J for Joe Palmese, Gertrude Jekyll and Henry James: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

In her Morrab Miscellany today, Julia Grigg writes about Morrab’s devoted Head Gardener, an influential lady gardener from the past, and one of our greatest authors who claimed to be hopeless about his garden – but clearly loved it.

JNow my Miscellany has reached the letter J, it’s time to meet JOE PALMESE, the Morrab’s Head Gardener.

It’s over thirty years since Joe started in the Gardens. ‘I must have studied on at least 20 courses during all that time,’ he tells me when asked where his expertise with plants and trees stems from. ‘Now I’m teaching others,’ he adds, ‘taking school groups round Morrab Gardens and acting as an assessor for students qualifying in horticulture.’

Joe Palmese, Head Gardener at Morrab Gardens, repotting plants in the greenhouse at Morrab Gardens
Joe Palmese – enthusiastic devotion to Morrab Gardens
Photo: Paul Brett

We’re standing in the extensive ‘backstage’ area of the Gardens that includes a range of greenhouses as well as a walled enclosure housing bee hives. Joe, always busy, describes how the work of volunteer Friends is invaluable to him, both in helping with hands-on activities such as weeding and in sourcing funds for needed purchases. ‘Don’t know what I’d do without them,’ he says.

Joe is an all-rounder

Managing the Gardens is an all-rounder’s job, he informs me. ‘Beyond my responsibilities for the planting, I deal with the visiting public, of course,’ he says ‘and then I’ll be turning my hand to supervise just about anything, upkeep of the paths and the bandstand, for example.’

And of the Gardens’ two ponds. Early in the year is the time for maintaining these, havens for a range of fish that includes carp, roach, stickleback and even a few goldfish. Recent work necessitated the draining of the lower pond, the resident fish translocated temporarily, of course. Joe described to me how his and his co-workers’ labours were enlivened by the visit of a very attentive kingfisher who settled in to watch for his feeding opportunities as the water level lowered.

Here’s the bird (scientific name: Alcedo atthis) captured in Neil Jackson’s photo.

This kingfisher in Morrab Gardens waited for feeding opportunities while Joe and Neil drained the pond
This kingfisher was looking for feeding opportunities as work continued in the lower pond Photo: Neil Jackson

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds confirms the remarkable nature of that lengthy visit, noting, ‘a fleeting flash of colour, a darting speck of blue-green and rust-red, is all many people will see of a fast-flying kingfisher.’

Some more kingfisher facts:

  • slow-flowing streams, canals, lakes and ponds are its natural habitat
  • water quality is a key factor in survival since water must be clean enough for the bird to see its tiny prey: tadpoles, aquatic insects and small fish eg minnows and sticklebacks
  • the kingfisher effectively hunts blind, its eyes protected by a third eyelid
  • every day the bird needs to eat its body weight in fish and insects
  • kingfishers reproduce fast and a breeding pair can raise three broods of chicks in a single season. With chicks to feed, the adults must hunt during every moment of daylight. For a brood of seven chicks an astonishing 5000 fish must be caught over the summer
  • kingfishers are protected. Under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it’s illegal to take, kill or injure a kingfisher or its nest, eggs or young, or to intentionally disturb the birds during breeding season

Love of gardening

Joe’s enthusiastic devotion to Morrab Gardens is recognised in these words from world-renowned horticulturist Gertrude JEKYLL who declared, ‘The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.’

The outstanding designs of Jekyll, who lived from 1843 to 1932, profoundly affected the style of English gardens in her lifetime, her thinking remaining influential to this day.

According to Richard Bisgrove, author of The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Frances Lincoln 1992) Jekyll took a subtle, painterly approach to the gardens she created, particularly in the mixed herbaceous borders. He writes, ‘[Jekyll’s] work is known for its radiant colour and the brush-like strokes of her plantings.’

A copy of part of Gertrude Jekyll's hand-drawn plans for the world-famous garden at the Manor House in Upton Grey, Hampshire
“A copy of part of Gertrude Jekyll’s hand-drawn plans for the world-famous garden at the Manor House in Upton Grey, Hampshire” by Anguskirk is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Trained as an artist, she was influenced by J.M.W. Turner and Impressionism. She wrote, ‘We owe to our gardens … to use plants so that they shall form beautiful pictures.’ The plans she drew up clearly demonstrate her advanced understanding of the need to take into account, along with colour, the aspect of texture, and the impact of experiencing a garden.

Creating over 400 picturesque gardens in the UK, Europe and America, Jekyll received the Veitch Memorial Medal and the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour.

Among many others, there are five UK Jekyll gardens in National Trust care (www.nationaltrust.org.uk). Open to the public under normal circumstances are Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland; Barrington Court, Somerset; Hatchlands Park, Surrey; and Knightshayes and Castle Drogo, Devon. 

A plaque commemorating Gertrude Jekyll, outside the garden on Lindisfarne which she designed
A plaque commemorating Gertrude Jekyll, outside the garden on Lindisfarne which she designed.
“Gertrude Jekyll garden” by Dave_S. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

To honour Jekyll, in 1986 David Austin Roses introduced an English Shrub rose with her name. Always one of the first English Roses to start flowering, the perfect scrolled buds of ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ open to large, glowing pink rosette-shaped flowers. Its scent is often described as the quintessential Old Rose fragrance.

Born in the same year, 1842, as Gertrude Jekyll, American author Henry JAMES admitted, I am hopeless about the garden – I am densely ignorant.’

The garden referred to is at Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, which James moved to in 1899. He had long admired the red-brick house, built in 1723, and adored writing his highly successful last three major novels, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904) in its Garden Room overlooking the walled garden.

Wikipedia informs us, ‘These complex and nuanced novels, considered the epitomes of James’ work, focus on ‘innocent’ Americans encountering sophisticated, duplicitous Europeans; self-deception, and the struggle to live life to the fullest extent.’

The woefully ignorant James employed his friend, garden designer Alfred Parsons, to create the lawn edged by colourful flower borders and the various paths through the garden. Parson trained espaliered apricots, plums, pears and apples up the walls, and suggested the planting of walnut and mulberry trees. Chrysanthemums were grown in pots in a small greenhouse.

George Gammon became the permanent Lamb House gardener, winning prizes in local shows for vegetables and flowers.

James delighted in his lawns’ spring season swathes of daffodils, walking amongst them after lunch accompanied by his dachshund, Maximilian.

Like Jekyll, a proud recipient of a flower celebrating him, he was thrilled to have Narcissus ‘Henry James’, a small-cupped white daffodil, named in his honour.

Today Lamb House is owned by the National Trust, house and garden open to the public under normal circumstances. According to the guide book, ‘The garden borders are bright with lilies, geraniums, crocuses, roses, hyacinths, fuchsias, tulips and lupins. A small pet cemetery is tucked away in one corner, providing a lovely resting place for Henry James’ beloved dogs.’


No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden

Jefferson served from 1801-9 as the United States’ Third President. Primary author of the US 1776 Declaration of Independence, he penned the immortal words stating ‘All men are created equal’ with rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. In 1772, age 26, Jefferson inherited 2000 acres of North Carolina wheatlands and began creating Monticello, a neoclassical masterpiece built in the Palladian style. Surrounding his home with gardens, Jefferson conducted plant breeding experiments. Since 1986 Monticello has hosted the US Centre for Historic Plants, dedicated to preserving and distributing native plant varieties.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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