Category: Gardening and Gardeners: historical snapshots

Lancelot Brown by Nathanial Dance, photo by dcoetzee

Lancelot Brown by Nathanial Dance, photo by dcoetzee

Throughout 2016 the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown will be marked with a festival of events celebrating his life, work and legacy – 300 years on from his birth.

Brown’s rich legacy of work ranges form Highclere Castle, the fictional home of ‘Downton Abbey’ to the well-known estates of Chatsworth, Blenheim and Stowe, to hidden gems such as Milton Abbey, Weston Park and Compton Verney. In 2016, there will be a range of events for everyone to enjoy – from the most ardent of fans, to those that know nothing of his work but simply enjoy stunning landscapes.

Some highlights include the opportunity to tour the grounds of Belvoir Castle, where a lost Brown design was recently rediscovered and implemented; his first and last known commissions; his longest commission; and some of his crowning achievements. The Capability Brown Festival 2016 has been funded by a £911,100 grant from the Heritage lottery Fund, and is managed by The Landscape Institute. Festival director Ceryl Evans said:

‘Brown’s work was groundbreaking. He blended art and engineering, and moved mountains of earth and villages, to create beautiful naturalistic landscapes which are still much admired today, 300 years after his birth.’

Brown's original plan for Blenheim

Brown’s original plan for Blenheim

A prolific landscape architect, Brown is associated with more than 250 sites across England and Wales, with many more parks and gardens around the world inspired by his work.

Audley End, Essex

Audley End, Essex

Capability Brown is a name well-known in gardening and landscaping circles, but among the general public his work and influence is less well-known. The Festival aims to address that gap as many of our best loved country houses are set as jewels in the wonderful landscapes he created, but often we recognise them for their architecture but sideline what makes them even more splendid –  their amazingly landscaped and seemingly natural settings.

Three centuries after Brown’s birth, the Festival presents a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at how the father of landscape architecture shaped the nation’s countryside.

Blenheim Palace Grand Bridge by Boddah at English Wikipedia

Blenheim Palace Grand Bridge by Boddah at English Wikipedia

Source: Landscape and Amenity Magazine, December 2015

Further information:

The Capability Brown Festival

Wikipedia- Capability Brown

Old School Gardener


‘Carry, & spread dung & compost.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

Council homes, Stow Road, Ixworth

‘They called them ‘Thingoe’s Follies’ – the eight homes built on Stow Road in Ixworth, Suffolk, which formed the first council housing built (in 1894) in the English countryside. And so they were if the attempt to provide decent homes for some of the poorest in England – the agricultural working class of the day – was folly……’ read more at….

Source: Stow Road, Ixworth: ‘Thingoe’s Follies’

compost-trench-after‘Trench & prepare ground with compost – sow as yet all sorts of greenes.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

Rhamnus alaternus

Rhamnus alaternus

‘Sow Lettuce, Alaternus, phillyrea seedes, Kirnels &c. and now begin to secure &  by little & little, as the season proves, withdraw your choicer & tender Greenes & prepare them for the Greene house.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)


  1. ‘Alaternus’ refers to Rhamnus alaternus, an evergreen shrub favoured by Evelyn in hedging, but which fell out of favour years later as being too labour intensive to maintain.

  2. ‘Phillyrea’ was another evergreen shrub of which Mary Keen says:

    ‘Gardeners of the 17th and 18th centuries, who were less spoilt than those of today, loved any tree or shrub that kept its leaves through winter. John Evelyn referred to evergreens as “Verdures, Perennial Greens and Perpetuall Springs”. Among the most highly regarded of these, and a front- rank treasure in the Georgian shrubbery, was phillyrea, often described as “of incomparable verdure”.

    It is rarely seen now, which is a pity. Phillyrea may no longer rate superstar treatment but it is both useful and attractive, making neat hedges, trees full of character and elegant backgrounds.

    A member of the olive family, phillyrea is sometimes known as evergreen privet. It is, however, both more distinguished than privet and less gloomy than conifers at this time of year because its leaves reflect rather than absorb light. Unlike a currently popular evergreen, box, it does not seem to be susceptible to blight and it has tiny, scented, greeny-white flowers, which appear in spring. (It is reminiscent of the popular shrub osmanthus, which also comes from the olive family.)…’

    3. Evelyn’s use of the words ‘Greene house’ appears to refer to its early use in protecting tender green(e)s. The first use of the words appears in the 1660’s and many other terms were used to refer to similar glazed constructions: conservatories, orangeries, botanical gardens etc.

Phillyrea latifolia

Phillyrea latifolia

Old School Gardener

primroses‘Sow Lettuce, Spinach – plant primroses, violets & such fibrous rootes.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

Oranges on Tree‘Sow Cabbages, Carrots, Turneps, purselan – Innoculate oranges and other rare plants: Begin to prune over shady shootes of the Spring, yet so as not to expose the Fruit.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

‘Sow Lettuce, remove Cabbage-plants, Lay ever-greens, and transplant such as are rooted, do this about St. Jamestide’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

Keukenhof, Holland

Keukenhof, Holland

‘Why should we imitate wild nature? the garden is a product of civilisation. Why any more make of our gardens imitation of wild nature, than paint our children with woad, and make them run about naked in an effort to imitate nature unadorned? the very charm of a garden is that it is taken out of savagery, trimmed, clothed and disciplined’

S. Baring-Gould 1890

Your views please!

Old School Gardener

Sissinghurst - the Moat Walk

Sissinghurst – the Moat Walk

‘In the afternoon I moon about with Vita (Sackville-West) trying to convince her that planning is an element in gardening. I want to show her that the top of the moat-walk bank must be planted with forethought and design. She wishes just to jab in the things which has left over. The tragedy of the romantic temperament is that it dislikes form so much that it ignores the effect of masses. She wants to put in stuff which ‘will give alovely red colour in the autumn’. I wish to put in stuff which will furnish shape to the perspective. In the end we part, not as friends.’

Harold Nicolson, 1946 (published 1966)

So, where do you stand? Can a focus on planning and form combine happily with a looser, romantic approach to gardening and garden design?

Old School Gardener


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