When Jean Robinson moved into Constant Plantation in the 1950’s, she had no intention of transforming the two-plus acres around her home into a park-like garden. Much less did she envisage becoming the long-time president of the Barbados Horticultural Society and shepherding it to a steady stream of medals at the annual Chelsea Flower Show in London.
As a young bride who had just come from Grenada to Barbados with her planter husband and their baby, she was focused on other matters. There was fixing up the house, for one thing. Not wanting to deal with the staffing needs of the early 18th-century great house, they had chosen the manager’s house to live in. They set about making changes inside and left its surroundings bare. “I couldn’t have cared less,” she recalls.
Her mother was horrified. “A house without a garden is like a woman without a petticoat,” she declared. In those days, that must have been a gross violation of good taste, because Mrs Robinson quickly changed her tune and began dressing up the area around her dwelling.
She was hooked. She joined the Barbados Horticultural Society (BHS) and expanded her efforts, sharing plants and cuttings with fellow gardeners. These include local luminaries such as Iris Bannochie, who established Andromeda Botanical Gardens; Ole dam Mikkelson, whose stunning acreage of exotic species has also been featured in MACO; and Hetty Atkinson, who is one of Barbados’s top florists.
One of Mrs Robinson’s wide range of flowering cassia trees was nurtured from seed found outside the government buildings on Bay Street. “Look at this other cassia with the flowers that grow right on top of the branches,” she says. “It came from India and I got it from Ole when it was only two feet tall. I’ve never bought a plant, never,” she adds, in her typically emphatic fashion.
Some might call her bossy too. Women are often labelled as such when determination propels us toward a goal. In 1982, she and Christopher Leacock began the BHS Open Garden series, raising money by charging a small fee to view private gardens in January and February. (More money was, and still is, raised at the Society’s annual flower and Garden Show, which began in 1928.)
With seed cash in hand, she then set her sights on the international stage. The goal was for the BHS to showcase the floral beauty of Barbados at the Chelsea flower Show, which has been held annually in London since 1913, with gaps for the two world wars. no longer the largest flower show in the world (though its Great Pavilion has enough room to park 500 London buses) it remains the most prestigious. If you’re thinking it’s just an endless series of floral arrangements sitting on tables, think again. At Chelsea, spectacular displays tower from the ground upwards to showcase cultures, ideas and of course the beauty of the natural world, often with structures and ponds built in.
She explains: “I was already president of the Horticultural Society and kept hearing about Chelsea. I didn’t know anything about it, so I did some research, but still didn’t know what to expect. In 1988 I managed to scramble together some money and off we went. That was our first year, and we got a second—a silver gilt. In 1989 we got a gold.” That was the first in a series of wins for Barbados: 17 gold medals, 10 silver gilts and one silver—possibly more by now.
Jean Robinson retired from the BHS in 2010, but her magnificent garden still provides Barbados’s chelsea flower Show exhibit with some of the flowers and greenery—and even “bronzery” in the form of heliconia leaves whose unusual colouration makes them a striking accent. Glorious bromeliads are another speciality. Hers are highly unusual: violet with a scarlet stem bearing blue flowers. They too take the trip to England.
Other bromeliads line up beside a driveway. Those are there because it was previously bare. This illustrates the progress of this garden—a cross between careful planning and ad hoc filling of empty spaces. She thinks in levels—what grows high, medium and low—plus shape and especially colour. “Everything is done with a view to what it will be like in the future.”
Seasonal blooming also affects the choices. There is always some area that is flowering, and others that are not. A stroll takes us to a driveway leading to the constant Plantation great house in back, which seems to announce, “I’m plain, but I’m grand with a long history.”
Here, Mrs Robinson’s son Christopher has established (and lives above) Constant Gallery with its collection of art, restored antique furniture and oriental rugs—a story in itself. columns flank the stairs down to its sunken garden, where ginger lilies spring high around the house.
En route, an ancient coral-stone wall makes a rustic backdrop for the traditional winter pairing of brilliant red poinsettia and fluffy white snow on the mountain bushes.
Areas link like vignettes that form a rambling story, or suites in nature’s grand hotel. The charming manager’s house is hemmed with blooms and shrubs, with a train of stone terrace trailing out the side. Here, cushioned benches invite lolling with a cocktail or tea. farther back as an accent for a grassy stretch, an old sugar boiling taiche is filled with water hyacinth and encircled with rocks; growing among them are desert rose, agave, spidery succulents and dwarf bromeliads. covered in ivy, the service wing of Mrs Robinson’s house portrays a bit of English country cottage.
Roam farther and rows of flowering trees and shrubs form secluded alcoves. Turn and a bordered lawn displays a walkway that splits, Y-like, into choices of direction. Take the left arm of the Y and another wall of vegetation opens up to the grand vista of the old tennis lawn and the agricultural landscape beyond, both of them a reminder of the past, impinging on the present. The sprawling lawn sports well-composed clusters of trees with splashes of dracaena for colour, regardless of the season.
Everywhere, the discerning eye sees informed choices. When flowers aren’t in bloom, the acalafa leaves provide colour. Here, they are not just the usual salmon colour but also contain dark green, peach and a purplish hue. Like carefully chosen party guests, clusters of plants mingle easily: mini bamboo converses with bright pink caladium while tall ginger lilies hover to listen in.
And then there’s the variety of trees anchoring the garden to the sky—blooming bauhinia or “poor man’s orchid,” logwood, Jamaican ebony, a striking yellow flamboyant, cassia making fountains of flowers, and pointy Norfolk pines.
Much legwork goes into the legacy that this garden represents. Its need for constant tending gives structure to Mrs Robinson’s golden years. now in her 80s, she still rises early and works in it from seven to ten each morning. Aside from fungus, the biggest challenge is the giant African snails which invaded the island several years ago; they must be hunted down and dispatched almost daily. A gardener assists her twice a week with weeding, pruning, mulching and turning beds, “but he’s not allowed to cut anything without my say-so,” she adds.
In the landscape around the two homes at constant Plantation, everything’s under control of its constant gardener.M