Author Archives: plantingdiaries

The Character of Trees

Weeping Willow at Pope’s Villa (Alexander Pope’s house at Twickenham)

An abundance of paintings and plans have familiarised us with the design of parks and public gardens in the Georgian period, but it’s more unusual to come across detailed studies of individual trees they contained.  The artist François Louis Thomas Francia (1772 – 1839) provides some striking close ups of these trees, many of them in London, in his instructional drawing book Progressive lessons tending to elucidate the character of trees, with the process of sketching, and painting them in water colours published in 1813.

Francia has chosen trees of great character for his sketches – large, mature specimens which bear witness to the damage time (and people) have wrought upon them.  He resists the temptation to repair their imperfections, instead embracing their leaning trunks and dead branches and making these an integral part of his composition.  Interestingly, the plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) which dominates central London streets and open spaces today is absent from Francia’s studies, which reveal mostly native tree species.

Backgrounds in his sketches capture the semi-rural mood of Chelsea and Green Park, now built up and completely changed.  A sketch in Hyde Park shows an elm’s enormous canopy sheltering cattle – a scene almost impossible to envisage in a space now dominated by crowds of people.  At Millbank a pollarded willow tree grows on the quiet shoreline, before the construction of the Embankment and present day network of streets.

What is Francia’s advice to students wishing to draw a tree?  The key to representing the character of each tree species accurately, he says, starts with the close observation of the different shapes of the leaves and growth patterns of leaf clusters and branches.  For this purpose he suggests gathering specimens of these, which are dried and used as reference at home or in the studio.  He recommends drawing individual leaves repeatedly until students can remember their shapes.

He further explains his process of observation using the elm tree as an example:

‘The leaves from their smallness, closeness and quantity, acquire, at a little distance, a rotundity in the appearance of the clusters; and from the length and pliability of the branches they incline every way; that is, pointedly upwards at the top of the tree; horizontally in the middle; and downwards towards the bottom, with a tendency to curl upwards again.’

François Louis Thomas Francia was a refugee from Calais, France who came to England as a child.  He was an accomplished landscape painter and for some time the secretary of the Associated Painters in Water Colours.  Francia returned to Calais in 1816 (in the same year he was refused membership of the Royal Academy) and remained there until his death in 1839.

As we move into early autumn most London trees are still carrying green leaves, although after another dry summer, they’ve lost the freshness of spring and some are already starting to change colour.  Francia’s original trees are now gone, but his sketches and observations are still valuable – as a historical record certainly – but also as inspiration to look more closely at the trees around us today and appreciate them more.

Links to various sources at the end of the page.

Studies of individual leaves, leaf clusters and branches.

Francia says, ‘It is not necessary to become a perfect Botanist to delineate a leaf or a tree; it is only requisite that there be a sufficient resemblance, or character, in every tree we paint, or draw, as to be known and named by the spectators;’

Examples of the colours used by Francia.  Opposite each tree sketch he details which colours were used.

Fairlop Oak in Haynault Forest

Francia says of the oak:  ‘.. it will be observed that the leaf arranges itself in five or six leaves to a cluster, has a constant tendency to project horizontally, and even upwards; so caused by its being attached to branches which, by the abruptness of outline, evidently shew great strength in the tree; very different from the pliability and buoyancy of the Ash.’

The Fairlop Oak was a famous and well documented tree and the Fairlop Fair was held beneath its branches in the 18th century.  More details on the Hainault Forest website:  www.hainaultforest.co.uk

Elm in Hyde Park

Chesnut in Chelsea Gardens

‘The Chesnut .. has a much larger and longer leaf than the Oak, from which it varies particularly in its indentures or edges, which are less circular; it hangs five, six or seven leaves in clusters, and by spreading wide from the trunk on all sides, produce more shade than most other trees;’

Beech in the New Forest

Francia’s notes on the beech tree:  ‘A beautiful forest tree, which from the smallness of its foliage scarcely shews its individuality.  Its leading characters are its sharp pointedness at top, and sweeping branches all the way down, elegantly striving to point upwards.’

