Category Archives: Dahlias

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

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