Artists and Gardens

Catherine Horwood’s mention of Cedric Morris in her talk is a reminder of the close relationship between artists and their gardens. In 2016 The Royal Academy held a wonderful exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse’, which devoted one room to Monet’s triptych of waterlilies. Many of us have had the pleasure of visiting his garden at Giverny, which is the subject of some of his most famous works of art.

Claude Monet The Water Lily Pond (National gallery)

Alfred Parsons (1847 – 1920) was an English artist who not only created his own garden, but designed for others. He provided the illustrations for many famous garden writers including Ellen Willmott (The Genus Rosa) and William Robinson (The Wild Garden). His friendship with Robinson led to him lending advice on the planting at Gravetye Manor.

Parsons had a wide mix of friends in both America and England, including John Singer Sargent and the novelist Henry James. Parsons’ paintings apparently mirrored the aspirations of Americans for an English garden and in 1899, when Henry James bought Lamb House in Rye, he invited Parsons to design the garden for him. It was here that he wrote some of his most acclaimed novels. Lamb House was much later bought by E.F. Benson and the view of the garden from the windows provided the inspiration for the Mapp and Lucia novels. In 2014, the BBC adapted these for a television series and used the garden at Lamb House for filming.

Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson in the garden at Lamb House

And so, to Cedric Morris. As well as painting portraits, still lifes and landscapes, Morris painted flowers extensively. In Higham Suffolk, he and his partner founded the East Anglia School of Art, but here Morris also indulged his passion for plants and, in particular, irises. He produced at least 90 named varieties and also exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show. His gravestone reads ‘Cedric Morris Artist and Plantsman’.

Cedric Morris Iris Seedlings, 1943, Tate Gallery

I am often struck by how much a beautifully designed herbaceous border, the Long Border at Great Dixter for example, resembles a work of art.

Vija, February 2021

Weather-proofing the garden

I have spent some time over the past two days trying to protect the more tender plants I still have outside. The greenhouse is full and there is nowhere else for anything to go, short of bringing everything indoors! I therefore have varying layers of fleece and old sheets propped up with canes to keep them clear of the plants and all looking very ugly.  With a weather forecast now predicting temperatures of -6 I have added blankets.

I look with envy to countries like Japan who so effectively seem to support their plants, making the supporting structure a thing of beauty in itself. The technique below is called yakitsuri and I first saw it in a Monty Don television series. This is designed to stop the weight of the snow from breaking the branches of the trees.

Similarly, the woven willow used to support border plants through the summer in our own gardens such as Great Dixter is not only functional, but looks nice.

When Pat and I visited in a brief respite from lockdown in 2020, to protect dahlias from slugs at Great Dixter, they had used sheep’s wool spread out over the soil at the base of plants. Where this was dark brown it worked, but the white sheep’s wool was not in the least appealing and detracted from the overall beauty of the borders.

(Photo NOT from Great Dixter, just an example.)

There is an art to protecting your plants in winter (or summer) in a way that looks attractive, or at the very least not as offensive as my own efforts and is which not damaging to the environment. I have yet to master it.

Vija, Feb 12, 2021

The English Landscape

Heart of Oak – Royal Navy Anthem

I recently attended a lecture (on Zoom of course!) about Thomas Gainsborough and his connection to the English landscape. Many people will be familiar with his portraits, but the landscapes in the background are not always commented on so widely, unless it is the painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which seems to be the subject of a huge range of interpretations (not all repeatable in a horticultural blog perhaps).

The 18th century was a period of great upheaval – the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 triggering a financial panic; in 1721 the country had its first prime minister in Sir Robert Walpole; in 1739 Britain declared war on Spain; in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to claim the British throne; in 1756 the Seven Years war between Britain and France began; there was unrest both in America and at home and throughout this period, there was a Hanoverian king. It is all too easy to forget that two of the great names associated with landscape architecture, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, were working against this background, with Brown finding little favour with the ordinary person by uprooting and moving whole villages when they stood in the way of his designs.

