020