What better way to overcome my mid-holiday inertia – after meeting deadlines at school and with our first edition of the magazine, before welcoming visitors staying in the cottages over Christmas – than with my on-going saga: Part 4 of THE ROSE AND I. More specifically: with this photograph of a rose reviving when I had come to think that there was little chance of this happening.

Dorothy Perkins survives

The rose in question is Cecile Brunner, ‘the sweetheart rose’, which bears its tiny hybrid tea shaped blooms on a tall and robust (in fact, it seems, indestructible) bush. At nearly 3m after being cut back for the transplanting in the New Old Rose Garden, this was the giant amongst the transplants. But I watched the green recede from its twigs as they shrivelled… all but two of them. Then one. And suddenly yesterday whilst inspecting the roses after a week of continuous rain, I found this twig covered in new leaves. Not only that –six or more young shoots had sprung from the thick grey main stem! Cecile Brunner had become the third rose to recover from what seemed certain death!

Louis and Taubie

Rejuvenated by that discovery, I paged through the meagre pickings of the last weeks’ photos. There had simply been no time to indulge in photography. And here follows what I came up with for my final post for 2011. Above – Louis and Taubie, of whose relationship I am both jealous and proud, under the water oak at The House that Jack Built, with the last of Felicite et Perpetue’s blooms behind them. This was taken during the week he arrived in late November, when a quick afternoon walk was all he could savour of the new life on the farm. For the rest we were heads down in the office, working on the magazine. Soon you will be able to see the results – I will post on the magazine early in the new year.

New Dawn at the waterlily pond

At the waterlily pond New Dawn was spectacular this year, flowering fortissimo for weeks on end. She will flower all summer, although  not with such force. It must be six years since I planted a cutting to grow up into a young tree, and this year we saw a mature display. One of the decisions of the summer, a spectacular year for roses on the mountain, was that we should plant climbing roses in many more places.

Mothers' Garden from arboretum

Probably the biggest projectfor 2012 will be the Mothers’ Garden above the steps in the above photo, taken on another of our November walks. I first posted about that garden here, but it seems as though the design is changing from the original. Louis and I are looking forward to spending time working on the design together during the coming days. Oh, and if the stoep (verandah) is looking a little cluttered: it is. Superimposing two households does not happen overnight, especially when there are magazine deadlines to be met! Winking smile

Dreaming of a wet Christmas

Christmas Eve – and with the deadlines met and guests in the cottages, we were dealing with set-in rain which left the bark of the big gum tree shining orange. Christmas lunch was supposed to be a picnic for 23 plus a tiny baby by the river. It was moved in plan B to The House that Jack Built where my cousin and her clan are staying… and then mercifully a plan C came into effect when some of the guests could not even reach the farm, and another cousin felt that the remnants of his flu should not be inflicted in an enclosed space on a six-month old. As the arrangement was that each family catered for themselves, it was quite simple for the party to break into three – and so there were only ‘us four oldies’ for Christmas…

Yellow seedling dahlia

On the whole we’ve not had good weather for visitors, although everyone who has stayed has enjoyed chilling and no-one has complained of the weather. Our most constant sunshine has been this soft (for a dahlia) yellow plant right in front of the stoep. It is one of several that survived from a tray of ‘annual dahlias’ some ten years ago, gradually taking on more typically dahlia qualities as their bulbs matured. I assume that the originals had been hormone treated to get them to flower as tiny tiny plants… any comments or further info, anyone?

Stephan's rose

But this is a rose post. Steph’s Rose is a seedling, one of two I grew myself and named and planted in honour of a very dear friend and colleague who died of a brain tumour several years ago. They too were moved to the New Old Rose Garden, as they are slight little plants, but just like Steph did, they put up a brave fight and flower enthusiastically and seem to appreciate their new home.

