“A room of one’s own… What [these words] propose to anyone who admits them into the space of a daydream, is a place of solitude a few steps off the beaten track of everyday life.”

So wrote Michael Pollen in A Place of My OwnAnd he wasn’t talking about greenhouses. But he could have been.

Pollen’s reputation rests on his writings on food sustainability (and sanity), but this lesser-known volume is subtitled the “education of an amateur builder”, a learning curve he experienced through the construction of a superior shed by himself, who had never done more than pick up the occasional hammer.  This book, his second, after Second Nature: a gardener’s education, is following an obvious track: In the mind of a gardener, a shed is a mystical realm, one filled with life and death-giving potions, weapons possessed of special powers, comfy armchairs, tattered seed catalogues, treasured plants that need coddling, and the solitude necessary to nourish dreams of next season’s crop rotation…or the next book in your ouvre. Speaking of which, one of the most outstanding sheds of all time must be that of the English writer, Victoria, better known as Vita Sackville-West.images  Vita in later years, dressed and tooled-up for the garden

It was her writing room, installed at the top of a red-brick 16th-century tower at the heart of her garden at Sissinghurst Castle, (and which may have inspired Virginia Woolf’s metaphoric A Room of One’s Own, but there’s not the space to examine that here).

maxresdefaultThe tower was Sackville-West’s powerhouse and an echo down the ages from the Renaissance essayist, Michel de Montaigne’s description of his tower-shed, from which, “it is easy for me to oversee my household…and have a view of my garden, my chicken-run, my backyard and most parts of my house.” I’ll take it!

Shed design is a highly personal form of expression and runs the gamut from cookie cutter wooden cubes purchased from big-box stores, to yard-art fantasies, my personal favorite. Amazing what can be done with a selection of old doors and windows from Habitat for Humanity Restores in crafting the sort of structure where shed and greenhouse overlap.window shed   Eco friendly, or simply economical? This hard-working but inviting structure sits on a main residential street near the heart of downtown Colorado Springs. For more inspiration check out the UK’s Shed of the Year contest.

In Germany, this overlap has been refined by the tradition of Schrebergärten – a community garden movement started in the late 19th century by Dr Daniel Schreber as a way to improve the lives and morals of the city dwellers in Leipzig. Strips of land along the urban edge were, and still are, allotted to families to “farm”, garden, and tend like their own backyards; the most extensive being in Berlin.

My first experience of these trim, yet highly individualized plots was on a visit to Ingoldstadt, a few hours west of Munich. Spread beneath a post-war block of apartments and, as I remember it, running along the river bank, was a strip of land, uniformly sectioned into a garden patchwork, each block belonging, my guide explained, to an apartment dweller. Each plot had its shed, bright with clean paint, daintily shuttered windows, tidy mini-porch just big enough for a chair or two, and gingerbread-trimmed rooflines. All that was missing was a breadcrumb trail.

But the gardens! Unlike the ramshackle, unruly allotments banked by knock-together sheds I was used to seeing, each neatly clipped grass carpet was home to a multi-generation gnome family gathered around a wishing well, and there were plenty of other goofy but endearing ornaments; vegetable beds were snugged in by fluffy duvets of perfectly groomed annuals, and there was yet room for a postage-stamp perennial bed and hybrid tea roses. I don’t recall seeing any old tires transformed into swan planters, but they may have existed in some little wonderland that I missed.

All this is to say that while gardens are today unquestioningly accepted as a form of highly personal expression, the same recognition has not been adequately paid to the architecture of the shed, whatever form it takes.


©Ethne Clarke, 2016

Being Zone Agnostic

To have made six gardens in five climate zones looks very like extravagance, but to have possessed a greenhouse in only one may be regarded as a misfortune. Particularly, as I realized with some shock, that greenhouse was in the garden where I least needed it – Norfolk, England; aka Britain’s Sunshine Capitol, and with the lowest rainfall to boot. Extravagance indeed. But that was 15 years ago, and since then I’ve made several gardens, from zones 7a to 4, and have just signed on for Zone 6. I now garden in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado Springs…on a sand dune. The region was once at the bottom of the sea, and while that has changed, my need for a glasshouse has not.

