Pruning Pears with William Forsyth

William Forsyth (1737 – 1804) stipple engraving by Samuel Freeman (Wellcome Institute Collection)

When William Forsyth published his Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees in 1802 he had been gardener to King George III for eighteen years, during which time he was credited with the transformation of the royal orchards at Kensington Palace.  His experimental pruning techniques rejuvenated the Palace’s old fruit trees making them productive once more.  Forsyth was also celebrated for his invention of a dressing for damaged trees, which was believed to assist in restoring them to good health.

Before his royal appointment, William Forsyth already had a prestigious career in horticulture.  Born in Aberdeenshire, Forsyth re-located to London to train at the Chelsea Physic Garden under another Scottish gardener, Philip Miller (1691 – 1777), eventually becoming head gardener there in 1771.  He took up the position of superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace and St James’s Palace in 1784.  The now familiar garden shrub forsythia was named for him and he is an ancestor of the late entertainer, Bruce Forsyth.

William Forsyth’s employment brought him to the attention of the English establishment, who saw his work in the royal gardens.  They were impressed by his success with the King’s fruit trees, and persuaded by the efficacy of his ‘composition’ or remedy for damaged trees.  Against the background of the Napoleonic Wars when access to good timber was essential, the composition was discussed in both houses of Parliament and the recipe published in the national interest.  It was printed in local newspapers across the country to encourage landowners across England to adopt it for the health of their forest trees.

This dressing, or ‘composition’ as Forsyth called it, was made out of cow dung, lime plaster (‘that from the ceilings of rooms is preferable’), wood ashes and sand.  It was applied to tree wounds after careful preparation of the surface, first removing any dead or diseased wood.  Gradually, the damaged area was restored and covered over by new bark.

In his book, Forsyth explains how his work with trees started.  As the new gardener to the royal family in 1784, Forsyth was expected to produce abundant and tasty fruits for the royal tables, but when he arrived at Kensington Palace he was faced with a dilemma.

The gardens contained dozens of fruit trees, some large orchard trees, dwarf standard trees, and others wall trained, but the trees were old and had stopped bearing well.  He observes the pear trees are ‘in a very cankery and unfruitful state’, but after changing the soil around the trees and pruning them, 18 months later he notices no improvement.  Forsyth says,

‘I began to consider what was best to be done with so many old pear-trees that were worn out.  The fruit that they produced I could not send to his Majesty’s table with any credit to myself, it being small, hard and kernelly.’

But rather than grub up the old trees and wait for new stock to start bearing – Forsyth estimates this would have taken ‘between twelve and fourteen years’ – he decides to ‘try an experiment, with a view of recovering the old ones.’

In 1786 Forsyth began a process of ‘heading down’ seven old trees, probably best explained by the illustrations below.  Some large branches were removed as close to a bud as possible, allowing the tree to produce new, vigorous shoots.  In the case of wall trained pear trees, the new growth was carefully tied in.

St Germain Pear Tree
This plate represents an old decayed Pear-tree, with four stems, which was headed down, all but the branch C, and the young wood trained in the common way, or fan-fashioned.

Branches marked A show young wood, producing the fine large fruit B.

C. An old branch pruned in the common way, having large spurs standing out a foot or eighteen inches, and producing the diminutive, kernelly and ill-favoured fruit D, not fit to be eaten.

White Beurre Pear Tree
Fig. 1. An old decayed Beurre pear-tree, headed down at f, and restored from one inch and a half of live bark.

Fig. 2. An old branch of the same tree before it was headed down, trained and pruned in the old way, with spurs standing out a foot, or a foot and a half from the wall; and the rough bark, infested with a destructive insect

The diagram of an old White Beurre pear tree shows detail of an old branch which has been removed – the bark was infested with insects, so the pruning has the effect of eliminating persistent pests as well as promoting new growth.

As well as the headed down trees, Forsyth kept seven trees as a control group and pruned these in the regular way.  Forsyth observes that in the third year after ‘heading down’, the trees were producing more fruit that they did previously, and that it is larger and of better quality.  After four years the trees are producing ‘upwards of five times the quantity of fruit that the others did’.  Here’s an excerpt showing the improved yield and also the systematic nature of Forsyth’s records.

Trees treated according to the common method of pruning:

‘A Crasane produced one hundred pears, and the tree spread fourteen yards.
Another Crasane produced sixteen pears, and the tree spread ten yards.’

Trees headed down and pruned according to my method:

‘A Crasane bore five hundred and twenty pears.
A Brown Beurre bore five hundred and three pears.
Another Brown Beurre bore five hundred and fifty pears.’

Forsyth’s crops were even greater using his pruning method on smaller, standard trees; so much so, he ‘is obliged to prop the branches, to prevent their being broken down by the weight of it.’

In other chapters, Forsyth records similar successes with apples, plums, apricots, peaches and grape vines, and towards the end of the book publishes a series of endorsements from prominent people who have tried his pruning methods and his composition in their own gardens.

What’s inspiring today about Forsyth’s treatise is his willingness to use his vast horticultural experience pragmatically – and creatively – to address a problem.  He teaches us that from time to time it’s worthwhile to step back from the ‘correct way’ of doing things and experiment with a different approach to address the challenges that gardening presents us with.

