Willowy supports

I wrote earlier this year about the many different ways in which to support garden plants and trees. On 4 May I learnt how to build supports for herbaceous perennials using willow at a workshop organised by WGFA (Working for Gardeners Association) at the privately owned Dunsborough Park in Ripley, Surrey. WGFA was founded in 1899 as the Women’s Farm and Garden Association and one of its principal objects is to ‘promote, encourage and establish the opportunities to study and practice within the horticultural profession’.

Now I do like a long drive, I don’t mean a three hour slog along a motorway but a gracious tree-lined approach to an elegant house and garden! And Dunsborough Park didn’t disappoint, said drive beginning with four tall brick built gatehouses, topped with domes which wouldn’t look out of place in an adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Redbrick gatehouses

The drive itself seemed about quarter of a mile long and so many rabbits hopped along in front of the car I began to feel I was in a Disney movie! Arriving at a locked gate with an entry phone beside it I realised I’d used the wrong entrance, but thankfully one of the two full-time gardeners at the property, Oleg, kindly opened the gate for me. Apparently access to the garden on occasions such as this is via another entrance behind the High Street in Ripley. I clearly missed that email! Since 1997 Dunsborough Park has been owned by garden statuary dealer Dolf Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh and his wife Caroline. Antique sculptures abound throughout the garden. Even in the work yard where the gardeners’ bothy is located, a ferocious lion stands guard.

But we were there to learn the craft of willow plant support making, (where flexible willow and hazel stems are woven into domed structures through which tall herbaceous perennials can grow, eventually concealing the woody ‘cage’ beneath), not to swoon over our surroundings. We were a group of eight gardeners, all working in horticulture, from across the south of England. Head Gardener James Gillions and Oleg led us to the walled Dutch Garden for a demonstration before we were let loose to have a go at building the structures ourselves. With four slim coppiced willow branches already in situ above a clump of Delphinium, Oleg skilfully bent the pliable wood into a series of arches, at approximately chest height, using garden twine where necessary to secure the structure. He then wove the smaller branches and twigs together to form a rounded dome to prop up the stems of the plant. The finishing touch to the structure is a cat’s cradle fashioned from garden twine, about halfway up the poles for support as the plant grows upwards.

Demonstration over we were set to work in a double herbaceous border intersected by a path leading to the Dutch Garden on one side and to the door of a large Victorian greenhouse on the other. Named the Penelope Hobhouse borders, they were originally created by the eminent garden designer, their distinctive feature being standard Wisterias planted at regular intervals along the borders. Apparently the borders were replanted in 2005 with a blue and white colour scheme. Our task was to build supports for the delphiniums and peonies in the border, still low mounds of greenery in early May. Having picked out four suitable canes from a generous pile of pollarded willows harvested on the estate in February, before the emergence of the leaves, we used a heavy metal pin and sledgehammer to make holes deep enough to accomodate the canes. Given the extraordinarily dry April we’d had this wasn’t as easy as you might think. the soil at Dunsborough is very sandy and free draining but its looseness meant that if the hole wasn’t deep enough, the poles tended to spring out of the soil when you started to bend the stem across to meet the neighbouring pole. The art is to find the natural bending point in the wood. Bend at too sharp an angle and the wood splinters.

We worked in pairs for the first structure, working individually after lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making the structures, using the natural curves of the material to guide the direction of the arches and ultimate contours of the support. By the end of the afternoon the elegant borders were inhabited by a dozen or so creatures which James observed resembled Doctor Who monsters. For a few weeks, these will be features in their own right until the plants they’ve been build to prop up grow up and through them, disguising the skeletal forms beneath. It was notable how different each ‘cage’ looked, some interconnected to make up an organic series of supports for a particularly large clump of delphiniums. When in the autumn the plants in the border die back, and are cut down, our wooden cages will be removed, shredded and composted.

I tore around the garden at lunchtime to capture the last hurrah of the tulips, a magnificent water garden with a folly-topped bridge, numerous statues and the garden’s resident golden retriever cooling off in the dipping pool. The following photos give a flavour of this fascinating garden.

The Penelope Hobhouse borders

The tulips

The Water Garden

The statues

The box parterre

Gateways and arches

Greyhounds on guard

Dog in pond

Kew Gardens

23 May 2022

Hever Castle & Gardens revisited

My last blog post about the gardens at Hever Castle was in July 2019. I had the good fortune to return to Hever last Monday with a great group from the Garden Media Guild. Head gardener Neil Miller lead a tour of the garden. Our visit coincided with peak season for the 40,000 tulips planted at Hever. Neil demonstrated throughout the tour that in a garden nothing stands still, it’s an ever changing space. Plants outgrow their site, new areas are cleared and planted, Yew topiary is cut back to the bone and re-shaped.