It’s all about Season-Extension Gardening in these parts, west of the Mississippi. Hardly a yard exists without raised beds covered by polythene tunnels stretched over plastic plumbing tube; not the loveliest vista you could want – they look like bunch of dwarf covered wagons looking for a train. But are clearly effective for raising things you’re not supposed to grow here. Like tomatoes.

Larry Stebbins, the Yoda of veg gardening in this region, is the founder of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens.  Sixty-something Stebbins was only five years old when he found his entry-level veg, a tomato, fresh-picked and shared with his grandpa in the elder’s garden. Laarry-Stebbins   Larry Stebbins, “Man on the Grow” in Colorado Springs. Thanks to his energy and commitment, COS has a vibrant community garden scene.

The experience led Stebbins down the path to fathering community gardens throughout the city,  leading school programs, writing a book, A Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide. And developing a popular podcast.

There’s a lot of millenials moving here from exotic places like Boise, Napa, Poughkeepsie, with visions of self-sufficiency dancing in their heads. Sitting over a cup of coffee in a locabrew pub (it was 10am!), a number of young women, with kale-fed kids in tow and their eyes a-sparkle, came up to thank Larry for hooking them up with heirloom seeds, organic compost, raised bed kits (for the mini-Conestoga look). They didn’t quite kiss the hem of his anorak, but it was close.

I remember my own dewy-eyed moment, picking my first cabbage from my London allotment. It was the size of a medicine ball. I was so proud – and I don’t even like cabbage that much.

Tomatoes–that’s what I grew in the greenhouse I didn’t really need. They were awesome – unlike most British tomatoes – my toms (mostly Moneymaker, as heirlooms hadn’t seized the limelight back then) had flavor. Now, though, I am sooooo over tomatoes. Instead, I’m jonesin’ for cacti, succulents, and any other special needs plant you can name that have a claim to arid and even tropical needs.


But that, children, is another story for another time.


©Ethne Clarke, 2015

This post also appears on Hartley Botanic.com

Welcome to Garden Pages, my ongoing flirtation with the digital me. Blogging has always struck me as a form of self-love, which can be as innocuous as me describing what is blooming in my garden, or as tedious as me blathering on about organic gardening, or farm to table…etc etc. I mean, who cares? Where is the fun in that? Reminds me of the famous Woody Allen line, you know the one…this being a family blog I refrain from a direct quote.

But since my business “card”, the address that appears on my Linked In and Facebook personas, yodels (I don’t yell, despite what others might think) Garden Pages, I think I had better pull the digit out and re-up this blog. Since, on parting ways with Organic Gardening and Rodale, and re-upping my freelance life, I have started getting notices that this blog is being followed. And I can only imagine the disappointment these people will experience when they arrive to find my last blog was in 2011. And even THEN I was apologizing for being such digital media laggard.

Well, I can only hope this meagre offering allied with the promise of more to come, will temper the collective chagrin of my visitors…all two of them… and encourage them (and their friends) to come again. It could actually be quite interesting as I am relocating from Zone 6b-ish in Pennsylvania to Zone 5 @ 6000ft in Colorado Springs. My sixth garden and 5th climate zone. Perhaps I should take up knitting?

Don’t answer that.

Pinsent Buzz

I have just had a look at my blog for the first time since February. I am not the most dedicated of bloggers, obviously.

In doing so, I discovered that yesterday, 22 April, there were 85 views of my blogs about my work on Cecil Pinsent. This has made me curious as to WHY? Who are these people and what do they hope to find? The internet brings us together in a big community, but at the same time retains the anonymity of a big crowd.

So, today is too cold and rainy to garden, but I have more important things to do — namely sort through a trove of Pinsent documents that have just come my way. And just in the nick of time, too, as my book is about to go into layout, the final draft is finally final, and already the PR machine is oiling its gears. Among the treasures are a collection of photos of Cecil Pinsent to add to the half-dozen I have already, which have been part of my lectures since the first one I gave at a Pinsent seminar in 1993 at Villa Le Balze, Fiesole.

Pinsent’s photos and writings tell me so much more about him than the obvious record of his work and the circle of people and clients who became his friends and intimates. It also makes me wonder what this online life will leave behind? No troves of handwritten correspondences, no musty albums of photos that have been focused through the lens of an individual’s memories to serve as a catalogue of that life’s singular journey, that’s for sure.  Will we remain anonymous in the overcrowded archive of the digital world? I think so.

Hurrah for Fat!

One of the enduring frustrations of living in the States again is not being able to purchase a piece of meat that is still attached to its bone, should the cut have been near one, or jacketed in its flavor-giving layer of fat. It, of course, has been excised for my own good. Whether I want it or not. So much for the pursuit of happiness.

For Christmas the Clarke family likes to dine on standing rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts. You get the Dickensian picture. So I went to a hightone grocery and asked for the joint of choice. Took it home, unwrapped it from its brown paper shroud, and lo and behold, the muscle had been separated from the ribs bones, the fat removed with surgical precision, only for these “trimmings” to be lashed back on with twine. Sigh.

Now, Martha Rose Shulman reports that fat is back on the menu…at least some fats. And it is quite the complicated business coming to that conclusion, as she reports at http://tiny.cc/w0yyr. But reassuring nonetheless.

So I will adhere (without twine) to my principle of moderation in all things.
Now please pass the bacon.

“Today, when visitors first encounter the charm and elegance of Tuscan villas and gardens, they see what they want to see—Renaissance beauty—not recognizing that they are admiring is the work of a 20th-century English architect.  In 1986, I was one of these starry-eyed admirers, gazing out over the Florentine landscape in awe and ignorance, which was about to be remedied. It was my first visit, made in the mold of The Grand Tour, but rather than travel with a retinue in a horse-drawn carriage, I was with my husband and 6-year-old son in the family Volkswagen. It was a self-guided tour to improve and expand my knowledge of garden history; I arrived in Florence, clutching my copy of Georgina Masson’s 1959 classic, Italian Gardens, with Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens written in 1903, as back-up, and managed to visit the highpoints. Villa Gamberaia, with its garden plan a perfect progression from light to dark, rustic to classical, left me speechless—and at my first sight of its famous water parterre I burst into tears. At the Villa Medici at Fiesole I became curious to learn more about the history of Italian gardens, because from its tiny giardino segreto, (secret garden), a true relic of the Renaissance, I caught a glimpse of another, even more charming garden, which I later learned was Villa Le Balze, and one of Pinsent’s earliest Florentine gardens.

That visit laid the foundations for my book The Gardens of Tuscany[1], and introduced me to Sir Harold Acton. We met in the salon of his home, Villa La Pietra. He sat in a rather dilapidated wing chair that was covered in faded silk damask. I perched on an armchair into which, in a more relaxed frame of mind, I might easily have slouched. Sir Harold was graciousness personified. I was tongue-tied. But then, serendipitously I mentioned that I was originally from Park Forest, Illinois. “But my mother was from Evanston!” he exclaimed. “I used to visit there regularly as a child, and adored Marshall Fields.” So, two expatriates found common ground, exchanging reminiscences about the Walnut Room (what would he think about Macy’s takeover and the loss of the Marshall Fields moniker, a byword for quality? He’d probably be as saddened and incredulous as I was).

During the interview, Sir Harold described how his father, Arthur Acton, designed garden surrounding the villa to be a showcase for his parent’s immense collection of classical sculpture and talked of garden design in Tuscany during the late Edwardian period. He mentioned that his father had consulted Cecil Pinsent about the addition of a small garden building at La Pietra, a project that was never pursued. Pinsent, he explained, was the architect of many of the villas and landscapes built by the Anglo-American expatriate community, which included some of the most notable members of the expatriate literati in Florence, and that these villas and gardens are today among the most admired in Tuscany. Sir Harold brought his palms together as if in prayer and resting his chin on delicately poised fingertips fixed me with a steady gaze. “You know,” he said, “You really ought to find out everything you can about Pinsent. So little about him is known with any accuracy.” You hold in your hands the results, to date, of that bit of advice. When someone of Sir Harold’s stature makes a suggestion, you’re well advised to listen.”

Sir Harold Acton walking in his garden at Villa La Pietra, 1986, by Ethne Clarke.

Excerpted from the introduction to my soon-to-be published book (by W. W. Norton), which has been in the works for at least six years, but I have an excuse since I did bring out a new edition of ‘Hidcote: the Making of a Garden’ and take on a full-time position as the Editor in Chief of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale, Inc. and the first publication to introduce organic practices to American gardeners, some 70 years ago.

