Our Friend in the North: Tom Stuart-Smith at RHS Bridgewater and Trentham Gardens

Tom Stuart-Smith has put his mark as a landscape architect on numerous gardens across the country. I’ve seen his planting at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and in July 2021 was fortunate to go to the inspiring garden at his home, Serge Hill at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. This last weekend gave me the opportunity to compare two more of his creations: the new Royal Horticultural Society garden, Bridgewater, south of Manchester and the Italian Garden at Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire.

Steady rain fell throughout the afternoon at RHS Bridgewater but it meant that the gardens were very quiet enabling us to see the structure of the garden for which Tom Stuart-Smith created the masterplan for the development of the site as a centre of excellence for horticulture in the north-west. He also designed the layout and planting of the Paradise Garden which forms one half of the restored 11 acre Weston Walled Garden, a major feature of the new garden, as well as the Worsley Welcome Garden located close to the Welcome Building.

The joy of a RHS garden (like RBG Kew and other botanical gardens) is that all plants are labelled, so you start learning as soon as you step outside into the garden. A perennial honesty (Lunaria rediviva) soon caught my eye. In borders between the outer and inner walls of the walled garden, massed plantings of tulips and daffodils lit up the gloom of the rainy afternoon. Terracotta rhubarb forcers nestle amongst the bulbs, a clue to the presence at Bridgewater of the National Collection of rhubarb, with 100 cultivars having recently been moved from RHS Wisley. I also liked the gnarly branches (driftwood?) which accent the border every so often, resembling abstract sculptures.

I love to see show gardens from flower shows re-purposed, and the high brick wall of the Weston Walled Garden provided a perfect backdrop for Windrush Garden from RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, 2021, designed by Dawn Evans.

The Weston Walled Garden is divided into two equal halves: the Paradise Garden and the Kitchen Garden. High metal obelisks, designed to resemble the chimney of the original boiler room which heated the glasshouses which served Worsley New Hall, punctuate the enormous Kitchen Garden which contains more than 100 planting beds! Unobtrusive strainer wires are fitted along the walls. to support an impressive collection of wall-trained fruit, including heritage pears.

The heart of the Paradise Garden is a very large body of water, the Lily Pond, fed by two rills which intersect the garden. Partially covered by a decorative grill in a geometric design, the rills are just one example of the wonderful attention to detail manifest throughout Bridgewater. At this time of year and on a wet afternoon, the colours were muted: greens and the reddish brown of the beech columns planted around the Lily Pond. From photographs in the guide book and having seen Serge Hill* in high summer, I can imagine just how colourful the Paradise Garden must be later in the season. One of the features of Serge Hill which impressed me was the Plant Library, trial beds laid out in a numbered grid, designed as an open resource for garden design students to see how plants behave and move, featuring many drought tolerant plants. I’m imagining that some of the species in the Plant Library are also planted into some of the Paradise Garden’s 80 planting beds.

Two new glasshouses in Victorian style have been built along the southern wall of the Paradise Garden, to house tender specimens such as Aeonium. On the opposite side of this wall stands the Old Frameyard, home to the boiler room and its chimney, as well as potting sheds (now an exhibition space), a brand new Propagation House, and beds laid out for plant trials. Near here we spotted another show garden, the Blue Peter Discover Soil Garden designed by Juliet Sargent for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2022.

Just beyond the walled garden stands the restored Garden Cottage, once home to the the head gardener of Worsley New Hall. The cottage is surrounded by an immaculately mowed, semi-circular lawn.

Heading into the wooded area of Bridgewater we found a friendly ent, and in the fields beyond the woodland, the Pig Pen for the black Berkshire pigs which have been used throughout the creation of Bridgewater to act as ‘biological ploughs’ and clear the ground in various parts of the garden before planting. Here and there in the woodland, are remnants of the original gardens and to the north of Ellesmere Lake, the remains of the terraces which stood in front of Worsley New Hall, the large Victorian House which was demolished after the Second World War.

Flowing from Ellesmere Lake down the hill to Moon Bridge Water, the new body of water next to the Welcome Building, is the Chinese Streamside Garden, which is intersected with a series of small pools and crossed by a series of wooden bridges. The planting is designed to reflect the numerous Chinese native plants which are now favourite shrubs and trees in the west: acers, magnolias, primulas included.

Thankfully the weather improved for the second garden visit of the weekend: Trentham Gardens near Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire. Here three eminent contemporary garden designers have made their mark on a garden which has its origins as an eighteenth century landscape garden (the lake around which the garden and parkland are located was designed by Capability Brown). Piet Oudolf designed the Floral Labyrinth which stands beside the River Trent at the eastern end of the garden, near the ruins of the Italianate Victorian house: 32 beds of herbaceous perennials in the Dutch designer’s trademark prairie style. The beds were just beginning to spring to life, with tantalising crowns of greenery promising a lush summer display. Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) nodded gracefully in several beds.