Willow on Millbank (with Lambeth Palace on the opposite side of the Thames).

Poplar in Buckingham Gardens

Ash in the New Forest

‘The leaf of this most elegant tree is long, and by its arrangement on the branch appears to lose its length by the circular character given to its clusters.  It is the most playful and buoyant of all Trees, and for beauty of form and elegance of distribution in its branches, as well as character, we know of no tree surpassing the Ash.’

Sycamore in the Green Park

Further reading:

Progressive Lessons by Francois Louis Thomas Francia
(Made available by the Getty Research Institute via the Internet Archive)

Francois Louis Thomas Francia

 

Dahlias in North London

Outdoor growing area at Wolves Lane Flower Company with dahlias.

Every year in August members of the nationwide network of UK flower growers, Flowers from the Farm, open their gates to the public as part of their Big Weekend event.  Not really expecting to find a flower farm in the urban heart of London, I was delighted to discover that a company of micro-growers based in Wood Green were taking part.

The Wolves Lane Flower Company is the project of Marianne Mogendorff and Camila Klich, one of several horticultural projects based at a 3.5 acre complex once used by Haringey council to produce bedding plants.  Both growers and florists, WLFC is committed to sustainability in floristry by growing organically and selling their product locally.  The company is housed in a long glasshouse with an additional outdoor growing space, currently full of dahlias which form an important part of the company’s seasonal flower crop in late summer and early autumn.

In recent years dahlias have seen a resurgence in popularity as cut flowers.  Camila credits American growers for their part in this revival with their new range of ‘sunset colours’ – deep pinks, oranges and purples.  WLFC grows well over a hundred dahlia plants which are started under glass and planted out in their growing positions in late May or early June.  The tubers are generally lifted and stored inside over winter, but this year as an experiment they will leave a proportion in the ground protecting the crowns with mulch.

They are continually experimenting with new varieties and ‘Cafe au Lait’ is currently one of the most popular for weddings.   Camila explains the importance of staking the dahlia plants and of cutting out the leading stem, which causes the plant to branch and produce more flowers on thinner stems, more useful to florists.  Dahlia flowers are cut when fully open, as the immature blooms will not continue to develop in the vase (unlike tulips or roses).

In the glasshouse Marianne shows us crops of sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias and Nicandra physalodes grown for its seedpods which are used dried in Christmas wreaths.  This year they created raised beds which has helped with water retention and they plan to install an irrigation system – ideally using harvested rainwater.  At present, all the watering is done by hand.

This part of north London was once home to countless market gardens and plant nurseries, which gradually disappeared under rows of terraced houses as demand for homes and land prices increased.  Thanks to the online European Nursery Catalogue Collection we know that Thomas Softley Ware (1824 – 1901) was managing a successful nursery business in the late 19th century at Hale Farm Nurseries in nearby Tottenham.  Dahlias were one of his specialities, and some pages from his 1894 catalogue showing popular varieties from this moment in the Victorian era are shown below.

Here on a sunny afternoon in Wood Green it is so good to see a fragment of the area’s horticultural tradition still present in the community, and still thriving.  The Wolves Lane site is managed by a consortium including local organic growers OrganicLea (the subject of a previous post – see link below).

Dahlia ‘Creme de cassis’

Dahlia ‘Creme de Cognac’

The Greatest Novelty of the Season. The First and Only Real White Cactus Dahlia ever Raised. Dahlia ‘Mrs Peart’ was perhaps the ‘Cafe au Lait’ of its day.

Dahlia ‘Blanche Keith’ – a uniform rich yellow according to the catalogue.

Dahlia ‘Delicata’ – a lovely shade of pink shading towards the centre to a pale yellow.

Dahlia ‘Mrs G Reid’ – pure white, conspicuously edged with rose lake.

Group of double pompone or bouquet dahlias.

The small flower illustrates the variety ‘Duchess of Westminster’ and the large one ‘Lucy Ireland’.

Thomas Softley Ware’s gold medal winning dahlias at the Gardening and Forestry Exhibition, London 1893.

