Category Archives: Nurseries

Exploring the RHS Digital Collections

Page’s Champion Auricula from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol l by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832) Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.  All images from RHS Digital Collections

In April this year, the Royal Horticultural Society launched its new Digital Collections platform, with thousands of items from the Libraries and Herbarium now available online to the public for the first time.  From an accounts book belonging to landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to historic nursery catalogues from locations across the UK, many items are unique to the RHS Collections.

Funded by the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund, this is the beginning of a major project that will see further content from the Society’s collection uploaded in the coming months and years.  Currently divided into sections for archive, artworks, bookplates, Herbarium specimens, nursery catalogues, photographs and books, there’s already a wealth of material to view.

In the books section, the RHS has been strategic in their choice of material to digitise, prioritising those books not already available on other platforms.  One of these is The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild, a nursery owner in Hoxton, London.  Fairchild’s record of plants in cultivation, popular garden styles, and the challenges of growing in the polluted atmosphere caused by sea coal, gives an invaluable insight into the capital and its gardens during this period.

The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild

As the name suggests, the bookplates section is comprised of illustrations taken from books in the RHS’s collection.  The dislocation of these images from their context does present something of an issue (for me, at least), as some of their meaning is lost.  However, the plates are full of interest, and hopefully the books from which they were taken are on the RHS’s list to be digitised in the near future.

This set of bookplates from The Orchard and the Garden, printed by Adam Islip (1602), shows a range of knot garden designs and instructions for laying them out.  These delightful, detailed woodcuts remind us of the enthusiasm for pattern, symmetry, and symbolism in the Tudor period.  The book must have found a ready audience, as this example is a third edition, the first being published in 1594.

The Orchard and the Garden printed by Adam Islip (1602)

These coloured engravings from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vols I and ll by Robert Sweet invite us into the world of the florist in the early 19th century.

At this time, the term ‘florist’ was given to those engaged in cultivating flowers for pleasure, or for show, rather than for the cut flower trade.  The favoured blooms were carnations and pinks, ranunculus, tulips, hyacinths, polyanthus and auriculas – although Sweet’s Directory also includes dahlias (then called georginas) and roses.  Double flowers were prized, as were the striped and flecked patterns of the tulips and carnations.  Engravings by S Watts (after original paintings by Edwin Dalton Smith) allow us to understand what these choice plants must have looked like.

The plants and bulbs discussed in the Directory were for sale from a network of growers and Sweet’s use of high quality coloured images to promote them demonstrates his talent for horticultural marketing.

Albion Tulip from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832). Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

Hogg’s Queen Adelaide Dianthus from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832).
Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

‘Porcelaine Sceptre Hyacinth’, Hyacinthus orientalis var. sceptrifirmis, engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

The popularity of florist’s flowers is echoed in the historic nursery catalogues dating from the mid to late 18th century that have been added to the Digital Collection, containing pages of auricula, hyacinth and tulip varieties.  An 1890 catalogue listing over 1,400 fern varieties for sale from a company based near Manchester shows how horticultural tastes had changed by the late 19th century, when the craze for ferns had taken hold.

Fine double hyacinth and other curious flower roots, and seeds, imported chiefly from Holland, France, America, Italy, Botany Bay, &c. by John Mason, at the Orange Tree, 152, Fleet Street, London c. 1790

Catalogue of over 1.400 species and varieties of ferns and selaginellas cultivated by W. & J. Birkenhead, Fern Nursery, Sale; 17 and 19, Washway Road, Sale; and Park Road Nursery, Ashton-on-Mersey, near Manchester. Our principal nursery is five minutes’ walk and our Park Road Nursery eight minutes’ walk from Sale Station, on the Manchester, South Junction, and Altrincham Railway, five minutes from Manchester. First-class Queen’s Jubilee Gold Medal, 1887

A sketchbook belonging to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) is one highlight of the archive section.  Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Jekyll studied painting, embroidery, gilding, carving and photography, before focusing her attention on a career in landscape and garden design.

These wide ranging interests are evident in her sketchbook, containing a profusion of Jekyll’s sketches of flowers, leaves, architectural details, designs for jewellery, fragments of geometric pattern, swags, and places of cultural interest.  These have been individually cut out and assembled into a scrapbook of visual references.  Some projects must have taken considerable time to complete – four separate tile designs using studies of hawthorn combine cleverly to form a larger repeat pattern, and there are intricate designs for floral wallpaper.

Insights provided by the sketchbook demonstrate how Jekyll’s interest in decorative arts enriched her planting designs.

Floral swags, geometric design and a jug
Gertrude Jekyll

Floral patterns, architectural details and lettering
Gertrude Jekyll

Tile Pattern by Gertrude Jekyll

Floral Wallpaper pattern

Wallpaper, Blue Vine Design
Gertrude Jekyll

Jekyll’s interest in vernacular design is also clear, in her records of stitching designs from smocks worn by agricultural workers.  Jekyll has made these impressions by using pencil and paper, in the manner of a brass rubbing.  Her book Old West Surrey (1904) features houses, furniture, tools and clothes used by working people in the late 19th century, including smocks like these.

