Saturday 6 October 2018

In an English Country Garden

Those aren’t plastic flowers, those are “faux botanicals”.

Weybridges know the Latin names of house plants. Fiona Stow Crat gives hers nicknames. 

An Escape to the Country participant says his ambition is to have enough grass for a sit-on lawnmower.

No good house should have to suffer the indignity of being covered with climbing plants. It is architectural bad manners almost on a par with plastic doors and windows. (Letter to Times, May 2017)

I was once sternly told not to plant Russian vine in my garden – so I did, and it flourished. I couldn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t plant any beautiful, romantic Virginia creeper, found all around us in Surrey climbing up half-timbered Arts and Crafts villas. She also vetoed pampas grass (suburban) and my father outlawed nasturtiums (too orange), but she grew them anyway.

In the 70s a clump of pampas grass in the centre of your front lawn was supposed to signal the home of wife-swappers. (What did other wife-swappers do? Just come and ring your doorbell?) The pampas grass would be in the middle of a perfectly kept lawn in front of the house, with no fence or wall. This was thought to be American and hence utterly naff. If you didn't have pampas grass, you probably had a laburnum. (What happened to them? Health and Safety? The seeds are poisonous.) Laburnums were naff, as were any "weeping" trees including willows and silver birches. In fact silver birches were verboten whether they wept or not. According to Nicky Haslam, hydrangeas were posh in Edwardian times.

Garden no-nos from the Times 
Times writer Anne Treneman has inherited a garden – she bought it from someone called “Malcolm”. Unfortunately it contains:

pampas grass
poisonous plants
orange flowers

She also frowns on:
tiny Zen gardens
invasive bamboo
anything that grows too big (Don’t plant a Scots pine in a  suburban front garden)
climbers (that strangle your TV aerial)

To the Brits, horticulture is about the gardens of stately homes, not breeding disease-resistant bananas. Cecil Beaton (The Glass of Fashion) makes the point that flowers were part of your interior décor, and you renewed them every week, or every few days. If you had “grounds”, your flower garden was designed to produce flowers to decorate the house. Per Nicky Haslam (Redeeming Features), this is called the “cutting garden”.

Until the mid-60s, women still “did the flowers”. In a large country house, either the wife or one of her daughters had the task of picking the flowers and taking them (in a wooden trug basket) to the “flower room”, where there was a big sink, and vases on a slate shelf. Here she arranged bouquets for the drawing room, dining room and hall, and possibly guest bedrooms and her own.

In the 50s and 60s women went to flower-arranging classes (a relative was very witty about being told to put “blooms” in a “container”). They dabbled in ikebana, and read Constance Spry. Post-war domestic writer Ethelind Fearon (The Reluctant Gardener) advises on which plants to grow and how to turn them into “arrangements”. This sometimes involved clipping leaves into more aesthetic shapes. And then women got jobs, and we did without flower arrangements, or substituted trailing variegated ivy (60s) or spider plants (70s).

When Upwards, forced out of inner London, move to Stratford or Walthamstow, all they can find are houses with “state of the art” kitchens and gardens that have been “cleared”. They immediately start making the garden look wild and untidy again. If they can afford it, they “rip out” the gleaming cabinets and replace them with dangerously rocky 50s “kitchenette” larders and a pine table. If they’re really well-heeled, they pull down the extension and turn it back into a patio.

Monty Don in the Times on John Seymour’s self-sufficiency books: Nobody apart from “a few bedraggled hippies on wet Welsh hillsides” really wanted to fend for themselves. (Self-sufficiency also required you to use your children as slave labour. Though didn't the Downton Abbey inhabitants live off their estates? They were self-sufficient in venison, peaches and everything else – easy if you have enough land and can pay gardeners and farm-hands.)

‘Well, well,’ said Colin. ‘Some front garden!’ 

It was indeed a model of surburban perfection in a small way. There were beds of geraniums with lobelia edging. There were large fleshy-looking begonias, and there was a fine display of garden ornaments — frogs, toadstools, comic gnomes and pixies. 

‘I’m sure Mr Bland must be a nice worthy man,’ said Colin, with a shudder. ‘He couldn’t have these terrible ideas if he wasn’t.’
(Agatha Christie, The Clocks)

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. Very much enjoyed these astute observations of British gardens. I remember the pampas grass craze and frankly, pleased to see it gone! On a beach, certainly, in the middle of a pocket-sized lawn, definitely a no-no.

    And, as for those 60s women "doing" flowers, I'm right there with them. Love a vase stuffed with home-grown flowers.

    1. Cecil Beaton was very against "wired" flowers, as was Barbara Pym. What do people have now? Low-maintenance succulents?

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