It is also no coincidence that Brown, Kent and their peers were creating landscapes which came to be seen as quintessentially English. Reacting against the formality of the classic gardens which were inspired by those on the continent and France in particular, they designed gardens that were intended to reflect the ‘sinuous curves’ of the English countryside. Ironically, Brown, who never travelled outside the shores of his home island, was inspired by the paintings of French artists such as Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin Landscape with Figures c1646

In the background of Gainsborough’s paintings, this same concern with the natural is evident. Even in his most famous portraits, for example the one of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the actress Perdita. Both show an English landscape populated by English trees, most commonly the oak.

Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough

Mrs. Mary Robinson (Perdita) Thomas Gainsborough

Apparently, as Gainsborough was not a ‘plein air’ artist, in order to remind himself of the shape of the oak he would arrange stems of sprouting broccoli in front of his easel!

This tension between what is an English garden and what is from mainland Europe has influenced garden design throughout history.

With the RHS encouraging people to plant a tree in their Roots for Remembrance, a nationwide memorial initiative, it seems an appropriate time to think about the role of the oak in English landscape culture.

Vija, Feb 2021

Local wildlife in Paula’s garden

CABAHS Committee member Paula has been grateful for the distraction of wildlife-watching during the Lockdown, and has been reading up about it. Paula’s garden style is “not manicured” but she does like to keep things under control – things such as ivy. She says that ivy can cover a multitude of sins and like it or not, it certainly helps out the local wildlife. Plus it is evergreen and makes a lovely backdrop about now, when everything else has lost its colour. She was intrigued to learn that there is an Ivy Bee, one to watch out for this year. The Wildlife Trust says that ivy bees are recent arrivals to the UK, being first recorded in 2001 and slowly spreading North. They look like honey bees and feed mainly on ivy nectar. There doesn’t seem to be anything bad known about them so at the moment they are welcome!

Paula has also been bird watching and says another “new” arrival to our gardens is the Collared Dove, a less bulky version of the native Wood Pigeon.

They are normally seen in pairs (a good Valentine omen maybe!) and come to bird feeding stations sometimes. They are not native but arrived from the Middle East in the 1950’s – a bit like the Green Parakeets that are now all over the South East, although not such a pest. They are mainly seed and berry eaters and if they raise a brood successfully they often return to the same nest site.

If you would like to find out more, try these links:

https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/bees-and-wasps/ivy-bee

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/collared-dove/

Paula, February 2021

New Year’s Resolutions

I hadn’t really thought about a New Year’s resolution for 2021, apart from the one that most of us have in the forefront of our minds at the moment: test negative, stay positive. (Sent to me in a Christmas card by a friend). But as we get closer to the end of January, to move forward into the year without one seems a bit neglectful.

I was therefore interested to read about the drive to encourage people to save seed and to encourage seed saving communities to develop. One of the few upsides of the lockdowns over the past year has been a huge boost in demand for seed. The argument is that this “grow your own” revolution re-diversifies seed crops and provides more security for not only our seed supplies, but food in general.

Josie Cowgill, one of the women who works with the Stroud Community Seed Bank in Gloucestershire sums up the impact of seed-saving in the context of 2020: “It’s difficult times we are living in. We have got a pandemic, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got biodiversity loss, habitat loss and economic collapse as well. It might feel quite small, just saving beans and growing your own food, but actually I think it is really fundamental. By doing something infinitesimally small like this tiny little gesture in a tiny little group, in a tiny little country somewhere, you are working towards something that makes you feel more hopeful. It’s a positive step. I’m not saying this is a magic wand or a cure-all, but it’s a positive step.”

Former ‘Bake Off’ winner Nancy Birtwhistle claims we have been ‘brainwashed’ into believing we need harsh chemicals to clean our homes. In an interview with her, what caught my attention was the amount of plant-based materials she used. It sounds miraculous, but she swears by ivy as a laundry detergent (about 60g, cut up and put in a muslin bag, then put in the drum). “It excites me so much; my husband thinks I’m crackers. I knew in the depths of my memory something about ivy and saponin [a natural foaming detergent], so I Googled it. Conkers have it as well.” (Although we should remember that ivy can be a skin irritant for some people.) In the autumn, she collects conkers and boils them up to create a creamy laundry liquid. (Nancy Birtwhistle’s book Clean & Green is published on 21 January by Pan Macmillan £12.99).I’m prepared to give this one a try, but have visions of a ‘green’ wash in a way I did not intend.

