Category Archives: Garden Design

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

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

Humphry Repton at Hare Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repton concludes:

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

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

Humphry Repton 1752 – 1818

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

Detail of the shop front Repton wished to obscure from view

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening

Humphry Repton on Wikipedia

Celebrating Karl Foerster

1952 catalogue

Karl Foerster 
9th March 1874 – 27th November 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Foerster pictured in his 1964 catalogue.

Peony from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plans from the 1972 catalogue

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

Foerster’s logo – a daisy surrounded by butterflies

1972 catalogue

1957 catalogue

Brightly coloured phlox from the 1957 catalogue

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

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

I like the German word for water lily – Seerose.

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

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

An order form from the 1967 catalogue

The garden at Potsdam Bornim

Molinia altissima from the 1967 catalogue

Further reading:

European Nursery Catalogue Collection

Karl Foerster (Wikipedia)

Potsdam-Bornim (Garden Visit)

Potsdam-Bornim website

A Revival of English Topiary

From The Book of Topiary (1904) Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

While visiting some Kent and East Sussex gardens recently, I was struck by the range of topiary we saw.  The yew peacocks at Great Dixter are well known, as are the birds, animals and accomplished geometric forms in yew and box at Charlotte and Donald Molesworth’s garden in Benenden, (which opens to the public for the National Gardens Scheme).  Our travels through villages revealed more topiarised trees and shrubs, often a feature in cottage front gardens.

There is something about topiary that associates pleasingly with cottages and other English vernacular buildings, seeming to complement their scale and sense of history.  The designer Arne Maynard frequently uses these forms as structural elements in his gardens, using the formality of the tightly clipped trees as a contrast to much looser plantings, like a meadow or perennials and roses.

These topiary forms of tiered pyramids, spirals and birds feel quintessentially English, but as with so many garden fashions their origins lie elsewhere – in this case, Boksoop in The Netherlands, according to The Book of Topiary (1904).  This book by Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson provides a fascinating overview of the art in England from an Edwardian perspective.  Curtis handles the history and Gibson, in his capacity as head gardener at Levens Hall in Cumbria, where the topiary was planted in the 1690s (and remains largely unchanged today) explains about training and maintenance.

From its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, Curtis argues, topiary in England fell out of favour as the influence of landscape gardening gathered pace, and Victorian gardeners like William Robinson advocated a more naturalistic approach to planting.  However, with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century and its focus on medieval art and architecture, there was a revival of interest in topiary for domestic gardens.

Curtis mentions two nurseries, William Cutbush & Sons of Highgate, London and J. Cheal & Sons in Crawley, Sussex that in the early 1900s were supplying topiary specimens to the public and showing plants at RHS shows.  The aptly named Herbert J. Cutbush was a regular visitor to Holland, travelling there on most weekends, and it was here that he came across topiary specimens that interested him.  Curtis says:

‘He discovered that some of the best trained and the best furnished specimens of sculptured yew and box were to be found in the farmhouse gardens, in small, almost unknown villages, far from the usual routes of tourists and business-men, and this led to still further explorations.’

Over time, Cutbush got to know the Dutch topiary growers who were located in the Boskoop district, inland from The Hague and Rotterdam.  He persuaded them to sell him plants from their nurseries for import to England, but would also buy specimens from private gardens:

‘One big tree that for sixty years had been the chief ornament of a Dutch blacksmith’s garden was only purchased after a whole day spent in persuasion and the consumption of much Schiedam, and after the purchase was made another week was spent in lifting and packing and removing the tree to the London steamer.’

The trouble and expense of importing plants like this one suggests that the market in England was sufficient to make the effort worthwhile.  The topiary designs that Cutbush saw in Boksoop are described in detail by Curtis:

‘There is a great variety of form in the Dutch clipped trees, but spires surmounted with birds seem to be among the most common and are as easy to produce as most.  For these, and for the peacocks and the spiral or serpentine columns, yew is almost invariably used.’ 

‘Pyramids, mop-heads and blunt cones are among the commonest designs; they do not call for the exercise of much ingenuity, but when these pyramidal trees are cut into several regular and well graded tiers their cost increases considerably.’

Cutbush also reported examples of topiary furniture such as tables with turned legs and armchairs, churches and crosses as well as ‘verdant poultry’:

‘Sitting hens, geese and ducks are common designs, and to protect the verdant poultry one may obtain equally verdant dogs, with or without kennels’

The Dutch topiary shrubs were field grown and Cutbush says that box birds might be trained for 10 – 12 years before they were lifted for export – dogs would need a little longer at 12 – 14 years.  To make the eventual lifting easier, the roots of the shrubs were pruned after a year’s growth.  Curtis and Gibson’s book doesn’t feature any photographs from Holland or the Cutbush nurseries, but there are several photographs from Cheal’s nursery at Crawley, showing many of the topiary forms described.