Duet with Canna IMG_4829

This is Duet, looking even gawkier than she normally does on a bush that nearly didn’t survive the transplant, but a beautiful pink none the less. With her is a canna which survived from remnants when the ground was cleared, and which, unlike most cannas, makes an excellent foil for the roses with its soft colouring and bronzy foliage. It will be encouraged and divided, the first conscious (if accidental!) underplanting in the New Old Rose Garden…


In looking for an archive pic ( having run out of recent pics with which to end the year) the word ‘underplanted’ reminded me of this one from the heyday of the Rondel Garden. I published it to Mooseys with the following caption back in 2006: The garden was not designed to be looked at through the fence but this shot works! Mutabilis centre back, Genl Gallieni to its right. Rugosas and Hydrangya serrata underplanted with Tradescantia virginiana and the self-sown spurge (Euphorbia polychroma) However I would like to end on something more festive and so – here is a bouquet to the change-over of the years. May 2012 be a good one for us all! Cheers!



Looking across Francois' stone

As I write this, the house is ready for the arrival of Louis: cupboards cleared, and space for his furniture. By the time I publish it, he will be here. Strange then that the Rondel Garden, tribute to and resting place of Francois, should feature so strongly at this moment. But then; in preparing for Louis’ arrival, I came across a photo album of the official unveiling of the Rondel Garden, when several of Francois’s friends attended, and Louis is there – as my partner. It was October 1996, 33  months after Francois’s  death. Louis knew Francois – quite well in fact, which made it easier to be successor to that larger than life personality. Sometime  in late 1995 I was laying out a garden for someone. He ‘introduced’ me to his neighbour – Louis, with whom I had lost contact, but knew had moved. The rest is history. (And history, and history – but we will not go into that here.)

Toasting the memory of Francois

Since there is a lot of nostalgia about these posts, here then are photos from that time; the top photo looks across the rock under which Francois’s ashes are buried; the photo above shows us all drinking a toast to Francois – and below is a unique photo, most likely the only ever taken, of the three of us together

Louis, Francois and I

The grey-haired lady in pink on the left of the second photo is Aunty May. She came up from Grahamstown for the unveiling, and for many years we holidayed with her at her house at the coast. From her Grahamstown garden comes the Aunty May Rose – one I have been trying to identify ever since (see the details of my attempts here) – but without success. Here it is again, photographed this spring. Can anyone help?

Aunty May Rose

Interestingly, I have a very similar unidentified rose – the Aunty Corrie Rose, this time from a biological aunt, and it comes from her garden only a few kilometres from Sequoia. Here it is, flowering in the New Old Rose Garden: sumptuous and scented, two glorious roses, and each with a very special story attached!

Aunty Corrie Rose


Black Prince

I begin this post with a picture from Gwen Fagan’s book Roses at the Cape of Good Hope. It is not a rose I have, but one I want; for Francois’s mother always remembered it fondly in her garden. And I dedicate it to my friend Diana of Elephants Eye, who grows it in her garden in Porterville, where I still hope one day to see it…

Across lawn to New Old rose garden

Let me now try to show you my roses with some sort of plan. Since I referred in the previous post to the roses from the Rondel Garden being moved to the New Old Rose Garden, this is perhaps a good place to start. We transplanted 125 roses from the Rondel and elsewhere into this garden, as well as 75 cuttings and seedlings from bags. I think no more than ten did not survive; of them several were pretty terminal to begin with… One rose I had thought dead, yesterday sported a shoot from near the base. I will not give up on the others just yet…

Mutabilis in New Old Rose garden

Star of the show is undoubtedly ‘Mutabilis’ which hardly knew it had been moved. Added to that, we  planted several cuttings as well. This easy and lovely rose, which is seldom without its butterfly blooms, combined with the mass of single roses we planted near it, will always be ready to welcome visitors as they enter the garden. The bubble fountain at the entrance can be seen to the left of the above picture.


The name – complete: Rosa chinensis mutabilis  – suits the rose admirably, for the apricot buds open and fade to straw, before become infused with red which grows darker as the flower ages. The mutation is amazing, and the mix of colours is at all stages pleasing.