Stitching on Country Smocks
Gertrude Jekyll

The photography section records the history of the RHS as an organisation, with images showing the construction of RHS Kensington Gardens in the 1860s and the development of the gardens at RHS Wisley in the 1930s.  The delicate beauty of fern species in New Zealand is captured in a series of cyanotypes by Herbert B Dobbie, published in 1880, and a series of autochromes by William Van Sommer provide glimpses of English gardens from the early 20th century .

Cyanotype of Hypolepis distans, from the book ‘New Zealand Ferns’ Herbert B Dobbie, 1880

Autochrome of calceolarias, Barton Nurseries, by William Van Sommer 1913

Although it could be said that the RHS is rather late to the digitisation party – most major museums and libraries started to share their content online more than a decade ago – now that it has arrived, the RHS Digital Collection is undeniably full of wonder.  I hope you’ll be persuaded to explore, and discover your own treasures.  Link below:

Further reading:

RHS Digital Collections here

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.


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)

Hackney’s Botanical Cabinet

The Botanical Cabinet 1819  (images The Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Taking a walk along Mare Street in Hackney, east London today it would be hard to imagine this urban street was once home to one of the most celebrated plant nurseries in England.  Loddiges’ Paradise Field Nursery was founded in the mid-1770s by German born Joachim Conrad Loddiges (1738 -1826), and continued by his son George Loddiges (1786 – 1846) as The Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden.  With its range of heated glasshouses the nursery was famous for growing newly discovered plants from around the globe including the Americas, the Caribbean, Australia and the far East.

Loddiges published annual catalogues listing the vast range of plants they stocked, but these were not illustrated.  However, as a nursery specialising in plants that were new to cultivation in England, it was desirable to show customers what they looked like, particularly for those too far away to visit the gardens easily.  So from 1817 Loddiges started to produce The Botanical Cabinet, a magazine with to showcase their plants.

The Botanical Cabinet was very similar in format to William Curtis’s hugely successful Botanical Magazine (established in 1787 and still published by Kew Gardens), celebrated for its colourful botanical illustrations.

The engraver George Cooke (1781 – 1834) provided the coloured engravings for Loddiges’ magazine from its inception until 1833 when it ceased publication.  Alongside his illustrations, the magazine provided cultivation instructions and information about which part of the world each plant came from.  It also recorded stories about the extensive network of plant collectors who would send seeds to the nursery, or supply plants for the nursery to propagate – an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of early 19th century plant hunters.

Cooke’s illustrations of the Loddiges’ hot houses from the 1818 magazine give some idea of the scale and ambition of the nursery.  The Hackney Society publication Loddiges of Hackney (1995) by David Solman provides an in depth study of the nursery’s establishment and eventual decline in the 1850s, as rising land prices in the area made it uneconomic to continue.  Various members of the Loddiges family are buried in the nearby St John-at-Hackney church and Abney Park Cemetery.

Below are some of Cooke’s beautiful engravings showing the variety of plants that found their way to The Botanical Cabinet – from forest trees to tiny alpines.  Links to the 1818 and 1819 magazines are at the end of the post.

Sarracenia purpurea from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This very singular plant is a native of North America, in bogs and swamps.  It has long been known in this country, having been cultivated before the year 1640, by Tradescant, who was Gardener to King Charles the First.

Passerina Spicata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This is a native of the Cape, and was introduced about the year 1787.  It is a pretty greenhouse plant.  Its delicate white flowers, though small, are very neat and pleasing, and it continues in bloom a long time during the autumnal months.

Hedysarum carneum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

We raised this elegant plant many years since from Caucasian seeds, but very soon lost it.  Lately, however, we have obtained a fresh supply, which has produced us two or three plants, from one of which our figure was taken.

Primula minima from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

We received this elegant little plant from our friend Mr Schleicher, of Bex.  It flowered several times in the course of the summer.  Our drawing was taken in the month of July: it represents the whole plant of its natural size, being scarcely one inch in height, and surmounted by a single flower, which was larger than the whole plant, and of great beauty.

Arum triphyllum zebrinum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Cineraria aurantiaca from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This is a native of the Alps of Switzerland.  We raised it from seeds received in 1817 from our friend Mr Schleicher, of Bex.  It is a hardy perennial, and we consider it a very ornamental plant.

Eucalyptus cordata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

A native of Van Dieman’s Island (Tasmania).  From its robust habit and rapid growth, it will soon become a tall tree.  The whiteness of its leaves and branches gives it a most interesting appearance, but the flowers are not showy.

Camellia japonica variegata from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

This was one of the first varieties of the Double Camellias seen in this country.  It was brought over from China sometime about the year 1792.  We remember to have seen the first plant, soon after this period, at Sir Charles Raymond’s, Valentine House, Essex.

