Tulips in Fairyland: Part 1

When she was a little girl, my niece, on the drive from Sussex to Hampshire to visit her Granny and Grandad, would look up to the Arundel skyline and call it fairyland. The spires of the cathedral and battlements of the castle still lend the view an other-worldly appearance. On Monday I visited the castle’s gardens and found that those apparently impenetrable walls do indeed shelter an enchanted space. With fellow members of the Garden Media Guild I was there to see the gardens in their spring livery and in particular the thousands of tulips which are planted every year.

Having been divided into small groups, our tour began in the courtyard of the Collector Earl’s Garden with head gardener Martin Duncan, whose enthusiasm and passion for his domain was infectious. The immediate impression is of a historic formal garden decorated with pavilions, pools and fountains. Closer inspection reveals that the pavilions and columns are built of oak rather than stone and Martin explained that this part of the garden was created only 14 years ago, by the design partnership of Isabel and Julian Bannerman. Dozens of pots of brightly coloured tulips stand at the foot of the classically styled ‘Hunting Temple’ which is decorated with deer antlers from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate. Noting from their website that the Bannermans had also designed parts of HRH’s garden at Highgrove, I saw that there too is a rustic temple constructed of green oak.

Thomas Howard the Collector Earl by Peter Paul Rubens

In November Martin and his team planted 180 different named tulip cultivars throughout the gardens: fringed, parrot, lily and peony flowered, Darwin hybrids and many more. Some of the larger pots contain 60-70 tulip bulbs which are treated as annuals and replaced each year.

This section of the garden is a tribute to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), known as the ‘Collector Earl’, who when travelling extensively on the continent on diplomatic missions, amassed a huge art collection. On one of his trips he was accompanied by the architect Inigo Jones of whom more later. Between the water garden, which represents the nearby River Arun, and a spectacular labyrinth of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, stands a double wooden pergola clothed in newly emerging hornbeam. Martin explained that in a week or so red Apeldoorn tulips will appear amidst the white Narcissus in the labyrinth.

The curving borders around the labyrinth comprise the Exotic Borders and are dominated with multi-stemmed Trachycarpus fortuneii, which were sourced in Italy. At a lower level, ruby Rheum leaves thrust through the foliage of orange Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and yet to flower Alliums.

On a raised terrace at the far side of the labyrinth, stands a turreted wooden pavilion topped by a dome. True to the magical atmosphere of the gardens, this is Oberon’s Palace. Inside is a shell grotto, the walls decorated with planted urn images fashioned from navy blue mussel shells with a bubbling fountain in the centre of the space. The plaque states that the building is based on a design by Inigo Jones for a masque first performed in 1611, ‘Oberon the Fairy Prince’. Martin drew our attention to the distinctively shaped planters on either side of the entrance to the temple, which he had commissioned and which resembled lead but were in fact made with distempered steel, and cost a fraction of the price.

From here the exoticism of the labyrinth borders gives way to the symmetry and formality of clipped yew hedges, forming compartments housing the herbaceous borders. Judging by a video tour on the castle’s website, again led by head gardener Martin, these look stunning in the summer months. Martin proudly pointed out that the yew spires which separate this part of the garden from the next, deliberately mimic the spires of the cathedral. Arundel’s Victorian cathedral church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, dedicated as a cathedral in 1965, forms a spectacular backdrop to this part of the garden.

Hidden by the yew spires is another enchanting area, the Stumpery, which, Martin pointed out, is in an open position and gets more sun than those which are usually built in shadier spots and are planted with ferns and hostas, for instance the stumpery at Highgrove. When I checked later I found that too was designed by the Bannermans. The massive upturned trunks, roots akimbo, are sourced from trees downed in the park during storms. Each stump provides several planting pockets into which are tucked exquisite specimens: a rosy coloured Hellebore, diminutive species tulips, snakehead fritillaries, dainty dog tooth violets (Erythronium), primroses and Thalictrum aquiligifolium. In a corner of this garden stands a willow bower fit for a fairy queen, the fresh new leaves beginning to clothe it in a green mantle.

