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St Erth’s creator traces his gardening life

Tommy Garnett, our finest garden writer, connects to Gertrude Jekyll, Russell Page and Edwin Lutyens

Continuing the work begun by the Garnett's at St Erth

‘Letters from the Country’ july 1988

‘Letters from the Country’ july 1988 My first effort at gardening, when I was four, has become a family legend and, like most legends, the story is probably based on fact.

I had been watching my father – pricking out vegetable seedlings, some in boxes and some in the ground. “Why do you do that?’ I asked. “To make them grow.” Shortly afterwards, I was found planting ducklings with their heads sticking out. It seemed to me logical enough. (In one version it was kittens, and that seems more likely since kittens would have been easier to catch.)

It is only as I write this that I fully appreciate how many components of the first garden I can clearly remember are reproduced in essence, though not in detail, in our present garden.

There was an orchard of old, but prolific, trees. You could sit reading in a Jargonelle pear-tree, reaching out for the small, sweet fruit to help concentration. Another reading spot was a willow, which had fallen into the pond from which kingfishers would dive, an arm’s length away. The house, of mellow brick, dated back to Elizabeth I, and the vegetable garden was walled with the same brick which helped to ripen cherries espaliered against it.

There was a wood, thickened with Rhododendron ponticum through which ran a stream. The drive was lined with two rows of horse chestnuts.

In our present garden, we call the pond a dam, trellis replaces the walls, the wood is a bush garden and we have had to make an artificial stream; but vegetables still take pride of place in the centre above an orchard of ancient (but utterly different) apples and pears.

During adolescence, sport took up more of our energies than gardening. We were constantly moving house, partly for post-depression economic reasons, and partly – though the motives were never admitted – because Mother enjoyed renovating old houses and Father making new gardens.

There was a garden high up on a mountainside in North Wales where we began to make a big rock garden and first learnt that the bigger the rocks you can use in such a garden, the better, and that only a small fraction of those rocks needs to show above ground.

There too, we learnt something about the importance of creating micro-climates.

There was a vegetable and fruit garden on the bleak east coast of England where the four metre high walls curved into bays to trap every possible bit of warmth. We moved to the balminess of Somerset, where passionfruit would flower but not fruit. The walls were of warm sandstone, and against them grew Magnolia grandiflora, whose individual flowers lasted much longer than they do in the greater heat of Australia.

At school, the headmaster’s wife was a friend of Gertrude Jekyll herself. She had designed the garden of the headmaster’s house and another just down the road below a house which Lutyens had built.

Her own house was at Munstead, just across the valley, while a hop and a skip further away was High Hascombe, which gave its name (because of a similar hilltop site), as well as to a gentian, to a well known garden at the top of Mount Macedon… Russell Page had been a boy at the school and, as a young man, was commissioned to give a firm but attractive shape to the area around the buildings.

At my age, these names meant little to me, and how I came to visit Munstead and Hascombe, I cannot remember. But I have clear memories of the garden.

Then came Hitler’s War and gardening meant Digging for Victory. Trenches were not receptacles for manure, but refuges from bombs. Decorative gardens suffered, but health improved because of the exercise and the fresh unsprayed vegetables and fruit. And chance took me to India, where I recognised how important in a dry climate was the sight, sound, and even the smell of water.

There had been a gardening interlude in Natal on the way. Marooned for six weeks by a shortage of shipping, two of us were quick-witted enough to step forward when the Orderly Officer asked for gardeners; and thus avoided route marches. Instead we had a garden in front of the Headquarters.

As we were camped on Durban Racecourse, there was plenty of manure; and the cannas we planted grew prodigiously – partly, as we later learnt, because a donkey had been buried beneath the bed. I have had a prejudice against cannas ever since.

After demobilisation came marriage; and family, in those days of rationing, meant the need for fruit and vegetables. Never since have I been able to grow such good Brussels sprouts nor been pricked so much by Himalayan giant blackberries. But near at hand was what at one time had been a small, systematic Botanic Garden, abandoned in wartime. Among the plants we rescued I particularly remember a paulownia (struggling in that climate) and a Cytisus battandieri. They grow side by side in our present garden in much more congenial conditions.

I became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society (whose garden at Wisely was not far away) in 1949.

I next became responsible for two very different gardens. One fell in terraces to a chalk stream. There were two huge copper beeches beneath which snakeshead fritillaries were naturalised, a tulip tree more than 100 years old, and lindens more than 200. There was a big bed of lilies of the valley which received a thick blanket of horse manure through the cold winters. There was a different variety of crocus for almost every month of the year; and a low wall on which to grow rock plants. The soil was extremely alkaline, which romneya seemed to like.

This garden I did not have to care for with my own hands, unlike another beside a holiday house on the east coast. Here, an architect had turned his son loose on a 13th century thatched cottage.

They had acquired old bricks and flagstones discarded in the restoration of London after bombing. With these, they had built a charming enclosed garden with a formal pond and a step looking onto it. There were no rocks but it was possible to use pieces of blown up pill boxes to build a rock garden for lime-loving plants; and there was a rose covered pergola with Tulipa kaufmanniana and Iris reticulata in quantity along the path it covered.

A first view of Australia led me to warn my family that what we should miss would be old buildings and deciduous trees. Victorian gardens seemed very small, until I began to realise the constraints which recurring droughts impose.

But there were compensations. Arriving in August, we were astonished to see so much in flower. Lasiandras (as they were then called) were a revelation; and the scent and sight of wattles in quantity.

Over the years, it became more and more frustrating not to be able to give names to the eucalypts and the astonishing variety of completely new plants. When I retired, the first thing we did was to start a bush garden in order to learn how to recognise some of them and how to grow them.

For 14 years we have been learning, not only about natives, but about the enormously wide range of plants we can grow than ever we could in Britain and that, though we can draw on our previous experience, we have an utterly different palette to play with, different climate, different light, different angle of sun, different plants. It has been exciting and rewarding.

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