In a fit of New Year zeal, we started (note that I said ‘started’) a bit of a clear-up of what for want of a better word you might call ‘stuff’.  Out of this stuff emerged some old family photographs, reminding me that I should organise them a bit better and finally get around to finding out more about the people featured in them, adding to sometimes unreliable family tales.  Those with subscriptions to Ancestry or other genealogical databases will know immediately what’s coming:  I was soon addicted. 

What might this sorry story have to do with horticulture? Bear with me, please.

Amongst the stuff were box-loads of index cards recording research material that we had produced literally decades ago in pre-Google times.  The purpose of the research was to compile a database of British and Irish Journalists – at least that task was accomplished and published!-  and my Ancestry  addiction offered the chance to do a bit of editing. 

Here we reach the point of this post.  Among the information gleaned from the records of the Society of Women Journalists at the British Library and other sources was a biographical sketch of Helen Colt, a fellow of the RHS.  In the 1911 census Helen Ann Mary Colt, of 4 Priory Court Mansions, Mazenod Avenue, West Hampstead, gave her occupation as ‘jobbing gardener’.  Indeed the project had already noted one of her appearances in print on the subject:

Woman’s Platform, interviewed on jobbing gardening as a career for women, March 1912.

Continue reading Coincidences

Long live lily-of-the-valley!

I realise that Lily of the Valley is not everyone’s cup of tea but these little flowers and I have history:  quite a bit of history in fact. Lily_of_the_Valley_2020

My photograph doesn’t show them at their best (ahem) which causes me a pang of guilt and a determination to look after them a little better.  Experienced CABAHS gardeners will perhaps find it a little eccentric of me to “look after” what many consider to be nothing more than a weed.

The new shoots you can see in this picture sit in their pot outside my door in south east London, but I have known them (or maybe their great grandparents) since 1968, when they made the journey from my grandmother’s house in Stanley Road to our house in Hollingworth Street, Oldham. I am astonished to find that Google Maps thinks that distance is 60 yards.  I would have put it at far less!

My dad was born in the house in Stanley Road in 1924.  He and my mother had moved to Hollingworth Street after they were married in 1951.  Neither house had a garden; just a small, and rather dark, backyard.  In 1968 his mother died.  The house was sold, the contents dispersed but my mother rescued the plant pot of Lily of the Valley, the single item of colour in my grandmother’s backyard, installing it as the single item of colour in our own backyard.  So it remained for many years. A bit of the rim of the pot came away in a particularly harsh winter but my dad stuck it back together and the pot lives on still.

With my mother’s encouragement I became almost as excited as she did when the first shoots of the Lily of the Valley started to appear, letting us know it was Spring.  And their perfume!  Nothing can ever match it for me. lily-of-the-valley

When I left home my mother began to accumulate more pots of plants for the backyard, so that in time it became almost impossible to see the bare flagstones in the summer.   If I concentrate now I can hear my dad grumble about these pots and see my mother wink and say, “He thinks they’re great, really!”

I’d quite forgotten about the Lily of the Valley until I moved into my own house.  In 1988 the clump was divided and I became owner of a half-share of the inheritance.  They stayed in their pot, a plastic one this time, and came with me on two house moves.  Some of their offspring have found a home in Ireland, some in Scotland.  They’re now well-travelled!

These days I think about them a lot.  I wonder how old any of the individual plants are.  I wonder too where my grandmother acquired them from in the first place.  It pleases me to think that I can trace them back for 50 years at least.

Shortly after my mother died I was in Vienna one Spring.   At every station on the underground system there were tiny, impromptu flower stalls with just one thing to sell:  small bunches of Lily of the Valley, which infused the entire station, so it seemed, with their heavenly perfume.

I discovered then that in some countries Lily of the Valley is traditionally given as a May Day gift.  Happy May Day, everyone! 

Lily of the valley pot

Melanie A

Feeling a little nostalgic…

I wonder how many people listened to the moving tribute on Radio 4 on 10 April from a woman who had just lost her sister to Covid-19? She listed a range of qualities for which Billie, her sister, would be remembered. If I were to write a tribute to my parents, gardening would be one of them. They were both growers. Brought up on the land, their year revolved around growing, cultivating and then preserving the fruit and vegetables produced. For me, gardening at certain times of year strongly evokes memories. I still have some sacks which, when they gave them to me, were full of potatoes; I have plant labels from the plants they gave me to grow on myself with the names of varieties like Moneymaker, Gardener’s Delight, Scarlet Emperor, Winter King. Their handwriting is still clearly visible. The varieties I grow myself is often informed by what they used to grow; tried and trusted varieties. Sometimes, it is the smell of fresh tomatoes on my hands, or hot sun on grass. The song of birds on my allotment and the quiet created by these strange times evokes memories of childhood with my father on his plot.

Gardens are, of course, places of remembrance and memories. In many cultures they have been created as oases of peace. A few years ago I drove around Normandy with a friend, visiting the gardens in the region. Jardin de Sericourt tells the story or war and peace and contains symbols of a once war-torn-landscape. One area (the garden is designed into ‘compartments’) has a series of topiary symbolising fallen soldiers, for example. This does not, however, create a sombre atmosphere. Rather it is a garden full of joy and hope.

jardin de sericourt 1
The Warrior Garden at Jardin de Sericourt

This page on Jardin de Sericourt’s website is well worth a look for the videos giving virtual tours.