This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
The public garden at Nottingham is called the "Arboretum," and comprises, perhaps, twenty acres, but the ground is of a more than rolling character, and so well taken have been all the advantages that one might really believe it was double the extent. This, indeed, is the most striking feature of English landscape gardening and, for the matter of that, French garden art also, to so make the most of ground that a very little goes a great way. The tract was secured by the city in 1850, and all that has been done is wholly the work of art since that time, nature giving nothing but the irregular piece of ground.
It was in a driving rain, and we expected to have a quiet stroll through by ourselves; but I had to learn over again what I had forgotten, that weather like this, the half-normal condition of the English climate, is no bar to the open air enjoyments of an Englishman or woman, and so we found, with umbrellas and overcoats, water-proofs and sensible, thick-soled shoes, some hundreds enjoying the walks through the beautiful grounds. As all the walks were asphalted, there is no difficulty about this to one who does not care for the rain overhead.
The effort to make a small place look large requires great skill in its accomplishment; and I think it is because this effort has been so successful here that this"Arboretum "has such a worldwide reputation; the irregular contour of surface is, of course, very favorable. But not only are the paths varied in width, and led around knolls wherever there might seem no excuse for going any other way, but the whole style of art i one continual change, and even the plants an trees are all of separate characters as we go along. Here, for instance, in a hollow, is a mass of red Colchicum Maples; we follow a winding walk, and there in a sheltered nook come on a sort of Rhododendron garden; passing then around a curve we come on a belt of mixed shrubbery of no special importance, and perhaps really intended to keep from us the knowledge that we are very near some point we went over an hour ago; but in front of this belt of shrubbery, and beyond the stretch of nice green grass, there is a Sweet William garden.
Continuing to give way to the enchantment of the walk, we turn again around a knoll and are brought to face with a stretch of Laurels and other evergreens, having in front of them broad belts filled with blooming Hollyhocks, their gay flowers showing to great advantage by the help of the wall of green foliage behind them. Leaving the irregular masses of shrubbery, we are then introduced for a change to a very formal Privet hedge with a narrow border of earth in front, and then a row of our common woolly Mullien, Verbescum thapsus, as courtly and severe as the hedge itself, as if each vied with each other as to which should be the most stately in the beholder's eye.
The "Landscape Gardener" that Downing, I believe, once told about, who took a handfull of stones, scattered them, and where each one fell stuck in atree, would find his"art" at a sad discount here, where every yard is a new surprise.
From these curvy walks and continued succession of floral changes, we come suddenly into the "Bell Garden," a square and level piece of ground, full of architectural objects, geometrical lines, and carpet beds gay with bright colors to match.
The bell is a war trophy taken by a Nottingham regiment from Hong Kong in 1857. The tower which supports it is a beautiful piece of architecture. It stands on a broad square plateau, reached on all four sides by flights of stone steps. On the four corners of the square platform are four cannon taken from Sebastapol in the Crimean war. This war trophy seemed to give a reason for the broad plateau, and the numerous pretty beds of leaf plants and flowers spoke as if they were the decorations in honor of the victories gained by English arms. It is this fitness of things, this appropriateness, this deference to the ideal, that is the chief charm of these successful pieces of English landscape gardening. Then there are terraces from which we look down on smooth gardens with bedding plants, the sunken places not looking as if they were the remains of some old canal, the grave of which had been florally decorated by some sympathetic hand, but the space so cut out as if it could not help being just what it was, and we should rather wonder if we saw it in any other way. Then there are nice seats and arbors where you can sit and enjoy each particular scene, and see it so well from nowhere else.
Now it is some beautiful public buildings in the city, appearing as if it was built expressly for you to admire from that spot. Then it may be some scene in the distant Sherwood Forest; or, perhaps, a mass of flower beds, water fowl and lake, parade ground or some other nice little bit on its own ground. The points which struck me in the beautiful garden as being particularly worthy of note were that it was admirably designed in the first place; and in the second,that though the commonest materials were employed in decorations, they were used with such admirable skill that no one would think of them in any other light than as the highest effort of art. It was a cheap day m my English experience, giving one of the best lessons in public gardening I could possibly have.
As we cannot do more than take some types of various classes of garden work, suppose we skip over some hundred miles or more in a south-easterly direction, and spend a day at the celebrated Sydenham palace in Kent. This also is a public garden; but it is owned by a private company, the idea being to do a little gardening for profit as well as just for the pleasure of the thing.