Food for thought.

Vija, January 2021

Celebrating Candlemas

This year, for the first time, I decided to put up a Christmas light curtain along the back windows of my house, never thinking that it would be such a difficult job! Having finally got the things up, with a good deal of foul language, I have felt reluctant to take them down. As well as the candles and lights around the house they have provided a welcome point of light in a rather dim January.

Imagine my delight when I heard a representative from English Heritage talking about Candlemas on the radio recently. Apparently, a tradition preceding the one which instructs us to take down Christmas decorations on the twelfth night, this allows for decorations to remain until Candlemas – the second day of February, which means that my lights can stay put for some time yet!

And snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells as they bloom so early in the year, and often before February 2nd. At one time it was believed that it was bad luck to bring these flowers into the house before Candlemas, but an opposing view has it that they are believed to purify the home. According to folklore, an angel helped these Candlemas Bells to bloom and pointed them out as a sign of hope to Eve and the flower is thus often seen as a sign of hope for the world.

It seems to me that everything comes together quite neatly: lights, illumination, snowdrops and hope. I think I will continue with this tradition!

Vija, January 2021

Philosophical Gardening (Vija)

Ravilious “Garden ” design for ceramics

Beginning 2021 on a philosophical note – Voltaire said that it is necessary to cultivate your garden. Andrew Marvell said that green thoughts come from any green shade. More recently, Marc Hamer in his latest book ‘Seed to Dust’ uses his cultivation of someone else’s garden as a catalyst for a range of philosophical meditations. His chapters begin with a gardening task but lead onto thoughts about life itself and his part in it.

I was reminded of ‘Plot 29’, Allan Jenkins’ book about the healing power of gardening, in which he gives an often heartbreaking portrayal of the violence and neglect of children, growing into an adult who seeks solace in tending a London allotment.

In their book ‘The Meaning of Gardens’ Mark Francis and Randolph Hester argue that gardens have meanings and go on to explore six categories of meaning: faith, power, ordering, cultural expression, personal expression and healing, each of which can operate at a social or an individual level. Jane Brown’s wonderful book ‘The Pursuit of Paradise’ aptly sums up the meaning of gardens for many of us: the desire to create something which may be not only useful, but a pleasure to be in.


Eric Ravilious: The Tortoise in the Kitchen garden

Whether your mind strays to such philosophical thoughts or not, there is a simple joy to be had in growing and nurturing and then enjoying the fruits of that labour, whether it be the beauty of a cactus dahlia or the taste of a home grown tomato, still warm from the sun.

Vija, January 2021

Eat your Christmas tree! (Kathy)

One of my presents this Christmas was a fun book called “How to eat your Christmas Tree” by Julia Georgallis. As you would expect for a book with such a title, there are some bonkers ideas in it – but there is a serious message behind it and some quite intriguing recipes too.

The statistics are quite sobering: the author calculates that if we DIDN’T cut down one years worth of Christmas trees, the carbon emissions saved would be the equivalent of banning all global air travel traffic for a year, or taking all the cars in the United Kingdom off the road for the next five years.

On a much lighter note, here are a couple of her recipes:

Christmas Tree Tea!

Apparently pine, fir and spruce contain a lot of vitamin C, although pine produces quite a weak tea. If you have a go, make sure you wash all the needles thoroughly. (And never use Yew, obviously.)

Ingredients: A handful of pine, fir or spruce needles / Juice of a lemon / 30ml (1fl oz or 2 Tbsp) Honey

Brew the needles in a teapot for 6 minutes. Add a dash of lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of honey to each cup. Pour over the brewed tree tea and serve.

Christmas Tree Cordial

This tastes a bit like grapefruit juice according to the author!

