Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Come Into the Garden Again



“Cut out all affectations, such as small bridges... human figures, china animals, glass ornaments, model houses, windmills etc.” advised the London Gardens Society of the 1930s.

When bedding plants (huge beds of one colour) slipped from Queen Victoria's house Osborne to public parks, they became “vulgar and garish”, says Alison Light in the London Review of Books reviewing The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes. (Now despised, calceolarias, salvias and begonias were originally exotic imports that needed raising in hot houses.) Oyster-shell edging looked right in a Tudor knot garden, but not in a suburb. (Light repeats the canard that working-class people used most of their garden for growing food – not according to Charles Dickens, who described a village of wooden shacks, each with its outside seat in a “bower”. And hang on, what about all those paintings of cottage gardens?)



"Quick-growing cornus provide a dark canopy in high summer – but be sure to avoid the garish pink varieties. I have used pink flowered forms in Japan, where the sugariness sits better with a Hello Kitty sensibility, but I wouldn’t use them here. Stick with the simplicity of cream and you won’t go far wrong.” (Dan Pearson, Observer July 2014)

Wavy fences are suburban (and 30s). Anathema to Upwards are suburban roads lined with pink flowering cherry and yellow forsythia in front gardens. That strip of land is supposed to keep the world at a distance – they don’t like all these Weybridge personalities coming right out to greet them. You are supposed to read a front garden as really being acres of parkland with deer, sheep and 500-year-old oaks, even if it is only a clump of cotoneasters and spotted laurel. Samantha Upward flinches at talk of the Britain in Bloom competition: all hanging baskets of lobelias.

Beautiful modernist houses (like Farnsworth House) are always in woods. No garden, just a clearing or lawns, with trees. It would be a crime to surround one with bedding plants or herbaceous borders. (But where’s the drive? How do you get there? And where do you park?)


You can get an “outdoor bonfire” (like gas logs). You may call it a “fire sculpture”, but who installs one of these? Surely only the Nouveau-Richards. A circular deck surrounded by a Richard Long ripoff (cemented together), and with a dining area in the middle is beyond naff. A “fire pit” is a fire wok, and you can get them in the style of Andy Goldsworthy. But a circular outdoor conversation pit with one of these in the middle would be rather cosy.


Domestic goddess Martha Stewart has a 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York – including horse paddocks, cutting gardens, a clematis pergola and “long allée of boxwood”. Good for her – big bare houses look so stark. The rich are still surrounding their mansions with a few timid plants, a table and chairs set huddled close to the house on a tiny patio, and vast areas of gravel (in front) and grass (at the back). What do they do on the grass – apart from mow it? With all that money, why don’t they turn their grounds into an adventure playground for adults? Or a maze? Or a treasure trail? Or a series of “rooms”? Or a forest?

At the least the houses need a flower bed and a flagged path all round. And a flower bed or small box hedge encircling the lawn. And features in the garden – paths, ponds, sundials, fruit trees, shade. They could spread themselves – build a bigger terrace, call it a parterre, put in some steps, a pergola, a few vines, some trees, fountains, statues… But I suppose proper stately home gardens require a staff of gardeners.

Here’s what they used to look like:

It was a green tunnel through the wood which opened suddenly upon a garden of rampant roses. Behind that, out of ample robes of roses and all kinds of clematis and jasmine, oriel windows gleamed...” (A Clue for Mr Fortune, HC Bailey, 1937)



In Georgette Heyer’s 30s mystery No Wind of Blame, a  a vulgar ex-hotelier is aiming for the country house style, but doesn’t really like the “wild” garden with its rhododendrons and azaleas, but prefers the neat formal garden and “carriage sweep” at the front of the house.

Between King’s Cross and Highbury there are backwaters full of huge Georgian and later houses that must be worth a million or two. The associated gardens all feature laburnums and wistaria.

In large country houses, flowers were grown in hothouses and flowerbeds to decorate the house. The lady of the house, or one of her daughters, arranged them herself – in the flower room, which had a huge sink and a lot of vases. The idea slid down the classes, and Metroland grew roses and put them in rose bowls on occasional tables. Bowls of growing hyacinths were also popular, and hydrangeas in the garden. Metroland devised new types of flower vase: the bud vase for a single rose, little horseshoe-shaped containers in moss-effect pottery for primroses. In the 50s, ladies went in for flower arranging in the Japanese style, learning ikebana from Constance Spry. Stow Crats and Upwards shuddered. And now we’re left with a lot of vases of various periods that mainly hold commercial bouquets we have been given for mother’s day.

The Times (May 16) has a tip for keeping the birds off your grass seed – use bunting.

More here, and links to the rest.


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