Category Archives: Garden History

Knot Gardens for the Country Housewife

The Country House-wives Garden – the second section from a book entitled A new orchard and garden, or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good for a rich orchard; particularly in the north parts of England by William Lawson (first published 1618)  From the Biodiversity Heritage Library

If you are curious to know what a knot garden looked like in a smaller domestic garden of the early 17th century, The Country House-wives Garden (1618) by William Lawson gives some intriguing insights into the vast range of designs, and plants that were used. Lawson includes in his book several knot patterns which could be followed or used as inspiration for an individual’s own design, remarking that ‘they are as many, as there are devices in Gardeners brains’.

The number of formes, Mazes, and Knots is so great, and men are so diversly delighted, that I leave every House-wife to herself, especially seeing to set downe many, had been but to fill much paper; yet lest I deprive her of all delight and direction, let her view these choice, new forms;  

He suggests the knot should be located within a square area bordered with shrubs, and be planted up in late September.  Plants that might be used include roses, rosemary, lavender, bee-flowers, Isop (hyssop), sage, thyme, cowslips, peony, daisies, clove gilliflowers (carnation), pinks, southernwood and lilies.

One of the characteristics that distinguishes a knot garden from a parterre is that the lines in the knot design appear to cross over each other, as if the pattern has been made out of a continuous strand of thread.  This is achieved in the garden by using a combination of continuous and interrupted lines of plants, so that the continuous lines appear to travel over the interrupted lines.  Lawson’s first illustration shows how the ground for the knot garden is divided prior to planting using stakes and lines, so that the plants could be arranged accurately to make a geometric design.

William Lawson (1553/4–1635) was a Church of England clergyman based in Ormesby, Yorkshire.  His only book, A new orchard and garden, or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good for a rich orchard; particularly in the north parts of England was first published 1618.  It shows a general audience how to plant and look after fruit trees, and provides glimpses of other popular garden features such as camomile seats and topiary (his ambitious suggestions include men in battle or hounds chasing deer).  The second section of the book, The Country House-wives Garden is aimed specifically at women, supplying general seasonal information about laying out and managing a garden for flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Planting suggestions for knots are also discussed in detail by John Parkinson . In Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629) he mentions sweete herbes clipped regularly to preserve the form of the knot, with the prunings used as strewing herbs for the house.  Germander, hyssop, pinks and carnations, lavender, thyme, savory and French or Dutch box were all popular, as was thrift, the summer flowers gathered, ‘to deck up an house’.  Cotton lavender or santolina is mentioned, but as a relatively new introduction to England it was only found in the gardens of the wealthy:

The rarity and novelty of this herb, being for the most part but in the Gardens of great persons doth cause it to be of the greater regard

Parkinson favours box for a knot garden, as it is evergreen, keeps it shape better than many other plants and is tolerant of a range of planting conditions.  He explains his secret of pruning the roots to stop them spreading and damaging other plants in the knot:

You shall take a broad pointed Iron like unto a Slise or Chessell, which thrust downe right into the ground a good depth all along the inside of the border of Boxe somewhat close thereunto, you may thereby cut away the spreading rootes thereof, which draw so much moisture from the other herbes on the inside, and by this means both your herbes and flowers in the knot, and your Boxe also, for that the Boxe will be nourished sufficiently from the rest of the rootes it shooteth on all the other sides.

Parkinson also mentions materials used to edge the beds of the knot garden including tiles, stones, oak boards, lead cut into the shape of battlements and, somewhat surprisingly, sheep shank bones, with rows of knuckle ends being visible above the ground.  However, he records that many people ‘mislike’ the shank bones and that they are not used widely.

The last word on knot gardens goes to Lawson.  His description of the garden as a place where ‘nature is corrected by Art’, defines the character of knot gardens perfectly, and at the same time perhaps, gives us a definition for all gardens:

And all these (plants), by the skill of your gardener, so comely and orderly placed in your borders and squares, and so intermingled, that none looking thereon cannot but wonder, to see what nature corrected by Art can doe.

The ground plot for knots, together with a design for a knot.