Inside the Wolves Lane Flower Company glasshouse

Cheerful zinnias

Cosmos

Sunflowers

Asters

Daffodil bulbs drying on the glasshouse staging.

Further reading:

www.wolveslaneflowercompany.com

www.flowersfromthefarm.co.uk

Ware’s Catalogue of New Dahlias, etc 1894

European Nursery Catalogues at archive.org

Previous post about OrganicLea Permaculture in the Lea Valley

A guide to the dahlia’s introduction to Europe from Mexico by historian David Marsh: Dahlias

Meadow Seeds

Festuca pratensis Meadow Fescue-Grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth June 30 1804)

There’s a revival of interest currently in traditionally managed meadows with a particular focus on the native wildflowers they contain.  Appreciated for the biodiversity they support, these plants provide food and cover for insects and birds.  The flowers are also a natural spectacle for us to enjoy, and wrapped up in the meadow’s appeal is a certain nostalgia for the old ways of farming.

Today meadow grasses seem to receive only a fraction of the attention that is devoted to the flowers, but in the late 18th century a trend to make farming more efficient and scientific meant that horticulturalists like William Curtis (1746 – 1799) spent time researching the most productive grasses available for both cattle and sheep, and using these to create the ideal meadow.

Curtis published Practical observations on the British grasses: especially such as are best adapted to the laying down or improving of meadows and pastures: to which is added an enumeration of the British grasses in 1790.  Purchasers of the pamphlet (priced at ten shillings and sixpence) were entitled to a special packet of grass seeds, with which to establish their own meadow.

Some fourteen years later in 1804 the eighty page pamphlet was in its 4th edition, by this time published by William’s cousin, Samuel Curtis.  Samuel added new coloured illustrations and the seeds were now available from Samuel’s garden in Walworth.  (The previous address of William Curtis’s Botanic Nursery in Brompton has been inked out – although it’s still visible if you zoom in on the digitised version).

At the beginning of the pamphlet William Curtis expresses exasperation that the only grass seed available commercially for sowing pasture or meadow is Ray-Grass, which he says is widely accepted to be inadequate for the purpose.  Curtis discusses the virtues of a range of grasses, finally recommending six native to England which he believes to be the best.

‘The grasses recommended will, I am confident, do all that our natural grasses can do:  they are six of those which constitute the bulk of our best pastures; most of them are early, all of them are productive, and they are adapted to such soils and situations, as are proper for meadows and pastures.

But let no one expect them to perform wonders; for after all, they are but grasses, and, as such, are liable to produce great or small crops, according to particular seasons, or to the fertility or barrenness of the soil on which they are sown.’

These grasses were provided in the seed packet:

Ideal meadow recipe of grasses and clover to be sown at one bushel to an acre.

These grass seeds were intended for the farmer or landowner to grow on, until there were enough seeds to plant a whole meadow. It would take two years for the new meadow to achieve reach maturity, a considerable investment of time and effort.

The seeds were to be sown in rows according to their variety at the end of August, and regularly weeded and thinned if the plants were growing too close together.  The following year, the new seeds were saved for autumn sowing and the roots of the original grasses were divided to make more plants.  He says, ‘by degrees a large plantation of these grasses may be formed, and much seed collected.’  At the same time, the ground for the meadow must be, ‘got in order’.

‘.. perhaps the best practice (if pasture land) will be, to pare off the sward, and burn it on the ground; or, if this practice should not be thought advisable, it will be proper to plough up the ground, and harrow it repeatedly, burning the roots of Couch-Grass, and other noxious plants, till the ground is become perfectly clean; some cleansing crop, as potatoes, turnips, tares ,&tc. may contribute to this end.’

It’s interesting that Curtis suggests reducing the soil’s fertility by growing crops rather than removing topsoil, as is sometimes recommended today.  If planting a new meadow was impractical, an existing meadow’s productivity could be improved, Curtis says, by harrowing the ground and planting the same seed mix, but in a smaller quantity.

Thinking back to today’s ideal meadow full of wildflowers, Curtis mentions comparatively few flowering perennials as useful plants for livestock.  He recommends several species of clover, with dandelion and the ribwort plantain as useful early spring grazing for animals hungry after winter.  This kind of mixed meadow could be cut twice, he says – in May and then again in July or August.

An invaluable guide to anyone considering wishing to re-create a traditional grazing meadow or pasture today, it’s also a reminder that our ideas about agriculture are always developing.

Anthoxanthum odoratum Sweet-scented Vernal-Grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth May 31 1804)

Alopecurus pratensis Meadow fox-tail grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth May 31 1804)

Poa pratensis Smooth-stalked meadow grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth May 31 1804)

Poa trivialis Rough-stalked meadow grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth May 31 1804)

Cynosurus cristatus Crested Dogs-Tail Grass (published by S Curtis, Florist, Walworth June 30 1804)

The address of the Botanical Nursery in Brompton has been inked out and replaced with Samuel Curtis’s garden in Walworth (1804 edition)

Reflecting on what animals like to eat, Curtis is reminded of when his garden in Brompton (Kensington) was invaded by hares. (Almost impossible to imagine today). The plant they ate is now called Luzula nivea or the snow rush.

Further reading:

William Curtis 1746 – 1799

Practical Observations on the British Grasses (1790)
from the fascinating Perkins Agricultural Library at Archive.org.  Walter Frank Perkins of Hampshire, UK (1865-1945) collected over 2000 books on British agriculture published up to the end of the 19th century. The collection was donated to the University of Southampton Library with the proviso that free open access was maintained. In keeping with his wish, books from the collection are now being digitised and made available from Internet Archive and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Further details of the collection are available in the Perkins Agricutlural Library guide.

Samuel Curtis Garden Project

The Scarlet Bean

The Scarlet Bean from Augustin Heckel’s Drawing Book for Young Ladies (1757)

Unlikely as it might seem today, the humble runner bean was grown in eighteenth century gardens alongside roses, carnations and jasmine for the beauty of its red flowers rather than for a crop of bean pods.  Now considered a vegetable and consigned to the allotment, the decorative history of this plant has been forgotten, but evidence of the Scarlet Bean’s previous role in flower borders can be found in certain books from the Georgian period.

The German artist Augustin Heckel (1690 – 1770) worked in England for the majority of his life, and was an accomplished flower painter.  In 1757 he published The Florist, or, an extensive and curious Collection of Flowers for the imitation of Young Ladies, either in Drawing or in Needlework, containing colour engravings of desirable garden plants.  The Scarlet Bean appears right at the end of the book, next to a flower stem of tuberose.

In The City Gardener (1722) Thomas Fairchild mentions the Scarlet-Bean as being suitable for planting in London squares.  He notes that if there is sufficient circulation of air around the flower beds the annual beans, along with the Great Convolvulus, can deal with the pollution from  the city’s coal fires (a reminder that air quality in the capital is far from being a new issue).

‘The Scarlet-Bean, so call’d from the Colour of its Flowers, makes a fine Appearance when it is in Blossom; the Spikes of Flowers are petty long, and well set; and if they have Liberty, and a Support from their beginning to grow, will hold flowering several Months.’

Although we might think of the runner bean as a quintessentially English plant, Phaseolus coccineus originates from the forests of central America, where in frost free conditions it is perennial.  According to the Royal Horticultural Society the bean was introduced into Spain by Columbus, from where it eventually spread across Europe.  It was known in England in the 17th century, and is mentioned in a list of plants grown at Tradescant’s London nursery in 1634.

There is some evidence that plants from these early seeds did not produce many beans, which might explain why Fairchild doesn’t mention removing the pods to prolong flowering.  As the runner bean was developed through breeding programmes as an edible crop for northern latitudes, with longer pods and tolerance to shorter day lengths, its popularity as a decorative plant in England seems to have waned.

But maybe the Scarlet Bean is now due a flower bed revival – in some of our period gardens perhaps?

Augustin Heckel’s Drawing Book for Young Ladies (1757)

The Scarlet Bean with Tuberose, Foxglove and Valerian

Heckel shows how to draw a simplified shape of the flower and add detail in stages. He stylises the flower stems slightly into decorative scroll shapes.