Links below to Forsyth’s Treatise.  I’ve included a plate of the pruning tools used by Forsyth and an explanation of these from the text.

Standard Pear Tree
An old Bergamot Pear, headed down at the cicatrix a, taken from the wall and planted out as a dwarf standard.
b. A wound, covered with the composition, where a large upright shoot was cut off, to give the leading shoot freedom to grow straight.

Figs 2 and 3 show the insect (probably the Codling moth) so destructive to fruit trees.

Tools used by Forsyth both for pruning and for preparing wood to receive his healing composition

Forsyth’s directions for making his Composition from 1791

Gardener with pear tree, Ote Hall, Sussex. Photographed by Charles Jones circa 1901 – 20 (V&A Collections)

The above photograph gives a sense of the abundance of a wall trained pear, when pruned skillfully.

Further reading:

William Forsyth’s Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees

William Forsyth (horticulturalist) Wikipedia

At the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company

New for 1942 – Burpee’s yellow cosmos front cover of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers Catalogue (via archive.org)

In mid-January, with its cold, short days and spring still some distance over the horizon, many of us delight in browsing through the new season’s seed catalogues. Whether we consult a paper catalogue, or visit a website, both immerse us in a colourful world of new growing possibilities and provide a welcome reminder of summer days to come.

But as we place our orders, who are the people who will receive and process them, fill the seed packets, package them up and post them to us?  In this remarkable photographic project from 1943, Arthur S. Siegel takes us into the heart of operations at seed dealers W. Atlee Burpee in Philadelphia to meet the staff keeping the supply of vegetable and flower seeds flowing to its customers during World War II.

The project was commissioned by the Office of War Information as part of a country-wide record of the role played by US companies in the war effort.  At once we notice the large number of women employed at W. Atlee Burpee, working across the roles, in administration, testing seed samples for viability, and operating the machines that sorted seeds into their packets.  The men are generally above conscription age – although there is one young man working in the vast storage and packing department.  The caption of a photograph showing a young woman sweeping the floor explains that she is doing the man’s job of a janitor due to the war.

The W. Atlee Burpee Company was established in 1876 and by the time David Burpee took over the business from his father in 1915, it was estimated to be the largest seed company in the world, employing 300 people and distributing over a million of its catalogues each year.  Whereas Atlee was focused primarily on vegetables, David liked flowers and produced dozens of new varieties of marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias.  David Burpee also ran the Victory Gardens campaign aimed at city dwellers and teaching them how to grow their own food during the produce shortages caused by World War II.

As a large company W. Atlee Burpee supplied farms and market gardens in the United States, as well as individuals.  Siegel’s photographs show rows of seed sacks ready for dispatch to agricultural businesses across the United States, while others are labelled for shipping around the world, to England, Ireland and South Africa.  The photograph of the company’s enormous Philadelphia building underlines of the scale of the enterprise.

The atmosphere at the warehouse seems busy and focused; the piles of order forms on workers’ desks and heaps of packages waiting for posting indicating the important role of growing food during wartime.  But the wartime catalogues continue to feature plenty of flowers alongside the vegetables, and these are given pride of place on the occasional colour pages of these mostly black and white publications.

Planning the garden and choosing some favourite flowers is the gardener’s annual response to this dormant season and the new year – but perhaps now, as in the 1940s, it’s also a response to uncertain times – sowing some seeds as an act of hope and optimism.

Exterior of the W. Atlee Burpee seed plant, Philadelphia 1943 photographed by Arthur S. Siegel (Library of Congress)

Sealing envelopes containing seed

Order assembler standing next to racks containing seed packages

Finding seed package in seed rack

Feeding envelopes to seed counting machines

The cashier totaling individual orders

Operator of a seed counting machine

Interior of the bulk seed warehouse

Bags of seed to be sent to England

Wrapper with packages of seed ready for the mail

Orders in trays before they are packed for shipment

Measuring bulk seed order

Seed packages arranged in seed rack

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Typing address labels on a flat bed typewriter

Punching code information on mailing stencils

Testing seeds for germinating qualities

Storage of bulk seeds

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Checking seed order against catalog

Weighing the outgoing mail

Germinating seeds after they have been removed from the oven

Accountant assembling the day’s returns

Checking an order against the catalog

Bulb storage racks

Women with a typical display rack of Burpee seeds

Seed filling machine

Due to the War the janitor is a girl

Outdoor sign over doorway entrance

Burpee’s Wildfire New Single Marigolds 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
Order form from the 1941 Catalogue

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
1941 Catalogue

Burpee’s New and Better Vegetables 1942

Burpee’s new Calendulas – the X-Ray Twins ‘Glowing Gold’ and ‘Orange Fluffy’ 1942

Back cover of the catalogue 1942

Further reading:

Library of Congress: Arthur S. Siegel’s photographs of the W. Atlee Burpee Company

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1942

The Smithsonian Libraries: Biographies of American Seedsmen and Nurserymen

 

Thoughts about Garden Pruning Tools

A collection of pruning knives from ‘Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier’ (1813) Bibliothèque nationale de France

As I start to think about pruning the roses later this month, even in our small garden it’s a job requiring secateurs, bypass and anvil loppers, and a long handled pruner with a pole-mounted blade, operated by pulling a cord.  These indispensable tools have their origins in early 19th century France, and over time, they began to replace the traditional pruning knives and bill-hooks used in previous centuries.

