Archive for the 'Gardening and the Out-of-Doors' Category

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Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne – Como House

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne - Como House

Last week I was overcome with excitement when my copy of Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Garden Management – the art of gardening arrived in the post – finally! The tricky thing is that this Wordsworth Reference Series book doesn’t let you know when it was first published or reprinted.  It does own up to being newly type-set in 2008. So should I assume that it is abridged?

I’ve never heard Mrs Beeton’s name associated with a gardening book. I have seen reference to a Mr Beeton’s gardening guide. Doing some googling I found that Mr S.O. Beeton published this book in 1861. So now I’m not sure which book I actually have?

On the plus side this book does have one very long article on the usefulness of the Dutch Hoe. Be advised do not operate heavy machinery while reading this coma-inducing quote.

The Dutch Hoe, or Scuffle, as it is sometimes called, is shown at A. It consists of a sharp and comparatively narrow blade, attached to the socket by two arms, which spring from the lower end of the latter, and are fastened at their extremities to the blade, one on one side and one on the other. The blade of the hoe being thus attached forms an angle with the handle, and by means is almost parallel to the surface of the soil when in use. The edge is thrust into the earth with a pushing motion and cuts up the weeds, which, with the surface soil, pass through the aperture between the arms.  By this arrangement the tool meets with far less resistance, and the labour is rendered far lighter than it would be if the opening was closed, or even if the socket for the handle proceeded immediately from the centre of the blade.

The mysterious and legendary Dutch Hoe

As we know the Beetons were editing or compiling these books from many other uncredited sources rather than writing them. This gardening book like BOHM is a grab bag of articles from horticultural magazines, journals and pamphlets. This led me to wonder about the reliability of this book as a text for explaining how the Victorians gardened. Was this the kind of book that you owned rather than used? Certainly it is likely to be a reference book that came out to the colonies but does it capture gardening in Australia in the Victorian era? Australia has such a radically different climate to the Mother Country.  In other words have I been barking up the wrong tree?

Como House - Living in very grand style in colonial Melbourne

While I try to find some Australian gardening reference books I decide to visit Como House in inner-city Melbourne. This amazing house was built in 1847 and is still furnished with its original period furniture and boasts a vegetable garden – hazar!

Apart from being stonking enormous it really has a very plain exterior or I guess elegant depending on your point of view. It actually looks more like an English Regency house than a English Victorian country mansion. The family that built this house were extremely rich owning some 1 million acres of sheep farms across Victoria – baa! It seems unlikely that lack of money was the barrier to a  full flowering of fanciness in architecture.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside due to the low lighting that they use to conserve all the soft furnishings. Have a look at their gallery if you are interested.  I was however allowed to take as many photo’s as I wanted in the laundry – very happy!

The laundry outhouse at Como

So by way of an update to my earlier post exploring Victorian laundries here is the real thing.

The devices on the window sill are for ironing crimps into fabric and lace.

In the back left hand corner is a wood fired copper in the corner. Just to the right of the copper is a black iron stove for heating Flat Irons.

Stove for heating irons.

This laundry would have been a hot and steamy spot. It does at least have high ceilings and lots of doors and big opening windows. So not as bad as it could be – still I bags working out in the garden rather than in the laundry as a Washer Woman. I do love the old shabbiness of this room!

A green winding mangle just like Grandma used to use.

That’s probably enough laundry porn.

The kitchen was really unbelievably basic which is surprising as it was the kitchen they used right through until the 1960′s when they sold the house to the National Trust.

The benches in the kitchen were all low; about mid thigh in height.  I’m 165 cm (5ft 6 in) and I would have had to stoop down uncomfortably to use them. The tour guide said this was evidence of how short people were during this era – I don’t know – this would make them very very small indeed.

The scullery seemed cramped for catering to such a large household so maybe they used more of the outdoor space around kitchen than just the indoors? This would be a good solution apart from the flies.

