Derek Jarman’s Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness May 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

Derek Jarman

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

Howard Sooley’s website

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

Some Roses from the Geffrye Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa x alba ‘Alba Maxima’ (A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa Eglantyne (‘Ausmak’) (PBR)

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

Rosa ‘Felicite Perpetue’ (Ra)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minature moss rose.

Rosa ‘Irene Watts’ (Ch)

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

Rosa ‘Irene Watts’ (Ch)

Rosa ‘Hermosa’ (Ch)

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

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

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

Rosa ‘Alberic Barbier’ (Ra)

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

Further reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

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

Vita Sackville-West on Twitter

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From In Your Garden, published by Michael Joseph, 1951

From In Your Garden, published by Michael Joseph, 1951

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book (1968)

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

Further reading:

@thegardenvsw Vita Sackville-West on Twitter

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)

Roses from the Bilderbuch für Kinder

Children’s books from the 18th and 19th centuries are endlessly fascinating – not least for what they reveal about adult attitudes towards children.  Today’s child-centered stories are very different to children’s literature from two hundred years ago, where the child reader is often assumed to be a miniature adult, with an adult’s outlook and sensibilities.

On the surface, Bilderbuch für Kinder or the Picture book for Children, published in Germany in 1802, might be seen as a classic example of this ‘mini adult’ genre.  The vast range of topics discussed in this encyclopedia including animals, butterflies, birds, ships, national costumes, Roman ruins and volcanoes are serious adult subjects certainly, but here are presented for children in a way that represents the best in educational literature.  Somehow the book levels with the reader, addressing children in straightforward language they can understand, and never patronising them.  There’s an assumption everything will be of equal interest to both boys and girls, and the scope of the subjects discussed shows genuine ambition for readers to understand and take delight in the world around them.

Bilderbuch für Kinder was published by Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1747 – 1822) who, as well as being a publisher and translator, also had a business making artificial flowers.  His picture book was published in monthly installments (like a magazine) from 1790 to 1830 and there are twelve volumes in all.  Bertuch’s personal interest in natural history is evident, with dozens of beautiful illustrations of insects, minerals, plants and animals with information about them.  It’s interesting to see that each subject commentary appears in German, French, English and Italian.  Perhaps this was partly to maximize sales across the four countries, but it also seems appropriate to a project discussing European knowledge and culture in its broadest sense.

The entries about roses may well be an example of adults projecting their own interests onto children, but are fascinating today for anyone interested in the development of the garden rose over the centuries.  At this point, a limited number of roses were available, although this was all about to change later in the 19th century as breeding new varieties became fashionable.

I hope you’ll get a sense of the extraordinary quality of the Bilderbuch für Kinder from the illustrations of the roses below.  With two roses featured in each plate, the character of each rose is expertly conveyed, from the buds, to the texture of the leaves and especially in the velvety tones of the darker blooms.  Unfortunately, I cannot discover who the artist was (there might be a signature at the bottom of some of plates, but too small to make out).  I’ve included the English descriptions of the individual roses where I have managed to find them, for their clarity and detail of description.

There are links to some digital versions of Bilderbuch für Kinder I’ve found at the bottom of the post – do have a look for yourselves.

Fig 1. The red Centifolia (Rosa centifolia Germanica), Fig 2. the white Centifolia (Rosa unica) All images from Archive.org

Fig 1. The yellow Centifolia (Rosa sulphurea), Fig 2. The double purple Rose (Rosa holoserica purpurea)

Fig 1. The little Centifolia (Rosa centifolia minor) Fig 2. The French Rose (Rosa turbinata)

Fig 1. and 2. The half double purple Rose (Rosa holoferica purpurea flore semi-pleno) shown at different times of the day.

Fig 1. The basilica Rose (Rosa damascena Basilica) fig 2. (Rosa lutea simplex)

Fig 1. and 2. (Rosa semperflorens)

Fig 1. The Fire-Rose (Rosa punicca) Fig 2. (Rosa truncata virginalis)

Fig 1. (Rosa regina rubicans) Fig 2. Large moss Rose (Rosa muscosa major)

Rosa gemella

Fig 1. Rosa millefolia rubra Fig 2. Rosa pendulina inermis

Fig 1. Rosa Damascena communis Fig 2. Rosa versicolor

Rosa Damascena grandiflora

Further reading:
The Internet Archive has two digitised collections of rose illustrations (and some text) from the fourth and fifth editions of Bilderbuch für Kinder.  I’ve also included links to digitised versions of the longer versions of Bilderbuch für Kinder as they are a delight and well worth dipping into.

