Gertrude Jekyll’s Cottage Gardens

Cottage porch from Old West Surrey (1904) by Gertrude Jekyll (University of California Libraries)

Gertrude Jekyll’s Old West Surrey Some Notes and Memories (1904) represents something of a departure from her vast output of books and articles about plants and garden design.  This study of the locality around her home at Munstead Wood reveals an enthusiasm for all aspects of vernacular architecture and the rural way of life in this part of southern England, which was rapidly disappearing at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Illustrated with dozens of Jekyll’s photographs, details of farm buildings and cottages, trades, furniture, tools and everyday household articles are documented – and, of course, the people she encountered on her travels.  Jekyll dedicates a whole chapter of her book to the cottage garden, praising both the skill of the cottage gardener, and the dedication needed to maintain the displays of flowers over the season.

This style of gardening, with roses framing the front door and a profusion of flowers in the borders, was a favourite of Jekyll’s and examples of cottage gardens regularly appear in her other published works.  These gardens are still deservedly popular, despite associations of sentimentality and nostalgia, perhaps because this unpretentious style of planting complements smaller houses so well.  Any meanness in the scale of the building is softened and the cottage front garden, in particular, lifts the spirits of passers-by as well as providing pleasure for the owners themselves.

Here follow Jekyll’s photographs of cottage gardens from Old West Surrey together with some of her observations about them.   Her detailed knowledge of plants makes this a useful resource for anyone wishing to re-create a cottage garden from this period.  Links to the text below:

‘The most usual form of the cottage flower-garden is a strip on each side of the path leading from the road to the cottage door.  But if the space is a small one, it is often all given to flowers.  Sometimes, indeed, the smaller the space the more is crammed into it.  One tiny garden I used to watch with much pleasure, had nearly the whole space between road and cottage filled with a rough staging.  It was a good example of how much could be done with little means but much loving labour.  There was a tiny green-house, of which the end shows to the left of the picture, that housed the tender plants in winter, but it could not have held anything like the quantity of plants that appeared on the staging throughout the summer.  There were hydrangeas, fuschias, show and zonal geraniums, lilies and begonias, for the main show; a pot or two of the graceful francoa, and half-hardy annuals cleverly grown in pots; a clematis smothered in bloom, over the door, and, for the protection of all, a framework, to which a light shelter could be fixed in case of very bad weather.  

It must have given pleasure to thousands of passers-by; to say nothing of the pride and delight that it must have been to its owner.’

‘There is scarcely a cottage without some plants in the window; indeed the windows are often so much filled up with them that the light is too much obscured.  The wise cottagers place them outside in the summer, to make fresh growth and to gain strength.  These window plants are the objects of much care, and often make fine specimens.’ 

‘The deep-rooting Everlasting Pea (Winterbean is its local name) is a fine old cottage plant, and Nasturtiums ramble far and wide.  Nowhere else does one see such Wallflowers, Sweet-Williams, and Canterbury Bells, as in these carefully-tended little plots.’

‘Here and there is a clipped yew over a cottage entrance; but this kind of work is not so frequent as in other parts of the country.’

‘China Asters are great favourites – ‘Chaney Oysters’ the old people used to call them – and Dahlias, especially the tight, formal show kinds are much prized and grandly grown.

Sweet smelling bushes and herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, southernwood, mint, sage and balm, or at least some of them were to be found in the older cottagers’ garden plots.’

From Wood and Garden, first published in 1899.

Quintessential cottage garden from Wood and Garden first published 1899.

Further reading:

Old West Surrey

Official Website of the Gertrude Jekyll Estate

Celebrating Fairlop Friday

The Fairlop Oak surrounded by the crowed gathered to celebrate the Fairlop Friday Fair. From A Curious Account of the Origin of Fairlop Fair: with an entertaining description of the motley multitude who assemble on that occasion, published by W. Darton 1811 (images courtesy University of California Libraries, via archive.org).

On the first Friday of July,
Then people meet together,
Regardless of the summer fly,
And fearless of the weather.

The summer has always been a time for all kinds of outdoor celebrations.  While seasonal events like harvest festivals were celebrated by communities all over the country, other festivals had a specifically local character.

One of these is the Fairlop Fair (still celebrated today), a day-long event focused around the once famous Fairlop Oak in Hainault Forest, Essex.  Many English festivals have ancient roots, but the Fairlop Fair appears to be a relatively modern invention, a gathering of London workers wishing to escape the city for a rare summer holiday in the countryside.

The Fairlop Fair, which took place on the first Friday in July, was established in the early eighteenth century.  Its continuing popularity is reflected in A Curious Account of Fairlop Fair; with an entertaining description of the motley multitude who assemble on that occasion, a book for children published in 1811 by William Darton.