Mutabilis 2

Mutabilis 3

I grouped most of the single flowering hybrid teas from the 1920s  which formed the hedge around the Rondel nearby. There were four roses, grouped in fours all the way around the Rondel Garden. I refer to them, and there are photos of all four, in the post I pointed you at in my previous entry. (Here it is again.) Of them my favourite, but also the least robust, was Mrs Oakley Fischer. She has not survived at all it seems, nor did Dainty Bess and I can only hope that I will be able to replace them: of the four only Dainty Bess with its unique dusty pink flower and maroon stamens and stigmas is still listed in Ludwig’s Gauteng catalogue.

Golden Wings

One bush at least of Golden Wings (above) survived and is looking robust. Although robust is a term that should be reserved for the Irish: almost all the survivors, and in rude good health they are too, turned out to be Irish Elegance.

Irish Elegance

These aptly named flowers are delicately and subtly infused with salmon  and pink on a lemon yellow base – the colours I recall Peace to have been before  it became so pale…

Morning dew on Irish Elegance

Let us stay with the single roses, although the next two featured previously as the first of the transplants to flower. They are the feathery-leaved species rose (eliciting comment long after the fleeting flowers have passed) Rosa hugonis, the first to flower with small and delicate lemon yellow blooms and Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’, with blooms of a unique glowing red.

Rosa hugonis,- first to flower Rosa moyesii 'Geranium'

One last comment for this post: under the Mutabilis I planted a selection of Phygelius hybrids, as their colours mirror exactly the colours of this rose. I still need to contort myself to get both into a frame – but I remember the days when we had to do that to get two trees to give the effect of autumn, so I believe in time to come the effect will be spectacular!

Phygelius and mutabilis



Spring 1957

Let me introduce you: Yours Truly – aged one year and possibly some days, posed with my birthday presents: one of those pyramids of ever smaller brightly-coloured do-nuts you pack onto a shaft and Lorna, the teddy-bear. I named him after one of my aunts. My mom is no longer there to ask how long after getting him this happened. I was not yet talking on my birthday. Notice, however, that it is ‘Peace’ I am holding, not the presents. I wonder if that was posed. If Lorna and the colourful do-nuts are vivid in my memory, that rose is seared. In fact, so is every flower in that garden. I still dream of them as they were then, especially ‘Peace’, meeting me squarely eye to eye. No wonder I find ‘Peace’ a little pale today…  If I think of being in the garden with my mom, she is busy with the roses. Dead-heading, it must be, for the nasturtiums are in full flower beneath the roses. And pruning in winter, dressed in red-brown crimplene slacks (to be worn at home only) and an old green jersey which kept getting caught on the thorns, causing her to curse gently to herself.

Spring 1957, front garden

Fifteen years later, during our last summer in this garden before we moved to a larger house, I sat with a bud of ‘Peace’ in a vase before me as I studied for my 9th grade exam and watched it swell and unfurl, marvelling for the first time with adult eyes at the complexity and delicacy of its structure and the way soft pinks, yellows and creams flowed through its colouring. That is about the time Lorna was finally pensioned from the family store of ‘toys for visiting kids’ – He was bald, earless and – I guess – unloved. But a fine bear in his day.

Compston 93 -0008

The next house never had the garden of the first, although there were over thirty fruit trees and vines and the greater part of the garden was an orchid rather than a garden. But I remember choosing several roses with my mother, some bare-rooted from the supermarket  – which means I just-just remember the pre-plastic era in gardening! We have to skip twenty years though to get to the above photo. It was only once Francois and I had moved back to Johannesburg that I started gardening seriously. My biggest project was the rose garden at our house in Greenside, where we started almost from scratch in a badly neglected garden. Next to the red gate in the back wall  I planted ‘Peace’. At this point Francois was already losing his final battle against cancer, which took his life four months later.

