Archive for the ‘Armitage, Ethel’ Category

Today stretches before me as a day of great endeavour, for it has been cleared of all other minor duties – painting those cupboard doors, for example, and cleaning off my desk in preparation for getting at my tax papers – in order for me to finalize the last few seed lists.

As most of you who have frequented this space know by now, I am something of a gardener, and I am chief operater of a small old-style plant nursery – meaning that we grow the plants ourselves, most from seed, versus acting as a retailer for plants grown by larger wholesale enterprises.

The seed lists, therefore, are of immense importance, for they are where everything starts, and the yearly process of chosing what to try has as much agony involved as ecstasy, mainly because there are so many things out there that we want to try, and we must remind ourselves to be practical and go with tried and true – and saleable! – with only a modest breaking out into tricksy and obscure little alpines from faraway countries, and quite frankly weedy-ish wildflowery things which have an exceedingly limited appeal to the public at large, who mostly just want a petunia or a geranium, and who are often already the tiniest bit bemused at the concept of the perennial plant, let alone the biennial – these last two being my staple in trade, with a handful of annuals showing up on my tables, but seldom anything as immediately familiar as a marigold.

My goodness. I am running on a bit. Sentence-wise, and otherwise.

So. Today. Seed lists. They will be done. Most are long since sent and received, but this last crucial lot will fill in the gaps, and I intend also to do a bit of gambling, gardener-wise, by ordering some things I know I likely won’t succeed with, but will get much quiet enjoyment out of attempting.

What a great pleasure then to read the words of a gardener from the past, as she describes her own thought processes while listing her wished-for seeds.

Violet - by John Farleigh - from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

Violet – engraving by John Farleigh – from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

The following excerpt is from Ethel Armitage’s wonderful 1936 A Country Garden, illustrated with engravings by John Farleigh. One of my most treasured “working library” posssessions, a pleasure to read, both for the information it contains regarding English country gardens of its era, and the writer’s highly individualistic voice, which resonates so strongly with me, sharing as we do our relative stage of life and our common occupation, though separated by eighty years. Here she is, on March 9, 1935.

9th. The much debated and discussed seed list has at last been got off, though it was not completed without a certain amount of difference of opinion.

Unfortunately, the world has progressed since those happy days when the choice of flowers was limited, and the belief still held that every seed sown was absolutely certain to come up, and all that was needed for the perfect garden was a nice broad riband of virginia stock backed by canary creeper growing up pea sticks.

Now we ponder over all the beautiful South African annuals, wondering if our soil is too cold for them; think we will try our old favourites, Shirley poppies and sweet sultans once again, as there have not been many slugs about recently; feel it is really scarcely worth while having giant sunflowers as there is no room for them, and no stakes strong enough to hold them up; decide not to raise delphiniums from seed, as the last time we did so all the drab ones flourished, while those we felt sure would be of a heavenly tender indescribable blue all got devoured.

But we agreed to have a packet of Collinsia again, a plant which hails from North America, having been called after Collins, a naturalist. We saw it for the first time growing in the school-children’s gardens. It is one of the prettiest, neatest and most reliable of annuals, and has the charming sobriquet of ‘Chinese houses’, and even looks quite appropriate in the rock garden.

Then blue pimpernel is hard to do without, and blue phacelia is almost a necessity, as is also blue nemophila, and of course neither mignonette nor night-scented stock can be omitted.

The rock garden needs ionopsidium, as well as the nice little Sedum coeruleum.

And so the list goes on increasing, until it grows to such large dimensions that when the little packets arrive, one is appalled at their number and can only hope a place will be found for everything, and they will not be left lying on a shelf in the potting shed until it is too late to do anything with them at all.

The greatest joy ever given by an individual seed packet was one which cost a penny and contained a solitary banana seed, which, when planted, actually came up and in time grew into a very fine plant. It had, of course, to be kept in the greenhouse, where for many years it was the pride of the place, though never a banana did it produce. But all hope of this miracle happening was not abandoned until the plant became too large for its surroundings and had to be cast out, which drastic deed was the cause of many tears and of unutterable, though temporary, despair.

