"To sum up the present conditions of the garden; climate, soil, and trees contrive to make it the driest and hungriest in Great Britain, and therefore arises the line of gardening I have been driven into. It is perhaps better described as collecting plants and endeavouring to keep them alive, than as gardening for beautiful effects or the production of prize-winning blossoms".
Thus wrote E A Bowles in the first of his gardening trilogy 'My Garden in Spring', first published in 1914. There could be no better summing up of his life's work at Myddelton House and his involvement with the wider world of horticulture and its other well-known exponents.
The oldest plants in the garden are a line of yews, considered by many to be older than the river which itself dates from 1609. He credits his great-grandmother, Ann Garnault, with the planting of specimen trees such as a Swamp Cypress, but wrote that subsequent generations planted more "arboreal garotters" such as Sycamore and Horse Chestnut which Bowles set about gradually eliminating. Until his father's death in 1918, he was gardening "in my father's garden" and felt obliged to moderate his own preferences. Although the cut of the New River ran through the garden, it had been so well built, that there was no seepage to aid the surrounding area and he complained of "dragging it up in fat, lumpy water-cans". As to its quality, he complained it was so hard "it would be scarcely a miracle to walk on it".
No plant was too humble to excite Bowles' interest and he was always alert to the possibility of a variegated leaf or double flower suddenly appearing. His plants came from many sources, including those collected on plant-hunting trips, plants and cuttings given him by friends and contacts, those purchased from nurserymen and seed of various origin. His overriding aim was always to give the plant the best chance of survival, and so he created areas where those of a similar type could be grouped together irrespective of country of origin, botanical family or floral effect. Some of these areas he gave names above and beyond the usual "rock garden" or "alpine meadow". The area where he planted his variegated specimens he named "Tom Tiddler's Ground" having noted the general appearance was of gold and silver. This was a reference to the children's game, where a nominated "Tom Tiddler" tries to protect his "ground" from other children trying to steal his "gold". Those plants that exhibited strange variations, such as the Corkscrew Hazel and Plymouth Strawberry, he gathered together in his "Lunatic Asylum" and referred to these plants as "his maniacs".
While not being generally in favour of bedding plants, he did like to "bed out" pot grown plants such as Canna and Abutilon. These were usually placed by sinking the pots among other hardier permanent plants. One area that was regularly planted out was the Tulip Terrace alongside the river. A party to celebrate Bowles' May birthday often coincided with flowering time and became known as the "Tulip Tea". This is still planted out with formal bedding today.
In addition to the plants he introduced to the garden, he collected many items of stonework and paving from other properties in the area that were being demolished.He rescued the market cross from Enfield Town and placed it centrally in his rose garden. One of the most interesting items was an old brick pillar from Gough Park which was of an unusual diamond shape in cross- section. Bowles had a wall added to this single pillar, in much the same way as the legendary Irishman who asked for a shirt to be added to the button he possessed. The area by the wall was thereafter known as "The Irishman's Shirt".
Unable to plant aquatics in the New River, as he claimed officials from the Water Board would not permit it, Bowles developed a small lake from puddled clay and planted the margins with what he termed the "more easily grown" fringe plants. He enjoyed watching the moorhens who nested there, but had harsh words for the water voles that damaged Phormiums and shrubs. He welcomed the Bowles Boys into his garden and one task they much enjoyed was wading into the lake to help clear out over-exuberant plants; in some years a reward came in the chance to skate on the lake. Often they helped with other tasks such as sorting crocus corms and scrubbing the yew trees to make the bark shine.
As well as allowing the Boys the run of the garden and use of the fishing rods and cricket bats, he was unfailingly generous to visitors who admired any of the plants they saw. His vast knowledge and expertise led many other well-known gardening figures to visit Myddelton House. He had an old gardening fork which he had cut down to two tines so as to create as little disturbance as possible to plants when lifting them. He hated to see any interested visitor go away empty handed. An example of his special fork is now on display in the Bowles Corner of the RHS Garden at Wisley and copies are also on sale in the Myddelton Gardens Visitors Centre .
The cultivation difficulties that Bowles experienced in his lifetime in the garden have to some extent changed. For example the London fogs and soot he complained of are no longer a feature, but the proximity to housing development and main roads has brought new problems. The current owners of the garden, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, are maintaining the garden as far as possible in the style of Bowles. He would have agreed that many of the plants he was writing about in his books were not grown successfully in the long term and would no doubt have replaced them with others more suited to the conditions. The branch of the New River has been filled in, but most of the specific areas he developed are still in place. His extensive rock garden is no longer there, but the alpine meadow is a beautiful sight in spring and demented plants still inhabit his "Lunatic Asylum". Visitors to the garden remark on the delightful informal atmosphere and the opportunity to enjoy plants in as natural a setting as possible, just as he would have wished.
'Tulip Terrace in 1935 showing the
New River to the left'
'Tulip Terrace as it was planted later'
'The lake viewed from the House'