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“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


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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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