Gwen Fagan  Roses at the Cape of Good Hope

Some two years earlier he gave me this book: Gwen Fagan’s Roses at the Cape of Good Hope, and thus started our last great shared passion: the Old Roses. I tell the story, and how it led to the Rondel Garden where his ashes lie, in my post from July 2010: MY RONDEL GARDEN – or: To let go or To hold on?

Fagan on General Galieni

Here is a page from the book, and below is the ‘General Gallieni’ rose referred to on the page – grown from a cutting taken from the original planted in the Rondel Garden. The original is one of about 10% of the roses which did not survive being transplanted into The New Old Rose Garden, which I have mentioned often over the past three months. (Which in turn should indicate to you that the decision taken after the post referred to in the above link was to let go…) So taking further cuttings becomes a necessity.

General Gallieni

There then is an introduction. During the next few posts I will often refer to my roses, and especially the Old Roses, which are scarce in South Africa, but a great passion of mine!


The Rose and I – part 2

The Rose and I – part 3

The Rose and I – part 4


Two new gardens are busy happening, in adjoining spaces. The first is the Mothers’ Garden, commemorating my partner, Louis, and my mothers. I first conceived the idea when my father built the retaining walls and steps at the Rosemary Terrace, quite coincidentally aligning the sole surviving yew, the staircase and the big gum tree, which my mother claimed as her own on their honeymoon. I wrote about it at Mooseys back in 2006, on 30 July if you care to wade through the post. When two years ago I saw the pic below, taken at Churchill’s country home, Chartwell, I immediately had my inspiration: treat the garden as no more than a symmetrical enclosed path.

Chartwell border

Besides focusing on the tree, the garden also serves as a squared off edge to the big lawn. Now only the garden along the top edge needs remodelling to create a rectangular lawn. Beyond the Mothers’ Garden is a large space that was never more than a grow-on area. As one of the first parts of the garden one sees on approaching from the new visitors entrance, it is seriously in need of attention. 

And then there is the Rondel Garden. In its heyday it looked like this:


…and this:

Rondel entrance in 1999

Now it looks like this:

Rondel Garden entrance these days

Rondel Garden centre these days

In a way it never really worked: the roses were too big for the beds and had to be trussed up instead of flopping in a carefree way. Then towards the end of old Frans Seale’s time, when he spent most of his days sleeping somewhere under a tree, the irrigation packed up in a hot, dry summer and half my roses were dead before I even realised it. After all he had done for me, I could not be angry, but I sped up his retirement; he lived for less than a year after that. I can only think that cancer hastened his end, for he was not much over sixty, and he aged quickly.

Part of the problem with the Rondel is that as the other gardens developed, the Rondel, highly seasonal at the best of times, was forgotten for long stretches. Only the toughest survived, although many of the roses now gone survive elsewhere, grown from cuttings. At the height of the (supposed) old rose season last summer I made the decision: the remaining roses were to be moved out of the Rondel – and into the space near the new entrance. That is what we are now working at, and they will be transplanted whilst dormant. All in all there are some forty roses left, plus some suckers which I will encourage to establish and replace my once glorious Gallicas. On my shopping list of 42 new roses there is only one replacement: the highly scented stunner that grew across the entrance, Madame Isaac Pereire. For the rest we shall see how things go: I might add replacements and even some more new old roses I’ve not grown before. But whereas the Rondel was ordered and precise, the new Old Rose Garden will be the most organic of all my garden spaces. Here is a plan:

Plan - Mothers'Garden & new Old Rose garden

Bottom left is the Upper Rosemary Border with the staircase going up. On that axis, the Mothers’ Garden with the yew clipped into a cube in the centre and box edged beds on either side of the path. I am proud to say that we have grown over one hundred perfect young box plants from cuttings! At the top there is a semi-circle which will contain a bench. Below the bench the axis cuts through on the horizontal from the Japanese Walk above the Anniversary Garden. The oval bed, empty on the plan, will contain the seventeen  surviving single HT roses which once formed the hedge around the Rondel: they are: ‘Dainty Bess’, ‘Irish Elegance’, ‘Golden Wings’ and my favourite ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’. I hope all four are represented, as only ‘Dainty Bess’ is still available in the market… It will also contain some fifty unidentified roses languishing in black bags. Some were grown from cuttings and some from seed. This is the best way I can think of to make sense of them.