We are now too old to plant banana seeds with the idea of getting any fruit from them, or even to entertain any hope of getting our oranges from the pips we have ourselves saved, or plums from stones that have been thoroughly sucked before planting. We have to content ourselves with things that give a quicker and more certain return, like the homely wallflower and the steady-going Sweet William.


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Some months ago I was intrigued enough by this post by the my fellow Margery Sharpite Rebecca Rose, aka GenusRosa, to¬†seek out from antiquarian booksellers in England¬†all three of Ethel Armitage’s garden journals, published in 1936, 1939, and 1946.

I am overdue in my thanks; these books are things of joy to the reader-gardener, being that perfectly balanced sort of garden writing which delights by its personal asides and anecdotes as much as by its descriptions of garden flora.

Without further ado, a Valentine’s Day observation from (one might assume) 1935 or thereabouts, from Ethel Armitage’s first book, A Country Garden, 1936. Engravings by John Farleigh enhance this first edition, published by Country Life Books.

Birch Trees - engraving by John Farleigh - from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

Birch Trees – engraving by John Farleigh – from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936


14th. One hears that valentines are coming into fashion again, though none came this way, nor would it really be very suitable if they did.

But valentine or no valentine, the day brings a certain excitement with it, for the birds are supposed to pair, though many of them have anticipated the date and evidently gone off to Gretna Green. The rooks have been busy for some little time, and their nests look as transparent and draughty as ever. How terrified the young birds must be perched up so high; how frightened they must feel when the wind blows strong and, all day long, they sway from side to side! One can only hope they do not realize their peril when a brother or a sister is jerked from the nest and disappears into space. Probably all they are able to think about is food, and it is not until later on they grow wise and wear sleek black coats and sit in Parliament dealing out justice to the bad rooks who do not conform to the law.

Almost every year a pair attempts to build in one of our trees, but whenever this happens the other rooks come and tear the nest to pieces. We should very much like to have rooks here, but it is evidently against their policy, or else we are not considered worthy to possess a rookery. We prefer to think the rooks have a town planning scheme of their own, and that we are scheduled as an area unsuitable for building purposes, than that our characters are at fault in this matter.

After all a valentine did arrive. It came by the second post, and is a book on garden pests, and though most interesting in its way, we fear it makes no mention of the pests from which we suffer most, such as sheep and chickens and pigs, and even cows, all of which have, from time to time, visited us. Two goats once passed through the garden and, though their owner declared they possessed the very highest pedigree and were extremely particular about their food, they removed all the Brussels sprouts and a large fuchsia bush before they were hurried out. One year thirteen young pigs – truly an unlucky number except for the pigs – accounted for all the spring cabbages, and after them several ducks came and flattened out most of the lettuce.

But the worst pest we ever had was a bull.

At the end of a beautiful, but very hot summer day, we had gone out into the garden, partly to enjoy the cool of the evening and partly to do a little much needed weeding. Happening to look up from my task I saw a large red bull coming slowly up the little drive; as I hurried into the house I shouted the dire news to B., who was in another part of the garden, and just heard his answer of ‘oh rot’, as I slammed the front door.

The bull, most fortunately, turned on to the lawn, and from the windows could be seen browsing on-of all things -the roses. He tore two bushes from the ground, but not caring much about their flavour or the thorns, left them lying on the grass. In the meantime B., having gained the house, was telephoning to the bailiff, who, before much more damage was done, sent help, and, as they say in the news- papers, a capture was effected.

But that visit had rather far-reaching consequences, for the two rose bushes had been given by an elderly cousin whose taste in plants did not always coincide with ours. Unluckily she suspected this, so when she came to see us she always took particular care to inspect any plant she had sent. Now, how could she possibly be told that her two especial roses had been destroyed by a bull; why should he have selected those and no others? It was altogether too tall a story: one could not even expect her to believe it.

So when, the following week, she came, some quite unconvincing tale was invented, and was told in so halting a manner that, from the very first moment, it was obvious she believed it to be untrue. Since then there has been a distinct coldness towards us, and we have received neither plants nor anything else.

So we hope this new book will give some hints as to the best way of keeping bulls and other beasts of prey out of the garden.



Happy Valentine’s Day to you all, dear fellow readers. May this day bring you some sort of suitable treat, whether book, flower, message from a friend (or lover!); something delicious and to your taste, whatever it may be.

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