You also read about Cecil Pinsent’s Tuscan Villas and Gardens in “Cecil Pinsent and his gardens in Tuscany” papers from the symposium, Georgetown University, Villa Le Balze, Fiesole, 22 June 1995, which is the first place my biography of Pinsent and a thorough examination of his life and work was published by me, Giorgio Galletti, Vincent Shacklock and others.

Surprises never cease to surprise me. I had just about forgotten that I had started this blog, given the avalanche of activity over the past two years. When low and behold comes this email asking me to attend to a comment. I’d misnamed Sandra Pope as Jane Pope in my last (2-year-old) blog. I have friends in Dorset named Jane and Nori, so that is my excuse. But that’s not the point. Astonishing how long stuff hangs around on the internet.

I’ve just sent the manuscript and illustration for my next book to my publisher, W. W. Norton. It’s the biography Cecil Pinsent and an overview of his Tuscany villas and gardens for the Anglo-American ex-patriate community. He worked for them all: the Berensons at I Tatti, Sybil Cutting at Villa Medici, Fiesole, CA Strong at Le Balze, and most tellingly, Iris Origo at La Foce. He did not however do anything that was ever built for Arthur Acton at La Pietra, but it was his son, Sir Harold Acton, who told me to research Cecil Pinsent if I wanted to learn anything about Florentine gardens and Tuscany villas, because, as Sir Harold said, “nothing much is know about him.” That was in the early 1990s.

So that is what I did. I found Pinsent’s family; his niece Chloe Morton loaned me his archive (which I subsequently helped her to place with Royal Institute of British Architects), met his half-brother Basil, who was much younger than Cecil and who clearly adored him. And was helped by all the the wonderful people who are now custodians of Pinsent’s work: Harvard and Georgetown universities, who now own I Tatti and Le Balze, two of the most famous villas outside Florence, and Benedetta Origo, whose mother worked with Cecil to create La Foce, his most enduring of the Tuscany villas he created, surrounded by exquisite gardens and countless others.

Best of all, though, I made some lifelong friends. Giorgio Galletti – a renowned Florentine architect and landscape historian who helped me with research and who shared his insights; Prof Vincent Shacklock who steered through my dissertation on Pinsent for which I earned a Master of Philosophy. And, most particularly, garden designer and horticulturist extraordinaire, Alessandro Tombelli, who has become the brother I never had. It is those Pinsent connections that are my greatest reward.

So watch this space, and the book shelves for “Infinity of Graces; Cecil Pinsent, an English architect in the Italian landscape.” coming to a bookstore near you.

Simple pleasures

Working with plants and soil takes us out of ourselves and our daily rut, letting us connect not just with nature, but with our inner child. And goodness knows, in these straitened times we need to remember, and embrace, the simple joy of simple pleasures.

I’m about to move into a new house. It was built, solidly, in 1923. From the outside it looks huge, but inside, inspite of the tall ceilings, the rooms are comfortable; they have the proportions of humanism. They do not dwarf me; there is no entrance lobby, no cathedral ceiling, just nicely proportioned rooms. I think the survey says there are some 1600 square feet to inhabit. We can do that — some day my husband will join (relos are not easy).

But what struck me most about the place are the built-in closets. One 2ft-wide door opens onto a space maybe 4 feet wide and just deep enough for a clothes hanger not to be squashed.

At our house in Des Moines we transformed one bedroom (and not the smallest by any means) into a wardrobe room. An entire room for our clothes. For our stuff. Is this progress?

It’s the same with food. We are agonizing over the cost of childhood and adult obesity. It is costing the us millions…because we have to have our slurpy cups of the HFCS-based sodas, our MegaBurgers on Kingsize Buns. Pasta served in a bread bowl. Ever listened to people (or yourself) ordering coffee…whipped cream, flavored syrup, blah blah. I know this is a tired old record, but looking at the closets in my new home and remembering my mother describe rationing during WW2…it doesn’t take too many brain cells to figure out that less can indeed be more.

The Iowa winter seems to have dragged on interminably. Perhaps it seems that way because I’m preparing to move and deadlines always seem so far off, until, that is, the few days before D-day, and then you’re left wondering, where did the time go.

