Sunday Opinion: A few Thoughts About Romance

I have been talking of late to my friend Michael K on the subject of romance-as a world view.  For me, that means a world garden view.  The most romantic gardener of my vintage would be Henry Mitchell.  He planted untold numbers of bearded irises on his small property.  All of the work that their successful cultivation takes he provided,  for that brief week or two of glory.  Only a romantic would devote so much time to a plant whose bloom time is so ephemeral.  Bearded irises out of bloom, or in need of division, or suffering from botrytis-not so pretty.  In bloom-who does not love them?   He spoke of the summer storms that inevitably knock over the the delphiniums in full bloom and shatter all the peony blooms, but he spoke even more about how those gardeners that grow them pick up and go on past any trouble in the sure belief that life without them would be a desert. The gardener that throws him or her self at their garden like they have 10 minutes to live-they are romantics.  The gardener who trims their boxwood with hand shears as they love the sound it makes is a head over heels gardener.  Romantic gardeners love a rainy day as much as a sunny one.  Gardeners who opt for gravel in the drive put up with the maintenance, as they cannot live without that crunching sound underfoot.  They never ask for a perennial, shrub or tree that blooms all summer, and is maintenance free.  The work of a landscape and garden is a life, not a job.  They treasure that most ephemeral element in a landscape-a perfect moment.  I have only had a few-but I live every day for the next one.  Rob could not have been more pleased to have sheep’s hurdles arrive in the container. I know of no one who takes sheep to market, and needs a temporary pen for them.   But I do know lots of gardeners who will fall for their history and sturdy construction.  Some romantic gardener will imagine a use, and make a home for them.  The hope of a supremely and sublimely beautiful garden-a very romantic idea that I cannot shake.   Rob’s romance with the sheep’s hurdles-I greatly respect that.        

Everything living and growing on God’s earth has a lifespan.  A moment, a season.  Some moments take but the blink of an eye.  That would be my crocus this year.  They came on, shone for the better part of two days, and vanished.  My Kent Beauty showy oregano-one summer season, and one summer season only-would I do without them?  No.  My maple, the biggest tree on my property, I estimate to be about 75 years old.  My yews and arborvitae are 25 years old.  My Limelight hydrangeas are 8 years old; I feel like I have had my butterburrs my whole life, though I have really only had them 10 years.  My garden in its present form I have had 16 years.  This is a very short time, in the big scheme of things.  But this is what I have.  Some lifespans are bigger than others.  Ancient yews in England, the sequoia trees in California, they are ancient and still vigorous.  Grapevines in France 200 years old still produce grapes for wine.  There are many examples of great age.  But eventually any living thing will succumb.   Not that I need remind you, but no living thing lives forever. 

What does the inevitability of a lifespan have to do with romance?  I find people with a romantic world view are intensely sensitive to the present moment.  One beautiful flower opening, a certain foggy morning defined by a flock of geese flying overhead and honking, that day the double bloodroot blooms, a harvest moon high in the sky-the romantic gardeners among us greatly value the beauty of the moment, and great hope for the future.  There is not a cynic among them.  Part of this is fueled, energized by the knowledge that our time is limited.  How do we choose to live it? 

We pour over the seed catalogues.  We grow seedlings under lights in the basement.  We search the soil surface for signs of life once the snow melts away.  We plan the next phase.  We celebrate every spring in much the same way-the best is yet to come. 

I would invite you to let your romance for a garden guide you.  Get going.  You do not have forever-you have now.

At A Glance: Violas And Pansies

Errington Reay & Co. Ltd


I am awash in English salt glazed garden pots,  hand made at Errington Reay & Co in England.  The pleasure is all mine; I am delighted with them.  Rob has been interested in this pottery for a few years.  This past fall, a shopping trip to England made for an opportunity to purchase them.  They are beautifully varied in shape, texture and color.  They have a very English look about them.  What do I mean by this?  To my mind, English garden pots are as much about utility and serviceabillty as they are about aesthetics.  These pots are thick and heavy; I am sure they will withstand the perils faced by any object left outdoors. No matter the shape, they all have plenty of space for plants.  They are sensibly roomy. 

Some pots are shaped like crocks, others like mixing bowls.  The shapes are simple enough to invite any number of uses.  They are all asking to be put to use.  There is a quiet beauty to this.  Each pot is hand made; this is evident.  All of the pots have a salt glaze finish.         

Salt glazed pots date back to the 18th century in England.  Doulton-Lambeth, which later became known as Royal Doulton, manufactured lots of salt glazed pots and sanitary ware.  In the 1830’s and 1840’s, salt glazed sewer pipes helped provide better sanitary conditions in urban areas. At the hottest moment of the firing, common salt is thrown into the kiln. The sodium in the salt reacts with the silica in the clay, to form a glossy coating of sodium silicate. This results in a a subtle texture that resembles that of an orange peel.  

