This article was published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 edition of London Landscapes. I was especially pleased that the editor, Susan Miles, chose some of my images to use alongside those by Joel Antunes.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 edition of Common Knowledge, the newsletter of the Friends of Streatham Common. The illustration, taken from a contemporary postcard, shows visitors admiring the newly-opened White Garden.
‘Whoever had the inspiration to plan part of the ground solely for white flowers must have been blessed with the simplicity of genius. The Garden is unique, and offers a charming prospect to the eye.’
Writing in the Westminster Gazette just after the newly acquired and redesigned Rookery Garden opened to the public in July 1913, this commentator was impressed by the White Garden’s innovative colour palette. White gardens were becoming fashionable among the elite of the day, but the Rookery’s popular White Garden remained unique among London’s public parks until well into the twentieth century.
William Robinson, an Irish gardener who came to England in 1862, was a key influence on gardens like the Rookery. Robinson advocated ‘wild gardening’, rejecting the carpet bedding and overly formal gardening styles that had emerged from the new wealth and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution in favour of the dense planting of hardy perennials in naturalistic drifts. ‘Wild gardening’ , combined with the Arts and Craft movement’s regard for rural traditions, led to the trend for mixed herbaceous borders using hardy perennials.
Gertrude Jekyll, a friend of Robinson, was another hugely influential garden designer. A trained artist, she did much to popularize colour-themed borders. The White Garden created at Hidcote by Lawrence Johnston in the early 1900s, one of the first of many English white gardens, was influenced by both Jekyll and Thomas Mawson, author of The Art and Craft of Garden Making.
The most famous popularizer of the idea of white gardens, Vita Sackville-West, did not start to plant her ‘grey, green and white garden’ at Sissinghurst until 1949. Sackville-West gardened in the tradition of Robinson and Jekyll, and was influenced by Hidcote. Since her mother briefly owned a house in Streatham, she might even have gathered inspiration from the Rookery’s White Garden!
Unearthing the past
Thanks to the Westminster Gazette’s enthusiastic reporter, we know that the first White Garden planting scheme included roses, foxgloves, hollyhocks, phlox, pansies, violas, and sweet peas – all fashionable plants of the time. There is no complete historical record of planting in the garden, but sources show that it has changed over the years, reflecting fashion and fluctuating park budgets. At times the planting has been quite daring: in 1922 the Streatham News reported on Brugmansia plants growing in the White Garden. These tender exotics spent their winters under glass in Battersea. Another snapshot comes from a Gardener’s Chronicle article of 1927 which describes lilies, foxgloves, phloxes, campanulas, grasses, box, violas and an old apple tree – probably a remnant of the orchard that once stocked the fruitbowls of The Rookery itself.
Planting for the future
White gardens are enjoying a resurgence, and many of the plants used in today’s white gardens are modern cultivars of those chosen by the Rookery’s Edwardian gardeners. Some of the plants and ideas under consideration for the White Garden’s redesign might have struck them as novel, but – given the rapid pace of change in their own time – they would no doubt have taken it all in their stride.
The Rookery is a magical garden at the top of Streatham Common, just up the road from my home in south London. When SCCoop, the community group managing the garden, appealed for volunteers to help with a redesign of the Rookery’s historic White Garden, I was in. I wrote this piece, published in London Landscapes (the journal of the London Parks and Gardens Trust), about the project, and this article for Common Knowledge, the newsletter of the Friends of Streatham Common. The new White Garden planting is all in now (this photo was taken on one of our planting days) and we’ve started on refreshing areas of planting in the adjacent Old English Garden. It’s already clear that – just as it did when this walled garden first opened to the public – colour will play a big part in our plans for this part of the Rookery.
Urban greening is known to play a role in helping us deal with climate change, pollution, and temperature regulation. But – as this people-powered United Kingdom project is proving – making the most of the green spaces in our cities can also yield social benefits. Improving the local environment by planting urban orchards in public spaces can help to strengthen bonds within communities.
The Open Orchard project started in 2014 in West Norwood, south London. With the help of funding from The Open Works, a group of residents came together to plant fruit trees in and around this built-up urban area. Fruit trees are a good choice for cities, since they can be grown on dwarfing rootstocks to make use of the smallest planting space and – once established – need little maintenance.
Read the full article here.
Monet’s Daylilies by the Water, which I was lucky enough to see this afternoon at the Royal Academy’s new Painting the Modern Garden exhibition. It’s a stunning show, and as much about social history, gardens and plants as it is about art. I particularly appreciated the fact that, where possible, species and cultivar names are given in the text panels.
I’ve chosen this image because I loved it and didn’t know it – despite the ubiquity of Monet’s flower paintings! His works make up about a quarter of the total, but the exhibition is a great mix of familiar and unfamiliar images and artists. The exhibition is on until the end of April.