Existing plants being retained are labelled on the plan. Others I identified  on a grid key. On Monday we will be transplanting several large azaleas that have been moved. On Tuesday the digging of holes can start. The paths will be marked for now with lime or pale sand. We will put down landscaping fabric and a bark mulch for the paths.

Here is the colour key to the planting of the roses in the Mother’s Garden. Two copper planters that have been in the Rondel from the beginning, originally planted with Rosa chinensis viridiflora, the Green Rose, will now get an updated look with  the  rose ‘Green Ice’; the second rose will grow across the arches over the two entrances below the semi-circle. Then follow the roses in the four beds:



2   2
3   3
4   4
34   3
5   5
4   4
5   5
6   6
7   7
6   6
7   7
5   5

Notice the ladybird in every pic? That is to show that each is an eco-friendly rose, needing no – or very little – spraying. I only look at eco-friendly roses these days, and my second criteria is scent. As you can see, colours range through various shades of peachy-pink and apricot. Once the roses are established, I will interplant them with apricot snapdragons and foxgloves, and  pale blue irises, geraniums and aquilegias and for later in the season, pale lilies and pale blue delphiniums. and possibly some achillea…

Mothers' Garden from arboretum

On this morning’s walk we looked down past the big gum – on the right – towards where the Mothers’ Garden will be. The clearing for the new Old Rose Garden can be seen to the right, with the leafless beech tree at the top end of the garden against the sequoias of the avenue, and the Japanese maple that will flank the seat below the garages. And here it all is from a little closer! (Use your imagination to see the string marking the left hand hedge.) 

View up Mothers' Garden

View down Mothers' Garden


Here it is again, looking down the axis. Oh, the hedges on the outside: they will be small-leaved myrtle, which I have used successfully before for hedging. To my annoyance I discovered I have only sixteen potbound cuttings. So we shall take fresh ones and put up temporary fences. It will be eighteen months at least before they can be planted.

Rosemary Terrace with new work being done

Meanwhile I might just do what I did with the rosemary hedge along the Rosemary Terrace – above, on the very left – and plant  some cuttings in situ… If it worked with rosemary, it might just work with myrtle. Winking smileOh yes, there are other projects hanging. That pot is yet to become a fountain – I’ve decided the plinth must be three bricks lower – and at the furthest point the hedge is yet to be levelled and the Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe off to the left of it is awaiting the Big Bang…


Two reasons for this post title: firstly I aught to be getting my marking done, but am drawn to my computer to write a post – hastily. (You get the pun? ;)…) Secondly that hasty post will be about the Rondel Garden, currently all but barren, in need of a complete rethink, but the first of my ‘grand idea’ gardens, and at its best a glorious space. And most of this material will be lifted directly from my postings over the years at where a search for ‘Rondel Garden’ will take you to the originals and many more pics – should you wish to explore the Rondel Garden further.

Frans in the Rondel I’ve not clarified the second link to my title. Think of Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse, on Turning up her Nest with the Plough. He apologises to her in a lovely poem for disturbing her carefully prepared winter safety, and says near the end (paraphrased into more modern English) ‘The best made plans of mice and men often go wrong and bring us nothing but pain and grief where joy was anticipated.’ This is of course also the title of John Steinbeck’s famous novella and yes – I do teach it some years! Above, in a scanned photo from the late 90s, my stalwart, Frans Seale,  stands in the Rondel in its prime. Below, from the same summer, Mme Isaac Pereire grows into the entrance arch.