Designs for Flower de luce and The Trefoyle

The fret and Lozenge

Crossbow and Diamond

Ovall and Maze designs

Plan of a late Elizabethan Garden from A new orchard and garden, (first published 1618)

Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (or, Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) 1629

Further reading:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Country House-wives Garden

Parkinson on Knot Gardens

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

William Cowper’s Gardens

Cowper’s Summer House engraved by James Storer.
‘Had I the choice of sublunary good,
What could I wish that I possess not here?’ Book III, The Task

It’s probably fair to say that William Cowper’s poetry is not as well known today as that of Wordsworth or Coleridge, the Romantic poets he is said to have influenced.  But in his lifetime Cowper was hugely successful, with copies of his epic poem The Task running to multiple editions.  Cowper’s love of the English rural landscape, and his appreciation of gardens is well recorded both in his poetry and in accounts of his life.

In The Garden, (Book III, The Task) Cowper celebrates the gardener’s skill in sowing seeds, planning flower borders and pruning, but is withering about the large scale improvement of gardens, and costly changes made to the landscape by figures like Capability Brown:

Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim. Lo, he comes!
Th’ omnipotent magician, Brown, appears!
Down falls the venerable pile, th’ abode
Of our forefathers — a grave whisker’d race,
But tasteless. Springs a palace in its stead,
But in a distant spot; where, more expos’d, ⁠
It may enjoy th’ advantage of the north,
And aguish east, till time shall have transform’d
Those naked acres to a shelt’ring grove.
He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn;
Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise:
And streams, as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand,
Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,
Now murm’ring soft, now roaring in cascades —
Ev’n as he bids! Th’ enraptured owner smiles. ⁠
‘Tis finish’d, and yet, finish’d as it seems,
Still wants a grace, the loveliest it could show,
A mine to satisfy th’ enormous cost.
Drain’d to the last poor item of his wealth,
He sighs, departs, and leaves th’ accomplish’d plan
That he has touch’d, retouch’d, many a long day
Labour’d, and many a night pursu’d in dreams,
Just when it meets his hopes, and proves the heav’n
He wanted, for a wealthier to enjoy!

William Cowper (1731 – 1800) worked in the legal profession in London, for which he seems to have felt ill suited, and after experiencing a personal crisis, was moved by his family to St Albans for treatment where he stayed until 1765.  After his recovery Cowper lived in Olney where he formed a friendship with John Newton (they wrote hymns together) and then in nearby Weston Underwood where he wrote some of his best known poetry.

Such was Cowper’s continuing popularity in the years shortly after his death in 1800, an illustrated guide book was published by Islington based engravers James Storer and John Greig.  Cowper, illustrated by a series of views, in, or near, the Park of Weston-Underwood, Bucks (1804) provides a commentary on the poet’s life, information about Cowper’s house and garden, and identifies key locations in Weston Park mentioned in The Task that the general public could visit.  This detailed account gives valuable insight into the design of gardens from this period, including the plants and features used.  The authors also describe changes to the gardens and landscape since Cowper’s time, and reveal that the ‘fav’rite elms, That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’ (from Book I of The Task) were in fact poplar trees.

The book opens with an engraving (above) of Cowper’s summer house, which he used in the summer months as quiet place to write.  According to Cowper, this tiny building had previously been used by an apothecary, and its dimensions are recorded as being six feet nine inches by five feet five.  Cowper accessed this building from his walled garden by crossing a neighbour’s orchard.

In this wall a door was opened, which being separated from his garden by an orchard, he rented a passage across the latter, for which he paid one guinea per annum: from this circumstance the place was called Guinea Field.

The section of the book which describes Weston Park (belonging to George Courntenay) and its surroundings begins with an invitation to walk with the authors, taking in scenes that would have been familiar to Cowper:

We propose, therefore, to follow him with as little deviation as possible in his ramble; and as there are many who may wish to gratify themselves with a sight of the places to which he has given celebrity, who are unacquainted with a way so indirect, we shall, for their accommodation, return by the road, and, by this proceeding, give a ready clue to every object.

The first place of interest is the Peasant’s Nest, a cottage referred to by Cowper in The Task and this view is taken from the high walk in the park, the only place from which it can be seen to advantage.  If you look very closely, there are three men harvesting corn in the field in front of the cottage.

The Peasant’s Nest
‘Oft have I wish’d the peaceful covert mine.’

The next stop is a rustic bridge, built some sixty years previously for the purpose of keeping up a piece of water in the Park: it spans a deep brook, forming a scene remarkable for its wild and romantic beauty, which, after winding its latent course along the bottom of a woody vale, meanders through the Park ..

(Our concept of ‘wild’ nature must have changed in two hundred years, as the scene in the engraving is, to modern eyes, one of pastoral tranquility).

The Rustic Bridge

The alcove, which was erected at the same time as the bridge is reached via a steep path shaded by oaks and elms.  In the engraving it looks as though the avenue of trees is being extended, with wooden structures arranged around the trunks of sapling trees to prevent them being damaged by cattle.

The Alcove from the Avenue.
‘How airy and how light the graceful arch’

View from the Alcove.
‘ – Now roves the eye:
And, posted on this speculative height,
Exults in its command.’

The area around the alcove is protected from sheep by a chain link fence, inside of which is a border of shrubs and flowers.

The Wilderness.
‘Here, unmolested through whatever sign
The sun proceeds, I wander.’

From the Avenue we enter the Wilderness by an elegant gate, constructed after the Chinese manner.  On the left is the statue of a lion, finely carved in a recumbent posture; this is placed on a basement, at the end of a grassy walk, which is shaded by yews and elms, mingled with the drooping foliage of the laburnum, and adorned with wreaths of flaunting woodbine;

The urn in the engraving contains the ashes of one of George Courtenay’s favourite dogs, with an inscription by Cowper.

The Temple in the Wilderness.
‘Whose well roll’d walks
With curvature of slow and easy sweep’

In front of the Temple is a hexagon plat, surrounded with a beautiful variety of evergreens, flowering shrubs, and elms, whose stems are covered with a mantle of venerable ivy.

Weston Lodge
The Residence of the late William Cowper Esq

The authors disapprove of changes made to Cowper’s garden at Weston Lodge:

..it has a good kitchen garden, and an orchard, which was formerly Cowper’s Shrubbery; but the pursuits of its present possessor differing, in some degree, from those of the poet, every appearance of this kind is obliterated, except that an officious flower occasionally rears its head, and, in tacit terms, upbraids the destroyers of such a scene.

Weston House
(from the Grove)
The Seat of George Courtenay Esq

The Elms
‘There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand never overlook’d our fav’rite elms,
That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut;’

Out of respect for Cowper, the authors have called this stand of trees The Elms, which they believe are in fact poplars:

In compliance with our intention to illustrate the poet, we have retained the name he has conferred, though we were convinced, from ocular demonstration, it was erroneous; and have also received a communication from Mr Courtenay, who observes, that Cowper wrote the passage in The Task, which refers to these trees, under the influence of a mistake, and he had often told him of the circumstance.

The Shrubbery
‘The Saint or Moralist should tread’
This moss grown alley.’

Many of the lines related to gardens in The Task suggest Cowper recognised their healing qualities.  The Moss House was a place of silence Cowper valued as a retreat when his feelings were at a low ebb, and he placed a board inside containing lines of his poetry.  The original board was stolen, so was replaced with another containing these lines from The Task:

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,
Charms more than silence.  Meditation here
May think down hours to moments.  Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head,
And Learning wiser grow without his books.

Further Reading:

Cowper, Illustrated by a series of views

The Task by William Cowper

William Cowper (The Poetry Foundation)

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

James Storer, engraver

 

More Children and Gardens

Dame Truelove’s Tales by Elizabeth Semple (1817)

My previous post considered gardens as described and illustrated in children’s literature from the early 19th century.  I found so many examples, I’ve decided to continue the theme, this time focusing on three books where children are depicted as active gardeners, encouraged by their parents and sometimes by the family’s gardener.

These ‘realistic’ stories with characters and events drawn from daily life are interwoven with messages concerning conduct of life.  This development of domestic realism follows a similar pattern to that in adult fiction in the early nineteenth century, with the novels of Jane Austen being the most obvious example.  In all these accounts, acquiring an understanding of gardening and the cultivation of plants is valued as a positive and productive way for children to spend their time, and children are often given a section of ground to cultivate for themselves as a reward for good behaviour.

Caroline, in Dame Truelove’s Tales is the youngest of the child gardeners.  Pictured above with a little garden rake and a watering can, she asks her father for a garden of her own.  Caroline and her three siblings share an area of ground where they practice gardening, but she has become frustrated with this arrangement, as her brothers and sisters show no aptitude for the activity and, worse, they are causing damage to her own efforts:

Dame Truelove’s Tales by Elizabeth Semple (1817)

Caroline’s wish is granted and the next day she finds an area has been planted with shrubs and flowers by Nicholas, the family’s gardener.  Caroline will weed and water the garden and Nicholas will help her with tasks she is not yet strong enough to do herself.

In The Gardeners from The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth, four children are pictured carrying tools in readiness to start their work in the garden.

To the garden we will go,
Take the rake, the spade, the hoe,
Dig the border nice and clean,
And rake till not a weed be seen.

Then our radish-seed we’ll sow,
And mignionette, a long, long row,
And ev’ry flowret of the year,
Shall have a place of shelter here.

The poem goes on to describe the children growing flowers to decorate a maypole for the May Day celebration.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

Also from The Keepsake, is a series of poems about the four seasons.  In Summer children are pictured helping to spread freshly mown grass to dry in a hay meadow, and in Autumn they harvest hazel nuts from the woods.  The poems with their description of the weather, plants and the seasonal activities that are going on in the surrounding countryside convey a connection to the landscape and nature which seems sadly remote from what many of us experience today.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

Long and thick the grass is grown,
Ready for the mower’s care,
When his scythe has laid it low,
To the hay-field we’ll repair.

Each shall have a fork and rake,
To spread it widely to the sun:
Many hands together join’d,
Make the labour quickly done.

The Keepsake; or, Poems and Pictures for Childhood and Youth (1818)

When Maria’s task is done,
We will to the nut-wood go;
Each a bag and hooked stick,
Down to pull the cluster’d bough.

Oh! How tempting ripe they hang:
Softly, softly pull them down,
Lest the bright, brown nuts should fall,
And leave the empty husk alone.

Bags and pockets all are full,
And evening says we must not stay;
With heavy loads we’ll hasten home,
And come again another day.   

The Juvenile Gardener. Written by a Lady, for the use of her own children with a view of giving them and early taste for the Pleasures of a Garden, and the Study of Botany (1824)

As a shallow kind of person, I was initially rather disappointed with The Juvenile Gardener as it contains only one black and white illustration (in contrast to other books from this period, with their numerous colour plates).  Also, the children Frank and Agnes Vernon, and the narrator herself, are depicted as such paragons they are not wholly believable.  However, for anyone interested in the history of English gardens, these are evocatively described by the knowledgeable author.

Two gardens feature in the story, the first located in the north of England where the family live, and the second is Seaview in Hampshire, which belongs to an uncle.  Here is a description of the flower garden at Seaview as it appears in late summer:

The smooth lawn, the numerous flower-beds, of different forms; the stages of hardy green-house plants, brought here for the summer; the trellis covered with roses and carnations; – all combined to form a scene of great beauty.  ..But what pleased them most was a walk from the flower-garden to a summer-house, on each side of which was a hedge of dahlias, of every colour and shade in full bloom.

As Frank learns to appreciate gardens by means of practical experience in his own section of the family garden, Mrs Vernon teaches both children about botany and wild flowers.  She mentions William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis as the best book to consult on the subject and recommends Sowerby’s British Botany and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for images of exotic plant introductions.

The gardeners employed by the families are both characters in this narrative.  The Vernon’s gardener William has the task of planting a garden for their son Frank in the spring, and chooses annual flowers and vegetables that will produce a quick and satisfying result for a young child. He also teaches Frank about weeds, how to take cuttings of herbs and to recognise the seeds of vegetables and flowers.

