Have Garden, will Travel – Steffie Shields

On Tuesday 17th May we had good sized socially-distanced audience including a several new members to welcome our speaker Steffie Shields, an accomplished writer, speaker, garden photographer and historic landscape consultant, talking to us primarily about the several house and garden moves she has made over the duration of her long marriage to a gentleman in the Royal Airforce.   Naturally her talk was titled ‘have garden, will travel’ and so she did …
The trouble with moving so many times is that she had little chance to put down plans for planting schemes and see them develop, therefore she had to adapt to what was left by the previous occupants, knowing that in possibly a couple of years’ time, she would be moving on to pastures new. There was little point in investing in expensive purchases at garden centres, buying a greenhouse or a shed. For the most part, a packet of seeds and cuttings from previous gardens or planting in pots were the best solution. 

Life in the Airforce started in Bentley Priory, near Stanmore in London. Steffi mentioned she had a particular liking for blue and yellow coloured flowers, which of course are representative of Airforce colours. She mentioned that in almost every garden they had a periwinkle and additionally they had an abundance of feverfew. Their married quarters consisted of an old house with metal framed windows. There she learned to do plant portraiture and foxgloves were her first attempt in this field. As a tip to budding photographers, Steffi advises that photography is best done on bright, cloudy days when the light is even. 

Highly recommended is the Anthemis Cupaniana (an evergreen perennial with fine silver frothy foliage and an abundance of daisy like flowers). This is one that Steffi replanted in various gardens. Also highly versatile and a ‘good doer’ are the Primula Wonders, which Steffi said she took on her travels – easy to move and divide. 

From Bentley Priory to Bradenham Beeches near High Wycombe (now closed as an RAF base), and then shortly afterward to Northumberland. In the north of England Steffi found her rather windy overgrown garden had at least one peace rose and many other roses besides. She took cuttings here from various existing shrubs and within 2 years they proved their worth. Steffi mentioned an outstanding nearby garden which she visited, Howick Gardens and this comes highly recommended, where the owner had the foresight to plant a wild meadow effect in the 1980s. 

At nearby Alnwick, Steffi discovered Capability Brown and embarked on compiling a photographic archive of his landscapes, which after some 20 years culminated in her book, “Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.”

Back to Stanmore in London during a heatwave, she was nervous about the move and the effect of the weather on her plant pots, which indeed survived. There she had a barbed wire fence in places which she did her best to disguise with climbers. A friend had given her a lavatera cutting and within only 2 years this had grown to a promising, sizeable shrub. Ground cover was welcomed in the form lamium, which is more interesting for its foliage than the flowers. 

There then followed a spell in Aberdeen, the north east of Scotland, situated on the cliff and near a power station. A surprise came in the form of an abundance of autumn crocus which appeared out of nowhere. Next stop was Lincolnshire where at the age of 50, Steffi planted a tree in the garden for the first time, a silver birch.  There she found it hard to make a feature and used pots to good effect. After that they settled in their own property near Grantham, which has been a project over the last 20 years or so. Her hero or inspirational gardener, if I can call him that, and mentioned at various times, was Geoff Hamilton of Gardener’s World fame in the 1980s and 1990s. 

As Steffi said, she no longer has an appetite to move homes and her talk might be better titled, ‘have garden, did travel. 

Our next speaker, on 21st June 2022, will be garden historian Russell Bowes speaking on A Portrait of a Victorian Garden. Members and visitors are warmly invited.  Do please join us. 

Josie Duchenne

[Awaiting photos – come back soon …]

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