Before I left America I had been kindly furnished with letters of introduction by distinguished Americans in various walks of life, to different English gentlemen; knowing, however, that the acceptance of hospitality and attentions, seriously interferes with the seeing a great deal in a short time by one whose busy life suffers him not to tarry long in one place, I seldom used any except where it was necessary to see some desired point not otherwise attainable. But as the Crystal Palace project is supposed to be a pecuniary failure, I was really anxious to know more about its financial prospect than I could learn by looking about alone. Finding a letter in my wallet to Mr. Thomas Hughes, the President, I determined to make use of it, as understood he was on the ground. I was directed to a room as the Secretary's office. At the far end were two or three clerks busy with their pens. It was some time before these gentlemen deigned to take any notice of my inquiry if Mr. Hughes was to be found. One at last came to me hurriedly, and on my repeating the question he replied sharply that he was, but was engaged and could not be seen. Before scarcely finishing his answer he was off, and at his desk again.
There was nothing left but to follow him, when I explained that I was from America, and was the bearer of a letter from a friend of Mr. Hughes, and where could lie be seen?"You can't see Mr. Hughes now, but you can leave the letter with me, or you can see the Secretary in that room." I walked into that room, found it empty, came back and so reported."Well, I don't know where he is," was the busy man's reply, and he went on with his pen work. It did not seem to me a matter of supreme importance to see Mr. Hughes. I should probably learn something by ear I could not by eye, but then there was quite enough to keep eye and brain employed without that, so I did not see Mr. Hughes and walked away; and the only reason I mention the circumstance is to say that such incivility is extremely rare in England. I found officials occasionally curt, especially on one occasion at Brighton, but the mention of the word"American" had in every other instance, been a complete passport to polite attention, in many cases to a degree I was quite surprised at.
It was an admirable idea to preserve this building - the first in the inauguration of these wonderful exhibits; and it is to be hoped that the enterprise which has staked so much on the venture will be ultimately successful. The building itself is a sort of a combination of the Main Exhibition Building and Horticultural Hall of our Centennial. Huge Acacias, Myrtles, New Holland Araucarias, with numerous hanging baskets of Rose Geraniums, interspersed with dolphin fountains, adorn the main promenade, while the side portions are used for the various collections of art, music halls, etc.
The grounds are pretty; but I must say that, considering the reputation of the landscape gardener, Paxton, I believe, it did not strike me as a first-class specimen of art. In my poor opinion, it was terraced, vased, and fountained to death. The fountains had no water in them, and the lakes were chiefly dark mud and weeds. It may be, perhaps, that it was a bad season for these features; and, indeed, the lawns were as brown and burnt as any I ever saw in our own hot-summered country. There is a huge mound, which, after you reach its crown, you wonder what it was made for, for there is no view from it, and it seems almost incredible that it should have been thrown up for no other purpose than to make a base for the flag pole which surmounts it. Indeed, it seemed to be the weak point in the designing of these grounds, that there was no ideal; it is mere ornamentation with nothing to ornament. This ornamentation, in itself, was beautiful. The carpet bedding was elaborate and tasteful, and I saw few specimens of such work in England that was its superior-It is worthy of note, that with all our ideas of the superiority of the English climate for gardening, they have but a very short season in which to enjoy it, compared with what we have.
It was then the 10th of July, and some of the beds-were only being planted. It takes thousands and thousands of plants to carry out the bedding of the English gardeners, because, owing to their short seasons, they have to set the plants very close together, so that, a day or two after the planting, the bed is a complete carpet at once. As they have frosts often in September, they have generally little more than two months to enjoy these beautiful effects.
I must pass by the beauties of Hyde Park, and the numerous public parks of London, and take only one for my brief space to make a few notes on, as I thought it the best of its class - Batter-sea Park. It is some miles up the Thames from the heart of London, but the steamer takes you for a few pence, and it seems a very cheap ride; but when I remembered our own beautiful river boats, with their numerous comforts and conveniences, I had to remember the lesson I frequently had taught me in my traveling experiences, that Europe was a much cheaper place to live in than America, provided you bought nothing. Of course I knew Battersea of all my old haunts. Although over thirty years ago, I ran my mind through its slimy ditches, and cabbage gardens, and wild grass, and felt sure I could go right to the spot where we botanical boys used to go to get our Rumex Brittanicus, and other rare (for those parts) species of Docks, for these fields were our favorite hunting-grounds. But it was not to be, for all around were beautiful buildings, and a beautiful park was on that very spot. It is perfectly amazing how young old London is.
If the author of "Flora Londoniensis" could see it now, he would want to emigrate to the United States. There is scarcely room even for a dock to grow about old London now.
It was, for England, an uncomfortably warm day, though the thermometer was only 70°, and we began to long for some of the pleasant, cooling Summer drinks of our own land. There was a fair looking restaurant at the park entrance, with arbors of living vines, and seats and tables that seemed pleasant enough. People at the tables were indulging in the favorite national beverage, while our eyes caught sight of "Ices" on a piece of pasteboard swinging in the wind. It came in a sort of sherry glass, and in a moment had wholly disappeared. It was a very homoeopathic dose for so serious an ailment, so we had to take comfort from a newspaper by us, which gave a terrible account of the awful death of some one a few days before from eating ice cream. It was terrible to think of dying so far away from home, so we asked for glasses of "very cold water," and goblets holding nearly a quart were brought to us. Still it would not go. We had taken nothing which needed an emetic so we timidly inquired for ice, and to our great delight some chunks soon floated in the liquid.