Interesting to see how the hyacyinth is relatively naturalistic compared with the columnar shape of today’s varieties.

Further reading:

The Florist by Augustin Heckel 1757

Augustin Heckel

RHS on Runner Beans

Derek Jarman’s Garden

Front cover – Derek Jarman’s Garden with photographs by Howard Sooley (Thames & Hudson (1995)

Earlier this month, as a mark of appreciation for the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942 – 1994) who died twenty five years ago, BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week featured readings from his journal Modern Nature,  published in 1991.

These daily excerpts read by Rupert Everett reminded me what a good diarist Jarman was, recording his daily life with candour, unafraid to reveal his strong opinions and moments of bad temper as well as happier events and encounters.  He also understands the power of a few details to sketch a place or person, and fix an image in the mind.  By means of this intimate narrative the reader is included in his life, which probably accounts for the great affection still felt for Jarman today.

One of his many enthusiasms was for plants and his final book, Derek Jarman’s Garden (1995) discusses the making of an extraordinary garden in Dungeness, on the Kent coast.  This vast area of shingle, with its burning sun and biting gales is an unlikely spot for a garden as you are likely to find, but over time and by using a mixture of native plants and other species that could tolerate the conditions, he succeeded in creating a place of rare beauty.

Jarman’s companion Keith Collins recalls that his garden acquired a new meaning after Jarman was diagnosed with HIV.  At first the struggle of the plants against the elements mirrored his battle with illness, and eventually it become a memorial for him.  Collins notes, ‘the flowers blossomed while Derek faded.’

This book was a collaboration with photographer Howard Sooley who documented the garden in various stages of its development and contributed to it both through his plant knowledge and his ability to drive – transporting Jarman (a non-driver) from London to Dungeness on Fridays and taking him to some of the area’s plant nurseries.  His photographs capture perfectly the character of this stark but beautiful landscape.

Jarman talks about the ancient Persian word ‘paradise’ describing ‘a green place’, and this idea of the ‘paradise garden’ is echoed in the semi-formal design at the front of Prospect Cottage where circular and rectangular beds are created.  Edged with large flint stones, these are planted with santolina, valerian and crambe, a sort of kale which grows naturally in Dungeness.   He describes the layout of the back garden as ‘random’ with plants interspersed with driftwood and rusted metal sculptures, all assembled from objects found on the nearby shoreline.

Jarman prefers gardens to be ‘shaggy’.  He doesn’t like the style of National Trust gardens where ‘not one plant seems to touch its neighbour’.  He says, ‘If a garden isn’t shaggy, forget it.’  Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter is an example of the relaxed style of planting he favours.

Jarman is also a great advocate of allowing nature into the garden, saying:

 ‘You see it is rather a wild garden; I really recommend this – out with those lawns and in with the stinging nettles and kerbside flowers: bluebells, pinks, purple orchids, drifts of buttercups – subtlety to the eye. .. I would like anyone who reads my book to try this wildness in a corner.  It will bring you much happiness.’

Jarman had a great talent for inspiring people and this book, which never minimises the difficulties of growing plants in such an inhospitable landscape, shows us it is possible to create a garden anywhere, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness May 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Back cover – Derek Jarman’s Garden with photographs by Howard Sooley (Thames & Hudson (1995)

In this photograph the driftwood and metal sculptures in Jarman’s garden seem to be having a conversation with the overhead cables and pylons of the power station in the distance.

With his sharp eye for beautiful things, Jarman acquired a bench similar to the one on which Mrs Andrews sits from a neighbour, after she died.  An antique dealer told him it was a rarity – ‘It’s eighteenth century, built for a lady with a pannier.’  Jarman says, ‘You can see my bench in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews.’  Derek Jarman’s Garden 1995.

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough circa 1750 (The National Gallery)

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough circa 1750 (The National Gallery) – detail

Further reading:

Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman’s Garden still in print and well worth reading.  Howard Sooley’s photographs capture the spirit of the garden perfectly.