Rosenbilder Vierter Band
Rose pictures with text in German and French (1802)

Rosenbilder Funfter Band
Rose pictures with text in German (1805)

Bilderbuch fur Kinder
This version at archive.org has the text about some of the roses in four languages – but no pictures of them.

Bilderbuch fur Kinder
This version is at the University of Heidelberg

Bilderbuch fur Kinder
Another version from the Hertzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek

Friedrich Justin Bertuch

Robert Sayer’s Drawing Books

From The Artist’s Vade Mecum being the Whole Art of Drawing

Taken from a mid-eighteenth century drawing manual, these choice flowers arranged in baskets include roses, tulips, carnations, anemones, clematis and morning glory.  But plants are just a small part of The Artist’s Vade Mecum being the Whole Art of Drawing published by Robert Sayer in 1762.  Aimed at the amateur artist, Sayer explains techniques for drawing everything from the human figure, antiquities and landscapes to natural forms including birds, animals, and shells.

Sayer’s introduction reminds us that our appetite to record and preserve images of the world is not a new one.  Before photography, which we take for granted today (and more accessible than ever before via our mobile phones), the most convenient way to make images of people and places was to draw them, and this was a highly desirable skill to possess:

‘Drawing of Landscapes, Buildings, &c for a Gentleman, is the most entertaining and useful in the whole Art: To be able on the Spot (as is before observed) to take the Sketch of a fine Building, or beautiful Prospect of any curious Production of Art, or uncommon Appearance in Nature, or whatever else may present itself to view on our Journies or Travels, in our own or foreign Countries, maybe thus brought home and preserved for our future Use, either in Business or Conversation: and is the best Method of bringing to Mind again those Beauties that have once charmed us.’

For the beginner Sayer advises drawing items from the natural world first, arguing these are easier to draw than the human figure (which makes up the majority of his manual):

‘The drawing (of) Flowers, Fruits, Birds, Beast, and the like, might be the Subject of some of your first Attempts, not only as it is a more pleasing Employment, but as it is an easier Task than the Drawing of Faces, Hands, Feet and other Parts of the human Body, which require not only more Care, but greater Exactness and more Judgement.’

Vignettes shown as examples of composition for students to follow reveal some gardens, rural scenes and people using the outdoors as recreational space.  There are a variety of ruins framed by trees, a fountain and a group seated on furniture which looks as though it would normally belong in a dining room.

Robert Sayer (1725 – 1794) was a successful seller of prints, maps and charts, based in Fleet Street, London.  He collaborated with artists (including Zoffany), arranging for engravings to be made of their paintings and publishing prints of these.

Sayer’s Wikipedia biography makes no mention of the educational books he published, for both adults and children.  However, we can see from his 1775 stock catalogue this was a significant element of his business.  It lists ‘Two Hundred and Twenty-four‘ books about drawing and painting (more than twenty of these concern plants), alongside dozens of titles about writing – from alphabets and handwriting to instructions on drafting invoices and other correspondence.  There are also publications about architecture and furniture.

Another of Sayer’s books, The Florist: containing sixty plates of the most beautiful flowers regularly disposed in their succession of blowing (1760) was re-discovered in the library of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2017.  They believe it’s an early example of a colouring book – see a link to an article about this below.

Illustrations in The Florist reveal the continuing popularity of double flowers, such as hollyhocks, anemones and even almond blossom, and for the striped or flamed tulips prized in the seventeenth century.  There are more unexpected plants too, like mezereon (Daphne mezereum) a scarce UK native shrub, hellebores and persicaria.  The book is arranged following months of the year so that the artisit, or gardener, can enjoy a succession of blooms.  The invaluable cultural insights into mid eighteenth century English taste contained in these books make them fascinating reading – links to digitised versions below.

from The Florist: containing sixty plates of the most beautiful flowers

Further reading:

The Whole Art of Drawing (1762)

The Florist (1760)

Robert Sayer

Missouri Botanic Garden – library discovery

Sayer and Bennett’s Enlarged Catalogue 1775

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)