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier: Répresentant les Utensiles le plus généralement employés dans la culture des Jardins (1813) contains a wonderful visual record of the range of tools available to French gardeners at this time, showing older items alongside new introductions.  Tools for pruning include shears used for trimming hedges and borders, a basic pole pruner operated by a cord, pruning knives, croissants or semi-circular pruning hooks which could be attached to poles of different lengths, and saws of various sizes.

1. Serpe ordinaire. 2. Cisailles ou Ciseaux à tondre les haies ou les bordures. (shears for clipping hedges or borders) 3. Scie à main, ou Egoine (handsaw) 4. Petit Croissant qui se visse au bout d’une canne. 5. Hachette de Forsith. 6. Couteau à scie. 7. Cordeau avec ses piquets.

1. Croissant. (pruning hook) 2. Échenilloir. (tree pruner) 3. Rateau double à dents de bois, ou Fauchet. 4. Rateau simple à dents de fer. 5. Pioche de deux dents. 6. Couteau pour cueillir les asperges (asparagus knife).

There’s also an illustration of the sécateur – a brand new pruning tool invented by  M. le marquis Bertrand de Moleville.   (A royalist, Moleville lived as an exile in England during the years of the French Revolution, returning to France when it was safe for him to do so.)  Developed for for use in viticulture, the text explains how the summer pruning of vines was made more efficient using the new tool, claiming that the gardener was able to achieve in just one hour with the sécateur what would have taken four using the traditional serpette, or pruning knife.

The illustration of the sécateur is given a whole page to itself in the 1813 edition, indicating its importance.  In just a decade, by the time the third edition of this book was published in 1823, the extraordinary influence of the sécateur can be seen in a whole range of new or improved pruning tools, using its bypass blade technology.

Sécateur – invented by M. le marquis Bertrand de Moleville for use in viticulture

The sécateur appears to have attracted the interest of a Paris based firm of engineers, Arnheiter and Petit.  As well as manufacturing new tools to the specification of independent designers, the company developed tools themselves.   In the 1820s they produced the ébranchoir, or ‘tres-grands secateur’ – we would call it a lopper – and produced three échenilloirs, or tree pruners, a vast improvement of an existing tool said to have come originally from Germany (see illustration XX).

Their loppers use the same design principle as the sécateur, but on a larger scale, allowing branches of greater diameter to be cut effectively.  The first has handles around one and half feet in length and can cut branches the diameter of a thumb.  Made entirely of steel, it must have been quite heavy to use.  The second lopper cuts branches of the same diameter, and can be used on taller trees.  Both arms of this ébranchoir end in sockets which were attached to wooden poles, giving the tool greater reach, but without making it too heavy.  The échenilloirs, or tree pruners, benefitted from refined mechanisms and a reach of ten feet.

Ébranchoirs or loppers – from the third edition of Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier (1823) Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla

Tree pruners with a pulley mechanism – still used today.

Tree pruners operated with a cord

Échenilloir à Croissant – designed by M. Reginer

Two tools illustrated on the page below were specifically for cutting roses.  Object 3 in the diagram is a version of the sécateur called the sécateur-cueille-rose.  The other tool, which resembles a pair of ornate scissors, (objects 1 & 2) is a cueille-rose or donne-rose and was marketed for use by women.  The text includes the address of a shop in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris which sold it.

Looking at my own pruning tools today, it’s surprising how little the designs have changed.  My secateurs are sprung, and have plastic handles, but are broadly similar to Moleville’s original.  Our tree pruner (inherited from my father and probably made in the 1970s) is essentially the same as the pulley version made by Arnheiter and Petit, apart from its modern aluminium handle and plastic cord.  Our bypass loppers have telescopic handles and an anvil blade (introduced later in the 19th century) – but these tools from France developed two hundred years ago, over a remarkably short ten year period, are still vital for the 21st century gardener.

Links to both editions of Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier below – and some coloured plates from the 1813 edition of the book showing spades, cloches and wheelbarrows and watering cans – nothing to do with pruning, but because they evoke the period so well.

Further reading:

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier second edition 1813

Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier third edition 1823

 

At New York’s Christmas tree market

Christmas tree market, Barclay Street Station, between 1885 – 1895. (all images from the Library of Congress)

Resembling an evergreen stockade, the crossed upright rows of Christmas trees for sale outside Barclay Street Station in Manhattan make a dramatic sight, balanced on their sturdy frames and stretching far into the distance.  Taken between 1885 and 1895, these remarkable archive photographs from the Library of Congress record the city’s Christmas tree market.  

The New York trade in Christmas trees is said to have started in the 1850s very close to Barclay Street with a woodsman named Mark Carr, who brought trees from his land in Catskill mountains in New York state and sold them in nearby Vesey and Greenwich Streets.  The trees were popular, and by the 1870s there was a flourishing market in all types of Christmas evergreen decorations centred around this location, with enormous loads of trees brought here for distribution both to wholesalers and the public.