The Perennial Meadow Garden along the edges of the lake was designed by Professor Nigel Dunnett (Tower of London Superbloom, Gold Meadows London Olympic Park and the Barbican). The third of the designers to shape this garden in the 21st century is Tom Stuart-Smith. When she showed us around her own garden at Serge Hill in July 2021, his sister Kate Stuart-Smith told us her brother’s nickname in the family was GAT, Great Arbiter of Taste! The Italian Garden at Trentham is certainly a class act. Like Bridgewater’s Paradise Garden, it is on a grand scale, a formal parterre style layout of symmetrical beds, some edged with low hedges arranged around low walled formal pools, centred with fountains. The Italian theme is reinforced with classical statuary, monumental urns and slim columns of Irish yew standing in for cypresses. The simplicity of the planting prevents the space from seeming unduly elaborate. One set of beds is planted with white flowers and silver-leaved plants: tulips, narcissus and a white-flowered Brunnera with silver-veined leaves, possibly B. macrophylla Mr Morse.

Low evergreen domes and similarly scaled stands of grasses planted into lawned areas echo the yew domes dotted on the lawn alongside the Worsley Welcome Garden at Bridgewater.

The Italian Garden is divided from the Floral Labyrinth by an arched pergola running its entire length, entwined with climbing roses and Wisteria, yet to bloom. Running alongside the pergola is the David Austin Rose Border, designed by Michael Marriott. I can only imagine how fragrant and beautiful this must be when in flower. The roses were certainly looking wonderfully healthy last Saturday.

Whilst brief, my 36 hour trip to the north west was enormously satisfying, and it was a joy to see Tom Stuart-Smith’s work in both gardens.

20 April 2023, Kew

*Here are some of my images of Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden at Serge Hill, taken in July 2021.

The Plant Library

Return to East Lambrook Manor Gardens

In my last blog post I featured an image of an unusual bell-shaped snowdrop, Galanthus Phil Cornish. I took the photograph in February on a Sunday afternoon visit to East Lambrook Manor Gardens, near South Petherton in Somerset, the creation of garden writer Margery Fish. I first went to this fascinating garden in May 2021 and vowed to return during another season. In winter you can see the bones of a garden without the distraction of abundant foliage and flowers.

Galanthus Phil Cornish

In this case the skeleton consists of narrow paths between cottage garden borders, a mini avenue of curvaceous yews and the ditch which Margery Fish cleverly incorporated into the heart of the garden. In the winter months these elements are embellished with a splendid display of snowdrops: in pots lining the paths, in borders and on the banks of the ditch. This Festival of Snowdrops takes place every February.

Naturally snowdrops were the main attraction in the plant nursery which adjoins the garden. Here they were set out on tables for sale with some of the price tags reflecting the rarity of the specimens displayed. Examples of each of the cultivars grown at East Lambrook were arrayed on the long stone shelves which on my last visit featured the hardy geraniums loved by the garden’s creator.

I chatted to the gentleman operating the till at the nursery who told me that he had worked with several members of staff who had known Margery Fish until her death in 1969. He told me a story which summed up her passion for her garden. During a trip away from home, a fire broke out and badly damaged the Malthouse (which now houses a cafe and gallery). When she was called to be told the bad news, Margery Fish’s first reaction was to ask if the garden had been damaged in any way. It had not, she expressed her relief and only then enquired about the state of the smouldering building.

Here are some of my photos of the garden in February, which as I write this on a very chilly April evening, doesn’t seem so very far away.

The Professionals

Part 1 Inner Temple Garden

An aerial view of London shows plenty of green space amidst the urban layout of streets, shops and offices. The expansive royal parks account for much of those spaces- Hyde Park, The Green Park, St James’s Park and The Regent’s Park- as do squares (both public and private), churchyards, private gardens and the gardens attached to some professional bodies. In this and my next post I explore two of the latter: the Inner Temple (commonly known as The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple) and The Royal College of Physicians.

Occupying a site beside the River Thames, from which it is separated by the Victoria Embankment, the three acres of the Inner Temple Garden are surrounded to the west, north and east by the buildings of the Inn, housing barristers’ chambers, judges’ lodgings as well as Inner Temple Hall and the offices of this ancient Inn of Court, one of the four located in this area of London, between the theatres and shops of the West End and the banks and financial institutions of the City of London.