Rondel entrance I told the story of how the Rondel Garden came to be in an earlier post – click here for it. And I‘ve agonised about its future. But I have decided. I am moving the roses out of the Rondel and into an informal planting between the new entrance to the garden and the planned Mothers’ Garden – shown on the map as the “Mothers’ axis”. You will find the map by clicking on ‘Garden Maps’ above the masthead at the top of the page.  I wrote about the map here , where you will also find a copy. Now all I need to contextualise these stores is a post on the planned Mothers’ Garden. But that will have to wait for another day. Back to my marking. I leave you with one last pic of the Rondel in its 2003 heyday!

Rondel Garden 2003

MY RONDEL GARDEN – or: To let go or to hold on?

Rondel in bloom 1999

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.

Creating the Rondel Garden Laying out the Rondel Garden

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…

Rough plan of Rondel Garden with seating area at the bottom of the circle

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.

The Rondel Garden is where the ashes of Francois, the first love of my life, are buried. I dreamt of the garden in great detail, right down to the name, a week before he died of cancer in 1994. When I went in to the hospital I told him about it, he liked the idea, and we spent many happy hours planning it together. He had originally asked to have his ashes buried across Freddie’s Dam from my stone cottage under the round slab which marks the centre of the Carpet Garden. I built it at the same time as the cottage in 1989, the first of the formal features on the farm, as a surprise tenth anniversary present for him. It is the point where everyone stops to look at my house across the dam, and it troubled me a little that they would be standing on him. View across Carpet Garden towards Rondel 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. 1996 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.

Frans in the Rondel Until he retired, looking after the Rondel Garden gave Frans Seale great joy. The thyme lawn was at its best when this photo was taken.

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.

Dainty Bess Irish Elegance

Golden Wings

Mrs Oakley Fisher The hedge consists consisted of four plants at a time of these four single HT roses from the 1920-30s: top left, Dainty Bess – still commercially popular, Irish Elegance, Golden Wings and left my favourite Mrs Oakley Fisher. These roses suffered the most when some of the irrigation stopped working and no-one checked on them till many were dead…





It was a few weeks after Francois’ death before I got to the farm.

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. Axis from gate into Sawtooth Oaks 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…

The approach to the Rondel Garden The approach to the Rondel Garden. Looking back from the top of the steps, the eye travels across the meadow towards the Carpet Garden.

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 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.

Footnote: before the garden was completed, but after the main structures were laid out, a freak wind tore the old pine apart and it had to be cut down. The line of site between the Carpet Garden and the Rondel Garden was open…

Rondel entrance gate 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!




1 Sissinghurst panorama1At last! Months later, I get to take up Jean’s invitation to post on my visits to Sissinghurst. Last month I at least laid the foundation when I posted on Long Barn, the Nicholson’s previous garden.

As I’ve explained before, in 1995 I spent six months in a campervan, mainly studying gardens in the UK. I visited Sissinghurst three times: in late May, mid-summer and early autumn. Here is one of the few ‘look-I-was-there’ snapshots I’ve ever had taken… I am standing inside the Rondel with the tower behind me and a dream has come true! 2 Jack in the Rondel

Recently I started scanning the nearly 1500 slides I took during the trip, and in time I will post on other gardens I visited. The above view of the Rose Garden from the top of the tower I photostitched – a fun exercise! The hedge on the left between the Rose and Cottage Gardens has been rejuvenated over the last few years. Compare current photos of its new slim and trim shape with this one.

But before I set off, let me point you towards an excellent  impression of Sissinghurst, posted by my good friend Moosey of recently after visiting Sissinghurst for the first time. In her inimitable way she comments on the experience here. And as a collection of Sissinghurst pictures, nothing beats Dave Parker’s series, now several years old, over here.