Howard Sooley’s website

Modern Nature on BBC Book of the Week still available for a couple of weeks

Some Roses from the Geffrye Museum

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

If someone asks me what my favourite plant is, my response will always be influenced by whatever’s in season at that moment.  Daffodil buds in March, or hawthorn in May have such powerful immediacy they overwhelm my memory of other flowers blooming at other times of the year.

But if I were to consider the question in terms of building a garden, the answer would have to be roses.  As well as providing summer flowers, their many forms and sizes from shrubs to climbers give structure to a garden, and also inform its character.  At Sissinghurst dozens of varieties, many with historic connections create a sense of abundance with their large, double flowers, whereas at Beth Chatto’s garden the smaller mostly single blooms harmonise with her naturalistic planting style.

Roses also have the ability to transport us back in time.  As a volunteer at the Geffrye Museum in 2016, I recorded these roses in the period gardens, all chosen as popular examples of roses typically grown in English gardens from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Major expansion works are currently underway at the Geffrye and until the gardens re-open again in 2020, this is a reminder of those extraordinary roses, with some notes about their names, and origins.

I should mention my bible for this research was the Ultimate Guide to Roses by Roger Phillips and Martin Rix (2004).  I also consulted John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597) available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link below).

Rosa x alba ‘Alba Maxima’ (A)

‘The white rose hath very long stalkes of a woodie substance, set or armed with divers sharpe prickles’, says John Gerard in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597)  He describes the leaves as ‘somewhat snipt about the edges, somewhat rough, and of an overworne greene colour.’

Rosa alba or the white rose from Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597)

Rosa ‘Fantin-Latour’ (Ce) in the herb garden

Named after the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour around 1900.  With its large, pink, fragrant flowers it has the look of the well known centifolia roses that feature in 17th century flower paintings.

Rosa Rosa Eglantyne (‘Ausmak’) (PBR) in the Herb Garden

This rose is not Shakespeare’s eglantine – but a modern hybrid from the English rose breeder David Austin

Rosa Eglantyne (‘Ausmak’) (PBR)

Rosa ‘Felicite Perpetue’ (Ra) at the entrance to the 17th century garden

Rosa ‘Felicite Perpetue’ (Ra)

A rambling rose.  ‘Small, neat, fully double flowers in large clusters and a fetching name make this a favorite rose.  It has a good musk scent, and is a sister seedling of ‘Adelaide d’Orleans’, raised by Antoine  Jacques in 1827, and named after his daughters.’ from The Ultimate Guide to Roses Roger Phillips and Martin Rix 2004

Rosa gallica ‘Versicolour’ (G) in the 17th century garden

This rose with it’s sweet fragrance and splashed petals seems to epitomise the spirit of the 17th century garden.

Rosa gallica var.officinalis (G) The Apothecary’s rose, Provins rose, red Damask or the red rose of Lancaster

This rose, thought to be the red rose of Lancaster is also known as the apothecary’s rose in recognition of its supposed medicinal qualities.  In his Herball or General Historie of Plantes of 1597 John Gerard describes roses as ‘the most glorious floures of the world’, dedicating an entire chapter to them.   His recipe for conserve of roses, to be taken twice a day, is said to strengthen the heart and ‘take away the shaking and trembling thereof’.

Rosa centifolia ‘Muscosa’ (CeMo) The common or old moss rose in the Georgian garden

Moss roses were hugely popular in the Georgian and Victorian periods.  The flower stalks and sepals (covering the flower buds) are covered in slightly spiny green hairs which resemble moss.  These roses are strongly scented.

Rosa x centifolia ‘De Meaux’ (Ce) in the Georgian garden

A minature moss rose.