I should at this stage mention that the long gap between this and my last blog posting is due in part to the online English landscape garden history course that I have just completed. I found it incredibly interesting and absorbing, but the course, a busy period of spring tidying in clients’ gardens and a new web content writing role has left little time for the blog. One of the activities in week 8 of the course, when we studied Victorian gardens, was to dip into the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a weekly illustrated journal, to which we were given online access. I lighted upon the editions of 3 and 10 July 1875 and amidst advertisements for Calceolaria seeds and lawnmowers, a book review of a ‘Book for Beekeepers’, reports of onion trials in Chiswick, a weather report from Blackheath (29 June fine, but dull and cloudy throughout. Rain in early morning) and want ads for gardeners (wages £1 a week), was a two part article by T.Baines about ‘Arundel Castle: the seat of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk’. Featuring a history of the castle and a beautiful engraving of the castle, the article details a tour of the gardens which at that time consisted of extensive kitchen gardens and an arboretum.

The article describes numerous fruit and plant ‘houses’ for peaches, nectarines, vines (Muscats and Hamburghs), melons, cucumbers as well as flowering plants ‘for decorative purposes’ (presumably for the Duke’s apartments in the castle) such as orchids (Cypripedium and Dendrobium), pelargoniums and nepenthes. The author mentions no less than four ‘pine-pits’, each 45 feet long! Today the castle’s organic kitchen garden is impressive but more modest in scale, though it does have two very fine glasshouses, one a restored Victorian vinery dating from 1853. The garden was restored in the mid 1990s and is based on the design of the gardens at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park.

We were told that the garden is operated on a four year rotation for growing vegetables, and that there is extensive use of companion planting, with flowers such as Sweet Williams planted to attract pollinators and create a natural barrier to deflect pests like carrot fly. Martin pointed out an elaborate network of ropes almost at eye level along which gourds will be trained later in the season. The beds are edged in box and the walls shelter several fan-trained fruit trees: Morello cherry, plum (protected with a tarpaulin on the day of our visit which was unseasonably cold) and Conference pear among them. An arched frame running through the kitchen garden is trained with old apple varieties including the wonderfully named Peasgood’s Nonsuch. In one of the beds is a pocket meadow to bring in pollinators and there’s also a very fine house for that master slug-slayer, the hedgehog. At the foot of the long glasshouses stand a rank of cold frames all heaving with seedlings ready to be planted out once the risk of frost has passed. We were shown red-veined sorrel and a species sweet pea called ‘Tutankhamen’.

Leaving the kitchen garden, you enter a courtyard where a dense display of tulips in pots is massed beneath a flower-laden cherry tree: another magical touch in this special garden.

Like T Baines in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, I am going to leave you mid tour until next week. But before I go, in the 1875 article, after admiring the manner in which the fruit trees in the orchard were maintained, the author states that ‘here, as in each department of this fine place, are ample evidence of Mr Wilson’s ability as a gardener’. Were T. Baines to visit Arundel Castle’s gardens today I’ve no doubt he could say the same for Martin Gardner, his team of six gardeners and cohort of volunteers.

(Next time: The White Garden, the Rose Garden and the Stew Ponds)

Of scythes and sails

The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.

And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden.  This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.

How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.

And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.

Meadow at York Gate

Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.

The yew sails at York Gate

I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.

Gardening advice, 9th century style

Walafrid Strabbo, a ninth century abbott in what is now modern Germany, wrote a poem in Latin, Hortulus, in which he extols the virtues of gardening. I discovered the following extract during background reading for an online course I’ve started this week about the history of English landscape gardens. It contains advice as relevant to those of us lucky enough to have a garden in 2021 as it was 1,100 years ago. Though I do wonder if he penned the final line after a day shifting manure and before a restorative Epsom salts bath!

Though a life of retreat offers various joys,
None, I think, will compare with the time one employs
In the study of herbs, or in striving to gain
Some practical knowledge of nature’s domain
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not…..

The advice given here is no copy-book rule,
Picked up second-hand, read in books, learned at school,
But the fruit of hard labour and personal test
To which I have sacrificed pleasure and rest.  