In an article published on Christmas Day, 1878 and entitled ‘Christmas Green.  Where it Comes from and How it is Brought Here’, The New York Tribune describes how the majority of the trees came to New York from Maine, transported by rail.  It was estimated a total of 125,000 trees were available for sale in that year and the cost of the trees was according to size, as the reporter explains:

‘Prices have ranged from 50 cents to $1 “a bunch” wholesale; .. the number of trees in this unit varying from two to a dozen, as they range from ten feet in length, to four feet.  Larger trees are sold singly, and some choice specimens, 31 feet high are worth from $8 to $12.’

The popularity of ready-made evergreen decorations such as wreaths, garlands and crowns, is noted – ideal for a busy, city clientele who lacked time to make them at home.  These decorations were supplied from nearby New Jersey, and an enterprising New Jersey woman is credited as the first person to identify a market for them:

 ‘It is only a few years since a New Jersey market woman picked a sheet full of ground pine, tied the corners together, brought it with her “truck” to the city, and sold it in the market for 50 cents.  This was the beginning of the very considerable business which employs hundreds of people in New-Jersey for several months in each year.’

‘.. the Jersey people have become so skilfull in manufacture, and familiar with the ways and wants of the market that they are practically the decorators of the city, so far as it is decorated with “Christmas green”.’

Details of specific plants used in the decorations are mentioned:

‘The wreaths and other “designs” are made mostly of broad-leaved evergreens, like holly, rhododendron, kalmia and boxwood, although tufts of pine needles, hemlock and cedar twigs, and mosses, green and gray, are used, while the shining green is relieved by red berries of holly and the scarlet and orange pods of bittersweet (celastrus scandens).  Small bunches of evergreens, like rhododendron and holly, with tough and persistent leaves, are also brought .. in immense quantities.’ 

Some of the trees are shown in their final destinations – in outside spaces like Madison Square Gardens, and inside the homes of citizens.  When I visited New York in mid-December some years ago and experienced the city decorated for the holidays, evergreen displays were still very much in evidence.  Trees, wreaths, and boughs of fir and spruce placed in window boxes outside shops and restaurants all contributed to the memorable seasonal atmosphere.

Horse Christmas trees were a tradition where those kindly disposed towards animals provided troughs of food arranged around a tree which was sometimes dressed with apples and other treats.  These horse trees appeared in markets, organised by the traders for their hard working animals, and sometimes by the roadside, provided by volunteers.  The troughs and the tree would have acted as a sign for those passing by in need of refreshment.

In one photograph, a sign advertises a Christmas dinner for horses and free coffee for the drivers – delivered by women dressed warmly for the freezing weather.  Precise locations for these horse trees aren’t specified, (and might not be in New York), but are a reminder of a ‘Christmas Green’ tradition almost forgotten as transport systems modernised and the horses gradually disappeared.

Christmas tree market at Barclay Street Station between 1885 – 1895 – the telegraph poles in this picture also have a tree-like feel to them.

Christmas tree market, New York between 1885 – 1895

Load of Christmas trees, New York

Elizabeth and J Hamilton Fish, 3rd, children of Rep. and Mrs J Hamilton Fish of New York, and their attractive Christmas tree (1930)

Small children in front of Christmas tree in New York City, lodging house (between 1900 – 1909)

Unemployed workers in front of a shack with Christmas tree, East 12th Street, New York City. Photograph: Russell Lee 1938

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1915 (Bain News Service)

Christmas tree in Madison Square Gardens, circa 1910 – 1920 (Bain News Service)

Christmas Tree for Horses (Harris & Ewing) 1918. The notice advertises Free Christmas Dinner for horses, hot coffee for drivers

Horses eating and Christmas tree (Harris & Ewing) 1927 or 1928

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Horse Christmas tree 1919

Further reading:

Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress

Thanks to the New York Times for its link to this interesting piece – ‘Christmas Green.  Where it comes from and how it is brought here.’  published 25th December, 1878 New York Tribune

The area around Barclay Street in New York has a rich horticultural past and was once home to dozens of seed merchants – more about them and their colourful seed catalogues in a previous post here: The Seedsmen of Lower Manhattan

Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1836) examines Christmas and New Year traditions and is widely credited for the resurgence in popularity of the holiday season in Victorian times – previous post here: Bringing in the Green

Oudolf Field, Bruton

Echinacea, or coneflower in Oudolf Field, Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

Located in the tranquil Somerset countryside, Hauser & Wirth’s arts centre just outside Bruton is a destination both for modern art – and its gardens.  Landscaping for the entire site has been designed by Piet Oudolf, and the Oudolf Field, described as a one acre perennial meadow, is its centrepiece.

Entering the Field, grass paths of varying widths weave through the dense planting, allowing visitors to experience the immersive effect of bold blocks of grasses and flowering perennials.  Nearest to the gallery buildings is a concealed pond area which was attracting dragonflies on the day we visited in August, and at the top of the Field is a pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic.

Here in this meadow garden, created by one of the world’s best known landscape designers for an international art gallery, it seems like a good moment to consider the status of gardens as an art form.  In that context, the Oudolf Field feels very much like a living installation.