In early September, a kind friend who works for the Inn arranged for me to meet Sean Harkin, the Inn’s head gardener. During lockdown I had watched Sean give an online lecture to the Kew Mutual Improvement Society about Inner Temple Garden and was struck by his enthusiasm for plants and for his work in this unique sanctuary in the heart of the busy city. Sean’s CV is impressive: RHS Wisley, the National Trust’s gardener in residence for the city of Manchester and head gardener at Kensington Palace where he created the white garden in memory of Princess Diana. My friend and Sean took time out of their busy schedules to meet me on a rather overcast and damp day, a contrast to the extreme heat of only a week or so before. Sean explained that over the last couple of years, he and his small team of three gardeners had created a new meadow on part of the lawn in the centre of the garden. Now mown, I can imagine that the meadow added a very natural and contemporary aspect to what might otherwise be expected to be a rather conventional space. But Sean’s vision is for bold planting in scale, form and colour. And this is most evident in the deep herbaceous border along the garden’s northern side where tall grasses and cardoon seedheads jostle alongside blowsy pink dahlias, Salvia Amistad, giant fennel and rudbeckias. A broad-leaved plant I didn’t recognise (resembling a very tall canna lily or a banana) added an exotic accent. It reminded me of the long border at Great Dixter where what at first glance seems informal planting is in fact a carefully woven tapestry of textures and hues. Sean told me the garden is at its best in April and May, and I shall certainly return then, but I loved the late summer colour scheme of pink and gold and was impressed at how well the plants had fared in the recent drought.

Sean reminded me that until 1911, the Royal Horticultural society staged its annual spring show in the garden, before moving to its current venue, the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The border I have just described was turned over to allotments in WW2 and blitz spoil lies beneath much of the soil of upper part of the garden. A magnificent avenue of London plane trees (Platanus x hispanica) runs parallel with the Victoria Embankment, screening the Inn from traffic and filtering the fumes. In a peaceful spot alongside the avenue stands a large circular lily pond, raised above ground and screened from the surrounding lawn by a recently planted hedge.

Elsewhere pillowy yew topiary forms settle plumply at the corners of a shady lawn. Silvery hued plants such as Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and a Euphorbia echo the pale stone of an elaborate pillar supporting a sundial.

Tucked to the east of the garden are steps lined with pots containing tender plants including a flamboyant Brugmansia and Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine. A nearby lean-to greenhouse is full of succulents and cacti.

As well as the planes, the garden is home to some other beautiful trees including a Magnolia soulangeana and a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). And to some wonderful roses: tall China rose shrubs smothered in loose-petalled blooms.

Inner Temple Garden might be located in the heart of an ancient institution but thanks to the head gardener’s vision and flair, it’s a garden for the twenty first century.

The Inner Temple Garden is usually open to the public on weekdays (excluding bank holidays) from 12.30-3pm. Access is via the main gate opposite the Treasury Office on Crown Office Row, London EC4Y 7HL.

More images from the garden:

Hardy’s and Hillier’s in Hampshire

This is a longer version of an article published last week in GMG News, the publication of the Garden Media Guild, the trade organisation of which I’m proud to be a member, for writers, photographers and all communicators in the gardening realm.

In my last post I promised to report upon the first part of my early June road trip which started with two memorable visits in Hampshire. Days out arranged by the Garden Media Guild are always special, with owners or head gardeners sharing their time and expertise whilst guiding Guild members around the gardens in their care. The two visits on 1 June 2022 were no exception, and for reasons that will become clear, were indeed exceptional. As I turned into the lane leading to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the village of Freefolk on the outskirts of Whitchurch, I noticed that the pub on the corner was called the Watership Down Inn after Richard Adams’ wonderful book and had a feeling that this was going to be a memorable day. 

We were greeted in the building housing the potting machine by Rosy and Rob Hardy. Whilst swallows swooped overhead to feed their young in numerous nests in the rafters, Rosy and Rob led us across to the propagation house, the first of the nursery’s three multi-span tunnels. The design of this house reflects their almost 35 years of experience as growers, with its three heated benches at chest level for ease of working and to provide storage beneath, an even airflow to protect young plants and two fridges for those seeds needing a drop in temperature to break dormancy. It also boasts a light sensitive automatic watering system. Peat free compost is used for the modules in which seedlings and cuttings are raised, with a top dressing of milled Portuguese cork. Rosy explained they recently started using this environmentally friendly material instead of vermiculite and are finding that it stops algae forming and they hope it will reduce fungus gnat infestations. Stock plants occupy the floor on either side of the central benches from which cuttings will be taken and seed collected. 

Stock material is propagated in the neighbouring tunnel where we learnt that the new stock plants are allowed to flower to check that they have grown true to type. Hardy’s have licences to propagate a number of cultivars including Geum Totally Tangerine and Rosy succinctly explained the intricacies of plant breeders’ rights and their obligation to pay a royalty on each plant sold to the breeder’s agent. 