Today, Boksoop remains a centre for topiary with several nurseries still exporting their shrubs.  And as I witnessed last week, the domestic themed topiary that so inspired Cutbush lives on abundantly in English gardens.

Shirley Hibberd reveals his admiration for the topiary peacock.

Levens Gardens General View.

Peacocks, tables, spirals and boats in yew and box at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley.

Hens, ducks, peacocks, etc. in box and yew at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley

Crosses and jugs in yew.

Topiary at Balmoral Cottage, the garden of Charlotte and Donald Molesworth, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Stylised yew peacock at Great Dixter

Shaggy peacock, Great Dixter

A splendid euonymus swan and tiered bay in a front garden, Appledore

Further reading:

The Book of Topiary

European Boxwood and Topiary Society website

Repton’s Work House Garden

From ‘Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening: including some remarks on Grecian and Gothic architecture, collected from various manuscripts in possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally written; the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the respective arts’ (1816)

The English landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818) is generally celebrated for his work on large country estates, so while reading Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening I was intrigued to find plans for a model workhouse and garden.  Produced with his son John Adey Repton and published in 1816, this book was  written towards the end of Repton’s life, as a survey of his career.  Amongst flagship projects like Woburn Abbey and Longleat, his own garden in Essex is featured, together with designs he believes to have had merit, but were never actually implemented.

In some ways, looking through this book is a bit like viewing a modern landscape designer’s website.  Just as today’s designers use plans and concept boards to illustrate how gardens will look, and photographs showing the final result, Repton uses coloured ‘sketches’, both to enable clients to visualise his designs and to illustrate completed gardens.  His theories on using the ‘borrowed landscape’ (which he calls ‘appropriation’) and using contrasts between the forms of plants sound very similar to techniques used by designers today.

The work house project came about at the instigation of another son, the Rev Edward Repton, who wanted to improve conditions for his parishioners in Kent.  The existing work house occupied a piece of land that was waterlogged, so the first priority was to relocate it to drier ground.  Unfortunately, the new work house was never actually built.  As Repton explains,

‘This Plan was at first highly approved by the leading persons in the Parish, till it was discovered that the Situation proposed was so desirable, that the Site occupied in private houses would produce more profit, and therefore the Poor for the present continue in their former unwholesome abode;’

His detailed sketch explains how the workhouse community might function.  (For convenience, I’ve divided the image in half, so as to examine it more clearly.)  At the top of the picture is the work house building where the residents would have lived and taken their meals, flanked on either side by accommodation for the governor and matron.  The south facing terrace has seating for the ‘aged and infirm’ and is also used as an outdoor classroom.  Grape vines were to be planted on the walls of the building – if you look very closely you can see a wooden trellis structure on the roof supporting the plants.

Below this is the garden with neat rows of crops, intended to be sold to the public as well as for use by the residents.  On both sides of the sketch are neat tables covered with white cloths, where passers-by are purchasing fruit and flowers.  The pond would have provided a water source for the institution.

Repton is concerned that the children of the work house should be taught practical skills, giving special value to gardening (as we might expect) and to military service:

‘This might be considered as the reward of good conduct: the Children, supplied with spades, and hoes, and tools, proportioned to their strength, should be taught and exercised in the cultivation of the Garden, and perhaps drilled to become the future defenders of their Country.’

On one side of the sketch we can see children hoeing rows of vegetables, while on the other side, boys in military uniform stand to attention.

The workhouse project also reveals the ambivalence towards the poor in England at this time.  On the one hand Repton encourages generosity from local people to fund the new building – pointing out that with changing fortunes, they might one day have need of such a place themselves.  However, his design enshrines the idea that the poor should deserve the help given to them – while the sunny, south facing garden with the view of the Dover road rewards co-operative residents, the contrasting north facing courtyard at the back of the building is designed to punish them:

‘Let the back-yard be considered as a sort of punishment for misbehaviour and refractory conduct, where, shut up between four buildings nothing can be seen to enliven the prospect.’

Do read the book for yourselves via the link below.  It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in social history of this period as well as those interested in Repton’s ideas about design, and the importance he attached to access by ordinary people to England’s parks and gardens.