The term ‘meadow’ suggests planting that is loose and informal, and this introduces an immediate conundrum for the visitor.  The detail of Oudolf’s design is very tightly controlled, and while in August the overall effect of the mature planting is one of meadow-like irregularity, this belies a rigidity that underpins the design.

The perennial plants are placed and ordered with great precision – much as they might have been in a 17th century parterre.  But unlike a parterre garden, this design is not symmetrical,  and instead of being clipped into artificial patterns, the plants  are chosen for their wilder character, and allowed to keep their natural shapes.

Beds edged with corten steel meet manicured grass or gravel pathways, providing the crisp edges we’d expect in a traditional formal garden. This contrast between formality and informality is one of the trademarks of Oudolf’s style, working best when all the elements are meticulously maintained – which is certainly the case at Hauser & Wirth and a great credit to the skill of their gardeners.

Oudolf uses lots of contrasts in his planting, and some of these create almost painterly effects.  Hazy fine textured grasses are a favourite, as are the diffuse patches of green and yellow produced by perennial plants like Amsonia hubrichtii.  This interesting plant carries small pale blue flowers in May and June on stems covered in fine needle-shaped leaves.  These turn yellow and orange in autumn, providing intense splashes of colour amongst the paler grasses and forming a backdrop for flowers with an upright habit, such as veronicastrum and agastache.

In other areas, blocks of perennial flowers with rounded shapes like sedums (Hylotelephium), echinacea, helenium and various umbellifer species form a pleasing contrast with the flower spikes of persicaria, lythrum and perovskia.

Oudolf’s gardens are designed to reach their peak from late summer through autumn, and the plants are left to die back naturally – their structures providing winter interest and acting as a seedbank for birds.  In February and March everything is cut back to ground level and the growth cycle begins again.  Perhaps it is not intentional, but sculptor Richard Long’s Stone Circle (1980) located close to the pavilion seems to echo this circle of life theme.

Well worth a visit when travel becomes possible again – some links to Hauser & Wirth and Piet Oudolf’s website below:

Fine cut leaves of Amsonia hubrichtii turn from green to yellow in August, forming a hazy backdrop for late flowering upright spikes of pink veronicastrum and Eryngium agavifolium

Yellowing leaves of Amsonia hubrichtii form a striking contrast to the upright blue spike of agastache

Contrasting shapes of Hylotelephium (sedum) in the foreground with blue spikes of Perovski (Russian sage) directly behind

Detail Hylotelephium (formerly sedum)

Lythrum (centre) with Dianthus carthusianorum, or Carthusian pinks in the foreground

Contrast of texture and colour with purple Hylotelephium (sedum) in foreground, the yellow grass Carex elata ‘Aurea’ behind

Heleniums in flower

The pond at Oudolf field was attracting dragonflies on the day we visited. The flowering rush Butomus umbellatus in the foreground

Damera peltata, sometimes called the umbrella plant, in the pond area.

The Radic Pavillion

Plan of Hauser & Wirth, Somerset showing a simplified design of the Oudolf Field

Detail of corten steel edge to the borders juxtaposed with gravel and lawn

A large clump of yellow and orange heleniums provides a block of colour amongst the paler grasses and perennials

Oudolf’s design for the gallery courtyard. The late season grass Sesleria autumnalis brings a freshness to the planting

Further reading:

Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

oudolf.com

All about the show

Chrysanthemum ‘Mrs. Warren G. Harding’ at the US Agriculture Department’s Chrysanthemum Show, October 30th 1923  (all images via The Library of Congress)

A flower show can encompass anything from a local amateur competition in the village hall, to a huge event attracting a national audience.  These remarkable photographs from the Library of Congress record an annual exhibition of chrysanthemums hosted by the US Department of Agriculture and held in Washington in the early part of the 20th century, generally in November.

Commercial photographers from the Harris & Ewing studio attended the event over a period of years producing a varied record, including visitors from the top tier of American political society, members of the public, a gardener at the glasshouse, and details of the plants themselves.

Negotiating the narrow pathways of the glasshouse with its banks of fragile flowers, whilst persuading VIP guests to be photographed, cannot have been easy.  While some appear happy to pose, others are less enthusiastic.  But the candid expressions of the guests capture the event’s atmosphere perfectly, allowing the viewer privileged access to the show.

What of the chrysanthemums on display?  A close inspection of the glasshouse signage reveals the banks of smaller flowered plants closest to the walls are ‘pompons and single varieties for outside planting’ while the spectacular blooms in the central aisle are ‘Japanese and Chinese varieties for greenhouse cultivation’.  Each of these plants, grown individually in terracotta pots, is carefully staked to support the flower and labelled.  All the plants are staged in rows on a structure increasing in height like steps, showing all the flowers to their best advantage.

Originally from China, chrysanthemums have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries, both for decorative purposes and for their medicinal properties.  The plants were introduced to Europe in the late 18th century, and by the mid 19th century, when The National Chrysanthemum Society was established in London in 1846, their popularity was well established.

In the United States greenhouse varieties imported from Japan started to become fashionable by the 1860s alongside the garden types.  By the time the Agriculture Department’s events were in their heyday, the latest varieties from American breeders were the stars of the show – often named after celebrities of the day, from Grace Coolidge to military figures like General Pershing and Admiral Beatty.  Another is named for the Garden Club of America.