Audit participation

With 2,300 species recorded in one year, I can hardly expect a biodiversity audit of my garden to compete with Great Dixter’s 6 acres. In a terrific online lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society, the archaically named organisation run by Kew’s Diploma students, whose winter lecture series always contain some gems, head gardener Fergus Garrett reported on the findings of a Biodiversity Audit of the famous East Sussex garden covering the period 2017-2019.

He began by setting the scene for those like me who haven’t been to Great Dixter. With uplifting summer images he showed us the ‘show gardens’ near the house, the meadows rich in common spotted orchids and the coppiced woodlands. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Mexican daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus) spill across limestone paving slabs and steps. Ribbons of ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) flow around the stock beds. Foaming cow parsley umbels are encouraged in some of the formal planted areas and roses tumble across buildings. A multi-layered system of plants co-exist creating a seemingly informal style of planting. Such an intensively planted garden requires careful management, but from the images I saw this is delivered with a light touch.

Pandemic permitting, I’m determined to get to Great Dixter this year. But Fergus Garrett’s enthusiasm has inspired more than a garden visit. The surprise finding from the Great Dixter audit is that the formal gardens are the most diverse, leading me to want to investigate how biodiverse my garden is. Of course January isn’t the ideal month to undertake such a project, but I’ve done a quick non-scientific mental audit, and have come up with a good number of species of creatures as well as native plants (in other words, weeds!).

Plants: without having to think about it too deeply, in most years you’ll find the following here:

  • Green alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)
  • Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)
  • Spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
  • Mind your own business (Soleiriolia soleiriolii)
  • Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)

The alleyway beside the house would probably yield a list twice as long of the weeds inhabiting the earth path and which I pull out when they become too tall, but otherwise tolerate. When I was studying for the RHS Level 2 Diploma a few years ago, that narrow strip was perfect for practising identification of most of the plants featured in the ident. test during weed week.

From left to right: spurge, herb Robert, mind-your-own-business, green alkanet photographed this morning.

Creatures: here’s my quick list of vertebrates and invertebrates spotted in the garden over the last couple of years:

  • Frogs. Last May I counted 11 frogs disporting themselves in the 150cm x 60cm pond. Their croaky chorus is an annual delight.
I photographed this chap in a puddle next to the house in April 2020.
  • Bees. In 2021 I want to learn to identify the different bee species that come to the garden. This looks like a handy field guide from the Field Studies Council: https://www.field-studies-council.org/shop/publications/bees-identification-guide/ Three years ago I remember sitting on the garden bench with my then four year old great nephew watching for several minutes as a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile species) methodically cut neat. semi-circular portions of leaf from a plant growing in a pot beside the bench. These solitary bees use the leaf pieces to build cells for their eggs. In a scene reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary, on one of the bee’s return journeys from its nest it flew directly into an elaborate web spun by a stripey garden spider (Araneus diadematus?). The more the bee struggled to escape, the more entangled it became and we watched as the spider dashed across the web to its wrap its victim in a silken harness. Having secured its prey the spider went about its business. The following morning we checked to see if the bee had been able to free itself, only to find that the spider had eaten half of it. Thankfully the small person was unphased by this demonstration of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
  • Scarlet lily beetles. Beastly in more ways than one! I didn’t claim this was a list of benign species only! I try to be as vigilant as I can in spotting these vivid red pests and their slimy brown ‘frass’ (poo, in which larvae are concealed), squishing the former and wiping off the latter from the stems of the pink oriental lilies that I’ve been growing in the same container for a few years now.
  • Stag beetles. Sadly I found a dead beetle, like the upturned hull of a ship, lying on the yard last summer. I used to recoil from them in flight, I think due to their size, when they don’t seem much smaller than a wren. But having learnt more about their detritus-clearing activities I now recognise them as a force for good. One of Fergus Garrett’s initiatives at Great Dixter is the creation in the meadows and woodlands of ‘habitat piles’ made from shrub prunings from the garden. As gardeners we often feel compelled to over-tidy our gardens, clearing away leaf-litter and twiggy material which might shelter beneficial organisms. I’m gradually learning to leave pockets and corners of the garden undisturbed to allow ‘detritivores’ such as stag beetles to do the clearing for me.
  • Bats. Until last summer I’d not seen bats gliding over the garden on hot summer nights for several years, but I’m happy to report that they came back in 2020. I love to watch them silently pursuing their airborne prey.
  • Field mouse. Out of the corner of my eye I sometimes glimpse their tiny forms disappearing into corners and behind flower-pots. There was an old teak bedside cabinet in my old shed in which I kept bits and bobs such as old bulb packet labels etc. I once opened a drawer to find the cardboard shredded into minute strips and moulded into a cosy nest, the little family long dispersed.
  • Butterflies. I spotted many butterflies in the garden last summer, including a peacock butterfly, although the photograph below right was actually taken in the Agius Evolution Garden in Kew on 14 July 2020. I see from the photo stream on my phone that I photographed this red admiral on the garden fence on 28 June 2020.
  • Birds: according to the recorded clip on my ‘Chirp-o-matic’ app, it was a tawny owl’s eerie cry that I heard on the evening of 17 August 2020 as I stood at the back door. I feed the birds in my garden every day. After drawing the kitchen blinds and putting the kettle on to boil, it’s part of my morning ritual to put seed into the a feeder on the ground for blackbirds and robins and into the tray of a wooden hanging feeder. In the recent cold spell I defrosted the birdbath daily with a kettle full of boiling water. A birdbath provides fresh drinking water and an opportunity for the birds to bathe. They do this to dislodge parasites and trap moisture in their plumage which after a post-shower shake-out helps keep them warm. Last Sunday, an hour after it had started snowing, I glanced out of the window to see that something (robin or blackbird?) had washed and brushed up so vigorously that the recently defrosted dish was completely empty! This weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch for the RSPB has been an opportunity to count the birds in my garden over a one hour period. Sadly this morning’s vigil for the BGB yielded only the usual suspects on this cold last day of January: two bedraggled feral pigeons and a forlorn wood pigeon. And a great tit systematically searching for grubs in the hazel tree in the garden behind mine.
Bathing robin April 2020
Rose-ringed parakeets sometimes visit the garden

