THE DAHLIA PAPERS’ RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GARDENING CHRISTMAS PRESENTS – AND HOW TO REMAIN PALE AND INTERESTING WHILST ACQUIRING THEM
Wood pigeon in crab apple tree, Laxfield, Suffolk, December 2014
At the turnstiles, South Kensington tube station. I am bracing myself for a first session of Christmas shopping when I find myself turning right into the tunnel instead of making my way upwards to ground and shop level. The station has long borne a tantalising sign that simply says ‘Museums’ and flashing through my mind was the knowledge that the refurbished Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum had re- opened only the night before. How could I resist sneaking off to the V&A instead of weighing up the impact of the ‘faux’ aspect of a ‘faux mohair’ throw for my mother or worrying if an 18 year old boy, closely related to me, would show any sign of increased animation when discovering a ‘reinterpreted piece of apparel from the Adidas archive” (i.e. a navy blue t-shirt that says ‘By Nigo’ under a giant Adidas logo) in his Christmas stocking?
On arrival at the museum I am immediately drawn towards the ruddy glow of the John Madejski Garden – the wonderful courtyard garden at the heart of the museum. Here, glittering softly in a quiet rainbow of reds and golds, is the most wonderful, gently radiant, Liquidamber. Two wise visitors are picnicking calmly in the fading light under the best possible early Christmas tree.
Two wise picnickers under a Liquidambar, The John Madejksi Garden, V&A
I feel eighteen again myself as I enter Room 46a – which together with its neighbour 46b – now named the Weston Cast Court – are the only public galleries in the museum which display the same collection of objects as when they first opened: an exceptional group of 19th Century plaster cast reproductions which allow you to travel wondrously around Europe and through history in the space of a gorgeous hour.
I am drawn first to the glimmering bronze detail of the Porta di San Ranieri – from Pisa Cathedral, c. 1180 – with this rhythmic scene of palm trees and Wise Men.
Electrotype of Panel from the Porta di San Ranieri, Pisa: The Three Wise Men
And then to the pale exquisite perfection of casts from the cloisters of the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes at Toledo c. 1480-1500:
There is a sense of wonder and tremendous calm in these rooms and yet it is fantastically intimate. You are allowed to get close, to photograph, sketch, just sit and imagine you are in Southern Spain or Florence.
I love the rhythmical boxy flowers carved from milky reddish stone from the central pier of a doorway at Amiens Cathedral, 1220-35:
And in the next door room, the yellow-gold exuberance of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Florence, 1425 -52:
There is an exhilerating sense of scale and it is a fantastic privilege to be able to experience seeing the Gates and Michelango’s David at a mere arm’s length from each other – even on a visit to Florence to see the real thing separate pilgrimages would of course be required to the Baptistry and the Uffizi Gallery respectively.
I am entranced by the rather magical photographs which you cannot help but take of the box-framed ‘Fig leaf for David’ – believed to have been made in 1857 to protect the modesty of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert:
There is the crisp, star-burst clarity of decoration from the Tomb of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09:
Detail from the Tomb of Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09
And I stay for quite a while before the exquisite cool angel-wing carving of Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation, 1425-50:
Before I leave I enjoy the inventive charm of the 3D oak tree and wheat sheaves of Orcagna’s ‘The Assumption and Death of the Virgin’:
The Assumption and Death of the Virgin, 1352, Andrea de Gione, known as Orcagna
I dart – for further fortification – into the cafe. Here the Gamble Room is resplendent with its year-round giant bauble lighting:
A giant bauble light, The Gamble Room, V&A Cafe
I am feeling much readier to think about Christmas and indeed Christmas presents and am going to change my approach. For myself (should anyone important be reading this …) I would be keen to start a collection of antique William Morris/William de Morgan tiles so that one day I will have enough to line a garden loggia …
The loggia at the Arts and Crafts house, Standen, National Trust, East Sussex
More realistically, inspired by the Liquidambar in the John Madejski Garden, I am thinking that alternative Christmas Trees would be a great place to start for presents for family and friends:
One of the prettiest trees to give at Christmas is a winter flowering cherry: Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. This is a small tree – worth looking out for a multi-stemmed one – which quietly lights up the garden from November to March with delicate, pink tinged white flowers. www.bluebellnursery.com has bare root plants at 125-150cm available for mail-order for £29.50.
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’
Another great present choice is a ready-trained U-cordon apple tree. Three of these – there is still time for a Christmas delivery if you hurry – arrived from Pennard Plants in time for Christmas last year. The trees were inspired by my visit to the Prieuré D’Orsan (see my December 5th 2013 post): they have been handsome and prolific and are excellent hosts at Christmas for midwinter lighting.