Chrysanthemums bloom late in the season and their colours, from shades of yellow and bronze, to rusty reds and purples mirror the tones of autumn leaves.  Others come in shades of pink and even pure white.  Their forms are wide ranging, including single, semi-double, pompons, incurving where the florets or petals form a ball shape, or reflex where the florets curve downwards and overlap.

The early part of the 20th century was a golden period for chrysanthemum shows on both sides of the Atlantic, when gardeners working at large houses and estates were still employed in sufficient numbers to grow the large bloomed varieties that required glasshouse cultivation.  Aside from gardener Martin Graner photographed in 1913, the multitude of gardeners who raised the magnificent plants for the Department of Agriculture’s show, and displayed them so beautifully are undocumented, but the quality of their work lives on in this extraordinary record.

Alice Roebling, Mrs. Robt. Roebling, Chrysanthemum Show, November 3rd 1926

1916

1915

1917

from the show of 1922

Mrs. Wm. M. Jardine and Mrs. Coolidge, Chrysanthemum Show, November 5th 1925

Sec. Jardine and Mrs. Coolidge at Chrysanthemum Show, November 5th 1925

Mrs. Kellogg, Mrs. Jardine, Mrs. New, Chrysanthemum Show, November 3rd 1926

Martin Graner, gardener, inspects Chrysanthemum ‘Jessie Wilson’ (1913)

Chrysanthemum ‘Jessie Wilson’ (1913)

Chrysanthemum ‘Grace Coolidge’ (1924)

Joffre, Joseph Jacques Cesare. Marechal of France 1916. Chrysanthemum ‘General Joffre’ (1917)

Japanese seedling 1917. General Pershing (1917)

Chrysanthemums at the Annual Dept. of Argric. Show, Wash., that have been named after celebrities. Lft. to rt. Grace Coolidge, Gen. Pershing, Princess Nayako, Secy. Meredith, Admiral Beatty. 1924

between 1915 and 1923

This over-exposed photograph from 1921 shows how much light streams in through the glasshouse roof even in November

Further reading:

Harris & Ewing Photographers

NCS USA  Chrysanthemum classifications from the National Chrysanthemum Society, USA

NCS UK  National Chrysanthemum Society, UK

Embracing the Seasons

The Juvenile Almanack, or, Series of Monthly Emblems published by Hodgson & Co, 10 Newgate Street, London between 1822 – 1824.  University of California Libraries, via archive.org

The varied changes of the year
Within this pretty book appear:
Winter robed in mantle white,
Spring bedecked in flowers bright,
Summer rich in waving corn,
And Autumn with its plenteous horn.

As British Summer Time officially ends this coming Sunday, it seems like a good time to consider our relationship with the seasons.  Those who find this a melancholy time of year, with its diminishing day lengths and the inevitable descent into winter, will perhaps draw some comfort from this modest book – a celebration of each month of the year.

Published almost two hundred years ago, The Juvenile Almanack, or, Series of monthly emblems encourages children to observe the sights and take delight in the experiences offered by every season.  Taking inspiration from traditional English almanacks, containing information about phases of the moon, the tides, and all important weather predictions, vital for agriculture, The Juvenile Almanack adapts this format for the young reader.

Coloured illustrations draw the reader into each monthly scene, making children central characters in the seasonal pattern.  Focusing on small everyday details, we learn about the weather, the activities of people working in the fields, and seasonal games and pastimes to look forward to.

Starting in snow covered January, boys skate on a frozen pond, while February affords opportunities to watch birds feeding on crumbs near to farm buildings.  Signs of spring are evident in March with the sun at last bringing some warmth to a tender houseplant on the cottage windowsill, and in April people begin to venture out to their gardens, looking for early flowers like snowdrops and crocus.

By June and July, the hay meadows are ready for cutting, followed by the wheat harvest in August, with workers crowding the fields, and gleaners gathering the last remains of the harvest.

As the last of the crops are cleared in September the hunting season begins, and in October fruit is gathered.  We see Hodge, a colloquial name for a farm labourer or rustic worker, with a ladder propped against the tree, picking apples.  November brings bonfire night and December a welcome break from school for the holidays.

Each evocative illustration in The Juvenile Almanck shows details of the vernacular landscape in this period; the cottages, their gardens, fences, haystacks (here, covered in canvas against the winter weather) and style of clothes worn by both adults and children.  It’s a community in close harmony with the seasonal rhythms of England.

If we are looking to re-connect with the seasons, working outside in the garden is one very effective way to do this, as we learn to find pleasure in the gradual changes each month brings.  Now we are mid-way through October, the signs of autumn are unmistakable – it’s windier, colder, the leaves are changing colour, and this great season is truly underway.

Link to The Juvenile Almanack below:

Further reading:

The Juvenile Almanack

Over one hundred English and British almanacs at archive.org

Almanacs at Archive.org

Views of Versailles

La Terre by Massou, Versailles.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Towards the end of his life, photographer Eugène Atget made repeated journeys from his home in Paris to the palace of Versailles.  His photographs of the gardens, in particular their sculpture and ornaments, evoke a strong sense of the unique atmosphere of this place in the 1920s.

