A tale of old rectory gardens and corn

Published 1:47 pm Thursday, December 17, 2015

At the end of September I went to England to visit friends in Devon. They’re avid gardeners and restorers of old houses. A few years ago they sold a house dating to the early 1600s and bought a “new” one built around 1830. Life in this “new” house and its garden is like stepping into one of Jane Austen’s tales.

Because the house was built by a wealthy rector the property originally included considerable farmland and extensive gardens. Most of the gardens were long, but local records indicated the placement of the house, follies, and gardens. The house was built in the eastern corner of the property and extensive gardens were laid out to the west. Although this arrangement may seem odd, it’s logical. Rectory gardens served many functions. By placing the house in a corner of the property, the gardens gained both space and prominence.

There is a long history of English rectors using their gardens for teaching and improving the life of parishioners. Seventeenth-century poet and priest, George Herbert, wrote about the duty of rectors to teach their flock about “proper tillage and pasturage.” By the time my friends’ house was built, wealthy, well-educated rectors were also interested in collecting exotic plants the latest landscaping trends.

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And what were they interested in? Well, many of the same things that we are concerned with today – making gardens seem more natural, even wild; using garden space as an extension of living space in their homes; and, yes, having the latest plants for everyone to see, things like camellias, rhododendrons, pineapples, and dahlias. Bragging rights. Not that different from our interest in wildflower meadows and outdoor rooms. We’re even experiencing a renewed interest in incorporating exotic plants into our more naturalistic landscapes. Remember the beds of Aechmea blanchetiana in front of the Farmville Train Station this past summer?

And so my friends have copper beech hedges along the property lines; great shady areas dominated by ancient, tall rhododendrons (the shrubbery meant for secluded walks); masses of intensely red dahlias (still relatively new in the early 1800s) by the back verandah; formal beds of mixed perennials edged by boxwood; long walkways paved with slate for casual meandering through the garden; roses everywhere; and a small, highly attractive vegetable garden. Oh, that vegetable garden. It was beautiful and contained a crop that’s still relatively exotic there.

The vegetable garden was surrounded by a perfectly clipped hedge, and the entrance was through an arch covered with passion flower vines. With the exception of the grape tomatoes, all the vegetables were planted in raised beds intersected by slate walkways. The big surprise, however, was corn, a crop that I’ve rarely seen grown for human consumption in Devon. Apparently corn on the cob is the latest trendy edible. All the local farm shops had great bins of corn on the cob along with printed instructions detailing what to do with it.

Yes, my friends had planted two very short rows of corn in a raised bed. When I arrived they immediately wanted to know how to tell when the corn was ready to pick. Explanations ensued, and we all trekked out to the garden to inspect their crop. My friends didn’t realize that corn comes in various colors and doesn’t change color when it ripens. They didn’t know that it’s wind pollinated. Yes, their corn was ripe, but the ears didn’t fill out the way they should have. The kernels were seriously sparse, and the ears looked a bit odd. Unfortunately, the result was that they were afraid to eat it. They put it in the larder and left it there to molder.

Yes, I laughed about their naiveté concerning a crop that we take for granted, but they would most definitely laugh at my attempts to grow magnificent dahlias and roses. Mine usually look pathetic, especially by early October. Copper beech hedges? Not happening. They’re hard to grow here, and I don’t have the skill to properly weave them together. Gardeners everywhere share common interests and bonds, but even the most serious gardeners can be stymied by new plants. Most especially corn.

CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.