Kensington goes Italian

Last week I wrote the background story of the Royal Horticultural Society’s magnificent but short-lived gardens in South Kensington, and today I want to follow up with an account of the gardens themselves designed by William Andrews Nesfield.

When I sat down to write this I wasn’t sure where to start or how to go about describing such an enormous space that was at once doubly simple and complex. Simple in that the overall design is visible almost  in a glance, but complex in that each section is very elaborate in detail,  and while simple in terms of planting  it is complex in its overall content.

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Andrew Murray & the Lost Gardens of Kensington

Who was Andrew Murray I can hear you asking and how did he lose a garden, especially one in Kensington?  Well, of course he didn’t actually personally  lose the garden, but he did record it before it was lost.  A Scottish lawyer and natural historian Murray  held a variety of posts before becoming the assistant secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society between 1860 and 1865. Although its quite hard for us to imagine, the RHS was once thought incapable of running a garden, or at least of running a garden that didn’t lose money hand over fist.

The lost garden of the title – more than 22 acres of prime real estate in Kensington – was planned to be their financial salvation  and it opened  to great acclaim in 1861 with an extraordinary collection of buildings, canals, statuary and embroidered parterres. However it didn’t solve the society’s money problems or even pay its way, so after some acrimonious court cases the RHS was evicted and the gardens built over less than 40 years later.

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Hollyhocks

 

Some flowers – like tulips, peonies or roses – are important or famous enough  to have their stories told in books that make the best seller list. But while some others have champions who’ve written about them, or are the subject of serious monographs there are some other well-known flowers that don’t seem to have attracted that much attention.  One of them is that stalwart of the cottage garden the hollyhock.

Do you even know where they come from?  When they arrived in Britain?  Why was Darwin interested in them?  Do they actually have  a history that’s worth knowing?   And why did Emma Townsend, writing in the Independent call them  “the Laura Ashley curtains of the gardening world, dangerously blowsy and 10 years out of date.”  and say “you certainly won’t catch anyone using them in a garden at oh-so-modern Chelsea.”

Read on to find out…

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The M9 and rhizotrons

 

Last week as I was picking  fruit from some small apple trees I noticed how badly grafted one of them was.   It reminded me  that a few weeks ago I wrote about the history of grafting and prompted me to  take that  story into the 20thc and talk about the M9.

By that I don’t mean the motorway from Edinburgh to Dunblane but a dwarfing rootstock for apples developed, along with many others, at East Malling Research station.

So read on if you’ve ever wondered  what all those strange codes and numbers are on the labels of  fruit trees in garden centres and nurseries? Who, for instance,  is St Julien? Gisela 5?  And what does M27 or MM9 actually mean?   How has M9  reshaped the global landscape and the economics of apple production?

And finally do you know what an apple trees roots look like? If you don’t, you might need a rhizotron…so read on to find out what that is!

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In the Glass Garden

 

Detail of a hanging sculpture in Chihuly’s Glass Hall DM Nov 2019

I was sorting out a huge pile of  magazines  the other day as it was raining, and found last summer’s edition of  Kew Magazine which featured an article on Dale Chihuly and his glass sculptures,  a large number of which were installed to spectacular effect in the gardens at Kew last year.

I’d been to see the exhibition wondering how can something so fragile as a glass sculpture could survive in a garden environment and almost asking why would you bother anyway.  After all glass isn’t a particularly natural material and it clearly wasn’t go to blend in like David Nash’s giant wooden installations from a few years back.

Instead  Chihuly’s work does exactly the opposite and stands out like a beacon or maybe for some people like a  sore thumb.  Based on plant forms but with colours, at least as strong as the brightest flower, some of the pieces almost screamed because of their sheer size and enormity. Others clashed and contrasted as well as complementing their green surroundings or their architectural setting.  Whatever you think of his work it went down well with the public at Kew and with over 900,000 visitors it was their most popular exhibition ever at that point.

So when I was lucky enough last October to visit  friends who have moved  Seattle, we just had to visit Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Exhibition which is, according to Trip Advisor,  Seattle’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

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