Enough of this quasi-metaphysical mooning. I planted the garden in front of the house last fall. At last. After nearly six years in Iowa, I finally got serious about my personal landscape. We even put up a sexy — and expensive — fence to block the view of the neighbors’ lurid plastic playscapes and other outdoor paraphenalia — there are now trampolines in four of the six backyards that I can see from my deck. The fence helps, as do the redbuds, katsura, paperbark maple, cornus and parrotia trees that I planted as living screens. It’s all working splendidly, and now I’m leaving. There’s an old Chicago adage, “light a cigarette and the bus comes”. Well, I plant a garden and I move. England. Texas. Iowa. Dare I plant another garden in my new home?

However, at the same time as I ask myself that question, I am making plant lists of all the wonderful things I can grow now that I’ll be in Zone 6. For a start, I expect that bulbs will be more luxuriant in their flowering (perhaps I can start a bluebell wood?); here I lost more than I can count to the endless cycle of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw. Fortunately, the snowdrops I brought back from Ireland have survived and will be traveling with me to PA.

These ruminations were brought more sharply into focus by Penelope Hobhouse’s column-long story in the April ’09 issue of The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society.


Titled ‘Starting all over again,’ Penny describes how not quite a year ago she moved back to Hadspen House in Somerset where she had gardened 30 years before,  leaving behind the widely acclaimed garden and home she’d made at Bettiscombe in Dorset, just five miles from the sea. That garden, she said, was designed for her retirement. Now, at nearly 80, another retirement garden is called for, and as you might expect from one of England’s leading garden authorities, it is being thoughtfully planned. But instead of describing the low-maintenance features she’s incorporated, Penny talks about her plans for experiments with marginally hardy plants and the tender treasures she has collected. She anticipates draping the walls of her new home with scented climbers, and then reveals her secret weapon; the huge glasshouse she will have, the very one that sustained Hadspen yard’s previous occupants, Sandra and Nori Pope. You can almost hear her hands clapping in glee as one of England’s premier plantswomen contemplates the opportunity her next move offers, to “extend my collection and knowledge!” I completely share her buzz.

Gardening is, after all, an enterprise rooted in tomorrow (and some would say  a triumph of hope over experience). We gardeners are a tough and adventurous lot, always wondering what lies over the horizon, reveling in newness and diversity, griping about the weather, the lack of time, the perversity of Mother Nature, but loving it all nevertheless, and eagerly anticipating the next season’s triumphs. It is, as I’m sure Penny would agree, what keeps us young — each new season is like starting all over again, nevermind moving house and climate zones.

Value Added

I have no doubt that improving my property is worth every penny spent. Especially in these down-turn times. Of course I want to spend my pennies in the garden—it’s what I do. But Himself would rather build shelves to hold his collection of CDs, which is really what he’d rather be investing in, because it’s what he does (write about music). But the way I look at it, CDs and books, you take ’em with you when you move, but the garden stays put. So it’s worth making it look terrific.

According to surveys done in the not too distant past, by august bodies like the National Gardening Association  and the National Association of Retailers, I learn that:

The average cost of landscaping is 5% of a property’s value, but can add up to 14% to its sale price. And a pretty garden can knock 6 weeks off the length of time it takes to sell.  20% of buyers say that landscaping is “very important” to them when considering a house purchase, and that trees alone add up to 7% to a home’s price. That’s all very well, but I rather suspect that landscaping to some means green lawns and evergreen foundation planting and would not mean the perennial border I planted last autumn under the front windows using a plan that Piet Oudolf designed for me to share with Trad Home readers, but which never made it into the magazine. It should look quite magnifique what with all the blues and mauves set off by splashes of shocking pink and blurs of white. Much if it was native, too, which will suit the Iowa zone. But, I digress….

More stats are just as impressive, because they’re about lowering utility use and cost. Planting shade trees on the south and west sides help to keep your home cool and can lower costs by up to 20%. Keep the aircon unit shaded too and increase its efficiency by 10%, and lower its use by 15%.  Now that is truly something we can all relate to; save energy AND money. Need I say more? I imagine not, other than to claim that’s my perfect excuse to put my money in the soil.  Ka-CHING!