People are noticeably absent in Atget’s Versailles, giving the gardens a slightly mysterious feel.  But closer inspection shows a flower bed has been stripped out and awaits new planting – suggesting that gardeners have recently been at work here.  And what of the abandoned chairs which frequently appear next to the statues?  The sculptures form a strange but intriguing juxtaposition with these domestic scale chairs, and Atget seems content to leave the chairs randomly placed, as he finds them, allowing them to suggest a narrative.  Who last sat here?  And how did one of the chairs come to be overturned?

Atget’s photographs also explore the relationship between the sculptures and their background of trellis and foliage.  In summer, the whiteness of the stone looks crisp against a dark background of leaves, but against the natural shapes of the bare winter trees the sculptures start to seem less confident in their setting, and secondary to nature.  The monumental Arc de Triomphe, celebrating France’s victories in battle, looks melancholy covered in autumn leaves, the face of one of the heroes cast in almost total shadow.

A pioneer of documentary photography, Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927) is best known for his photographic survey of the rapidly disappearing streets of old Paris, as swathes of the city were re-developed by Haussmann in the 19th century.  Trained as an actor, he explored a career as a painter, but eventually took up photography in the 1880s.  In the early 1920s he became financially independent after selling thousands of his negatives, and so was able to pursue personal photographic projects.

Atget referred to his photographs as ‘documents’ and marketed his services to artists, providing location views of landscapes and buildings – useful source material to plan angles and perspectives.  To some extent, this explains the emotional detachment in his work, and the emphasis on the subject rather than the creator.  A rare biographical photograph of his studio shows ordered shelves housing the equipment and paraphernalia of his trade, but little suggestion as to the character of the man himself.

Atget’s detached style seems appropriate for Versailles, faithfully recording its scale and grandeur, but sometimes in the details revealing tensions and doubts, introducing a counter-narrative to the royal wealth and power on display.

More information about Eugène Atget and his work in the links below:

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Bassin de Midi, Versailles. (Wikimedia Commons)

Steps next to the Orangery, Versailles. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Grille du Chateau, Versailles (Wikimedia Commons)

Ironwork from Le Grand Trianon, Versailles (Wikimedia Commons)

Le Grand Trianon, Versailles (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Le Petit Trianon, Versailles (Yale University Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Coin de Parc, Versailles. (Wikimedia Commons)

Coin de Parc, Versailles (Wikimedia Commons)

Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe, Versailles (Wikimedia Commons)

Bosquet de l’Arc de triomphe by sculptors Coysevox, Tuby and Prou (Wikimedia Commons)

Cour du Parc, Versailles. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Atget’s studio with contact print frames (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Further Reading:

Eugene Atget on Wikipedia

Eugene Atget MoMA

Johann Hermann Knoop’s Pomologia

Pomologia, dat is, Beschryvingen en afbeeldingen van de beste soorten van appels en peeren by Johann Hermann Knoop. (1758)  Pomologia, that is, descriptions and pictures of the best varieties of apples and pears (The Getty Research Institute via archive.org)

Caroline d’Angleterre, Witte Ribbezt, Spaansche Guelderling, Peppin d’Or, Calville Blanche d’Hyver – what do these names have in common?  All are European apples, grown in the mid-18th century and recorded by Johann Hermann Knoop in his spectacular book, Pomologia, that is, descriptions and pictures of the best varieties of apples and pears (1758).

Exceptional coloured engravings reveal the immense variety in the shapes, scale and colour of these fruits.  Some of the apples have elongated shapes like plums or melons, looking quite different from those available today.  Others, like the Bruindeling and Reinette de Montbron, are exceptionally dark shades of brown, while the skin of the Reinette Grise appears to have a slightly rough texture, as well as its unusual colouring.

The pears are just as diverse.  Some, like the Bergamotte d’Oré and another, simply named Parfum, are small and round like apples.  Bourdon and Muscat-Fleury are conventionally pear shaped, but miniature.  The appropriately named Grande Monarche is a huge green pear, with a touch of redness on the side of the fruit that was exposed to the sun while growing on the tree, and ready to eat in February and March.

Born in Germany, Knoop (early 18th century – 1769) followed his father into horticulture and began his career as gardener at Marienburg, near Leeuwarden in The Netherlands.  By 1747 the estate had lost its status as a royal residence, and not long after this Knoop left his position there, with a suggestion that alcoholism might have been a factor in the termination of his employment.

Whilst still at Marienburg, Knoop’s interest in science resulted in his first publication in 1744 – an update of an existing handbook for engineers and surveyors – but it was the publication of Pomologia in 1758 that brought him wider recognition.  After Pomologia Knoop published Dendrologia (about garden trees) and Fructologia discussing fruit trees such as cherries and plums, and these three publications were sometimes sold bound together as an encyclopedia.  Reflecting Knoop’s breadth of interests, further books on subjects as diverse as heraldry and architecture followed.

Knoop’s ambitious survey of apple and pears covers varieties from the Low countries, Germany, France and England.  Information about each of these is organised in chapters to accompany the numbered plates, and includes details of the size and vigour of the trees as well as the relative merits of the fruits, such as flavour and keeping qualities – especially important before modern refrigeration.  It also served as an identification manual for readers to match fruits from their gardens to illustrations in the book.