3 Sissinghurst iris An impression of Sissinghurst is of carefully selected plants against mellow brick and in exquisite old containers; the rustic and the sophisticated as foil to imaginative planting. Sissinghurst is the ultimate example of old brick walls in a garden. Mostly it is wonderful old-fashioned roses one sees pictured against the brick, but my best capture was an iris below a sink in the Top Courtyard. The  texture of the aged bricks, their varied shades of orange-pink-red and the patina of time are a wonderful foil to delicate and fleeting flowers.

The Moat Walk is flanked by the oldest brickwork at Sissinghurst, part of the foundation of the medieval manor, and unearthed (literally) to much excitement from the overgrown rubble towards the end of 1930. My source, by the way, is Tony Lord’s excellent book Gardening at Sissinghurst, together with Jane Brown’s Vita’s other world . There are few other gardens (or relationships!) as well documented, which helps to explain the immense interest in Sissinghurst. I own and have read and reread these books, as well as several others on the garden, Portrait of a Marriage, and the many volumes of journals and the letters between Vita and Harold and other people. You might call it my obsession 😉4 The moat

This picture captures many of the elements of the garden: beautiful lead vases – bought one by one as they could afford them from a patient antique dealer– top the Moat Walk’s ancient wall, which is colonised by various lime-loving crevice-dwellers, seemingly without human intervention. In fact the effect is carefully orchestrated, and whereas some of the plants are almost weedy, others are rare and select.

5 Bagatelle Vase, Lower Courtyard

On the right is one of the Bagatelle vases, inherited by Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville… and thereby, too, hangs a tale… Here it is planted with what I assume is a Helichrysum , but not  the plant Tony Lord shows it with.

Helichrysum It might even be this one which I photographed on Sunday: we were up the mountain marking the route for Saturday’s Iron Crown Challenge – a trail route half-marathon fund-raiser our Rotary Club has organised. (My obsession with the garden possibilities of our wild flowers comes through loud and clear in my posts here about previous walks on the mountainside!)

6 Varied abundance in the Rose Garden We are now in the Rose Garden, where another of the qualities that define Sissinghurst and have been copied in so many ways during the last 80 years can be seen: the lush and luxurious planting within a strong geometric structure. Although roses are the central plants in this garden, a vast variety of other plants provide texture, colour support and an extended season of interest, all contained within a network of paths and hedges of various heights. The central Rondel (see first photo) masks the fact that two important axes do not cross at right angles, due to the obtuse layout of the original buildings. The Rondel in turn is central to my own development as a garden… but that is a subject for a separate post!

7 Rose Garden towards Lime Walk

Here is another view across the Rose Garden… the flag irises at Sissinghurst make me despair for my own garden, where they need to be cosseted – and yet I’ve grown them with huge success in previous gardens… The Lime Walk which runs parallel to the Rose Garden can be seen in the background – note the series of horizontal lines that help give form to the composition in this garden.

8 Cottage Garden

The weakness of the last two shots is that they make the Cottage Garden and the Rose Garden look very similar in feel, which they are not – you will need to explore that statement by studying other people’s photographs!

These last photos tell a more personal tale…The thyme lawn (outside the Herb Garden) was the inspiration for the thyme lawn in my own Rondel Garden (see above teaser ;)…) Unfortunately it survived only a few years, a victim of neglect in my ever growing garden and erratic climate. But thyme does grow for us, so perhaps one day I will reinstate it…
9 Thyme Lawn
…I admired this plant. “Don’t you know it?” asked a member of my party, “Like you, it comes from South Africa! It is called Phygelius.” I had never heard of it. But I discovered a field of it in the damp ground below Freddie’s Dam within weeks of my return… 10 Phygelius

Admittedly less impressive than this hybrid, it nevertheless was an impressive sight which I had never noticed before. Strangely enough, despite all my plans, I’ve never brought any of it into my formal gardens, and a friend who imports new varieties of plants and trials them for commercial sales, has told me that all the phygelius he tried have disappointed him…

And thus we come to the end of my highly personal impressions of Sissinghurst.