U-Cordon Apple trees, Camberwell with young fruit and with festoon lights and naked wire lights (both the latter are available from Cox and Cox )
The apple trees carry slate labels which were also inspired by the labelling at the Prieuré – permanent gold marker pens, slate labels with or without holes and fine galvanised tying wire are all available very inexpensively from the brilliant The Essentials Company and would make another good present.
Queen Cox label, South London
A crab apple tree with particularly long last red fruit would be another excellent tree to give at Christmas. Helen Fraser and I planted a pair of Malus x atrogsanguinea ‘Gorgeous’ from Landford Trees in one of our favourite gardens in Oxfordshire (see our Fraser&Morris website) where it is both long flowering and holds onto its fruit well into December:
A welcoming pair of red-fruited crab apples in a front garden at Laxfield, Suffolk
Another tree to buy in a pair for a welcoming front door would be some handsome half standard variegated holly trees – Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’. Really good size plants at 160-180cm are available for £44.50 each from the Big Plant Nursery
Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ – flanking a front door in Canterbury and a close up of the light-catching leaves
My final suggestion of a tree to give for Christmas is a standard form of the White Currant ‘White Versailles’ – available mail order from Blackmoor Nursery for between £12 and £25 depending on whether you would prefer a bare root or a container grown plant.
A standard whitecurrant will grow into quite a sturdy, weeping small tree. It can cope with semi shade and leaves plenty of room underneath to plant with herbs perhaps or cutting tulips and wild strawberries which is the case in my own garden. Whitecurrant fruit is hard to find in the shops but a single small tree can be very prolific, producing fruit to be eaten fresh with other berries in the summer and then made into an exquisite jelly for the winter:
Frozen whitecurrants for making into jelly
Jane Grigson’s recipe from her wonderful ‘Fruit Book’ – another brilliant, enduring present – is based on Eliza Acton’s instructions. You don’t even have to remove the leaves and stalks from the currants – just cover the base of the pan with a thin layer of water, add the same quantity of sugar to fruit, boil hard for 8 minutes and strain to produce ‘a strong jelly of fine flavour’. The jelly is completely delicious with roast pheasant or lamb or with a blue cheese such as stilton. You will even be ahead of the game for Christmas presents the following year year…
Two other book suggestions are Frances Bissell’s The Floral Baker – which is like a jar of sunshine with recipes for tomato and lavender tart and marigold, olive and manchego scones and will keep your friends and family happy, dreaming of the summer to come:
And I can strongly recommend an almost dangerously provocative book for a plant nut: Bob GIbbons’ Wildflower Wonders of the World. I love this book – it cannot fail to make you want to make serious journeys to experience the intensity of the World’s most spectacular displays of wild flowers.
For a different kind of present for someone who loves plants and gardens, I have the work of two photographers to suggest.
I am a long standing admirer of Chrystel Lebas who uses a panoramic camera and long exposure times to create dreamlike sweeping landscapes which are hard to forget. Her series ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ – a translation of the French phrase for twilight, ‘entre chien et loup’ – has fantastic images of frozen shadowy, fairytale forests – what could be a better present to receive on Christmas morning? Her covetable prints are available from The Photographers Gallery
An image from the ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ series by Chrystel Lebas
Newly discovered for 2014 and absolutely on my own Christmas list, are the innovative iphoto images of award-winning photographer Nettie Edwards who is currently an artist in residence at Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire – more on this in The Dahlia Papers in 2015. You can read about her work and her time at Painswick in her blog Hortus Lucis A year in a garden of Light . I love the soft, atmospheric painterly quality of her photographs. Prints are available from about £100 – contact Nettie Edwards direct on firstname.lastname@example.org
I came upon my very last idea for an alternative Christmas tree – or indeed Christmas present – when walking in Peckham last week with artist and writer, Jake Tilson. We talked about his brilliantly illustrated, perceptively written new book about Christmas food (available mail order, of course from Tender Books ) as he led me to his latest find …
Together we peered over a back garden fence to admire the most fantastic Persimmon tree, heavily laden with orange fruit. The wonderful attribute of Persimmon – if you are after a spectacular December display – is that the fruit ripens very late and stays on the tree to dazzle on a winter’s day. Reads Nursery in Suffolk are selling large grafted specimen trees 5 – 6 feet tall, a bargain at £64.50.
Persimmon tree laden with fruit, Peckham
Do go to the Cast Courts at the V&A for a moment of Christmas calm then sit back and buy everyone you know a tree. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas, Non.
Trained apple trees with lights, Petersham Nurseries