The book’s plentiful illustrations and verse describing the day out capture the character of the ‘motley multitude’ of Londoners travelling to Hainault.  From the packing of refreshments to sustain them through the day, to their late night meanderings home, Darton’s vivid portraits of everyone from typical family groups to revellers packed onto carts and coaches conveys the rambunctious nature of Fair’s visitors.

The Fairlop Oak is well documented in paintings and prints, (many examples of which can be seen on the Hainault Forest website) and these images record the tree’s gradual decline over the years, showing its hollow trunk and dying branches.  In its heyday the Fairlop Oak’s trunk measured more than thirty feet in circumference, while its canopy was said to cover an acre of ground.  Although the tree was all but dead by the time Darton records the Fair, the event still drew in crowds of visitors.

The celebration was started by Mr Thomas Day, a boat-builder from Wapping, and Darton explains to the young reader how Day and his friends would travel to the Fairlop Oak in a horse-drawn boat.  The boat, filled with musicians, would be paraded around the old tree.  This spectacle gradually attracted more and more people, and so the Fair began.  Some fascinating photographs on the Hainault Forest website show that a boat on wheels still travelled by road to the Fair from the East End of London as late as 1901.

There’s a sense in which Fairlop Friday with its music, crowds, and copious alcohol mirrors the supposedly more genteel garden gatherings at venues in central London from this time, at Vauxhall and Ranelagh.  The Fair also anticipates the immense popularity of today’s outdoor music festivals like Glastonbury.

Sadly, most of these festivals are unable to go ahead this year due to Covid-19, and judging by the unusually large crowds of people in my local park, enjoying the sun and picnics in the shade of the plane trees, they’re much missed.  There are links to the Hainault Forest website and Darton’s book below.

A family gets dressed for the fair, with their coach waiting for them outside.

Thomas Day, founder of Fairlop Fair drinking and smoking with his friends at the foot of the oak – whilst musicians entertain them.

Thomas Day’s extraordinary boat.

Thomas Day is said to have taken a branch of the Fairlop Oak with which to fashion his coffin.

A festival atmosphere greets visitors to the Fairlop Fair.

This carriage is over-loaded with travellers – many of whom are drinking heavily.

Outdoor events are at the mercy of the weather – here revellers are rained off.

The return to London – the dome of St Paul’s is visible across the fields. Many travellers look the worse for wear.

Further reading:

A Curious Account of the Origin of Fairlop Fair

Hainault Forest website – Fairlop Oak

Hainault Forest website – Fairlop Fair

Trellis work from The Netherlands

Illustration from Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier, or, The Dutch Gardener (1669) by gardener Jan van der Groen.  The reader is invited into the garden to learn the secrets of Dutch horticulture – including some fabulous trellis work. The Getty Research Institute via archive.org

If you look closely, images of 17th century gardens often reveal glimpses of elaborate trellis and lattice work.  Styled to echo architectural features, they provide shaded walkways and privacy for visitors, as well as year round structure in the garden.  Openings in the trellis work frame views of the garden, softened by the foliage and flowers supported by their frameworks.

Frequently, however, it’s hard to see from illustrations exactly how the trellis work was constructed – the plant cover might be too dense, or the structure is too far in the background to be able to see much detail.  While many gardening books from this period contain patterns for knot gardens it’s more unusual to see designs for trellis structures, so I was delighted to find some contained in Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven (1669) which translated from the Dutch means The Pleasurable Country Life.

This book brings together several texts – two about gardening and others about household medicine, bee-keeping and cooking.  A gardener’s calendar explains about plants and seasonal tasks while Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier, or, The Dutch Gardener by Jan van der Groen, a gardener to the Dutch royal family, contains illustrations of some of the country’s finest gardens together with dozens of designs for parterres – and trellis.

According to Lenneke Berkhout at the University of Groningen, Jan van der Groen married into a family of stadholder gardeners, who managed gardens belonging to wealthy households, and by way of this connection he was able to build his career.  Berkhout notes that Van der Groen’s father grew and supplied plants to stadholder gardens alongside his main profession as a broom maker, which might have sparked his son’s early interest in horticulture.

In Dutch society, a stadholder gardener had the status of an overseer, and was part of the middle class, probably owning their own property.  In the mid-17th century there would have been many such stadholder gardeners employed in the Netherlands, but Van der Groen was remarkable in that he wrote a book about his experiences.  Berkhout says, ‘Ultimately, it was the publication of his book that set Van der Groen apart from his peers.  No other court gardener ever penned such a work.’

