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.
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 Water Garden
The box parterre
Gateways and arches
Greyhounds on guard
Dog in pond
23 May 2022