Scullery - not the Queen's

Unfortunately the 5 acres of garden remaining around the house are a legacy of the the 1920′s. The vegetable garden is a recreation of a garden planted by the Mistress of the house in 1925 and uses varieties that were available in Melbourne between the wars.

The 1925 Vegetable Garden with chicken coop but no Art Deco stylings

A little disappointing for me as I was hoping to see how Victorian-Melburnians grew their vegetables. While my time traveling experiment wasn’t entirely successful I have since found one fabulous book and a lead on another.

Remembered Gardens – Eight women & their visions of an Australian landscape by Holly Kerr Forsyth is a wonderful read. Forsyth states that

“Gardens created in the colonies during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) displayed all the plants popular in Britain.  In towns and cities, front gardens of the less wealthy continued to feature circular and oval beds surrounded by upturned rock or glazed tiles…Gardens of the wealthier settlers now featured edging of Box, introduced to the colony in about 1828, and even carriage circles. A typical front garden for a large Victorian terrace house might have a parterre of box hedges encasing standard roses.”

So nothing yet specifically about the vegetable gardens but it is likely that Melburnians were using the same vegetable seeds as the English.  To confirm this I need to track down an 1858 publication called Brunning’s Australian Gardener. More time travel maybe required!

Artichoke flowers at Como

Tonight we Celebrate like it’s 1888!

Tonight we Celebrate like it's 1888!

January is Stone Fruit season in Southern Australia. First the cherries are ready for Christmas then plums ripen, then peaches and finally apricots and nectarines. At this time of the year the Head Gardener would be busy ensuring that fruit was sent up to the kitchen for turning into jam and preserves just before ripening. This highlights that good communication between the kitchen and garden was important to ensure that the cook got a heads-up from the Head Gardener as fruit began to ripen.  It would certainly make the Cooks life easier to get on well with the Head Gardener.

As choice as the peaches but delivered in a fair quantity were dark red Morello cherries.  Harry had picked these from two fan-trained trees spread against the north wall of the garden. Old recipes spoke of having the stalk half cut, but Harry followed his training, delivering them to the kitchen minus any stalk at all.  It was a gentlemanly gesture that gardeners of the past always made to housekeepers who preserved Morellos, for leaving the ‘strings’ on the tree and removing just the cherries saved the housekeeper’s fingers from being soiled.

The Victorian Kitchen 1989

Keeping the garden watered daily would be the other major task as rainfall begins to decline and temperatures rise as we head into February.

Picking delicate fruit like peaches would have been an important task for the Head Gardener.  They are really difficult to pick without bruising once they are ripe.

Peaches and nectarines, once they gave off that certain ‘translucence’ Harry associated with ripeness, were cupped in the hand and given a slight twist.  Coming away from the stalk easily they were turned over and placed on padded trays.

The Victorian Kitchen Garden 1987

Peaches ripening in the sun.

I tried to remember this advice as I picked peaches for tonight’s dessert.  If you use your finger tips like I tend to do you end up with big bruises on your peaches; you really do need to cup them carefully.

As today the 26th of January is Australia Day we are have a fancy dinner to celebrate our day off work.  My contribution to the spread is dessert.  I’m going to make a Victorian peach dessert that is a big favourite in my family – Peach Melba.

Peach Melba

Peach Melba was invented in 1892 by the french chef Escoffier in celebration of the Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba’s performance of Lohengrin at Covent Garden in London.  Melba was born in Melbourne Australia and is probably our only international Victorian era celebrity (here is a link to Melba singing Sempre Libera which I recommend you listen too while simmering peaches – she sounds a little like she is being boiled herself!).

Escoffier’s original receipe for Peach Melba is really easy to make. Peach halves are boiled in water for about 2 minutes, one peach per person.

Simmering peaches

Once the peaches are removed from the water it is easy to slip off their skins and remove the stone.  They are then drained, sprinkled with caster sugar and left to cool.

Make raspberry sauce by pushing a cup full of raspberries through a fine sieve to remove their seeds. Add caster sugar to sweeten the raspberry puree to taste.

