My Weekend with Rosemary
Sunday at 6:04, I hopped on a train at Petersfield station in Sussex headed back towards Surrey. The train was crowded as all kinds of people who were making their way back into London after a weekend away. And there I was, the strange American girl staring out the window with a silly grin on her face. I just simply couldn't shake the smile. I had Adele playing in my headphones and the countryside was whizzing past, but my mind was back on a little farmhouse in the village of Rogate.
I discovered Rosemary Alexander about a year ago on the second floor of the Architecture library at Auburn while I was writing my thesis. I actually held onto that book for so long that I had to leave it with a friend to return to the library when I left for England. oops.
So, here is the gist of why she is the coolest:
She was trained as a Landscape Architect in Scotland, worked for a few years designing in England, then founded the English Gardening School, which has produced some of the finest garden designers across the world. She not only fully grasps the power of good design, but can artfully execute her visions, while also being a phenomenal plantsman (plantswoman?). This is not a combination that is commonly found. I aspire to be just like her one day, compelling in design execution with exquisite plant choices bringing the vision to life. All that to say, I was thinking I might get to shake her hand if she was at a Royal Horticultural Society event and that our conversation would go a bit like this:
Me: "Hi Rosemary, I'm Molly and I really admire all that you have done to bridge the gap between horticulture and design."
Rosemary: "Well hello Molly, thank you! You are not from around here."
Me: "No, I am from the states, in Alabama."
Rosemary: "Which state is that?"
Me: "It's the state above Florida."
Rosemary: "Oh, yes Florida! I have been there before! Does it frost in Alabama?"
And then someone else who knows her would probably cut in and she would drift away into the crowd and that would have fulfilled all of my garden dreams (although she would probably never find out if Alabama gets frost).
But I could have never imagined that I would spend the weekend in her home helping in her garden and talking to her about her career and my own future aspirations as a horticulturalist and landscape architect. It is not often that people who are so well known are so generous with their time, but Rosemary is the exception. The story begins at her quaint farmhouse nestled into the Southern Downs that goes by the name of Sandhill Farm. When I arrived in my taxi, the garden was abuzz with preparations for its opening in a few hours. Each year, Rosemary opens her garden on three different weekends to the public to raise money for charity, and hundreds of people flock to her charming home. I walked in the back door into the kitchen where Rosemary was busy baking various bits for the garden visitors. She gave me the biggest hug and showed me to my room, where I quickly threw on my gardening boots. She pointed to where all the tools were kept and off into the garden I headed.
Peter is one of Rosemary's former students at the English Gardening School and a very devoted helper for her open garden weekends. As I crouched down to begin clipping back some of the dead foliage on some iris, he whizzed around the corner and told me to put down my tools and walk around the garden. He said that the iris could wait and that I was there to get to know Rosemary.
"Take a walk, her story is in the garden. And if you see a bench, sit on it." Then he disappeared.
So I decided I would take a quick spin around then return to the iris. I entered the garden through a small arch in a tall hedge. A wooden gate that rattled when I touched it slammed behind me and my eye was immediately drawn down the axis of the middle terrace. Its an immersive kind of dappled light: moist, green, with pops of color from the Japanese Anemone and lavender. I chose to follow a curving path to the right that leads into the woodland garden. The path is only about 18" wide, tucked between a hedge a some taller woodland shrubs. The ground is a matrix of woodland perennials. Through the wispy limbs of an understory tree I can see the front of the house. Each time I turn there is a new detail to notice. The boxwood framing the upper terrace is cloud pruned, still wild in nature yet hinting at an artist's hand. There is a small pond with lily pads and a tiny crack in the door to the potting shed, which doubles as an entrance to the back garden. I love that there is no ceremonial entrance, you pass through the working parts of the garden because the active creation of the garden is the story.
Popping out of the the potting shed and down a few steps I am immediately struck by the view out from the garden over the hedge, with rolling hills, lines of trees and patches of woodland in the distance. But my mind is quickly pulled away from the fields into Rosemary's vegetable garden, where its seems as if the fields in the distance have snuck through the hedge into the garden. And as if the beautiful pumpkins and tomatoes aren't enough to stop you in your tracks, there is an old apple tree drooping down over the gravel, hinting the autumn has arrived. My favorite spot was sneaking through some more anemones and popping out onto the back terrace where a long wooden table seamlessly brings the house out into the garden, and the garden into the everyday life. A large swath of lawn is lined with deeply colored borders. Before I run back to the irises I catch a glimpse of a chair out of the corner of my eye, so I run and sit in the chair so that I won't miss what Peter was wanting me to see.
The irises were, like Peter said, right where I left them.
