Sowing the seeds of history

PUBLISHED: 14:27 23 September 2013 | UPDATED: 15:20 23 September 2013

Sarah Cook's irises

Sarah Cook's irises


Lucy Redman visits the garden of Sarah Cook and Jim Marshall, whose shared love of all things horticultural has sustained their partnership over a quarter of a century

Sarah Cook's gardenSarah Cook's garden

Driving down a very narrow lane four miles from Hadleigh I come upon Sarah Cook’s and Jim Marshall’s barn conversion. The house is nestling behind a lovely deep border of hollyhocks, bronze fennel and purple salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) with its pale purple flowers and giant dandelion-like seedheads.

Plants spring out of everywhere – I am in heaven! Roses adorn the rustic trelliswork and a rather choice Stachys lavandulifolia (Pink Cotton Lambs Ears) that I had never seen before was flowering on the edge of the border. It comes from Turkey and has fine leaves and woolly calyxes, which catch the light and give the plant a pink glow. It is apparently used for many health problems such as anxiety and may have helped with Sarah’s and Jim’s worry over whether the Malmaison carnations would be in bloom perfectly for Hampton Court!

Sarah was brought up in Suffolk and went to boarding school, which was followed by university at Cambridge where her geography degree – which included soil science and also the research element – was intellectually rigorous. It helped to train her to be very fastidious and thorough, both useful qualities when she later became the National ☞
☞Collection Holder of Sir Cedric Morris’s Benton End Iris.

Her horticultural career started with a position at Glynn Estate, near Bodmin and in her late 20s she secured a job at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the herbaceous department.

Sarah Cook and Jim MarshallSarah Cook and Jim Marshall

Her first spell at the magnificent National Trust gardens of Sissinghurst in Kent was in 1984, which she left for Upton House in 1988 only to return as head gardener and latterly head gardener and property manager between the years of 1991 and 2004. Sissinghurst was created by the great author, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West. Her beautiful romantic garden is full of wonderful roses, perennials and plenty of tall yew hedging which create the dividing structure for the colour themed rooms.

Sarah met Jim Marshall whilst at Sissinghurst when he was gardens adviser to the National Trust for 25 years. Jim’s family backround was in farming. They came down from Scotland to East Anglia and Jim went to school in Essex. He pursued his interest in horticulture, gaining his National Diploma at The Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, in London Parks, Hidcote and Cheshire Agricultural College. His field of expertise for the National Trust was in apprenticeship training and he has carried on this interest at LANTRA (Land based and Environmental Industries) where he is a trustee and chair of the horticultural committee. Both Jim and Sarah are passionate about encouraging horticulture in schools because, as Sarah says, “Gardeners are extremely undervalued”.

When Jim and Sarah took early retirement and moved to Suffolk, Christine Mole of Plant Heritage came to inspect Jim’s rehoused National Collection of Malmaison Carnations. She asked Sarah what she was going to do and Sarah replied laughingly “I’m going to collect Sir Cedric Morris Iris introductions!” And so the next chapter of her life began.

Sir Cedric Morris (1869-1982) had been a famous painter and horticulturalist, who lived at Benton End, Benton Street, Hadleigh. He was a pioneer in hand-pollinating, selecting plants for good form, structure, elegance – easily chosen with his painter’s eye – and freedom from disease. In 1949 he received the Foster Memorial plaque, the highest award made by the British Iris Society. He was a great influence on Beth Chatto and Vita Sackville-West and Sarah remembers going to his garden in the 1950s as a child while her mother helped with Red Cross teas on garden open days.

Sarah Cook's irises -Benton ApolloSarah Cook's irises -Benton Apollo

But it was while at Sissinghurst that Sarah fell in love with the old fashioned shapes of the Benton Irises. As she says, they fit into a traditional English garden much better than the “flouncy, frilly new irises,” which, she claims, are a result of masterful breeding. “Great for the show bench but not the garden.”

I love the names Cedric chose for some of the irises – Benton Menace (a beautiful purple) and Baggage, after two of his cats, and Benton Rubeo, named after his macaw on his shoulder, which Sarah is still trying to track down, Benton Cordelia, a milky mauve, which took the iris show by storm in 1953, and Benton Farewell, named after his death as “a modest tribute to a great man”.

Unlike Sarah’s irises, Jim’s Malmaison Carnations (Dianthus) are a real challenge to grow – prone to viruses, red spider mite in summer and damping off in winter – but the reward of their heavy clover scent is a joy to behold. As Jim’s gold medal winning display (and best exhibit in marquee) at Hampton Court this year showed, these are Edwardian flowers, grown for their strong scent in walled garden greenhouses. They were used as cut flowers for country houses until the Second World War. A vase of Malmaisons showed the owner’s social and economic position in life to guests visiting for shooting or the races.

Today they are used in Edwardian National Trust properties as a nice historical link. They were also one of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s favourite flowers. Originally bred in France in 1857, and because of their quartered flowers looking similar to the bourbon rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, they were named Malmaison Carnations.

Jim has been on a one-man mission since he set up his national collection to bring these beautiful flowers back into fashion. There were 40 cultivars in its heyday and sadly now only five remain with two new introductions.

Sadly they only live two years but Jim takes cuttings that are sent to a laboratory in Dundee to initiate roots and returned in gel. These are later potted from plugs into 7cm pots using peat free compost similar to New Horizon, and then sold. The trick is not to overfeed, so tomato feed (high in potash) is used once flowers come.

Jim has introduced two cultivars, which come from sports (morphological changes) occurring in his collection – Lady Windermere in 2005, a sport of Princess of Wales with a deep pink flake on pale pink backround and highly scented, and James Muir – named after his grandfather who dealt in antique furniture.

Latest from the EADT Suffolk Magazine