Some salt glaze is colorless, or quite purplish in color given the presence of manganese in the glaze.  We have had French salt glazed pots on occasion from the Poterie at Noron.  These pots are various shades of brown given the iron oxide in the glaze.  No two pots are exactly ther same.  Rob thinks they have the look of freshly baked bread.   

Clean air regulations passed in England in the 1870’s prohibited the production of salt glazed clay in urban areas.  Royal Doulton quit producing pots with this glaze as a result.  Errington Reay and Co is the only pottery in England currently licensed to produce salt glazed pots.  Pictured above, their rhubarb forcers.  Placed over an emerging rhubard plant, they limit that plant’s ability to produce chlorophyll-this is known as photosynthesis.  Once the rhubarb has produced shoots above ground, the lid of the forcer is removed.  The plant grows towards the light, in limited light.  This results in more tender rhubarb.  They can also be used to blanch asparagus; so called white asparagus is green asparagus grown in the absence of chlorophyll.  

These tall pots would be great for any plant needing a long root run-tomatoes, for example. The pale biscuit color of the interior of the pots is just as lovely as the color of the outside 

The lot line is full full of these freshly unpacked pots.  The pair of horse troughs with their richly rusted surface visually explains everything about the iron oxide in the salt glaze.

Errington Reay & Co was founded by Robert Errington and William Reay at Bardon Mill-the site of a water powered woolen mill established in the late 17th century.  “Since Victorian times, when it earned its nationwide reputation for high quality sanitary ware, drainage pipes and ornamental pottery for domestic use, Errington Reay has remained a traditional family run pottery.  We still only practice traditional ways of hand throwing, hand moulding and casting.”  This is just part of what is written on the tag that comes with every pot.  We are very pleased indeed to offer them.

The Last Container From England

What a relief that this last container load of garden ornament from England is finally in my possession.  Though importing garden ornament from Europe really belongs on that “do not try this at home” list, it is incredibly exciting to cut off that lock, and unload the truck.  It has been seven months since Rob shopped in England-for him, the unloading is old home week.  I am always surprised by what I see, in spite of the fact that he sends me lots of pictures.  There is no substitute for the real thing.  

Some purchases might make you wonder.  Who imports fence poles from England?  Someone whose romance with the garden is long standing and on going-that would be Rob.  These are no ordinary fence poles.  They are whittled from sweet chestnut with a draw knife, and designed to anchor rolls of sweet chestnut pale fencing. Castanea sativa was introduced to Britain by the Romans; it is a very important tree in the English landscape.  An introduction to a segment of British gardening life is what came off the container-not a pallet of poles.

An exposure to the tools and ornament of a garden culture other than my own is a gift from an unlikely source-modern technology.  I am sure there was a time when garden ornament never travelled far from where it was made.  The ocean between my garden, and a British garden, does not seem as large as it once was, given shipping containers, giant boats, and trucks-not to mention the communications systems that keep them all functioning towards a specific end.  My local decomposed granite is so different than that granite available in California, but should you want our granite, it is possible for you to have it.    

These large simple wood panels are known as sheep’s hurdles. They are traditionally used to make a temporary pen for sheep taken to market.  What would I do with them?  One panel would make a suberb support for a lax growing rose; a pair might beautifully signal the entrance to a vegetable or cutting garden.  They would make a great companion to any number of vining plants.   

A pair of Victoian era cast iron horse troughs took my breath away.  OK, how does a horse trough get this level of respect?  They are visually very strong, and have great scale.

Six inch diameter chestnut poles are processed for fencing on a woodland site by a pale-maker.  The poles are stripped of their bark, and then they are riven by hand on the radial axis, to produce those fairly regular triangular shaped slats know as pales.  Once bound together with galvanized wire, the result is a rustic but entirely serviceable fencing.  The Chestnut Fencing Manufacturer’s Society puts the lifespan of this fencing at 20 years or better.  All of the above is courtesy of Chris Howkins’ book “Sweet Chestnut: History, Landscape, People”.   

These poles will do an admirable job of holding up the paling fencing.  Their history will add a good deal of flavor to a garden.

This weathered English bench is of classical design and workmanship.  Made from both teak and iroko, it has many years of service ahead of it. 

And for the first time, Burgon and Ball garden tools.  Based in Sheffield, England, they make sheep shears-perfect for pruning the soft growth on boxwood. 

    And lest I forget-this container had boxes and boxes of Nutscene jute garden twine.  Just to open the boxes is an experience; that organic and pungent smell of jute filled the garage.   We have just about all the fixings for a great spring now.  Like every other gardener we are impatiently waiting on some spring weather to go with.