Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Glorious Gardenalia


Like many gardeners, I came to gardening late in life, after the passions for fashion, shoes, socialising and foreign cities had waned. Both my mother and my grandma had beautiful gardens but the plantswoman's gene seemed to skip over me. The closest I ever came to gardens in my twenties and thirties, working abroad as a journalist, was admiring Gucci's floral frocks.

Fast-forward a decade and how the earth turns. Not only have most of my friends become mad about everything botanic-y and begun ordering their Le Chameau boots (each one is handcrafted by a ‘maĆ®tre bottier'; reportedly the Duchess of Cambridge is a fan), but I, too, have started to realise the sheer, Elysian joy of being in a garden. Suddenly, I'm obsessed with old roses, and the Diggers seed catalogues, which I've just discovered, have overtaken Cabana and Porter magazines in the weekend reading heirarchy. (Seed catalogues make you think that your garden will look like Mottisfont, above, but of course that never happens.)

The curious thing about gardens—the thing that nobody ever tells you—is that once you start, it becomes quietly addictive. An obsession, even. 

When I photographed Carolyne Roehm's garden a year or so ago for a future book (still in production), the most interesting thing wasn't her enormous picking garden and its elegant obelisks and wicker planters (see above) but her immaculate planting schemes on her potting shed desk—each flower image carefully cut out and pasted in a garden plan to show how they'd eventually look in the spring beds.

The attention to detail was astounding. It made my trug stuffed with random bulbs look like an amateurish mess.

And when I photographed designer Jeffrey Bilhuber's weekender in Oyster Bay, Long Island, for a design book, it was his stunning kitchen garden that made my day, rather than his beautiful, rather Gatsby-esque mansion. You can't go back to a mere vegie patch after wandering through Jeffrey's potager (Please forgive bad pic above as it's one of the off-cuts.)


After that, I began studying Gertrude Jekyll's garden plans at the Lindley Library in London, trawling Instagram for garden inspiration, and reading Russell Page, Claus Dalby, Anna Pavord, Monty DonDamon Young (above), even the eccentric but expert landscape designer Sir George Sitwell (a great character who tried to paint his cows in blue Chinese willow patterns because they looked better in the green landscapes. A fantastic bio of him is here. You'll adore him.)

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned—the thing I love most—is that gardening is good for the soul.  Winston Churchill (himself a keen gardener) once said that we shape our building and then they shape us but I suspect he was also referring to his beloved gardens. We try to create our green spaces by giving them form, depth, dignity and character, but in the end, I think it's our gardens that give those things to us.


For the past two months, I've been organising garden tours, not just for friends who requested personalised itineraries but also a small private group of people. (Note: The tour this year was a small private affair, but there may be professionally-run ones next year: please email me or see for details.) I have also seen gardens on my own; gardens that have been so beautiful they almost seemed painterly. Like a Pierre Auguste Renoir study. Others felt more 'real'—Dame Elizabeth Murdoch's garden, above, was surprisingly pragmatic. (For all the Murdoch money, she abhorred expensive beds and 'show-off' plants, such as Prunus Elvins, which I quite like and have in our garden but am clearly Doing The Wrong Thing.)

The language of gardens was very important to Dame Elizabeth and her gardeners still use her terms today, including "slips" (cuttings). The underside of a tree was called a "skirt", and while some skirts were "too lovely to hem", others faced a trim. "We need to trim some of the branches to show that tree's good legs" was her oft-said instruction.

"Language brings a garden to life," she used to say. "It creates characters within that garden. It gives a garden dignity and respect." Just as Churchill used to say.

This Friday, I am off to see yet more gardens, this time in England, that grand, green, gardening Mecca. After a week of business appointments in London, I'm off on a lovely, loose, so-casual-it's-not-even-really-planned garden tour of picking gardens, potagers and private idylls. (NB Will try and post pix of all the gardens seen, past and future, here, when time permits.)

As always, feel free to follow on Instagram here — 
or here (LINK).


London is exploding with gardenalia at the moment, as it does this time each year, with the Chelsea Flower Show, the Russell Page exhibition at the Garden Museum, Buckingham Palace's exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, above (link) and of course the Chelsea Fringe Festival, which gathers strength every year.

I've also secured, with much luck, entry to a few amazing, slightly secret, places, and will post about them so you, too, can try to snavel a visit on future trips.


High on the List of English Country Gardens To Visit This Year is Mapperton Garden in Dorset, which is where the new Carey Mulligan film Far from the Madding Crowd was filmed (released this month), based on Thomas Hardy's famous tale.

There's a helpful website here trailer and a trailer for the film herewith a haunting song sung by Mulligan with the ominous line—"Beware, beware keep your garden fair".

Oh yes, because we know what happens in Hardy tragedies.

Curiously, Thomas Hardy described Dorset and its landscapes as “partly real, partly dream”, although modern journalists have been more brutal—Bridport (now home to residents like Martin Clunes and Ben Pentreath — IG link here) has been called "Notting Hill on Sea" for its glamorous boutiques, restaurants and hotels such as the Pig on the Sea (which a friend tells me has its own kitchen garden, above, as glamorous hotels do).

Also on the Country Garden List is Iford, the garden created by my new gardening deity, Harold Ainsworth Peto. (link) It's an Italianate garden and although it features Italianate touches—colonnades, terraces, cloisters—it's also deeply romantic. Many gardeners say it's their favourite.

There's also Woolbeding, the garden of the late Sir Simon Sainbury (of the supermarket family), reportedly one of England's best-kept secrets, which is rarely open but apparently worth the trouble.