A picnic at Longleat – Repton praises the ‘Noble Proprietor’, whose park is always open and ‘parties are permitted to bring their refreshments’.

Further Reading:

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening

Humphry Repton (Wikipedia)

Permaculture in the Lea Valley

Inside the glasshouse at Hawkwood Plant Nursery the home of Organiclea, fruit and vegetable producers in the Lea Valley, Chigwell.

Tempted outside by the February sunshine last weekend, the unseasonable warmth happened to coincide with an open day at organic growers OrganicLea in Chingford.  And so it was at the very beginning of the vegetable growing season I found myself with a group of visitors exploring twelve acres of fields and glasshouses in the Lea Valley guided by Tim Mitchell, one of the garden’s organisers.

The OrganicLea market garden is to be found, somewhat incongruously, between streets of semi-detached houses typical of the outer suburbs of London and the eastern edge of Epping Forest.  It occupies what was previously Hawkwood Plant Nursery, the London borough of Waltham Forest’s propagation centre for amenity plants grown for use in local parks and gardens.  When this facility closed ten years ago, OrganicLea saw an opportunity to expand – they had previously operated from a community allotment – and they now lease the whole site from the council.

The majority of the gardens are on a slope and several large oak trees, some of which experts believe date from the 17th century, punctuate the growing area.  According to conventional horticultural wisdom, this might not be considered an ideal position for a market garden.  However, by following principles of permaculture, OrganicLea has been able to work with the existing topography to create a productive garden.

Tim’s personal interest in permaculture came out of an interest in ecology. “I was interested in how humans can work alongside other species without destroying the habitats or poisoning those other species. Ecological food-growing  seemed to be the best working model. Although other species often thrive in our absence, it would be nice if we could join the party without ruining it.” he explains.

Permaculture is a term first used in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the two Australian pioneers of the concept.  It stands for ‘permanent agriculture’ and seeks to find ways of cultivating food crops sustainably, in harmony with the natural environment.  Their book Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978) was followed by the establishment in 1979 of a Permaculture Institute in Tasmania.  Although Mollison spent some time as a campaigner against commercial agriculture, which he believed was damaging the environment in Tasmania, eventually he found it more worthwhile to develop ideas and teach others about sustainable growing practice, which is now a worldwide movement.

The diagram below shows how the permaculture design concept works, with the most intensive cultivation nearest to the house or settlement and much of the perimeter of the site left in a natural state, as a ‘wilderness zone’ for ‘foraging, inspiration and mediation’.

The French translation of Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978)

Standing at the top of Entrance field, the first part of the site to be cultivated by OrganicLea, Tim pointed out a swale, or ditch, running the length of the cultivated area.  This, he explained, is the first line of defence against the force of rainwater running off the wooded hill above, catching some of it and and preventing erosion of the soil.  Beneath this, long, curved beds of vegetables divided by bark chipping paths follow the natural contour of the hill and absorb the remaining rainwater, reducing the frequency the beds need to be hand watered.

All the outdoor crops are cultivated by hand using the ‘no dig’ method.  Compost is added to the beds annually which smothers weeds and builds up topsoil without disturbing the soil structure beneath.  These beds operate on a ten year crop rotation plan, with two years of this cycle devoted to feeding the soil using a green manure crop.

At the centre of the site are the commercial glasshouses OrganicLea inherited ten years ago.  Tim explained, “The glasshouse is a boon as it allows us to run a viable commercial operation.  We can grow higher value crops like tomatoes and chillies which are sold to the public but also to restaurants.”  Up to sixty varieties of chillies are grown and are popular at OrganicLea’s three local market stalls.  Except for some propagation tables, the glasshouse is unheated, but even in February many of the long beds bordered by old scaffolding boards are full of winter salads.

The surrounding woodland has not been cleared but is managed for wildlife.  Out of twelve acres, just six are under production and the OrganicLea team is trying to monitor and increase biodiversity.  At the edge of this ‘wilderness zone’ there’s a poet’s corner dedicated to John Clare.  Tim says, “We like to think he passed through the woods here when he was living in Epping Forest.”

So today the last word goes to Clare – these lines are from London versus Epping Forest written when Clare was resident at the High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest between 1837 – 41.  Although London has now overwhelmed so much of the natural landscape, from this spot surrounded by trees it is somehow possible to experience a sense that nature is still greater than human activity.

Thus London like a shrub among the hills
Lies hid and lower than the bushes here.
I could not bear to see the tearing plough
Root up and steal the forest from the poor,
But leave to freedom all she loves untamed,
The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all.