Thank you Fergus Garrett for reminding me why I garden. Naturally I want to create a space which is visually attractive and pleasant to spend time in. But as you memorably expressed it in your talk we can also ‘blur edges between horticulture and ecology without compromising artistic merit’.

31 January 2021

Falling for hawthorn

It’s early October 2015 and we’re progressing in single file along a narrow ridge at the top of a steep wooded hillside. I’m with three colleagues from Kew and a Peak District National Park ranger. We each carry seed-collecting equipment, in my case a couple of plastic buckets filled with cotton drawstring bags and stringed labels. We pick our way cautiously, conscious of the steep drop to our right. I’m third in the line and concentrating hard to maintain my balance. Suddenly I pitch sideways and hurtle downhill. I can see my boots above my head! Somehow I curl myself into as compact a shape as my height allows and roll into the trunk of a large old tree, about a third of the way down the hill. Winded but unhurt I can see my companions looking anxiously down at me and one of them, Jason Irving (@ForageWildFood) is coming down the hill after me, using the pruning pole he’s carrying as a brake. I unravel myself and we clamber uphill to rejoin the expedition. Appropriately, we find out that evening that the area we had been walking through was known locally as The Fall!

Thus began the first afternoon of a collecting trip for Kew’s UK Native Tree Seed Project, a lottery-funded initiative to build a genetically comprehensive collection of the seeds of UK trees, to support research and conservation. The call had gone out earlier in the year for volunteers from across the organisation to join trips across the country. In July we had attended a training day at Wakehurst to practise using the equipment and to learn more about the species from which we would be collecting seed. We had spent the morning beside the River Manifold collecting rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia), choosing at least ten trees growing in relatively close proximity, filling several cotton bags with the slightly sticky fruits. The target species we were aiming for that afternoon was native ash, Fraxinus excelsior, whose rustling bunches of ‘keys’ we clipped off using the parrot-headed pruning tool. At each site, in addition to recording the location of the collection using GPS and marking the trees from which we had taken seeds with a small metal disc gently hammered into the trunk, we collected the end of a small branch from one tree, including leaves and seedcases, from which a herbarium specimen sheet would be created. This involved sandwiching the sample of plant material between sheets of newspaper laid inside a wooden frame held together with webbing belts similar to yoga belts. As the week progressed the ‘press’ became fuller and heavier, a record of the various species collected.

