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!

 

 

SISSINGHURST VISITS

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 mooseyscountrygarden.com 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.

BEFORE SISSINGHURST

Before Sissinghurst there was Long Barn. The Nicholsons (Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold) moved here soon after their marriage, made their first garden and called Long Barn home from 1915 to 1931. During my 1995 trip I was fortunate to be part of a private group who visited Long Barn. I believe the house still belongs to Mr and Mrs Brandon Gough, and Mrs Sarah Gough (with her dogs!) was our gracious hostess on the day. In scanning the slides I took then, I am pleased to see I managed to capture something of the beauty of the garden, still a loved private space, and still remarkably similar to what it was in the 1920s when the Nicholsons lived here.

1 Looking towards the terrace

Harold Nicholson extended the original building, dating from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries by adding in 1915 the 16th century barn forming the wing to the right, brought from across the road. They then set about planning the garden…

2 Long Barn from Lutyens' bedsLutyens, who had added an old barn to Great Dixter a few years earlier, must have loved Long Barn. He was a friend of Lady Sackville, Vita’s mother, and in 1925 he and Harold planned six raised L shaped brick beds to give structure to the lower garden. This photo I took from amongst them.

3 One can sense the spirit of the Nicholsons

The rather formal structure combined with carefree cottagey planting is typical of the way Harold and Vita worked together.

4 A newer feature extended from one in Vita's day and no doubt influenced by the Yew Walk Although the alley existed in Vita’s days, it was shorter and not accented with a focal point at its far end; compare this to the Yew Walk at Sissinghurst which surely inspired this later development.

5 The White  garden at Long Barn is a modern development and tribute Without in the least imitating Sissinghurst, this garden, complete with sitting area that evokes the Erectheum overlooking Sissinghurst’s White Garden, pays tribute to the Long Barn’s historic connections – a clever, stylish move by the Goughs.

6 An immaculate garden in its own right before any historical associations Even if I had known nothing of the Garden’s link with Vita and Harold, it would have been a great privilege to stand on this terrace and admire the prospect, the garden, the house and the solid oak furniture… For anyone who has read and loved Jane Brown’s remarkable book, Vita’s Other World it is doubly satisfying!