Rhubarb in the Old Kitchen Garden.

Lettuce, with garlic in the background.

Endive

Rocket and broad beans

Swiss chard

Propagators on heated bench. The black pots in the background will soon be used for the chillie crop.

Inside the glasshouse. The green string is used to support beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The glasshouse from the top of Entrance Field

Gloves drying out on trellis.

Further reading:

OrganicLea – well worth looking out for monthly open days and events.

Bill Mollison

David Holmgren

Permaculture Association (UK)

The Enchanted Garden

William Morris, Philip Webb Design for Trellis wallpaper 1862 ©William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The Enchanted Garden, currently showing at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London explores our enduring fascination with gardens.  Devised in collaboration with the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, this exhibition features around twenty mostly British artists working from 1850 to 1950, examining their individual responses to the garden, and documenting the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement and the Bloomsbury Group on the stylistic development of the English garden.

William Morris’s study for Trellis (1862), his first wallpaper design, shows detail of a wooden garden trellis supporting perching birds and climbing roses.  Morris took inspiration from both the natural world and the history of design, and his Trellis pattern brings both these themes together.  It also connects today’s domestic gardens with those from the past, as versions of this ordinary structure have been in use supporting climbing plants and dividing space in gardens since medieval times.  It is somehow typical of Morris that he has included in his design the tiny nails that hold the trellis structure together.

The cottage garden remains one of the nation’s favourite garden styles and Ralph Hedley’s Roses for the Invalid (1894) is a nostalgic tribute.  A young woman and a girl collect pink roses from the garden, adding them to a basket of flowers and strawberries for a sick relative or neighbour in an idealised picture of the poor, but decent and deserving cottage gardener.

The vegetable garden in Stanley Spencer’s Gardening (1945) features two naively painted figures harvesting leeks.  The texture of the man’s tweed jacket and corduroy trousers and the detail of the girl’s print dress evoke nostalgia for the Dig for Victory effort of World War Two. The pair work with heads bowed, so deeply absorbed in their task that instead of their faces we see only the crowns of their straw hats.

The theme of the garden as a magical place is explored, where strangeness and beauty occasionally have darker undertones.  In Mark Lancelot Symon’s Jorinda and Jorindal (about 1930) a brother and sister have ventured out of the safety of the garden into woods, where they’ve encountered a witch.  The children are shown frozen to the spot underneath a flowering hawthorn, a plant once associated with witchcraft, in which Jorinda appears entangled.  The intense sunlight flooding every corner of this Pre-Raphaelite inspired painting is in seeming opposition to the dark fate that has befallen the children.

By way of contrast, Monet’s Waterlilies, Setting Sun (on loan from the National Gallery) depicts the garden in late evening.  But here the encroaching darkness has no menace, but is filled with stillness and tranquillity.

The gardens belonging to William Morris at Kelmscott Manor, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston in East Sussex and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House, also in Sussex, still provide inspiration for gardeners today.  In Grant’s The Doorway the profusion of the summer garden is glimpsed through the open door, in contrast to the cool interior of the house.  May Morris’s View of Kelmscott Manor from the Old Barn also uses a doorway to frame the garden, the bleached whiteness of her painting communicating the heat of high summer, almost in the manner of an over exposed photograph.

This may be a small exhibition, but the choice of work and ideas explored are so considered, it stays with you for longer than many larger shows.  The Enchanted Garden is at the William Morris Gallery until 27th January 2019 Admission free (closed on Mondays).

Ralph Hedley Roses for the Invalid 1894 Oil on canvas ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Edmund Blair Leighton September 1915 Oil on panel ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

William Edward Stott The Widow’s Acre c. 1900 Oil on canvas ©Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Claude Monet Waterlilies, Setting Sun c. 1907 Oil on canvas ©The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury, 2006

Lucien Pissarro The Fairy 1894 Oil on canvas ©The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Presented by the Pissarro family, 1951

Duncan Grant The Doorway 1929 Courtesy the Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London ©Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018

Lucien Pissarro My Studio Garden Oil on canvas 1938 ©The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Presented by the Pissarro Family, 1951

May Morris View of Kelmscott Manor from the Old Barn c. 1880s Watercolour ©William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The Enchanted Garden William Morris Gallery

Garden Seats

At first glance decorative ironwork might not seem to have much to do with gardens.  But as this catalogue dated 1862 from the General Iron Foundry Company (located in Thames Street, London) shows, as well as its many uses in architecture of this period, cast iron was also a popular material for outdoor seating.  This company offers six garden bench designs, together with tables and chairs.

