Turn over a new leaf with the

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Gardening -

pub­lished it. How this was saved when al­most ev­ery other fam­ily doc­u­ment was lost is re­mark­able. What makes this par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to gar­den­ers is that Geral­dine did some of the phys­i­cal labour her­self. She would spend days plant­ing thou­sands of bulbs and bal­anc­ing on lad­ders. Her ob­ser­va­tions, com­bined with the prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence gleaned from work­ing with a head gar­dener, make many of her re­flec­tions not only in­ter­est­ing but also highly rel­e­vant to­day. It is easy to em­pathise with her, even though she had more than four acres of land and six gar­den­ers to help. Al­though part of the landed gen­try, the fam­ily had to up sticks each sum­mer while the house was let out for two or three months to “fill a hole in their fi­nances”. Just as the win­ter rain and wind was giv­ing way to fine sun­shine, and the herba­ceous borders were com­ing to their peak, they would leave. This was some­thing Geral­dine loathed. Her pas­sion for her gar­den is ob­vi­ous. As she had no chil­dren, it con­sumed a vast part of her en­er­gies. Her fa­ther, Ger­ald Pon­sonby, was an ac­com­plished pain­ter and when he came to stay, they would sit side by side study­ing the gar­den. Painters of­ten cre­ate won­der­ful pic­tures of gar­dens as they scru­ti­nise and ob­serve plants, com­pose views and ma­nip­u­late the light. Geral­dine and her fa­ther’s gar­den de­signs and plant stud­ies are pep­pered through­out her diaries. I found her pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the weather par­tic­u­larly re­as­sur­ing. We al­ways think we are in the throes of the wettest, long­est, dri­est and cold­est spells, but clearly we are not. The weather was as un­pre­dictable then as it is now. In Fe­bru­ary 1903, a gale smashed the glass of a green­house, leav­ing the plants “all in a mash”. The av­enues were blocked, roofs were dam­aged, and sheds col­lapsed. This was fol­lowed by tor­ren­tial rain, caus­ing small lakes to ap­pear. I read this just af­ter a friend told me about the dam­age a freak hail storm in Le­ices­ter­shire had caused on her land one June. Hail the size of golf balls had shot from the sky, smash­ing green­houses and dent­ing cars. It had de­stroyed a wood of young cherry and Sor­bus trees on a nearby nurs­ery. The bark of the trees was so marked, that the trees were un­fit for sale. Geral­dine’s re­marks – “for the last fort­night we have had lovely sum­mer weather – quite per­fect and the gar­den is look­ing lovely” in May and “the weather is ter­ri­bly wet and pre­vents one get­ting on with any­thing” in Septem­ber – sound fa­mil­iar to the mod­ern gar­dener. It is up to us as gar­den­ers, I find, to work with the weather, what­ever the con­di­tions. When I read that Geral­dine ar­rived at Palmer­ston House aged 22 from Lon­don, I won­dered how she would adapt to her new role as head of an es­tab­lished gar­den. She de­cided, it seems, to make her mark in the gar­den early on, even though she knew noth­ing about gar­den­ing. Geral­dine started with “chang­ing things just out­side the gar­den walls”. Then she bit the bul­let and moved the en­tire herba­ceous bor­der from un­der the shade of a yew hedge into the sun­light. She or­dered the plants; she planted young yew trees; and then she started to shape yew trees her­self, which was pretty much un­heard of at the time. This might have been why, in 1889, shortly af­ter her ar­rival, an H Burgess (a gar­dener) was dis­missed, and why his suc­ces­sor, Rus­sell, went the same way in 1890. Geral­dine ap­pears to have been highly de­ci­sive, and her style of work­ing was com­pat­i­ble only with cer­tain gar­den­ers. Ful­ford, who came af­ter Rus­sell, was quickly re­placed with Si­mon Doyle in 1893. Doyle, though, seemed to un­der­stand her pas­sion and re­mained her head gar­dener and friend un­til she died. She even in­cluded him in her will. While

Re­flec­tions: Lady Geral­dine Mayo, right; Palmer­ston House in Co Kil­dare, above; diary en­tries and il­lus­tra­tions, top

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