As you’d expect from a gardener to royalty, many of the trellis structures featured in Van der Groen’s book are extremely complex.  Some of the porticos are crowned with globes and pyramids, and have alcoves for statuary – others have trees incorporated into the structure, their tightly clipped canopies emerging from a trellis vase at the summit.

However, in the last two pages of illustrations the designs are less complicated and smaller in scale.  Constructed out of lateral lengths of wood, these include a charming arbour with a seat, some gateways and a simple colonnade.  As with some of the patterns for knot gardens, these trellis designs could be scaled according to space and budget.

When re-constructing period gardens today the choice of appropriate plants is important, of course, but these striking images show that features like trellis also play a crucial part in creating a space that possesses an atmosphere of the past.

Links to Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven below:

Lattice work in the shape of pyramids, a pillar and a vase designed to incorporate a standard tree growing through it. One of the structures reveals wooden spikes at the bottom to fix it into the ground.

Rosa x alba ‘Alba Maxima’ (A) or the white rose of York grown on an arbour constructed of hazel poles in the 17th century garden at the Geffrye Museum (2016)

Further reading:

Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven

As ever, David Marsh at the Gardens Trust has explored this subject comprehensively – link to his blog : Treillage

Lenneke Berkhout’s article about royal gardener Jan van der Groen

Humphry Repton at Hare Street

The view at Hare Street after improvements were made to the garden. Images from Fragments of the theory and practice of landscape gardening (Getty Research Institute via archive.org)

Written towards the end of his life, Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) is a personal reflection on his career, recalling dozens of the garden projects that he undertook, both great and small, some completed and others unfinished.

Liberated, perhaps, by a sense that he had not much longer to live, Repton is candid about garden styles – and clients – providing us with some interesting insights:

‘Twenty years have now passed away and it is possible that life may be extended twenty years longer, but from my feelings more probable that it will not reach as many weeks; and therefore I may now perhaps be writing the last Fragment of my Labours.  I have lived to see many of my plans beautifully realized, but many more, cruelly marred; sometimes by false economy; sometimes  by injudicious extravagance.  I have also lived to reach that period, when the improvement of Houses and Gardens is more delightful to me, than that of Parks or Forests, Landscapes or distant prospects.’

In the concluding chapter Repton returns to his cottage and garden at Hare Street, his home in Essex for thirty years and his retreat from ‘the pomp of palaces, the elegancies of fashion, or the allurements of dissipation’.

Two illustrations of his garden are provided – one as it was when he acquired the property and another after improvements.  By extending the garden at the front of the house, he is able to frame the view of the village which he finds more pleasing than extensive parkland.  Repton explains:

‘.. it stood originally within five yards of a broad part of the high road: this area was often covered with droves of cattle, of pigs, or geese.  I obtained leave to remove the paling twenty yards farther from the windows; and by this Appropriation of twenty-five yards of Garden, I have obtained a frame to my Landscape; the frame is composed of flowering shrubs and evergreens; beyond which are seen the cheerful village, the high road, and that constant moving scene, which I would not exchange for any of the lonely parks, that I have improved for others;’

A closer inspection of the improved garden reveals the detail of the planting.  Repton has retained two mature trees which he has set within a semi-circular lawn, helping to frame the outlook.  The view of the butcher’s shop is obscured with an iron structure supporting climbing roses and a low rose hedge hides ‘the dirt of the road, without concealing the moving objects which animate the Landscape.’  The practical watering can and simple kitchen chair reinforce the humility of this country residence.

Repton concludes:

‘The most valuable lesson now left me to communicate is this: I am convinced that the delight I have always taken in Landscapes and Gardens, without any reference to their Quantity or Appropriation, or without caring whether they were Forests or Rosaries, or whether they were Palaces, Villas, or Cottages, while I had leave to admire their beauties, and even to direct their improvement has been the chief source of that large proportion of happiness which I have enjoyed through life,’

As we currently spend more time at home than usual – and in our gardens if we are fortunate enough to have them – Hare Street is a reminder of the importance of gardens as a refuge from the world outside whatever their size, and that constructing them is a source of great contentment in our lives.

Humphry Repton 1752 – 1818

The view from the cottage at Hare Street before improvements were made.  The site is located near to Gidea Park in east London.

Detail of the shop front Repton wished to obscure from view

Repton does not say as much, but perhaps another reason to extend his garden was to keep certain people at a distance.

Detail of climbing roses on a structure placed to obscure the view of the butcher’s shop

Detail showing a flowerbed and a hedge of roses and sweet-briar which obscured the dirt of the village road, but allowed Repton to see the movement of people

Repton believed his clients might derive pleasure not so much from the beauty of the their rural view but from calculating how much their livestock might be worth

A vignette showing surveying and drawing implements, plants and practical gardening tools – all necessary to the trade of the landscape architect

Further reading:

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening

Humphry Repton on Wikipedia

The Veteran Wisterias of Haggerston Park

The pergola walk at Haggerston Park showing three veteran wisterias

In any normal spring I’d now be planning some visits to new gardens.  But as the Covid-19 crisis tethers us to a short radius of our homes, I’ve been re-examining outdoor spaces closer by.