Despite being a listed garden there is scope for experimentation and innovative practices at Hever. With a third of a million visitors a year compaction is a problem in the Yew Maze so the opportunity was taken when the garden closed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 to revitalise the yews. Terrain Aeration was engaged to pump air and dried seaweed one metre below the compacted soil. Elsewhere in the garden digestate (the odourless by-product of anaerobic digestion of e.g. sewage sludge) is used to enrich the soil around established plants. In an area known as the Acer Dell a swathe of red and white tulips (a tribute to the Tudor Rose) was created last year using a bulb planting machine operated by Dutch firm Lubbe & Sons. The tines of the machine act as ‘dibbers’ to create the planting holes, the machine drops the bulbs into place and then backfills the holes.

No garden is immune from the ravages of the weather and Neil showed us a 120 year old poplar tree near the drawbridge across the moat which was blown down by Storm Eunice in February this year. Its rootball was winched back into position and it is hoped it will regenerate. Beside the Italian Garden it was sad to see that the severe frost about four weeks ago had taken out most of the flower buds of the Wisteria trained over the pergola*.

Neil explained that the herbaceous border alongside Two Sisters’ Lawn, named for Ann and Mary Boleyn who were raised at Hever, is planted in the style of Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. In the summer, cool shades of white and silver will progress through the colour spectrum to warm reds and golds. The opposite border is punctuated with dainty standard forms of the earliest flowering rose, Rosa xanthina Canary Bird.

Beyond the Festival Theatre, a curving raised bed (the dahlia border) is graced with 3,500 tulips all of which are planted into crates as is done in the Keukenhof¬†gardens in the Netherlands. Not only does this make it easier to remove the bulbs in time for planting dahlias in June, it avoids a rogue cultivar finding its way into the scheme. The theme changes each year, this year’s being cream (Tulipa Avant Garde), red (Tulipa Red Wing) and purple (Tulipa Purple Flag). The tulips from this area and those in the Italian Garden are lifted later in May and planted in less formal areas of the garden.

Neil introduced us to the six acre Italian Garden by telling us that it was designed to house the huge collection of ancient and renaissance statuary collected by William Waldorf Astor while US ambassador to Rome. Individual garden ‘rooms’ occupy the niches along the south facing border inspired by the ruins of Pompeii. These have been planted with tulips and complementary spring flowers. I was struck by the unusual Evergreen tulips underplanted with wallflowers, the fringed purple tulips interspersed with blue pansies.

One of the garden ‘rooms’ in the Italian Garden
Ditto

The south-facing border is also a perfect site for exotic shrubs like pomegranates, pistachio (mastic) and olives, the latter wall-trained so immaculately it resembles a trompe l’oeil painting. A fig and a loquat have been trained in a similar fashion against the wall opposite the Pavilion Cafe.

Espaliered olive tree in the Italian Garden

The long border on the other side of the Italian Garden, at the foot of the colonnade, is ablaze with the scarlet, orange and yellow of Olympic Flame and Apeldoorn Elite tulips.

Venerable camellias occupy the shady side of the colonnade. They are pruned back after flowering to keep them from growing too far across the pathway and pressure washing is used to treat those specimens affected by sooty mould. In the rose garden no insecticides are used, any aphids on the 4,000 roses are soon consumed by visiting blackbirds and invertebrates like ladybirds and hoverflies. Because the roses are planted very close together in a walled garden, airflow is impeded and blackspot can be a problem from July onwards, causing defoliation. To prevent this, the roses are sprayed fortnightly from the end of April until late September. A foliar feed is also added to the spray to encourage healthy growth. Deadheading is carried out throughout the flowering season. Neil’s pruning regime is to reduce the roses by one third in November to prevent windrock and in March to cut stems to three or five buds (hybrid tea roses) and five or seven buds (floribunda roses).

The Rose Garden in April

After a very sociable lunch we were taken to a newly planted woodland area of the garden: Church Gill where, seven years ago, long-forgotten stone steps and a pathway were uncovered when laurels and bracken was being removed from the top of the stream-side Sunday Walk, along which the Astor family would have made their way to the Hever parish church. Over the last three years the area has been revitalised with a scheme of shade-loving woodland and alpine plants designed by Graham Gunn and Monica Wylie of Kevock Garden Plants in Edinburgh. The steep sides of the valley through which the stream flows must have made planting very challenging.

The natural atmosphere of this part of the garden is a complete contrast to the colour and formality of the Italian Garden but it’s a beautifully realised example of how Neil Miller and his team of 10 gardeners develop new projects as well as maintaining the highest standards of horticulture throughout the gardens at Hever.

Kew, 1 May 2022

*In my own garden about 50% of the buds were checked by that frost but happily the rest have flowered successfully and it is currently looking and smelling divine.

Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow: