I scanned this view from a 1999 slide. Let me start by saying: I’ve never once in the 14 years of its existence taken an overview photograph of my Rondel Garden that really pleased me. They all lack a focal point, and the effect is always bitty, and the glorious old roses with which the garden is filled, no matter how lushly in bloom, look spotty. Besides, the garden has been in terminal decline for years, and I don’t know where its future lies…
But let me start with its inception – or rather its conception, which had an air of the immaculate about it that still fills me with wonder, and is reason enough to resurrect it.
I lift the text which follows from a post at Moosey’s. At that stage my trusty Frans Seale was still the gardener in charge here, and the sense of loss was not nearly as acute as it is now. Since then the irrigation system was damaged and the problem not picked up till several roses had died and there has been disastrous pruning, some on my direct instruction (the Sequoia tree now looks like one of those artificial monsters that hide mobile phone antennas …) Time has not stood still for me either. This garden is essentially a shrine. Is a shrine to be considered holy, or merely a marker on my path through life? Here then the story behind the Rondel Garden; you will understand why going to Sissinghurst was so important to me…
An old plan of the Rondel Garden. The tiny circle at 12 o’clock represents the Sequoia tree. There is another outside the circle at 3 o’clock.
20 October 2006
Yesterday I took the first photos of the season in the Rondel Garden, and it is time to tell the story of this most personal of all the spaces in my garden.
View across the Carpet Garden towards the Rondel Garden in 2006.The Sequoia tree, not much more than a sapling when the garden was being laid out, has since been pruned higher to let more light in on the garden. It now looks horribly artificial. The cottage is out of frame to the right.
When I built the cottage I was adamant: it would stand between the pine trees on the edge of the meadow looking out over the dam, and there would be no garden – only herbs, a lemon tree and three climbing Iceberg roses in the pillars. I was gardening all over, but not near the house. In the back of my head was the possibility of a flower garden 60m away behind the house, where there were some graves, only one of which had a headstone. It is dated 1892: the nephew it seems of the person to whom the farm was originally deeded. There were a few graves in a block, then a space of a few meters, then a tiny grave of a child with a crudely carved headstone which must have contained an inset plaque, long since vanished. Nearly five years on I was still vaguely thinking about the possibilities of this garden. This 1996 photo shows the house still surrounded by pine trees in its meadow. The raw Rondel Garden can just be discerned to the left of the lone pine, and the pine that obscured the view frames the left side of the picture.
Francois and I shared a love of gardening and of roses in particular. For our thirteenth anniversary, some weeks after the cancer was diagnosed, he gave me the most beautiful book ever produced in South Africa: Gwen Fagan’s “Roses at the Cape of Good Hope”. This beautiful book was our introduction to the old-fashioned roses, and the start of our last great shared passion. We would set off in late October to see the old roses and, until exhaustion would suddenly set in, rush around the few nurseries and gardens where they could be seen. I started reading more widely about the old roses, discovered Sissinghurst, and then in the serene summer of 1993-4 I sat reading about great gardens and gardeners in the perfection of our suburban Johannesburg garden which we had created together, and occasionally went in to check on him where he now spent most of the day sleeping like a new baby.
That is the background to the dream. The dream, an incredibly detailed and realistic one, was this: a round garden up where the old graves were, a stone at the very centre in the space between the graves, marking Francois’ ashes, and a series of beds each containing a different type of old-fashioned rose – gallicas, albas, centifolias etc. There would be a path below the graves dissecting the circle, with pie-shaped beds below that. There would be a seating area looking down on the stone across a small thyme lawn and then across to the Carpet Garden, and two larger beds on either side of it. There would have to be a fence (roses need to be fenced against the deer) and a hedge all around the circle. And it was to be called the Rondel Garden.
Francois made suggestions: use a selection of the old single-flowered HT roses for the hedge; plant a bay tree on either side of the seating area. I still have the original drawings I made to explain the Rondel Garden to him, and the notes I made as we discussed it, including these requests.
Needless to say, as soon as possible I went up to the old graves. I stood where the stone would go, and looked over towards the Carpet Garden. I could not see it. There was a huge old pine tree at the bottom end of the meadow, and it was directly on the axis. What is more the axis moved awkwardly, diagonally across the slope and at an odd angle to the line of the graves. The central concept in the design could not work! I pondered; I looked around; I moved a few meters this way and a few that way; I measured. And before too long I had my answer, and it was in all ways an improvement. The plow at the end of the axis from the second Sequoia, across the stone, and through the gate and the oak trees. Right front the turn towards the Carpet Garden.
Growing within the circle, and at a point perpendicular to the main axis which runs below the graves and through the stone, was a young Sequoia tree. By moving another young Sequoia 5m it would be outside the circle at the end of the main axis; the main axis ran parallel with the planting of a grove of young sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutisimma); my circle was perfectly quartered. By taking the axis into the grove a few meters, then turning through 90 degrees, I would face the Carpet Garden – not at an odd angle, but square on, and directly across the contour. Extending the axis from the gate into the trees, I placed the old mule-drawn plow on a plinth. Thus the dogleg approach was born, and within the expanse of beautiful nature, a formal series of perpendicular axes fell into place; the dream had only to be very slightly tweaked before it could be turned into reality…
Here we are now, 10 years next week since the party I gave for many of our friends where we unveiled a plaque on a stone in a garden dripping with old fashioned roses and nicotianas. How has that garden matured?
The answer, I too often think, is: not well. Most of my beds are hopelessly too small for the blowsy old roses. The circle should have been twice the diameter (but of course it couldn’t be.) The garden is not well enough cared for, with often unsatisfactory pruning and feeding regimes. The roses peak at the same time as our rainy season starts, often resulting in a total mess. By mid-summer the garden is a depressing tangle full of black spot and mildew, with most roses no longer flowering. Several important roses have died; others have had to be moved as they were simply too big or too close together. And yet. Lamarque on the approach arch when the garden was in its hayday.
It is a magical spot, the coming-into-being and the geometry of it carrying almost psychic significance, the very shortcomings adding to the romance. As I stood this morning photographing it – after a night of soft rain so that every plant was heavy with water and bowing in thanks – I was overwhelmed by the lushness of it, the opulence and the promise of delights to come. I felt it was the most beautiful thing I have ever created.
Said to be the most scented rose in the world, Madame Isaac Pereire grows across the entrance gate. The stone under which the ashes are buried lies at the centre of the circle, with the second Sequoia at the end of the axis.
And here we are, back in the winter of 2010. I hurry past the Rondel Garden, eyes averted, depressed at the sight and overwhelmed by the implications. There are many reasons to rethink this garden. The scale simply does not work. There is too little sun for the roses…
Do I move out all or most of the plants as I’ve been thinking to do, creating large informal island beds to house them? What do I then do with the delightfully symmetrical bones of the garden which will not be too difficult to uncover? Turn it into a garden of easy annuals? Low perennials? Vegetables? (too far from the house, too close to the monkeys…) Low clipped shapes only? I don’t know. But soon I must decide if the revival is to happen within the next six weeks or wait another year…
Time. Time and money. Sigh. Oh for 40 hours in the day and a bottomless pocket!