Actually, this is no hardship, as in April Haggerston Park’s veteran wisterias provide a show of scented purple flowers as spectacular as any to be seen in much grander gardens.  Judging by the size of their trunks, it’s likely these climbers were planted in 1956, when the park was developed by the London County Council – which means they are now in their mid-sixties.

The University of Oxford records that the first wisteria plants were introduced to the UK in 1816 from China.  While early cuttings changed hands for six guineas, by the mid 1830s wisteria plants could be purchased for less than two shillings, an indication of their immediate popularity with gardeners.

On the north side of the park, bounded by Whiston Road, there’s a long pergola walk and three of the wisterias are located here – their immense stems curling up slim brick columns.  As the winding growth of these plants joins together and spreads out above these columns, at this time of year the flowers cascade down along the entire length of the structure.

On the west side of the pergola is a spiral staircase – a wonderful architectural detail echoing the shapes of the wisteria trunks – leading upwards to a viewing platform.  It’s here that visitors can study the flowers close up and appreciate their intense perfume – somewhere between lilac and hyacinth – or even sweet pea, as the wisteria is in fact a member of the legume family.

Haggerston Park is situated on land previously occupied by a gas works, and according to Hackney Council’s history of the park, the gas produced there for street and indoor lighting was ‘of offensive smell, unnatural brilliance and unfailing propensity to cause headaches.’  The gas works suffered bomb damage in World War Two and when the decision was made to develop the site into a park in the 1950s, some of its impressively high 19th century brick walls were retained as part of the design.

One of these immense walls bisects the park, dividing the grassed areas to the north from the football pitch, wildlife areas and Hackney City Farm, all developed in the 1980s.  It is here that a fourth veteran wisteria is found.  Left untrained, it now spills over the top of the wall and covers the substantial roofs of the adjacent toilet blocks.

The source of the plant is not immediately apparent, but can be found at the base of the wall in a shady corner – another enormous trunk shooting upwards towards the light supporting a massive tangle of stems branching upwards and outwards in all directions.  An arched opening in the wall – possibly once a tall window in the gas works – is still just visible through the vegetation.

These park walls are large enough to accommodate such a specimen, but show just how vigorous wisteria plants are and how large they can get without regular pruning – if this was a residential street, a row of terraced houses would now be submerged in such a profusion of growth.

In the hopeful spirit of the 1950s Haggerston Park was conceived to improve the quality of life for Londoners – which it has done admirably since – and now makes an incalculable difference for local people who might otherwise have no outside space in which to take their daily exercise.  Let’s hope that Hackney’s green spaces can continue to remain open to visitors throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

Entrance gate to Haggerston Park on Whiston Road

According the RHS, Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) twine clockwise, while Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twine anti-clockwise. Who knew?

Wisteria flowers cover the railings on the viewing platform

The trunk of an un-pruned wisteria on a high wall in the centre of the park

The arch in the wall is just visible through the profusion of wisteria stems and flowers

Further Reading:

Haggerston Park on Wikipedia

Hackney Council – History of Haggerston Park

London Parks and Gardens Trust

Herbaria – University of Oxford

RHS Guide to Growing Wisteria

Some Medicinal Herbs

Garden rosemary from The herball or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard 1597. Images courtesy of The Getty Institute via archive.org

Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.
Come buy my ground ivy.
Here’s fetherfew, gilliflowers and rue.
Come buy my knotted marjorum, ho!
Come buy my mint, my fine green mint.
Here’s fine lavender for your cloaths.
Here’s parsley and winter-savory,
And hearts-ease, which all do choose.
Here’s balm and hissop, and cinquefoil,
All fine herbs, it is well known.
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!

The Cries of London Anon. (17th century) from Poems on the Underground (Cassell,1997)

When traders’ cries like these were a familiar sound on London’s streets, herbal remedies were central to our treatment of disease.  Ordinary plants like sage, thyme and ground ivy were grown in gardens, gathered from hedgerows or, as the poem demonstrates, sold door to door for domestic use as medicine.

The herball or, Generall historie of plants (1597) by John Gerard is a rich source of plant based cures and treatments considered effective against illness in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It’s also a reminder of the important practical role gardens had in relation to our health in the past, and the ongoing quest for cures which continues to this day.

The herbs mentioned in the poem are listed here with woodcuts and excerpts from Gerard explaining some of their medicinal purposes.   There’s a link below to the 1597 version of The Herball from The Getty Foundation.

