Although Holehird Gardens in Windermere, Cumbria, enjoys a healthy reputation in Britain (it holds four national collections: Astilbe, Polystichum, Daboecia, and Meconopsis), had Cindy Ravenhall not mentioned it to me in a casual conversation about her flourishing front yard garden, I would have left the Lake District with associations only of Beatrix Potter, Wordsworth, and Chester’s closed cake shop in Ambleside. But thanks to Cindy we had the opportunity to visit a perfect complement to the small, personal gardens of the previous post.
Holehird is not huge. It is about 10 acres, not including the Holehird Mansion, which was built in the mid-19th century and serves today as a home for the disabled. The garden was developed by successive owners in late 19th century and then by landscape architect Thomas Mawson at the turn of the 20th century. There are, however, records of a garden at Holehird, dating from 1635 when the Thomas Hird family owned part of the land. But what stood out most to me is not its size, its history, or even its national status as one of the favorite gardens in Britain. What stood out and continues to stand out in my mind is that since 1969, it has been expanded, developed, supported, maintained, and run entirely by volunteers of the Lakeland Horticultural Society. There is something extremely impressive—and inspiring—in the dedication of the Society’s members to the flora of the Lake District and to the artful celebration of horticulture in concert with the environmental conditions of the area. But there is also something haunting about privilege in it—privilege of resource, of discretionary time, of environment, of cultural value. Nonetheless, it is a magnificent accomplishment: pristine, expertly designed and planted for seasonal color, and well-supported with plant identificantion.
The figurative center of Holehird is the walled Victorian garden. Rich with narcissi,
delphinium, hellebores, hostas, and flowering vines, the wall beds are judiciously planted to take advantage of their facing direction. The island beds are kaleidoscopic displays of daylilies, crocosmia, agapanthus, allium, dahlias, and more. But the dahlias stole the mid-summer show, in part because they had been planted to weave the four main island beds together with repetition that was anything but redundant. Their diversity in flower forms and shades provided a wonderful paradox of consistency and change. Their colors, both in bloom
and leaf, their size, and their variety moved me to plans of early spring plantings at Highland Lake. In fact, their bed is now made. I just need to watch how much sun it gets—and find the greatest variety of dahlia tubers I can that will weather the Alabama summer.
The standout in the upper garden, which included roses, heathers, rhododendrons, and evergreens, is the National Collection of Astilbe. This land-cloud of pink, white, and purple gave pause and serious consideration to just what wonders the Cambrian soil might contain. Another impressive display of color marks the edge of the lower garden. The hydrangea beds were once a national collection, as well, but are now called a Holehird Collection.
What I am likely to remember the longest about Holehird, though, has nothing to do with any of its plantings. While at the Botanical Garden in Rome in 2016, I took a picture of the unlabeled flower that serves as the cover for the poetry section of After Eden. For over a year I could not identify it. However, while in Oxford before going to the Lake District, I passed by St. Giles Church, and there in its very small, dry, and unkempt garden by the church’s south wall was the same flower—in a significantly more urban-worn condition. I took a quick phone-photo figuring that if the plant were there in Oxford, somebody might know what it is. Unfortunately, used book store owners and guest house proprietors I showed it to did not. Still, I took a chance at the reception desk at Holehird. The woman behind the counter, with carefully curled white hair, smart gray attendant’s smock, and the lovely self-assured female voice I have become accustomed to in some English classes, politely said “no,” she did not know what the flower is and regrettable it definitely was not to be found in the Garden, but something about it looked familiar. In the easy movement of accustomed action, she pulled a sizable plant compendium from beneath the counter. Then, despite my protests of misuse of her time, she began methodically scanning its pages, beginning with the white blooms. It is Rowen camassias, common name, tree poppy.
Gardeners can be wonderfully generous people. I am embarrassed and disappointed in myself that I did not asked her for her name.
© Susan K. Hagen and After Eden, 2017