Scrunch berries through sieve.

To serve place scoops of vanilla ice cream in a dish, add two peach halves and then pour over raspberry puree.


In order to make this an authentic Escoffier dish you need to serve this in individually carved ice swans but this has never happened in my household. Escoffier recommends serving in a silver dish if your swan carver is on holiday.

There are heaps of versions of this recipe on the internet and most of them boil the peaches in sugar syrup.  This is OK if you like sweet peaches.  I prefer Escoffier’s original recipe because I like the tart peaches with the sweet ice cream and tart-ish raspberry.

It must be possible to make this dessert look really elegant but I find mine always looks like a train smash!  This is not up to Victorian standard but still tastes extremely yummy.

A Buttonhole for Australia Day

On the 26th of January 1888 all the colonies of Australia celebrated ‘Anniversary Day’ for the very first time. This date marked the 100th anniversary of the First Fleet arriving at Sydney Cove and the beginning of colonial Australia. In 1888 the colony of Victoria (the State where I live) was only 50 years old.  The separate colonies of Australia did not come together as a federation until 1 January 1901 only 21 days before the end of Victoria’s reign.

In modern Australia we celebrate (possibly too strong a word) Australia Day with a national public holiday, a day off work and a barbeque. It is a Nationalists festival that we have become somewhat embarrassed about as our indigenous country men and women refer to the day as ‘Invasion Day’. Back in 1888 colonialism was still cool, Victoria was on her throne and all was right with the World.

I decided this morning that in order to capture some of that 1888 gusto we would have buttonholes to wear at dinner tonight and that the appropriate buttonholes for today would be made of only Australian native plants.

Australia Day Buttonhole

Slim pickings in the garden so we have two identical buttonholes for the Master and Mistress. They are made from Pittosporum and Plectranthus leaves which both last very well out of water.  The small white flowers are Lemon- scented Teatree which smells delicious.  The purple berries are the fruits from the Flax Lilly which I think would look really nice as a hair decoration; these berries are edible and a great favourite of our chickens.

The final word goes to Melba our diva long before Kylie singing an appropriately smultzy and patriotic “No place like home“.  Happy Anniversary Day folks!

Lavender and Great-Grandma’s Laundry

Lavender and Great-Grandma's Laundry

It’s a hot hot summer’s day here in Melbourne, Australia, and in a fashion entirely inappropriate to the position of Under Gardener, I’m in my back yard drinking Pimm’s and Lemonade while harvesting Lavender.

Lavender is widely quoted as one of Queen Victoria’s and hence the Victorian era’s favorite scents.

It is generally known that the Queen is a great believer in Lavender as a disinfectant, and that she is not at all singular in her faith in this plant… The royal residences are strongly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old-fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better than Lavender-water, which, together with the oil for disinfecting purposes, Her Majesty has direct from a lady who distills it herself.” Fragrant Flowers, 1895.

I love growing lavender.  It thrives in our Mediterranean climate and does very well in the free-draining sandy soil in my backyard.  To keep it flowering well I make sure it doesn’t get too dry on hot sunny days. I give each bush a light pruning after I have removed the flower spikes for drying. The pruning helps to keep the bush from getting leggy and in some years encourages a second flush of flowers. Bonus!

Lavender ready for harvest

Victorian Head Gardeners were responsible for harvesting the lavender spikes and tying them into paper cones for drying.  The drying, processing or distillation of the lavender then fell into the domain of the Housekeeper who managed the Still Room with her maids.

I dry my lavender in the same way by hanging the paper cones of flowers in a dry dark spot in my laundry.  It only takes a week to dry in warm weather.  Hanging the flower spikes upside-down also helps to keep the spikes straight which is useful if you are going to use them in dried flower arrangements.

The Victorian House Keeper would place bags of dried lavender flowers amongst stores of linen to perfume the cloth and help prevent attack by Clothes Moths.  My Mum’s Mum, my Nanna, told me that her mother Susan (a Victorian Country Woman ) keep a lavender bush by her clothes line on which she draped her favorite pocket handkerchiefs to dry and pick up the scent of lavender.