Of Sage.
Gerard’s evocative description of the texture of sage leaves: ‘The great Sage is very full of stalks, fower square, of a woodie substance, parted into branches, about the which grow broad leaves, long, wrinckled, rough, whitish, very like to the leaves of a wilde Mullein, but rougher, and not so white, like in roughness to woollen cloth thread bare;’  He confirms that none of the sage varieties are native to England, but they are widely grown – ‘I have them all in my garden, most of them are very common.’


Of garden Time.
‘Time boiled in water and honie and drunken, is good against the cough and shortnesse of the breath.’  Dried thyme was used to make a medicine called Oximell, used as a cure for a range of ailments from intestinal worms to pains in the head and melancholy.  ‘Made into powder and taken in the waight of three drams with Meade or honied vineger, called Oximell’


Of Ground Ivie, or Alehoofe.
‘Ground Ivie is commended against the humming noise and ringing sounde of the eares, being put into them, and for them that are hard of hearing.’  Gerard also recommends the leaves of ground ivy steeped in water for eye complaints – interestingly, not just for humans but for ‘horse, or cowe, or any other beast’.


Of Feverfew.
As Gerard observes, to grow well this plant requires sharp drainage: ‘The common single Feverfew groweth in hedges, gardens, and about olde walles.  It joyeth to grow among rubbish.’ As its common name suggest, this herb is used to drive away ‘agues’ or fevers.


Of Wall flowers, or yellow stocke Gilloflowers.
‘These kindes of stocke Gilloflowers do grow in most gardens throughout England.’
‘.. yet are they not used in phisicke, except amongst certaine Empericks and Quacksalvers, about love and lust matters, which for modestie I omit.’

Of Rue, or herbe Grace.
‘Sage and with it herbe Grace or Rue,
Make drinks both safe and sound for you.’
Gerard records multiple uses for this herb, used both on its own or in combination with other ingredients.  ‘Rue boiled with Dill, Fennell seede, and some Sugar, in sufficient quantitie of wine, swageth the torments and griping paines of the belly, the paines in the sides and breast, the difficultie of breathing, the cough, and stopping of the lungs, and helpeth such as are declining unto a dropsie.’


Of Marierome.
‘The leaves are excellent good to be put into all odoriferous ointments, waters, powders, broths, and meates.’  ‘There is an excellent oile to be drawen foorth of these herbes, good against the shrinking of sinewes, convulsions, and all aches proceeding of a cold cause.’


Of Mints.
Some uses of mint recorded by Gerard include stomach complaints and headaches:  ‘Mint is marvellous wholsome for the stomack.’  ‘.. being applied to the forehead, or to the temples, as Plinie teacheth, doth take away the headache.’  Children’s ‘sore heads’ could also be treated with this herb.


Of Lavender spike.
Gerard records that lavender conserve was used for a variety of complaints affecting the head, including headaches, dizziness and fainting.  Pill sized amounts of the conserve were to be taken daily: ‘Conserve made of the flowers with sugar, profiteth much against the diseases aforesaid, if the quantitie of a beane be taken thereof in the morning fasting.’


Of Parsley.
‘The leaves of garden Parsley are of a beautiful greene, consisting of many little ones fastened together, divided most commonly into three parts, and also snipt rounde about the edges:’  Parsley was believed to be a cure against venom and poisons, and could be effective for a cough if mixed or boiled with other medicines.  Gerard observes that the roots of the plant were also used, ‘if they be boiled in broth; they be also delightfull to the taste, and agreeable to the stomack.’


Of Savorie.
Gerard describes winter savoury as ‘hot and drie in the third degree’ and having the same uses as thyme.


Of Harts ease, or Paunsies.
‘It is commended against inflammations of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’  Common names for the plant Gerard mentions include ‘Herbe Trinitie by means of the triple colour of the flowers’ and ‘three faces in a hood’.


Of Bawme.
‘Bawme drunke in wine, is good against the bitings of venemous beasts; comforteth the hart, and driveth away all melancholie and sadnesse’.  Today we know this plant as lemon balm or Melissa officinalis.


Of Hyssope.
‘A decoction of Hyssope made with figs, water, honie, and rue, and drunken, helpeth the inflammation of the lungs, the olde cough, and shortnes of breath, and the obstructions or stoppings of the breast.’


Of Cinkefoile, or Five Finger Grasse.
‘The juice of the rootes while they be yoong and tender, is given to be drunken against the diseases of the liver and lungs, and all poison.  The same drunk in meade or honied water, or wine wherein some pepper hath beene mingled, cureth the tertain and quartaine fevers:’

Further reading:

The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes

Shigemasa’s Birds and Flowers

Birds with cherry blossom (Vol 1) from Kacho shashin zui by Kitao Shigemasa (1805).  All images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute via archive.org.

