I don’t usually publish gardening titles in my day job at Constable & Robinson, but this is one of mine. It’s a pretty reissue of a classic 1834 manual by Jane C. Loudon, who was also an artist who created some lovely flower paintings – we’ve added some of these to the book as appropriate decorations. It’s an interesting period piece as it comes from a period when many women would have been expected to have more delicate hobbies, and at the same time has some basic advice which is still interesting today. Rather than write more about it, here is the blurb.
Having married a gardening expert, it seemed to Jane C Loudon, that everyone around her knew far more about plants and gardening than she did, but she quickly learned the art of horticulture from her husband and decided to pass his teachings on to other ladies to help them enjoy the delights of the garden. Gardening for Ladies was, and still is, an entirely practical book that describes how a lady can make the most of her garden in a clear and precise way. Digging over a flowerbed might have been work for a rough-handed, rope-muscled garden worker, but Jane explained how a lady could tackle the job without undue strain, and explained why it was necessary. The advice and instruction in this classic gardening book is as relevant today as it was when it was written 180 years ago.
At the Garden Media Awards* ceremony yesterday I was talking to Paula, a journalist, who had a lonicera hedge that had been squashed into a lop-sided shape by the snow. She went to some trouble to cloud-prune it, only to be informed by her teenage son that it “looked like a turd”. She eventually cut it down though she is planning to plant a new one, possibly beech.
This anecdote reminded me of the strange patterns of the yew hedges at Montacute in Somerset – the winter of 1947 left one hedge weighed down by snow and twisted into new shapes. But over the following years, the gardeners tended the result, and added the same effect to an opposing hedge, giving the garden an intentionally abstract feel.
There’s a nice picture of a rather precarious looking gardener at Montacute here.
* I didn’t win the inspirational book category, which was won by Led by the Land but the lunch was excellent and it was all good fun.
This is another picture that was cut from the book for space reasons, a nice pair of stilt hedges at Hatfield. Stilt hedges (lines of adjacent trees cut so that it looks like a hedge on trunks) have been a popular formal garden element over the years – there’s another nice example at Hidcote Manor Garden but that one is in the book so I won’t put it up here just now.
Ferns are one of those strange types of plants, like mosses, that are truly ancient and undoubtedly fascinating in their own way, but often overlooked in favour of more glamorous cousins. When I come across a patch of ferns in the woods, I tend to think of them as dinosaur food because I know they go way back in the fossil records, unlike some of the more recent plant groups.
Anyhow, my knowledge of them is pretty limited, but I’m intrigued by this book, Fern Fever, due out today, about the Victorian craze for ferns. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks rather beautifully designed, and appears to be informative about the plants themselves as well as the collectors and gardeners who became obsessed with them.
This is Hatfield’s knot garden, with its lovely low maze and topiaries.
The site of the garden originally lay under a wing of the house which was devastated by a fire in the early 19th century. The brick paths were handlaid by the prizewinning hedgelayer Larry Laird, from bricks recycled from a demolished bothy in the grounds, by hand. Although the garden was only created in the 1980s, the final result has the feel of a renaissance formal garden.
There is also a much larger yew maze in the east garden, which is a Victorian creation – this garden is only open to the public on designated days.
I wouldn’t usually go to Nietzsche expecting gardening advice. But rereading a bit of Human, All Too Human, I came across this quote, which chimes in unexpectedly closely with something I’ve been trying to say in the book:
An essential disadvantage which the cessation of the metaphysical outlook brings with it lies in the fact that the attention of the individual is too firmly fixed on his own brief span of life and receives no stronger impulse to work at the construction of enduring institutions intended to last for centuries; he wants to pluck the fruit himself from the tree he plants and he is therefore no longer interested in planting those trees which demand constant tending for a century and are intended to provide shade for long successions of generations.
The point I wanted to make is how impressed I have been by the people I have met while writing the book, who are planting and tending trees, hedges and gardens that will be at their prime many decades in the future. We do seem to live in a bit of a short-termist society, but luckily there are still people who take a longer view and are willing to create something that will live on beyond them. When I see something like the amazing topiaries of Levens Hall, the yew tunnels that are being recreated in one of the country house gardens I visited, or a beautiful hedge that has been continually tended for generations, I am increasingly aware of the debt I owe to people who are now long gone.
Of course there is a Chinese proverb that makes this point rather more succinctly than either me or Nietzsche:
The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.
The second best time, is today.
Leylandii, also known as the Leyland Cypress, has steadily grown in notoriety through the twentieth century. Planted as a screen, it will grow at an extraordinary speed to create hedges as high as a hundred feet tall. For those who wish to create total privacy this has been an enticing prospect. However, most people don’t want vast hedges overshadowing their garden, and the species has been responsible for some bitter disputes between neighbours, including some which have spilled over into violence and even murder.
Extraordinarily, Collins Tree Guide defines leylandii as ‘the most planted and the most hated garden tree’ in the UK. This is because it has too often been grown without due care and attention, and even for those owners who do wish to keep them under control, the cost of trimming a fully grown leylandii hedge can be an obstacle. Leylandii are greedy drinkers, taking the moisture from surrounding soil, and as a foreign import, they don’t even harbour much of our indigenous wildlife. In many respects they are the anti-hedge, a pariah in our ‘green and pleasant land’.
The bastard offspring of two types of cypress native to North West America, leylandii was first cultivated by C. J. Leyland, a nineteenth-century ship’s captain, landowner and amateur botanist. He spotted this unusual hybrid growing wild on his brother-in-law’s estate in Scotland, and took some seedlings to his home at Haggerston Castle in Northumberland, a mile or so from the causeway that conveys travellers across the sea to Holy Island.
Leyland was a rather splendid man, who devoted his home life to building a plethora of weird and wonderful buildings at the Castle (now a holiday camp), including an astronomical observatory built into a water tower, and a walled Italian garden. It is a shame that the folly that he is best remembered for is a monstrous tree, rather than the Greek goddesses and pergolas of the walled garden.
There’s a BBC article on the species, with a few pictures here:
 Leylandii are also popular in Australia, where they are known as ‘Leyton Green’ or ‘spite trees’ – Problem Hedges Australia is the campaign group for those affected.
Garden fashion is a strange thing. Perhaps the classic case of a fad that fell from grace, garden gnomes were imported from Germany by Sir Charles Isham to decorate his rockery in the 1840s. Apparently he thought they would encourage the real “little people” to come out of hiding and make themselves known.
Over time they would become the most despised and ridiculed garden ornaments of the modern era. Just as Alexander Pope sneered at the amateur topiarists of his time, it became de rigueur to regard gnome enthusiasts with disdain, and they have been banned at the Chelsea Flower Show since the early 1990s.
Jekka McVicar, who has a herb farm near Bristol (http://www.jekkasherbfarm.com), is a member of the RHS council, but chooses to have a bit of fun at Chelsea by including the tiny gnome Borage in her herb garden. In the picture below he is half hidden in the Alchemilla mollis to circumvent the rules, but nonetheless peeps out to make fun of the occasion. Jekka tells me that Borage has been a regular, unobserved feature of her displays over the years. On this occasion, he apparently stayed for the queen’s visit, before being sent home for misbehaviour.
This is nothing to do with hedges, as my editor patiently pointed out to me when I mentioned it in the first draft of the book. But I still like the story, and the great thing about having a blog is that I can talk about whatever I feel like…