Trade catalogues like these show the enormous range of cast and wrought iron items that were available in the mid nineteenth century.  Over 300 pages of precise and beautiful plates show everything from ovens and sanitary ware to railings, gates, gutters, fireplaces and balcony balusters.  We are reminded what an important feature decorative cast iron was in architecture of this time, in both interior and exterior design.

The first bench design from the General Iron Foundry Company looks broadly similar to some of the famous benches produced by the Coalbrookdale Company, which typically have ornate cast iron sides and backs, using stylised leaves and flowers, and wooden slat seats.

Benches three, five and six (and one of the chairs) are in rustic style, where the iron is fashioned to look like rough pieces of wood artfully placed together to form simple furniture.  Design five is particularly charming, with its entwined oak boughs, foliage and acorns with the legs of the bench ‘tied’ together by means of entwined serpents.  All the benches can be made to bespoke lengths, and can be painted or bronzed.  The advantage of all these cast iron these garden seats is that they would be robust and hard-wearing, and could be left outside.

Although so much of Victorian London has disappeared, some of the decorative iron work from the period remains, and even if a mere fragment, is always an evocative reminder of the past.  In restoring an outside space, details such as the style of railings and garden furniture can give a park or garden a particular atmosphere.

Below (after the garden seats) are some designs for railings, window guards and gratings, which can sometimes still be glimpsed in parts of London today.

(notice the apostrophe that has crept into the section showing hollow columns.)

Possible examples of wrought iron hurdles of various designs, Millfields Park, London E5

Castings Ranges Stoves Pipes &c 1862  from Archive.org made available by the Sydney Living Museums / Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Jardinique  Garden antiques – a mine of information about top makers of antique garden ornaments and furniture (on website)

Wordsworth House and Garden

On a damp, grey day in early April it’s not every garden that tempts visitors to linger. But when I visited the walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumbria at the beginning of the month there was much to see of interest, as well as providing some welcome shelter from cold winds.

Although early in the season, signs of spring were evident.  Daffodils were flowering, with tulips not far behind them; new shoots visible on the roses and perennial plants were starting to emerge from their  long winter dormancy.

Wordsworth House is the birthplace of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), who lived here with his family in the 1770s.  The National Trust, which acquired the house in the 1930s, has designed the garden in late eighteenth century style, with plant varieties that would have been available in the period.   Attractive slate labels show the names of these plants, information about their uses and introduction to cultivation in the UK.  The apples Greenup’s Pippin (1790) and Acklam Russet (1768) are cultivated with the the dual purpose pear Williams Bon Chretien (1770), Morello Cherry (pre 1629) and the Gargarin Blue Grape.  The garden also has a collection of Orpington and Silkie hens.

Beans and peas and other household vegetables are grown in open beds at the centre of the garden and the traditional supports for these made out of local materials such as birch are already in place for the coming season.  Supports for flowers like peonies are also constructed using poles and string.

The garden backs onto the river Derwent, which looks tame enough today, but in 2009 William Wordsworth’s ‘beauteous stream’ burst its banks.  Both the house and gardens were damaged by flooding (as were other buildings in the town) with many garden plants swept away by the waters, and even the heavy wooden gates at the front of the building (now replaced) were wrenched from their hinges.  The force of the water must have been immense.

Today the re-planted garden with its fruit trees, roses, flowers and herbs looks well established, which is a tribute to the efforts of head gardener Amanda Thackeray and the National Trust’s team of volunteers.  It’s also a good reminder that it is possible to create a garden with a sense of permanence in a relatively short period of time.

Wordsworth House and Garden, Spring 2018

new shoots of lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Back home, whilst considering the old fruit varieties I was delighted to come across a catalogue of fruit trees from the relatively local grower William Pinkerton, based in Wigan, and dating from 1782.  Despite its fragile looking state it’s available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library.  The comprehensive list includes a surprising number of peaches, nectarines and apricots as well as apples, pears, plums and cherries.  Although not individually named, Pinkerton offers a staggering 74 varieties of gooseberry.  It would be fascinating to know how many of these varieties are traceable today – the Green Gage and La Mirabelle plums certainly sound familiar.  The catalogue is reproduced below.

William Pinkerton’s Catalogue of Fruit Trees, Wigan, Lancs 1782

I wonder if this nectarine variety is anything to do with Thomas Fairchild?

William Pinkerton’s Fruit Catalogue 1782

Wordsworth House and Garden

William Wordsworth

Bernwode Plants  masses of information about heritage fruit trees