Magnolia, wisteria, winter flowering jasmine, Japanese quince – many of these species were introduced from Japan into European cultivation by explorers and plant hunters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Now familiar and available to everyone, and growing in gardens by their thousands, it’s hard to imagine that these plants would once have been rarities.

In Kacho shashin zui, an intriguing collection of early 19th century Japanese woodcuts, the branches of these flowering shrubs and trees form settings for some spectacularly beautiful birds.  According to the British Museum, Kacho shashin zui translates as ‘Lifelike depictions of flowers and birds’.  However, a quick internet search suggests that today the Japanese word ‘shashin’ can also relate to film, indicating a snapshot or photograph.

The composition of these woodcuts does indeed give them a photographic quality – they possess the immediacy of a close up shot.  Typically spanning two pages, birds are shown perching on leafy twigs and sprays of blossom the edges of which are cropped by a rectangular black border.  This has the effect of drawing us into the image, focusing our attention on the birds.  In a striking image of a jay hanging upside down in a gingko tree, only one of the leaves is shown in its entirety, the rest are cut through by the frame of the image.

The creator of these woodcuts, Kitao Shigemasa, is a precise observer of the forms of plants.  The shape of leaves, textures of bark, angles of branches and the way flowers are held on the stems reveal very accurately the character of each plant.

Kitao Shigemasa (1739 – 1820) was a print maker based near modern-day Tokyo, who, in a long career, produced illustrations for more than 250 books.  The three volumes of Kacho shashin zui referred to here are from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection – and one of their delights (as well as the stunning woodcuts within) is to open their plain covers and experience the digital books opening left to right – links are below.

There’s always something very special about blossom appearing on bare branches, and, as spring officially begins this week, it’s the perfect time to appreciate the emerging flowers of cherries and magnolias in our parks, streets and gardens.

A jay perches on a gingko (Vol 1)

Kerria japonica

Citrus

Begonia (Vol 2)

Oak (Vol 2)

Magnolia stellata (Vol 2)

Wisteria (Vol 3)

Winter flowering jasmine (jasminum nudiflorum)

Peony (Vol 3)

Further reading:

Vol 1 Kacho shashin zui

Vol 2 Kacho shashin zui

Vol 3 Kacho shashin zui

Kitao Shigemasa (Wikipedia)

The Trade of the Gardener

The Gardener from Little Jack of all Trades published by Darton & Harvey 1814 (all images via archive.org)

Stories about the real world and real lives were considered as interesting and exciting as pure fiction in children’s books of Georgian England.  The trades were a popular subject – what people did and how things were made were described and illustrated with woodcuts, bringing these occupations to life for the young reader.

One such example is Little Jack of all Trades (1814) from Darton and Harvey, publishers of many children’s books from the later eighteenth century into the Victorian era.  Author William Darton begins by likening workers in the various trades to bees in a hive, where everyone has their specific role to play within a larger inter-connected structure:

‘all are employed – all live cheerfully and whilst each individual works for the general good, the whole community works for him.  The baker supplies the bricklayer, the gardener and the tailor with bread; and they, in return, provide him with shelter, food and raiment: thus, though each person is dependent on the other, all are independent.’

I was delighted to see that the book includes a profile of a gardener, who appears alongside other practical tradespeople such as the carpenter, blacksmith, cabinet maker, mason, bookbinder, printer and hatter (to cite but a few examples).

The gardener in the illustration is handing a large bouquet of flowers to a well-dressed woman – most probably the wife of his employer.  Our gardener is a manager – his two assistants behind him are engaged in digging over the soil and watering a bed of plants, while we learn his specialist skills include grafting and pruning.

In the background a heated greenhouse extends the season for the production of fruits and other crops (smoke from the building’s stove is visible rising from the chimney on the right of the picture).  All the tools of the gardeners’ trade remain familiar to us today:

‘the spade to dig with, the hoe to root out weeds, the dibble to make holes which receive the seed and plants, the rake to cover seeds with earth when sown, the pruning hook and watering pot.’

From a present day perspective, it’s interesting that Darton’s description of the gardener makes the connection between gardening and well-being:

‘Working in a garden is a delightful and healthy occupation; it strengthens the body, enlivens the spirits, and infuses into the mind a pleasing tranquillity, and sensations of happy independence.’

William Darton (1755 – 1819) was an engraver, stationer and printer in London and with partner Joseph Harvey (1764 – 1841) published books for children and religious tracts.  His sons Samuel and William Darton were later active in the business.  A full account of the evolution of the company with its various partners and offshoots is explained on the British Museum website – see link below.