Dried lavender, Lavender Bag and Reckitts Blue Bag

I’ve often wondered how women in my family, during the Victorian Period, managed life in the newly settled State of Victoria in Australia.  It’s very easy to find information about the daily life of the ‘big English Victorian house’ but very difficult to find out about the lives of people such as my Great-Grandmother living in rural Australia.  What I know about her is from snatches of stories passed down from Nanna to me. The same is true for my father’s family who, by contrast, lived in an inner Melbourne working class suburb from the mid-Victorian era to the 1980′s.  Stories I do have about my Great-Grandmothers relate mostly to domestic chores and, surprisingly, to how they did their laundry!

The house built by my paternal Great-Grandfather still had its original corrugated-iron lean-to laundry when I was a small girl.  I remember my Grandma boiling sheets in a copper cauldron and then helping her to wring them out through an old winding mangle.  It seems amazing to me now, as I stuff another load of clothes into the front loader, that basically Victorian laundry techniques were still in place in Melbourne in the early 1970′s!

Grandma standing by laundry in mid 1960's

Mrs Beeton outlines the duties for a Laundry-Maid in paragraph 2372 of BOHM. There is another great description of Victorian laundry practice in the novel Lark Rise to Candleford written by Flora Thompson describing her life in late 19th century Oxfordshire.  She explains how the clothes were laundered every two weeks by a visiting Laundry Woman.  Flora explains that washing the clothes this infrequently showed that a family had enough money to afford enough clothes to wait that long between washes (when I don’t get to the laundry this week – this is how I plan to sell it).  Neither of my Great-Grandmas were affluent enough to send laundry out or hire help in.  I can’t imagine what a thankless task it was to boil clothes clean in a hot Melbourne summer – blah!

I am really interested in the idea of ‘blueing’ that both Beeton and Thompson described.  This is the practice of putting a light temporary blue dye in the rinse water for white linen to make it appear whiter. Today washing powder contains sophisticated optical whitening chemicals so the use of blue or Fig blue as Beeton calls it is rare.  So does it work?

When discussing this with my Mum she found that she still had some of Nanna’s Reckitt’s Blue bags in the laundry and was happy to give me a couple to experiment with.  Here are the results.

Using a Washboard to clean hankies - very tedious!

Dunking the 'Blue' tea-bag fashion in the rinse water.

Rinsed one in clean water and one in the blue rinse.

Hmmm - the one on the right was blued. Is it whiter?

I discovered that using a washboard is extremely tiresome. Washing an entire household’s laundry this way would give you the shoulders of an olympic swimmer. It did eventually get the dirt out.  I used an Australian washing detergent from the Victorian era that my Great-Grandmothers would have made from scratch using this recipe.  It is free of whitening agents and available ready made in Australia today.  I remember grating soap on a cheese grater for my Grandma when she was making a batch – it still smells like my childhood to me.

Then I dunked the bag of Blue into the rinse water until the water was a pale blue in colour.

It is difficult to see in the photos that I’ve taken but the Hanky dunked in the blue rinse looked blue at first rather than white.

Opinions in this household vary but I really couldn’t see a difference between the blued hanky and the other one.  It could be that the bluing works more effectively on older linen that tends to yellow as it ages.  I might try again if I find a piece of old fabric.

I guess this has strayed a long way out of the territory of the Under Gardener.

So bringing this discussion back to the garden.  My Grandmothers, as their Mothers did, loved the scent of lavender and kept bags of dried lavender with their hankerchiefs.  Grandma used lavender water to spray linen while ironing to help remove wrinkles and scent her sheets (ironing sheets seems unnecessary but I think this was one of her little luxuries). I like growing lavender as it is a plant that connects me to the women in my family and back to my Great-Grandma’s laundry rituals.