Ingredients:

Juice of 10 lemons, zest of 4 / 2 litres water / 700g caster sugar / 400g spruce and/or fir needles (you can also use some of the branches for flavour)

Sterilise a 2l glass bottle. Bring the ingredients to the boil over medium-high heat, turn down low and simmer for 2 hours. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, a few times, to make sure no needles are left and pour into the sterilised bottle. Keeps for 2 weeks in the fridge.

Christmas Tree Mimosa

70 ml Christmas tree cordial (above)/ 140 ml prosecco / Ice cubes and lemon

Combine in a cocktail shaker, pour into a cold glass and serve!

How to eat your Christmas Tree by Julia Georgallis

End of 2020 blog! (Vija)

‘Gardening is boring and messy. Plus, it often results in despair’.

This headline rather caught my eye. What follows is a ‘debate’ between two people, one who espouses the values embodied in the headline, while the other puts an opposing argument. The two views are summarised in the table below.

Boring and messyRewarding
You need stuff like compost, tools and special glovesFresh fruit and vegetables are a joy to eat.  
You have to go to the nursery and buy plants then bring them home and plant themYou can grow better and more varieties than you can buy
You have to prune – things don’t survive on their ownYou are part of your environment
A puppy will destroy a weekend’s work in minutesPlants want to grow – if you pay attention, they will do that for you.
A storm will wreak destructionYou can garden for nature, for the bees
Fluctuations in weather will kill plants 

Having read the article, I did think there are a lot more rewards!

I wonder to what extent disappointment in gardening is sometimes promoted by gardening programmes, particularly of the quick fix kind. I actually find Monty Don running his fingers through his garden soil rather disheartening. Mine is never like that! In September I took over a second plot adjoining my own on my allotment site. A young family had taken this on in the spring, clearly full of very good intentions. The plot already has ‘good bones’ – a fruit cage, solid shed, greenhouse (some panes missing) and is divided into neat beds separated by paths. But the soil is pretty heavy clay and digging it is a lot of effort, basically manual labour. After several visits and some hard work the young family did not return. I wonder whether the ‘good bones’ of the plot had misled the couple into thinking this was going to be an easy job.

This has, however, been to my benefit. At the end of a horrid 2020, I am looking forward to working on this new plot in the new year. There are currant and blueberry bushes already planted which just need nurturing and I am already thinking that I will plant wigwams of runner beans with an understorey of French beans and perhaps squashes in one of the beds.

A Christmas card I received has written inside it: ‘Think positive; test negative’. Onwards and upwards.

A Walk to the Bottom of the Garden (Vija)

Like Francis Griffiths and Elsie Wright, as a child I believed there were fairies at the bottom of my garden. Unlike Francis and Elsie, I didn’t take this any further. The story of the Cottingley Fairies went on to become one of the greatest hoaxes of the twentieth century.

When Elsie’s mother showed the photographs to the local Theosophical Society, it set in motion a chain of events that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to conclude that the photographs were authentic.

Then in 1920, when Conan Doyle wrote an article on fairy life, fairy fever gripped the nation.

But there are other reasons to go to the bottom of your garden!

In one of the December entries in his book The Rivington Diaries, Monty Don writes that, in order to feed his chickens, he has to walk right to the end of the garden and back, ‘which means that whatever the weather … I am obliged to have a good look at things’. There is no doubt that, in the depths of winter, having to get from one end of your garden is quite an education. You can make all kind of assessments in terms of use of space and structure, when everything is so bare.

And there are, of course, additional benefits. The scent of the viburnum bodnantense at the end of my garden is astonishing. It knocks me out every time.  Perhaps even more so in winter when there is less competition. I think I should have it closer to the house, or perhaps I should get another one.

Virburnum bodnantense

Similarly Clematis ‘Freckles’ blooms away on an obelisk throughout the winter and I did decide way back in the spring that I would get another one and plant it to scramble though the Ceanothus which stands by my back doors, so that I could admire it at all times. That never happened. Well, this was after all 2020. I shall resolve to do better next year.

But I do like the idea of a little cluster of fairies whispering somewhere under the still green leaves of my nasturtiums at the bottom of my garden!