Plus several other hidden horticultural treats. I wish I could take all of you along.


If you can't get to the northern hemisphere this summer, there's another flowery treasure in the form of the new film Tulip Fever, starring Judi Dench, based on the bestseller by Deborah Moggach. (No trailer yet but a link to author's site here.)

Set in early 17th-century Holland, during the period of the Tulip mania that gripped the Dutch in the 1630s, it's about an artist who falls for a married young woman while he's commissioned to paint her portrait by her husband. The two invest in the risky tulip market in hopes to build a future together. As one does.

On her author website, Deborah Moggach explains that the story is a "love-letter to Dutch painting and that lost world of serene and dreamy domestic interiors".

Judi Dench will no doubt be beautiful and brilliant. But it's the tulips I want to see.


There's another glorious book due out soon in the form of Arne Maynard's much-awaited monograph (one of my favourite garden designers), which is published by Merrell in September 2015.

 If you're visiting England, you can stay at his Welsh home and garden, Alt-y-Bela. Details here – link.

He seems like such a lovely man. All gardeners are lovely, I think, but Arne seems particularly personable.


Another man who's won my heart is my partner. While I've been pre-occupied by various work projects these past few months, my darling other half has installed a new cutting garden for me. Cutting gardens (or picking gardens) are all the horticultural fashion at the moment, although some people prefer potagers: mixing flowers and produce together.  I longed for a blue garden—like Gatsby's—and when I heard that they're best planted outside a sunroom so the view is cooling to the eye on hot days, well, there was no saying "no". Out went the grass and in went the beds. I even found some blue anemones for it, above.

This is it in the early stages, on a wet winter's day as the grand Elm tree sheds its leaves. It doesn't look much now, but come spring, all of the bulbs and plants, including the salvias, roses, lavender and nepeta, will hopefully be flopping with gay abandon over the raised beds. I wanted a simple garden because we have a simple two-storey, Georgian-style house (this was shot from a top window), with Georgian-style geometric lines, and this clean-line style of garden seemed to suit it. I was going to plant Chanticleer pears along the border but have been told they're horticultural pests. So we're still considering the outer framework.

We've already sat out there on sunny evenings, drinking in the golden light and relishing life. It's been well worth all the hard work! (You can see the other potager/picking garden behind the grey picket fence, which has been planted using shades of pink and red.)

We also had lots of figs from the fig tree's bumper crop this year, which I tried to give away when I could. Friends and neighbours were a bit figged out this year, I fear.


Lastly, I want to leave you with a gardening story. It's sad but it's enchanting too. I think you'll like it. It involves art, gardens, life, longings, and other enriching things.

A few weeks ago, a close friend emailed to let us know our old neighbour Roger Streeton (whom she also knew) had died. We had lived near Roger for several years in Range Road, Olinda, and had kept a (neighbourly) eye on his property when he was away. Roger was the grandson of the famous Impressionist painter Sir Arthur Streeton, and his house, our neighbouring property, was Arthur Streeton's former home, 'Longacres', where he painted many of his masterpieces, which now sell for millions.

Streeton bought Longacres in the Olinda hills so he could paint en plein air but also so he could find peace and contentment in his life.  He had achieved career success at the Royal Academy in London and the 1892 Paris Salon, but what he really longed for (as many of us do) was a garden and pastoral views.  He had found himself in middle age without a wife and family, a home or even financial security and Longacres was his quiet gift to himself. It soon became his escape; his idyll, and also his inspiration.

Streeton painted much of his best work at Longacres, ensconced in its garden studio or the gallery inside the main house, which was lit by three large skylights and featured a 20-foot ceiling, fabric-covered walls (a luxury at the time) and an unusual picture window that created the illusion of viewing the outside garden as a painting. He also planted an Impressionist's garden, much like Monet's at Giverny, and filled it with drifts of delphiniums, foxgloves, larkspur, lupins, hollyhocks, violets, primroses, bluebells, daffodils and snowdrops, narcissus, lavender, and a grand avenue of Linden trees.

It was there he could be found most days, in his artist's smock, capturing the botanica in light brushstrokes. The garden eventually became so extensive, he built a gardener's cottage, and hired a gardener, Mr Griffin, to manage it.

Streeton died in his bedroom at Longacres in 1943. His clothes, easels, paintbrushes and even tubes of paint, are all still there. My friend (the one who emailed) remembers visiting Longacres 15 years ago, 60 years after Sir Arthur Streeton's death, and said Streeton's painting were still stacked in piles – "just  exactly as he left it..."

Streeton's garden, however, didn't fare so well.  Many of the plants, perhaps out of shock, died with him. When his grandson Roger Streeton (our neighbour), took over Longacres, he faced a derelict and long-forgotten place, with a garden that had been lost to blackberries. Locals often said they saw the old artist's ghost, forlornly wandering the overgrown paths. (The house has the dubious distinction of being classified by the National Trust as an official “haunted house”.) Roger Streeton spent the next 15 restoring it, with the result that buildings and garden are now both classified by National Trust and Heritage Victoria. (link here)

Roger Streeton's death last month makes me wonder what will happen to Longacres, and to Sir Arthur Streeton's garden? My friend walked down our old road on the day that Roger died, to pay her respects, and said the heavy carpet of woodland cyclamen made the grand old trees look like they were growing out of pink snow. When she stopped to admire the estate, a huge stag stood, very still, at the top of the drive, all alone in the empty property. "He was magnificent," she said, clearly moved by the sight.

It made me wonder if he, too, paying his respect to the father of Australian Impressionism? A painter who became a gardener, and a man for whom gardening, rather than art, made him truly happy.

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