If you feel inspired to try Lavender Water here is a modern version of the Victorian Recipe for Lavender Water that I use at home.

Lavender Water

100ml (4 fl oz) Vodka

10 drops Lavender Oil

500ml (17 fl oz) Water

Add all ingredients to a Pint Spray Bottle and shake to mix.  It will keep indefinitely.  Spray it around the house to kill odours, on ironing for smoothing or keep some in the fridge to spray on you on hot days. It is also fairly good at killing the ‘wet dog smell’ on woollens that have got damp in winter.

Just be-careful not to use it as a cocktail mixer by mistake!

A Buttonhole for the New Year

A Buttonhole for the New Year

One of the tasks of the Victorian Head Gardener was to grow all the flowers ‘the big house’ would need throughout the year.  One of the reasons why I think these Gardeners were awesomely talented, given the Victorian love of all that is floral, is that this was a mammoth task.  Head Gardeners had to master the fairly tricky production of flowers, fruit and vegetables on a commercial scale and they had to provide staff to arrange all the flowers for the house on a daily basis or do it themselves.  To add an extra degree of difficulty to their work schedule they also provided the Master with daily floral buttonholes for his lapel and the Mistress with garlands for her dress and floral head-dresses as required.  Victorian Head Gardeners invented the art and profession of Floristry.

I’ve never really grown flowers for decoration, so this is a whole new area for me to explore and an appropriate task for an Under Gardener to be studying.  To celebrate the New Year I decided to start with something small. I had thought about decorating a table in Victorian fashion but I feel that that is something to work towards for the next Australian spring.  I plan to pace myself with the floristry.

For inspiration and instruction I watched the wonderful Harry Dodson of the BBC’s ‘The Victorian Flower Garden’.  Harry and Peter Thoday are going to be my principle guides through the year ahead as I try to master some of the more technical aspects of Victorian gardening.  If you watch the clip you will see that Harry explains how to make buttonholes in the last few minutes.

Here are my efforts:

Buttonholes ready to present to the Butler and Lady's Maid.

On the left, the buttonhole for him, is a Lemon Geranium Leaf, Sage Leaves, Lavender and Nasturtium flower.

On the right, for her, a Pineapple Sage leaf, Thai Basil flower spikes and a Native Hibiscus flower.  I think the cotton I used was too big, I tried sewing cotton but that was too fine to get a hold of, so for future projects I need to find the ‘Bass’ that Harry refers to or maybe ‘Rafia’ if is was around in the Victorian era.

My sister-in-law obviously has psychic abilities as she bought me a fabulous book, ‘The Head Gardeners – Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture’ by Toby Musgrave, for Christmas.  Musgrave explains that the Head Gardener and the Butler along with the Cook were on an equal footing in the pecking order of a household.  This could lead to difficulties over buttonholes as in some households the Butler would collect the flowers and make the arrangement and in others it was solely the Head Gardener’s responsibility.   Depending on personalities this could be fraught territory.

I’m not sure what the Victorians would make of these combinations.  It seems that any Head Gardener worth his salt would know his Masters preferences and would need to juggle preference with availability in the garden probably planning ahead for special occasions. Both of my buttonholes were very aromatic which I know the Victorian’s would have approved of.  The Victorians invented a ‘Language of Flowers‘ in which any arrangement of flowers would have a particular coded meaning.  Red roses for ‘love’ and rosemary for ‘remembrance’ are probably the only modern survivors of that custom.  I remember reading a beautiful Kate Greenaway book on the subject as a child.  I think working out what the arrangement needed to ‘say’ would have been outside the scope of the Head Gardener’s role – I imagine that if particular flowers were called for this would have been the realm of the Butler or Lady’s Maid to arrange and communicate.

Anyway we enjoyed wearing them for dinner and my husband thought he could get the hang of having one for special occasions.  I don’t think I or my garden could manage daily buttonholes but I like the idea of making them throughout the year.  I may even progress to making a full arrangement for a lady’s dress. Yikes!