Darton and Harvey’s books for children always contain plentiful illustrations and, while stylised, are packed with details of clothes, buildings and interiors, conveying a powerful sense of working life in the early 19th century.

Today in England the status of gardening as a skilled trade has been undermined and eroded – so it’s pleasing to see the gardener in this book taking his place alongside other trades as an equal partner.  I’ve included below the text for the gardener’s profile and some images of other tradespeople from Little Jack of all Trades, together with a link to the book at archive.org.  I hope you will take a look at your leisure.

Little Jack of all Trades published by Darton & Harvey 1814

Further reading:

Little Jack of all Trades

Biography of the Darton family publishing house from The British Museum

Pruning the Brogdale Bramley

Bramley’s Seedling apples on the tree at the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale (photo Wikimedia Commons)

Venturing out on my first horticultural visit of the year, last Saturday I headed for Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection just outside Faversham in Kent.  February being an ideal time to prune apple trees, my purpose was to attend a pruning demonstration, whereby a large Bramley apple tree left unpruned for the last six years would be re-shaped.

Bramley’s Seedling is still one of the UK’s best known cooking apples.  The original tree was raised in 1809 from seed planted by a young girl Mary Ann Brailsford in her Nottinghamshire cottage garden.  By the 1840s the cottage (and apple tree) were owned by one Matthew Bramley, a butcher, who allowed cuttings to be taken for commercial propagation by local nurseryman Henry Merryweather on condition that the trees bore his name.

The Bramley apple tree produces delicious fruit, but has some special requirements for successful cultivation.  They are vigorous trees, needing a large space to grow well and are triploids meaning that they need two separate apple varieties nearby to ensure successful pollination.

The Bramley apple tree that greeted us at Brogdale was a confusing prospect – tall, asymmetric, with an over-abundance of sprawling branches.  It was clear that pruning was required, but how to begin with such a tangle of growth?

Our guide, the horticulturalist and fruit tree specialist John Easton encouraged us to stand back from the tree, walk around it and examine it from every angle.  We should also try to imagine the tree as it might appear from above – ideally up to five major branches would radiate out like the spokes of a wheel.

John identified two main problems with the tree.  There were large branches shading the centre of the tree, preventing new shoots from developing, (which would eventually form a framework of new branches).  The tree also had too many lateral shoots, causing the tree to be very congested.

We were then asked to suggest which large branches should come out, and after some deliberation, these branches were marked with tape at their junction with the trunk of the tree.  John emphasised the importance of sticking to a decision about removing branches as a loss of confidence half way through the process could result in a tree that was unbalanced.

Using both a small hand held chainsaw and a pole mounted chainsaw, Martin (John’s assistant for the day) started to remove branches.  John then used a pruning saw and secateurs to thin growth on the branches that we’d decided to keep and raise the level of the lowest of these so the crop would not be splashed with soil and the grass beneath could be mown easily.  Under John’s guidance Martin next removed a vast quantity of 5 year old upright shoots from the centre of the tree, leaving those remaining with enough space to develop and bear fruit.

The pruned tree still had a wide spread, and while it might be tempting to tidy away the tips of the branches to make the tree neater, John explained why this should be avoided in a Bramley.  As a partial tip-bearer, fruit is produced at the ends of the branches, and also on short spurs that appear along the fruiting laterals.  As new, upright shoots develop the weight of the apple crop has the effect of ‘bringing down’ the branches which are quite flexible.  But if the ends are removed this has a stiffening effect on the branch and interrupts the growth pattern of tree.

Finally, John explained the current thinking about the treatment of watershoots, which spring up in great numbers on the main branches and sometimes the tree trunk, where the sap flow is at its greatest.  Rather than remove them all (for aesthetic purposes) he suggested removing a third entirely with a saw, cutting a third back to around three inches with a secateurs and bending in the final third to curtail their upward growth.  He explained that the roughness of the saw cut damaged the tree cells more than a cleaner cut with secateurs, and stopped re-growth more effectively.

Ideally apple trees should be pruned on a three year cycle with a maximum of one third of the growth removed at any one time.  John emphasised the importance of knowing when to stop – although there were more laterals that he could have removed, the danger of damaging the tree after the major work he had carried out was too great.  And so it being time, as John put it, to ‘walk away from the tree’ we finished our day.

A tangle of branches – the tree before pruning.

Having decided which branches to remove, these are marked clearly with tape.

Fruit tree expert John Easton (on the ground) and Martin (on the ladder) discuss which branches are to be removed.

Martin uses a pole chainsaw to take out a vertical branch.

John uses a pruning saw and secateurs to thin fruiting laterals closer to the ground.