Maclaren is the gardener at Seaview, in Hampshire, who is pictured in the book’s one engraving (above) feeding goldfish with Mrs Vernon and her children.  We learn that he was so upset by a former employer’s ten children wreaking havoc in the garden, that he resigned his post – and he is suspicious of Frank and Agnes until he realises they can be relied on to behave themselves outdoors.

But the most remarkable garden they visit (in spite of being the least grand) comes at the end of their visit to Hampshire when the children visit a ship of war.  Unlikely as it seems, the midshipmen have planted a garden on board the ship:

Frank smiled when they took him to a gallery outside the cabin-windows, to see their garden, which consisted of some large boxes filled with earth, in which grew some lettuces, radishes, and cabbages, which were not in the most flourishing state; but Frank was convinced, that on a long voyage, even these vegetables would afford a treat to those who could not procure better.

If ever there was a garden asking for a picture, it must be this one?

Links: all texts available via archive.org

Dame Truelove’s Tales

The Keepsake

The Juvenile Gardener

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

Ribbon Grass

Still Life with Flowers in a Decorative Vase 1670 – 75 Maria van Oosterwijck  (Wikimedia Commons)

We tend to think of grasses used as decorative garden plants as a new development in planting design.  Pioneered by Karl Foerster in Germany in the 1930s, his naturalistic planting schemes used grasses and late flowering perennials, a style which has been embraced and developed by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, and many others, and remains very influential today.  So it may come as a surprise that long before the current fashion for prairie style planting, grasses were grown in European gardens as far back as the sixteenth century.

At the front of the arrangement in the painting above by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693) there is a strand of boldly striped green and white ribbon grass, contrasting with the dark background and the pink flowers of a hollyhock.  The long leaves make contact with marble surface upon which the vase of flowers stands and seem to be reaching out further, almost to the edge of the canvas, inviting us to touch them.  One of a pair of beetles is starting to climb a leaf.

If we believe that the blooms depicted in the Dutch flower paintings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represent those most valued by horticulturalists and collectors, it is interesting to see this grass given such a prominent place among the roses, carnations and poppies.

The RHS lists ten common names for Phalaris arundinacea var. picta including gardener’s garters, bride’s laces, and lady grass as well as the more familiar ribbon grass. The number of names would seem to indicate that the plant has a long history of cultivation and was well known in the UK.

John Gerard in The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) describes the grass as being, ‘like to laces of white and greene silke, very beautiful, and faire to behold’ and explains it is ‘kept and maintained in our English gardens, rather for pleasure than for vertue’, (meaning that ribbon grass had no known practical or medicinal qualities).  We know that ribbon grass was cultivated in ordinary gardens in the nineteenth century as it is mentioned by John Clare in a list of cottage garden plants alongside wallflowers, pinks and lavender.

Ladie Lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1597 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is quite tall (approx 60cm) so too high to fit into the standard rectangular illustration frame size for the Herball.  In the 1597 version the whole plant has been shrunk to fit the frame, but in the updated Herball of 1633 the artist has indicated scale more accurately by cutting the grass stem and placing the roots, stalk and flowering head together.

Lady-lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1633 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is a very easy plant to grow.  An ideal site would be sunny with a damp soil; it will tolerate some shade and a dry soil, but the seedheads will not form unless it receives a few hours of sun each day.  At its best in spring and summer, the stems collapse in winter, so it doesn’t make good winter structure like miscanthus or calamagrostis.

It would be good to see more ribbon grass grown in historical planting schemes, as it was clearly a valued garden plant in the past.  It associates well with herbaceous plants and creates pools of brightness next to evergreens.  Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a contemporary of Oosterwijck, also uses ribbon grass in her compositions –  the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum have examples of her paintings in their collections.  Well worth checking out on their websites (or better still, visit the galleries if you can).

Garland with blossoms 1683 Rachel Ruysch (Wikimedia Commons)

Phalaris arundinacea var. picta or Ribbon grass

Further Reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

Maria van Oosterijck

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch at the National Gallery

Alistair Sooke on Dutch Flower Paintings