On the subsequent days we harvested sloe (Prunus spinosa) in Lathkilldale, alder (Alnus glutinosa) in Topley Pike Wood and downy birch (Betula pubescens) in Yorkshire Bridge Wood. But one tree eluded us: the midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). At each collecting site, our team leader, Dr Chris Cockel, cut open a haw from the several hawthorn trees we found, to check if it contained two seeds as opposed to the one seed found in common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Although we found a couple of trees on one of the days, there were insufficient to constitute a population, making them unsuitable for the project.

Fast forward five years to yesterday. Planted a few feet from the boardwalk (a raised timber path created a few years ago to wind through the conservation area at the southern end of Kew Gardens) I see two saplings of the Glastonbury Thorn. Distinguished from common hawthorn by flowering twice a year, a sprig from the tree is sent to the monarch every year to be placed on the royal Christmas table. When the tree was vandalised a decade ago, cuttings were propagated in Kew’s Arboretum nursery overseen by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum. A young tree from one such cutting was planted in Glastonbury, on Wearyall Hill, in 2017.

Legend links the original Glastonbury Thorn, a type of C. monogyna, to Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man stated in John’s gospel to have arranged the burial of Jesus. Joseph is thought to have subsequently travelled to Britain, to Glastonbury. When he set his walking staff down, it is said to have miraculously taken root, growing into the tree that became known as the Glastonbury Thorn.

It seems that for a tree relatively modest in stature and appearance, there are many legends and customs associated with hawthorn. We are all familiar with the advice not to ‘cast a clout ’til may be out’. I adhere to the theory that the may referred to is the hawthorn blossom rather than the month of May. Given the high temperatures often experienced in May, I think we’d all expire with the heat if we clung to our winter woollies until 1st June.

Until I began reading about hawthorns for this post I ignorantly assumed that the blackthorn so often referred to in Irish folk tales was the same tree. It is another species altogether: sloe (Prunus spinosa) mentioned above. Like the hawthorn it bears five petalled white flowers in spring, but blackthorn flowers first, from March, and does so on bare wood. Both species are often found in ancient hedging and in fact both belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

In autumn 2020 I contributed copy for a picture spread in the December issue of ‘Garden Answers’ magazine, ‘Decorate with Hips and Haws’. In the course of my research I discovered that waxwings, winter visitors to the UK, love red berries and particularly the fruit of the hawthorn, haws. According the the RSPB website, they will typically descend on hawthorn plants in supermarket carparks. Now that’s a sight that would cheer me up after a masked and hand-sanitised dash around my local Sainsbury’s!

I also found a recipe for hawthorn tea which I confess I haven’t yet tried but which is said to benefit the heart and circulation system. Using one teaspoon of berries per cup, pour boiling water over the berries and steep for 15 minutes before straining through a fine mesh and sweetening to test with honey and perhaps flavouring with a cinnamon stick.

When I take the shortcut across Osterley’s front lawn to reach the gardeners’ bothy every Friday, I pass two spreading hawthorn trees which bear strikingly large dark red fruits in autumn. These are Cockspur thorns (Crataegus crus-galli, literally a cock’s leg) and named, presumably, for their long curved thorns which can measure 3cm to 8cm. The species originates in the eastern USA. On bright autumn mornings I’m often late reporting for volunteer gardening duty because I’ve paused to admire and photograph these handsome trees!

Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

Two Men, One Rose

Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather. 

A precious archive

Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.

Harry Walker with my friend’s mother (approx. 1935)
Harry Walker with my friend’s sister photographed in the Rose Gardens in Ashton Keynes (approx. 1957)

Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.

Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.

Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers). 

By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’. 

At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations: 

  • R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
  • R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
  • R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
  • R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Rosa ‘American Pillar’

Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.

I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow the Eddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it. 

Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving. 

To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars. 

As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.

Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’. 

Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.

*ISBN-13: 97814746

**Description from David Austin’s website.

In a Manor of Speaking

If to repeat the same behaviour expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, then to repeat the same behaviour expecting a similar experience presumably indicates the perpetrator is of sound mind? I do hope so as a happy outcome was certainly what I hoped for when I decided to return to the gardens at Chenies Manor only a couple of weeks after I’d gone there for the first time. So taken was I with these magical gardens on the edge of the Chilterns that I enthusiastically persuaded friends to return with me on 15 October. I judged they would enjoy the colourful dahlia displays and precise topiary, as well as the Elizabethan manor house and generous afternoon teas. I was only too willing to experience these again, but I also wanted to explore parts of the gardens I had missed the first time.

The Physic Garden is tucked away to the rear of the Sunken Garden and comprises several beds of medicinal and poison plants, clearly labelled with the conditions that the former are said to alleviate and the adverse outcomes should you be unlucky enough to ingest the latter. There was none of the theatricality attached to Alnwick’s Poison Garden (I recall a skull on the entrance gate and certain specimens displayed in cages when I visited a few years ago) but the range of plants grown was impressive. A handsome fig tree guards the brick gateway into the garden, conspicuous for its pale leaves in the familiar modesty protecting shape. A circular brick building, closed on the afternoon of our visit, houses an ancient well. I read later that the depth of the well is greater than the height of Nelson’s Column!

Beyond the Front Lawn, and in the shadow of the parish church, a low open hedge of pale pink roses surrounds a grassed area from which an elaborate circular labyrinth has been fashioned. A narrow gravel path branches off in frustrating impasses, entertaining the amused onlooker watching the brave soul who sets off to reach the centre of the puzzle who has to change direction every few seconds in an accelerating frenzy of false starts and dead ends.

Between the Labyrinth and Chenies’ Kitchen Garden stands a pretty orchard. The Kitchen Garden is an extensive densely planted area. As well as luscious ruby chard plants, I noticed an impressive number of rhubarb crowns interspersed with several terracotta forcers. To one side I saw a work area housing a large compost heap and a pot store. Nearby there was a pretty cottage garden (or cutting bed?) full of long stemmed dahlias and cosmos interwoven with a medium height grass which created a bronze misty effect throughout the planting scheme. I noticed that the area included a diminutive Eucalyptus sporting the disc-shaped juvenile leaves so useful to flower arrangers. Before leaving this part of the garden I took a close look at the fruit of the Medlar (Mespilus germanica) which stands in the centre of one section of the Kitchen Garden. I understand these bizarrely shaped fruits are a delicious treat once they have been ‘bletted’ or allowed to ripen for a few weeks after picking.

Having satisfied my curiosity about these outermost sections of the gardens, we returned to the Rose Lawn, White Garden and Sunken Garden which I had admired a fortnight before. They did not disappoint and it was a pleasure to see my friends enjoying their beauty too. The dahlias remained impressive despite some heavy rain during the intervening weeks and one plant had come into flower into the meantime, the tall and stately (but poisonous) Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

As well as the playful Labyrinth, Chenies also boasts a fiendishly complicated Maze. The path between sharply cut yew hedges at least two metres high leads to innumerable culs de sacs before with some relief you find the central rectangular stone, from atop which there is a tantalising view of the manor house and the serenity of the White Garden. Stepping off it you embark on a bewildering quest to find the exit from which you emerge with even greater relief. Then it’s time to return to the car and to leave the timeless atmosphere of this special garden, until next spring when tulips replace dahlias as the star attractions in Chenies’ beds and borders.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.

Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.

The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.

The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.

Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.

Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.

The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.

Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.

The varieties Mary showed us included:

  • ‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
  • ‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
  • ‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
  • ‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
  • ‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
  • ‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
  • ‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging

Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.

Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.

First day of term at Homeacres

The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.

Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.

I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his business partner Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener, a writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.

The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.

Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.

Cardboard remnants visible at the corner of a bed

I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.

The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.

The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.

A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.

In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.

Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.

I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.

*Including Abigail Willis whose exquisitely illustrated book ‘Secret Gardens of Somerset’ has been published this week.