Expert cut to thin out growth on a fruiting lateral.

Bark of the Bramley tree in the early February sunshine.

The Brogdale Bramley after pruning.

A fraction of the mass of material from the tree after pruning.

Blossom of the Bramley’s Seedling apple, National Fruit Collection, Brogdale (photo Wikimedia Commons)

Bramley Tree Cottage in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where the first Bramley apple tree was raised from seed by Mary Ann Brailsford.  Photograph: Alan Murray-Rust Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

Brogdale Collections – home of the National Fruit Collection including over 2000 apple varieties

The Bramley Seedling Apple – the history of this much loved tree on Wikipedia

Celebrating Karl Foerster

1952 catalogue

Karl Foerster 
9th March 1874 – 27th November 1970

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of plantsman, writer and designer Karl Foerster.  As well as breeding hundreds of perennial plants, Foerster was instrumental in pioneering a planting style that was both naturalistic and sustainable using hardy plants suited to local soil conditions and climate.  His iconic nursery and garden at Potsdam-Bornim near Berlin which he managed from 1910 until 1970 is open to the public as a monument to his life and work.

Thanks to the European Nursery Catalogue Collection which has digitised over forty of Foerster’s catalogues, we have a fascinating record of the range plants he offered for sale, and glimpses of his garden.  His plant lists reveal a mixture of species plants and a range of perennials still very fashionable today, such as heleniums, day lilies, grasses and geraniums.

The Potsdam-Bornim garden (link at the end of this post) estimates that around a third of the plants Foerster developed are still in cultivation.  One of his favourite flowers was Phlox paniculata and he once remarked that a garden without this plant was ‘a mistake’.  He started breeding phlox in the 1930s and his nursery catalogues record pages of varieties, from palest pink to deep red tones.  ‘Düsterlohe’ with its rich purple flowers is still a bestseller.

Some of the catalogues contain planting plans showing customers how they might arrange plants purchased from Foerster.  The plans indicate how many plants of each variety should be used and suggests placing them together in blocks to enhance the effect of their contrasting forms and textures.

After training at the Schwerin Palace Gardens and the Royal Gardening School near Potsdam Foerster established his first nursery at Berlin-Westend in 1903 and re-located it to Potsdam-Bornin in 1910.  The garden produced potatoes and vegetables during the second World War, but in 1945 the Soviet military administration gave permission to operate as a nursery once more.  Foerster’s daughter Marianne oversaw the continuation of the garden from the 1990s until her death in 2010.

Foerster’s catalogues list plants developed by other famous nurserymen such as Georg Arendts in Germany and Bonne Ruys (father of the designer Mien Ruys) in the Netherlands.  Their names reveal a network of influential horticulturalists and designers exchanging plants and ideas.  Foerster’s influence can still  be detected in the work of designers today – here in the UK Beth Chatto’s garden and plant catalogues seem to share the same spirit with their plant selections, as do the palettes of plants used by Dan Pearson and Sarah Price.

The grass Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ was named after Foerster as a tribute to his work.  With its upright plumes turning a pale straw colour in winter, this plant is still a key component in contemporary planting schemes and it seems appropriate that the plant named for him remains so popular.

Foerster attached great importance to the garden as a haven for nature and his company logo, a stylised daisy-like flower surrounded by three butterflies, underlines this.  Fifty years on, Foerster’s philosophy of planting is more relevant today than ever, with our current challenge to create gardens that are friendly to wildlife and the environment.

Karl Foerster pictured in his 1964 catalogue.

Peony from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plans from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plan for shade, showing the canopy of two trees and stepping stones through the planting

Foerster’s logo – a daisy surrounded by butterflies

1972 catalogue

1957 catalogue

Brightly coloured phlox from the 1957 catalogue

Front Cover of the 1972 catalogue showing Phlox paniculata ‘Eva Foerster’ in the foreground with ‘Aida’, ‘Flammenkuppel’ and ‘Fullhorn’.

Doesn’t this planting remind you of Beth Chatto’s garden?

I like the German word for water lily – Seerose.

Perennial grasses from Foerster’s 1972 catalogue: Miscanthus sacchariflorus ‘Robustus’, Cortaderia selloana, Pennisetum compressum, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Stricta’

Chrysanthemum x hortorum ‘Schwytz’, Ligularia hybrid, Helenium ‘Feuersiegel’ and Erigeron ‘Wuppertal’ from the 1967 catalogue

An order form from the 1967 catalogue

The garden at Potsdam Bornim

Molinia altissima from the 1967 catalogue

Further reading:

European Nursery Catalogue Collection

Karl Foerster (Wikipedia)

Potsdam-Bornim (Garden Visit)

Potsdam-Bornim website