Thursday, 11 October 2012

Garden wildlife

I've recently become the gardener for the HQ of a London-based historic buildings organisation. It's a voluntary role but I don't mind as it presents such a wonderful opportunity for me and I'm always happy to have a day in London.

The brief is to encourage more use of the courtyard garden by staff and visitors; to encourage more wildlife (a challenge in such an urban area!); and to ensure planting is obviously suitable for the conditions (shady, humid) and appropriate for an eighteenth-century garden and for that particular locality.

I'm going to take my time planning it over the winter although aim to get some bulbs in this month so we have some Spring colour. It already has some well-established plants such as Hydrangea petiolaris, Laurel, Hostas, ferns, Wisteria (bit shady for that I would have thought). My immediate reaction to the space was that herbs might be a way forward - for colour, scent, wildlife - but this would also be historically appropriate too given that the building is on the site of an old priory and a famous botanist lived nearby. But we should also try to get some more small and medium sized flowering plants in there to work with the bigger shrubs. I also need to research some appropriate containers - no old plastic or bog-standard terracotta...

I'm looking forward to extending my knowledge on gardening for wildlife and shade-tolerant plants. Luckily, I have plenty of experience of the latter at home - although my garden is south-facing, the buildings surrounding it mean there are areas of shade. Attracting wildlife is less of a problem in my garden though - we're in the town but surrounded by Cotswold countryside. Hopefully the London garden will get the sort of visitors as shown in these lovely photos by my partner!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Getting close to topiary

Great Dixter (photo by Juju)

As is probably apparent from my previous posts - I love topiary in all its shapes and forms whether clipped shapes, knot gardens, parterres. Topiary can be magical, ancient, atmospheric, fun, stimulating and visually stunning. It is also divisive - the nineteenth century gardener William Robinson considered it 'an outrage on natural form' and 'hideous' and which he felt disfigured great gardens. It goes in and out of fashion - and although much appreciated in historic gardens - it now even seems to be on trend as they say - appearing in several show gardens at this year's Chelsea Flower Show. However, fashion nowadays seems to be for cloud shapes or strong geometric shapes rather than the peacocks, squirrels, cockerels of the past.

Cliveden (National Trust) photo by Juju

Brodsworth Hall (English Heritage) photo by Juju

Last week I attended a one day course on topiary at Langley Boxwood Nursery. What a great day - beautiful sunshine, good company, great teachers and surrounded by topiary. It was so interesting learning about - and seeing - different species of box and then being shown by the experts how to do topiary. We were let loose in the field to practise on large overgrown plants and then got our own container plants to hone our technique.

Langley Boxwood Nursery

I really enjoyed creating a spiral and it now has pride of place in our garden. I also started to create a peacock but that is definitely a work in progress...

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gardens in 'Mapp and Lucia'

I'd been meaning to read E F Benson's stories of Mapp and Lucia for ages and a recent holiday in Sussex, staying in Rye, prompted me to do so. I fell in love with Rye and so it was wonderful to read the stories and picture both the author as well as his characters going about their daily business.
Lamb House, now owned by the National Trust

Benson, like Henry James before him, lived in Lamb House, a beautiful Georgian house at the top of a cobbled street in Rye. This house and the nearby street on a steep hill plays a major role in his Mapp and Lucia stories: it is where Miss Mapp lives in Tilling (ie Rye) and where she keeps a close eye from the garden room on all her neighbours. The garden room was sadly destroyed in real life in 1940. 'Mallards' as it is called in the stories is later bought by Lucia, who essentially becomes Queen Bee in Tilling, thereby deposing Miss Mapp from that role.

The back garden at Lamb House - I can imagine the fete taking place here as described in the stories

Gardens play a major as well as a subtle role in the stories in both Tilling and Riseholme (the latter where Lucia and her devotee lived before moving to Tilling). Here are a few examples but I won't say too much as I think I might write an article on it! In Riseholme, Lucia - in her homage to 'authentic' Elizabethan life - created one part of her garden with only the flowers mentioned by Shakespeare. Georgie and his neighbour Daisy frequently chatted over their garden fences to catch up on Lucia's latest schemes. All the characters enjoy gardening and painting pictures of their flowers. There is a tussle over garden produce when Lucia rents Miss Mapp's house - Miss Mapp says the rent does not include the garden produce and instructs the gardener to remove it all and sell it to the local greengrocer. Needless to say that causes much tension when Lucia finds out...

The kitchen garden - source of much tension for Mapp and Lucia

View from the church tower towards Lamb House and garden

Lucia throws Italian phrases into her conversations in order to give the impression that she speaks perfect Italian. With the imminent arrival of the Countess, an actual perfect Italian speaker, Lucia realises she could be exposed as a fraud and so feigns illness and hides at home for the entire length of the Countess' visit. Miss Mapp is very suspicious but try as she might, she can't catch a glimpse of Lucia when casually walking past or trying to pop in. Then she remembers that there is a view of Mallards' garden from the top of the church tower and she is rewarded by Lucia, oblivious to anyone watching, doing her calisthenics exercises in the garden! Quite clearly, she has been lying about her illness but without spoiling the plot, this information doesn't give Miss Mapp the one-upmanship over Lucia she craves....

Monday, 26 March 2012

Up on the roof

Topiary at Chastleton House (photo copyright Juju)

Such a treat at the weekend: volunteers at Chastleton House (NT) are occasionally allowed up on the roof so up I went despite my dislike of heights. It was a beautiful clear day and what an amazing and different perspective on the garden where I spend hours of my time. Topiary gardens of course look stunning from above and ours is no exception - the weird blobby shapes take on new identities and the yew hedge looks so crisp, flat and neat.

The Kitchen Garden (photo copyright Juju)

It was interesting to study the Kitchen Garden and the new beds (left hand side) - it made me realise what a good size they are and also how much work they're going to involve! Still, I love working in this area and it's also a favourite with the visitors. Everybody asks questions about the fruit and veg and also the beautiful herbaceous borders. Now I'm on to my third Spring there I think I can identify most of the plants...

The croquet lawns (photo copyright Juju)

Finally, the croquet lawns. For those who don't know, the rules of croquet were codified here by a member of the family who owned Chastleton for nearly 400 years - Walter Whitmore Jones in the 1860s: he was a bit of a character by all accounts. I wonder what he would think of all the attention? Croquet lawns are very high maintenance and our gardener lavishes time, energy and resources on this one to keep it in tip-top condition.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Garden history research

Charlecote Park last summer (NT)

I've realised why garden history is the right way forward for me - it brings together all my eclectic interests (and qualifications): gardens and gardening (obviously), history, the visual (in terms of reading the garden and landscape as well as paintings and representations of gardens on film), archival research as well as social science and even management issues. 

Nuneham Park, Oxfordshire

I am working on several research areas of research at the moment and hopefully next week will start writing up one of them with a view to publication. However, there is a lot of archival material to make sense of and I still need to decide on the exact focus. The research started out exploring the role of the head gardener in the creation of a significant Edwardian garden at Nuneham Park, Oxfordshire. However, with the exception of very notable gardeners, most are hidden from history (see Musgrave's The Head Gardeners, 2007) for an excellent overview of this. Consequently, it has been difficult to find all the evidence I would have liked. I am confident though that my extensive research on The Harcourt Papers at the Bodleian, together with other archival and visual evidence will provide me with sufficient material to write up the role of all the personalities involved in this garden - Charles Munday, the head gardener, and the owners of the property, Viscount Harcourt and his wife May.

Nuneham Park