Enter Tina... Rosemary's gardener. You can tell in her eyes how much she loves the garden, because they lit up when we were discussing how to prune the climbing hydrangea back. That kind of spirit is infectious, especially when it is coming from a former pathologist who decided to break out of the lab and find a second career in gardening.
Before the guests arrived we sat down at the table and had lunch. Rosemary told me how each opening comes in a whirlwind of preparations, but it is always worth it. I have found that people who truly love their garden are most excited to share it, and I could hear the anticipation in Rosemary's voice.
When guests began arriving Rosemary asked if we would begin pruning the dead out of some of the boxwoods the front garden. This meant that Tina and I were right there, with tarps laid down to catch the clippings, with buckets for the dead bits, and two of us huddled over the shrubs right as guests first entered the garden. This struck me at first as a bit odd... shouldn't we go somewhere, tucked away and work where none of the visitors would see us and the garden could be seen as a perfectly manicured work of art? No. I realized later that would be hiding such a vibrant part of what makes the garden at Sandhill so alive, so intriguing.
Sandhill isn't a garden that is frozen in time. It is always changing. Tina left work at the garden on Friday and returned on Saturday morning to discover that Rosemary had taken a truck into a nearby wood and hauled loads of stumps back to the garden to create a stumpery. It didn't matter that guests were arriving the next day and that it probably wouldn't be completely finished in time. What matters is that there is room for ideas to come to life. What matters is that although the boxwoods have box blight, we can clip out the dead and try again. What matters is that the garden is dynamic and always changing. What matters is that the garden is Rosemary's.
She knows every name and cultivar of every plant. She knows when things changed and why. And because she knows so much about a place that is so intertwined with her growth as a designer and horticulturalist, she cannot wait to share it. I think that we should all aspire to that in some way, because the world needs more people who share what they have been placed on this earth to love.
After all the guests had left, Peter took me on a walk through the fields across the river. The sun was setting over the South Downs, and Peter knows more about gardens than anyone I have ever met. He told me parts of history I had never heard, filled me in on the inner workings of the British garden world, and pointed at clumps of grass for me to jump to as I began sinking in a swamp. It was quite an adventure.
When I returned from my walk with Peter, Rosemary poured me a glass of wine and we sat up late in her living room talking about her career. She asked what landscape architects I admire, how I came to horticulture, and where I see myself going. I was honest with her, telling her that I really have no idea where I want to go, and that I feel as if there is some niche right there underlying all these things that keep bringing me back to the garden, but I just cannot quite make out what it is. She was silent for a second, then rubbed her eyes a bit, and I could see her mind racing back over all her years of experience in the garden design world. She told me she had no idea how she got where she is. She said if someone had told her years ago that she would have all the opportunities she has had, she would not have believed it. "I'm extremely lucky," she said.
We finished up dinner and Rosemary led me into her library where there where hundreds of garden books. She pulled a couple she thought I should read and told me not to stay up too late reading them. I walked up the stairs clutching the books like they were gold. As I tried to sleep I just kept hearing her words, I am extremely lucky, running through my head.
I do not think it is luck that has brought Rosemary all this way, to running a renown garden school, to writing books, to creating her masterpiece at Sandhill Farm. I have a hunch that it is taking each day that has been given, and in return, giving it all you've got. I could see that in the stories she told. It was her days of going to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden and teaching herself plant names before she changed careers. It was days of trying things she probably wasn't ready for, but did them anyway. It was days of doing something she loved, with no one noticing. It is lots of those days, all building one on top of another, until one day you turn around and the days are now years, and you are doing what you could have never dreamed of way back at the beginning of those days.
But it doesn't end there. What sets Rosemary apart is her warm generosity. She dedicates time to open her home to hundreds of visitors to experience her garden, to keeping up with former students and allowing them to play a role in the garden, to giving a pathologist a chance to find a career she loves, to inviting an aspiring designer from Alabama into her home for the weekend. And... those were just the people there on this one weekend. No it isn't luck that has allowed her to do all she has done, its a whole lot of hard work blended with a whole lot of giving. I aspire to be Rosemary one day. Someone who learns a craft, and then with open arms shares that craft with others.
Since I have returned from my weekend at Sandhill Farm, I have realized that the garden really is Rosemary herself. Honest, beautiful, always changing. The garden isn't the same each day as it changes with each new idea, each new season, each new challenge. But, the garden always has something to give, no matter what the circumstance. I think the reason I couldn't smack the smile off my face on the train home was that I had experienced a person and a place that were so deeply intertwined that the beauty of both fed into an understanding of the other.
And although it was just one weekend with Rosemary, I feel as if I gained something that will last a lifetime.