According to the university of Utrecht, the engravings for Pomologia produced by Jacob Folkema and Jan Casper Philips were hand coloured by the daughters of the publisher, Abraham Ferwerda.  The skillful use of shading in the engravings conveys a sense of weight and solidity, while the depiction of irregularities and blemishes on the skins of the fruits lends both charm and a sense of authenticity.

Are any of the apples and pears from Knoop’s work still cultivated today?  A brief search reveals the apple Calville Blanche d’Hiver for sale at specialist growers Bernwode Fruit Trees.  Bernwode notes the cooked fruit keeps its shape and that, ‘Victorian gardeners grew the trees against a wall or under glass, for the best flavour and because chefs valued the fruit so highly.’  Calville Blanche d’Hiver can also be used as dessert apple.  The pear Jargonelle is available, and the Poire d‘Angleterre, or Engelse Beurré, with its reddish-brown skin, the flavour described as ‘melting, very juicy flesh, sweet and rich’.

Links to Pomologia (1758) and a French translation (1771) below, plus links to the universities of Delft and Utrecht for biographical information about Knoop published on their websites.

Calville Blanche d’Hyver is the green apple at the bottom right of the page.

The pear Jargonelle is seen at the bottom of this page.

The beautiful brown Poire d’Angleterre appears at the top right of this page

Further reading:

Pomologia (1758)

French translation published in 1771 Pomologia (1771)

Biography of Knoop from University of Utrecht

Discussion of Knoop’s career from Prof Cor Wagenaar, University of Delft

Bernwode Fruit Trees

Changing moods at Montacute House gardens

One of a pair of garden lodges at the original entrance to Montacute House, Somerset with yew hedging and topiary in the foreground.

Yew in all its various forms underpins the planting of the garden at Montacute House, in Somerset.  Twin rows of yew topiary line the drive to the Grade 1 listed house, while hedges of various styles and heights divide spaces and define paths and walkways.  Constructed out of local Ham Hill stone, with its deep, golden hue, Montacute House was built in the late 16th century by Sir Edward Phelips, and passed into National Trust ownership in 1927.

Under the direction of head gardener Chris Gaskin, much of Montacute’s yew is being re-shaped, bringing the plants back to a more manageable size and to a scale that is in harmony with the house and its surroundings.  This has involved some drastic pruning, reducing their height and spread and thinning the centre of the plants to bring in light and air.  Fortunately, yews respond remarkably well to this treatment, having the ability to re-generate from old wood, and are already showing fresh green growth on the cut branches.

The re-instatement of the parterre garden is also part of the plan for re-modelling the garden.  Situated on the north side of the house, this large rectangular area of lawn is sunken, with a fountain at its centre.  Stone steps on each side lead up to a surrounding walkway, providing views of the parterre and the parkland beyond.

The first step in this enormous task has been for the gardeners mark out the shape of the parterre, which they’ve done by mowing paths in the lawn.  These pathways will eventually be covered with gravel and the beds planted with flowers.  It’s expected this project will take ten years to realise – perhaps longer – as the effect of Covid-19 on the National Trust’s funding situation continues to be felt.

Towards the end of the afternoon when most of the visitors had gone home, we had the opportunity to ask two of the staff about their experience of Montacute in lockdown.  With no visitors and hardly anyone at the house, weeds started to grow up through the paving.  Without their foliage, the newly pruned yew trees looked like wooden torches and the faint outline of the parterre in the grass contributed a haunting feel to the garden.  With a bit of imagination, it felt like an abandoned place, in the process of being reclaimed by nature and pulled back into wilderness.

Although the people have now returned, this feeling has not completely disappeared – the un-mown parterre beds were full of wildflowers growing through the grass and children running along the grass pathways were delighted by the challenge of following their geometric shapes.

The lawn in front of the original entrance to the house is flanked by long flower borders and the view over the estate is framed by two matching garden lodges.  Now a tranquil space, this area would once have been a bustling courtyard, with estate traffic and guests coming and going.  It’s a reminder of how plants can create a special atmosphere – sometimes an impression of permanence and sometimes a sense of order slipping away.

More about the history of the house and gardens in the link below:

The row of yews lining the drive to the 18th century entrance before pruning. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A line of yew trees being re-shaped. The encroaching trees behind the yews have caused them to lean towards the light and grow out of shape.

A line of yew trees being re-shaped. The encroaching trees behind the yews cause them to lean towards the light and grow out of shape.

new growth appearing on the pruned trees.

Cloud-pruned yew hedge.

The parterre garden at Montacute before restoration work. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The parterre garden

The shape of the parterre, based on a 19th century design, has been laid out by mowing pathways through the lawn.

Some of the yews are quite characterful – these look as though they are about to make off into the parkland together.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) in flower in the unmown sections of the parterre.

Steps down to the sunken parterre garden.

Rear elevation of Montacute House. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A pair of lions with human faces hold the crest above the original front door to Montacute House.

Most of the roses had finished when we visited.

Visitors (with deep pockets) can stay in this exquisite gatehouse building at the Montacute estate, managed by the National Trust. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Further reading:

Montacute House on Wikipedia

Montacute House National Trust