Stapelia bufonis from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

The curious plant which is now before us flowers in the latter part of the summer.  The blossoms are extremely interesting: their interior surface is wholly rough, with wrinkled protuberances, which together with its livid colour, have occasioned it to be named, as resembling a toad.  It is a native of the arid deserts of South Africa, and was introduced about the year 1800.

Hakea pugioniformis from The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Seeds of this plant were received among some of the first arrivals from Botany Bay.  It is a free grower, and attains the height of four or five feet, forming a handsome greenhouse shrub, and producing plenty of flowers.

Lilium pumilum from The Botanical Cabinet 1819.

We received this beautiful plant from our friend Mr Busch, at St Petersburgh, who sent it us, as being a different plant from the pomponium, which it unquestionably is.  Being a native of Russia, it is perfectly hardy, and may either be kept in a pot (which we prefer) or planted in a border.

Banksia paludosa from The Botanical Cabinet 1819.

A native of New South Wales, whence it was introduced, according to the Kew catalogue, in 1805.

Elevation of the steam apparatus for heating hothouses, &tc at Hackney. The Botanical Cabinet 1818

Ground plan of the Houses at Hackney. The Botanical Cabinet 1818

Further reading:

The Botanical Cabinet 1818

The Botanical Cabinet 1819

Loddiges of Hackney published by The Hackney Society

George Cooke (engraver)

Tall Bearded Irises from Cooley’s Gardens

Cover of Cooley’s Gardens catalogue of irises 1935.

When Cooley’s Gardens closed its gates in 2011 after trading for over 80 years, this nursery had, in its heyday, been one of America’s leading suppliers of bearded irises.  Their catalogues show dozens of iris varieties for sale that were exported as far afield as Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as their home market in the US.  Based in Oregon the nursery was the project of Rholin and Pauline Cooley and, as with many nurseries, was a hobby that in time became a business.  Selling herbaceous perennials with a special focus on tall bearded irises, some of their beautiful catalogues are preserved online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Like many plants, tall bearded irises go in and out of fashion.  The bearded iris is probably considered by many to be too showy for today’s on trend naturalistic planting, especially as most recent cultivars have frilly edges to their petals, which combined with multicoloured flowers, makes them difficult to associate with simpler flower forms.

In 2007 gardener Sarah Cook was instrumental in reviving interest in the Benton irises, bred by the artist Cedric Morris.  Developed between the 1930s and 1960s  his irises display an elegance of form which modern varieties have lost, but can also be seen in the flowers from some of the Cooley’s early catalogues.  The Benton varieties are grown by Beth Chatto, and seem to integrate well in her garden, amongst the grasses and other sun-loving perennials.

Looking at the Cooley’s catalogues, it’s interesting to observe how tastes in these flowers developed through the 20th century.  The earlier hybrids from the 1930s have the languid look of silk gowns from that period, while by the 1950s the form of the iris flower has become more frilled, and stiffer, like prom dresses.  In the process, the flowers somehow seem to lose the elegance of the earlier hybrids.

Cooley’s catalogues from the 1930s show some very elegant flowers indeed. The large black and white photographs show the spacing of the flowers on the stem, which contributes to their poise, while the colour plates show their astonishing colours from browns and purples, to pinks and pure white.

Pictured in colour Mountain Sunset and Eloise Lapham. Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

Kalinga from Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

President Pilkington, lavender blue and pale buff from 1935 catalogue.

Venus de Milo (all white) and Grace Sturtevant from 1935 catalogue

Legend with rich deep claret falls and standards of deep blue 1935 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar, strikingly pink, according to the 1935 catalogue.

For their stock, the Cooleys teamed up with iris breeders, both professional and amateur, who supplied a constant stream of new varieties.  New introductions were expensive (some priced at as much as $20) and aimed at the serious collector, but this was balanced by ‘Bargains for Beginners’ and ‘Class for the thrifty’ where 12 plants of established varieties could be purchased for two dollars.

Ormohr from 1939 catalogue.

Copper Lustre from 1939 catalogue.

Far West from 1939 catalogue.

Dogrose, Legend and Rameses from the 1939 catalogue.

Itasca from the 1939 catalogue.

Treasure Island from the 1939 catalogue.

Kalinga from the 1939 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar (pink) with Red Dominion, 1939 catalogue.

Rebellion, 1939 catalogue.

1930s evening gown (Wikimedia Commons)

Irises from 1964 showing a more upright form with frilly petals

Irises from 1965

I’ve grown the deep purple flowered iris ‘Matinata’ for many years and love to see the dark, almost black, buds at this time of year, followed by the spectacular flowers.  This iris was bred by Schreiner’s in the 1960s, another Oregon based iris specialist.  Given the renaissance of interest in the Benton irises, perhaps it’s time to re-discover some more heritage iris varieties for our gardens.

Cooley’s Catalogue 1935

Cooley’s Catalogue 1939

The quest for the Benton Irises (The Telegraph)