I cannot describe the curiosity with which we were regarded by those in the vicinity as we sat indulging in that delicious drink; and. relating the, to us, amusing incident a day or two after, while dining with a leading English nurseryman, he assured us that he did not wonder at it, for he did not remember that he had ever tasted ice water in his life!
But we were nicely cooled off, and started for a tour round the park. It seems to have an outline of about two miles, and has much of the continually varying character of the Nottingham arboretum, already described, only with more room; there is, of course, a much greater variation, and these variations of a much more elaborate character. The land is flat and the great work has to be wholly one of art. The ancient ditches, to which we have referred, have been gathered into great lakes, and scores of boats with ladies in them showed that the healthy exercise of rowing was a feminine accomplishment. There were more varieties of American trees here than I had seen anywhere, the Silver Maple especially in considerable quantity, but it does not grow with the vigor it does in our river bottoms at home. Among the specialties of this park were bark basket beds which had painted cable rope for borders; beds wholly of Moss roses, then beds of other roses, forming regular rose gardens; beds of Zonale geraniums, in which immense quantities of one kind would be massed; and only imagine a garden in which the tobacco was the leading leaf plant of beauty, while the purple Senecio or Jacoboea formed a sort of base color between the large tobacco leaves.
The sub-tropical garden is a special feature of Battersea Park. To this end palms, tree ferns, Indian rubbers, and similar things in pots and tubs are sunk in the ground for the Summer. It is a principal element in giving the great variety this park possesses, and so far a success. Then there are rock gardens; and of this we must sayit seemed the most successful attempt at rock-work we ever saw, and does great credit to its designer, Mr. Pulham. The stones in some places are arranged so as to resemble natural strata, in which effort considerable geological knowledge must have been called into service. Then to make the work look still more natural, across on the opposite side of the wide plain, rocks are arranged in a very similar way, so that the way appears as a gulch through the rock torn out by nature. Then rock-roving bushes and genuine rock plants are introduced among the rocks with little rills and cascades; all so natural and yet so beautiful that you stand and look enraptured, not thinking of it as a work of art, but only wondering why you had not met with so charming a sight in the wild haunts of nature before. I had often heard of the carpet beds and tropical gardening of this park, but never of its wild rock garden, but to me it was the loveliest of all.
The carpet beds, to be sure, are exquisitely beautiful. They were real carpets, for the leaf plants are kept down by scissors and shears to a perfect level, and no color is allowed to intrude a hair's breadth on the line marked out for another. The plants used are all the same as we use for"massing;" for carpet bedding, as-understood here, is almost unknown in our land-We have mosaics, but no carpets. I had noted a silvery plant used in these carpet productions not found in our gardening, and desirous to know its name, with the inquiry I handed my card to one of the foremen, as I had found by experience the value of an American card in obtaining kind consideration. After saying the plant was Leucophyton Brownii, and looking at the card he observed that one of the honorable Commissioners of the London parks was on the ground, and he was sure he would not be forgiven if he allowed me to go without an introduction. I knew what this meant; and as I had cut out for part of my day's work the use of one of my American letters to James McHenry, Esq., whom I had understood had a model suburban garden, and which I might take as a type of that style of English gardening, it was not without some reluctance that I went with my new found friend and was introduced to Mr. Rogers. On reading my name he treated me with the utmost cordiality, and was kind enough to say there was no one from America whose visit to the park gave him more pleasure than this of one with whose writings he had been so long familiar; and there was no help for it, I had to go over the pretty grounds again.
And yet I was not sorry, for we cannot do more than learn wherever we are, and I found Mr. Rogers a gentleman remarkably well versed in horticultural taste, and I could not but wish that all park commissions were as ably and intelligently served. From Mr. R. I learned that there are occasionally changes among the personnel of Park Boards as with us, but the Secretary of the Board, and all other officers of Departments are in a measure permanent, and this ensures the carrying out of a uniform plan of management. There is no waste of public funds which follow changes, and no useless officers. There are two hundred acres in the park, and notwithstanding the many varied details, all under one foreman. There are men who have charge of divisions, who were first taken as laborers; these are"advanced men." The number of guards vary with the seasons. At times when thousands throng the park they may be as high as sixty. The lowest number is about sixteen. The plants for bedding purposes are all raised on the grounds. For these purposes there are eight greenhouses, each 20 feet by loo, besides frames.
It may give some idea of the immense number of plants required for ornamentation of this character, when I say that in the beds this season there were no less than 75,000 Lobelias, and 48,000 Geraniums. So great, however, is the national love of gardening among all classes, that whatever feeling there may be against public expenditures, those on parks and public gardens are rarely objected to.