Rosa ‘Irene Watts’ (Ch)

‘Raised by Guillot in Lyon, France in 1895, with well shaped, fully double flowers throughout the season ..  The colour varies from salmon to pale pink or white tinged with pink.’   The Ultimate Guide to Roses Roger Phillips and Martin Rix 2004

Rosa ‘Irene Watts’ (Ch)

Rosa ‘Hermosa’ (Ch)

‘A China-Bourbon hybrid.  The flowers are cupped, plain lilac-pink, fully double, with firm petals, with a delicate scent.  The stems have few thorns, and he smooth leaflets are bluish beneath.  Raised by Marcheseau in France in 1834, probably  from ‘Parson’s Pink China’ crossed with ‘Mme Desprez’, a pink Bourbon.’  The Ultimate Guide to Roses Roger Phillips and Martin Rix 2004

Rosa ‘Madame Gregoire Staechelin’ (C1HT) also called ‘Spanish Beauty’

This rose is a short climber only flowering once – but such flowers!  They are followed by large orange hips.

Rosa ‘Alberic Barbier’ (Ra)

Another rambling rose from the 20th century garden – still popular today.  ‘This lovely rose, a cross between  R. luciae and the Tea ‘Shirley Hibberd’ was raised by Rene Barbier in Orleans, France in 1900.  The flowers are pale yellow in bud, opening white and very double, on reddish stalks; the leaves have shining, widely spaced leaflets.’  The Ultimate Guide to Roses Roger Phillips and Martin Rix 2004.

Further reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

The Ultimate Guide to Roses (2004) by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix
copies still available from Abe Books https://bit.ly/2RgmAVa

Vita Sackville-West on Twitter

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

From accusations of election tampering to online bullying and damage to our mental health, social media companies are deservedly under pressure to take more responsibility for material that gets published on their platforms.  Thankfully, however, some social media is being used positively – educating us, entertaining us – and even bringing us garden history – in ways that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.

One of my favourite Twitter accounts belongs to Vita Sackville-West, well known as the co-creator of the famous gardens at Sissinghurst, Kent (now managed by the National Trust).  From 1947 until 1961, a year before she died, Sackville-West wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer newspaper describing the development of her own garden, explaining how to cultivate a wide range of plants, and responding to readers’ gardening queries.

Her column also exposes a larger than life personality with strong opinions about certain plants – especially roses.  In one memorable article she berates someone in a neighbouring town for planting a rose with luridly pink flowers (the variety is American Pillar) a rose she says ‘should be forever abolished from our gardens’.  It’s hard to imagine any garden commentator today being quite so forthright about a member of the public’s choice of flowers  – perhaps not least because of the backlash they would experience on social media.  But she is as tough with her own plant choices and quick to acknowledge mistakes, continually urging her readers to be ruthless and remove planting combinations that don’t work.

So who is behind her Twitter account?  It’s the project of former head gardener and greenhouse manager/propagator of the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania.  Their motivation to tweet on her behalf is both out of admiration for her work as a ‘plantswoman and innovator, at least fifty years ahead of her time’; plus their enjoyment of the character revealed in the columns.  ‘She’s a hoot’, they say.

The tweets are taken from four anthologies of Sackville-West’s articles published in the 1950s, beginning with In Your Garden (1951) and now all out of print, together with Some Flowers (1937), Letters to Virginia Woolf (1923-41), Passenger to Teheran (1926) and Twelve Days in Persia (1928).  Photographs of the plants she discusses have been added to the text by the gardeners, which is immensely helpful in making the writing accessible to anyone who doesn’t know much about gardening.

One advantage of ‘drip feeding’ Sackville-West’s writing in a series of tweets is the constant reminder of her deep expertise about gardens which goes far beyond the cultivation requirements of individual plants.  The effect of light and the way it falls at certain times of year is considered, as is choosing plants for their form, scale and colour. I’d also forgotten an extraordinary episode about the placing and planting up of a Ming dynasty vase – a reminder of the class divide between Sackville-West and most of her readers.

Sharing their immense plant knowledge with great generosity, the gardeners of the Morris Arboretum offer afresh to a new audience this important testimony from one of England’s finest garden makers.

From In Your Garden, published by Michael Joseph, 1951

From In Your Garden, published by Michael Joseph, 1951

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

Atmospheric photograph of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle by Tony Hisgett, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)

Further reading:

@thegardenvsw Vita Sackville-West on Twitter