To the rear of the houses we were shown the show stock for Chelsea, Gardeners’ World Live and Hampton Court. Although Hardy’s no longer exhibits at Chelsea, the nursery supplied plants to several of this year’s show gardens including that of Sarah Eberle. They stand the plants outside so that they experience the variety of weather conditions they are likely to encounter at the shows. The nursery is relatively high up (350 feet) on quite a windy site beside the North Wessex Downs. The night before our visit they recorded a frost. A shade shelter protects shade lovers like Hosta, PolygonatumRodgersia and various ferns. 

Few chemicals are used. The slug population is controlled by birds, voles and frogs. Ladybird and hoverfly larvae keep down aphids. A twice yearly spray against pests and diseases has been replaced with biological controls such as Encarsia wasps. It was interesting to hear Rosy’s views on climate change: ‘March is May now’. She showed us the extensive outside nursery area where plants are tagged with yellow for mail order plants and red for plants destined for the plant sales area. 

It was inspiring to hear how this large nursery started life in Roy and Rob’s back garden in Camberley with weekly car boot sales, progressing through a rented walled garden to today’s impressive organisation. Back in the potting shed (where sadly the potting machine was not in operation on the day of out visit- I’d love to see it in action), Rosy told us that milled cork is also used to top dress newly planted material. I doubt that few of us left without a purchase or three from the extensive plant sales area. My souvenir of the day is a very healthy looking Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing. 

The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are 20 miles south of Hardys and we mustered there early in the afternoon to be shown around by the curator, David Jewell. While we chatted before setting off, a smiling gentleman with a shock of white hair came over to join us and it’s no exaggeration to say we were all starstruck at meeting Roy Lancaster. Having already met two gardening heroes that day, it was a wonderful surprise to find out that Roy was joining our tour. He was the first curator of what was then known as the Hillier Arboretum and shared tales of his plant hunting exploits as we progressed through the garden. David was a superb guide and his route through the 180 acre site took in several of the 600 champion trees for which the gardens are famous. He recommends that when visiting a garden one should always ‘look up and look back’ so as to see vistas from every angle. On the day of our visit the peony display was looking superb and we were told that many of them were donated by Kelways Plants, whose Somerset HQ is only a few miles from my niece’s home. We were all very taken with the wisteria collection where 20 plants are trained up posts approx.2.5 metres high, an ingenious way to display a range of cultivars in a modest space.

Next came the Centenary Border, a spectacular double perennial border created to celebrate the first 100 years of the Hillier Nurseries. David is passionate about making the gardens as accessible as possible and pointed out the paved paths in front of each border to accommodate wheelchairs. The borders are studded with rare shrubs including one collected by Roy in Iran, the name of which I’m afraid I failed to write down correctly. 

Sir Harold Hillier died in 1985 but in this garden, as at Great Dixter and Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens, the signature of the garden’s creator is reflected in the planting, notably in the extensive collection of oaks, one of his favourite plant groups. The great man’s portrait sculpture has been placed near his home, Jermyn’s House, facing a specimen of Quercus macranthera.

David took us to the site of a new garden to be designed by Tom Stuart Smith to spread the footfall of the rising number of visitors (250,000 a year, an increase of 100,000 in ten years). Influenced by Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, the beds of the provisionally named Frontier Garden will be back-filled with crushed stone and planted with species from South Africa and the Mediterranean which once in the ground will not be watered again. David showed us the low slate roofed building where Roy Lancaster wrote the first Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. It is hoped to redevelop the building as a library and archive. The finale to the afternoon was a splendid cream tea in The Garden Restaurant where I was thrilled to sit at Roy’s table where he chatted about his garden which he describes so vividly in his monthly column ‘A plantsman’s notebook’ in The Garden magazine. 

From left: David Jewell (current curator), Roy Lancaster (former curator), Gordon Rae (Director General of RHS from 1993-1999 & joint patron of the Garden Media Guild) and Mike Palmer (Chair of the Garden Media Guild)

Last time I mentioned the imminent arrival of a certain ginger and white kitten called Seamus. I brought him home on Sunday and he has settled in very happily. As I write this he is curled up on my lap, purring contentedly. Expect some tales in the months to come of the challenges of gardening with a cat in residence. For the time being I leave you with the translation by my kitten’s namesake Séamus Heaney, of Pangur Bán (White Pangur) an anonymous poem written in Old Irish around the 9th century. So far any rodent hunting has involved a little fabric toy mouse but I love the sentiment of the writer and the cat, each plying their trade, content in one another’s company.

Pangur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

 His whole instinct is to hunt,

 Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love

Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

 Happy for me, Pangur Bán

 Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,

Housed alone, housed together,

 Adds up to its own reward:

 Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse

Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.

 Next thing lines that held and held

 Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye

Fixes on the wall, while I

 Focus my less piercing gaze

 On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails

Pangur springs, exults and kills.

 When the longed-for, difficult

 Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.

No vying. No vexation.

 Taking pleasure, taking pains,

 Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,

Pangur Bán has learned his trade.

 Day and night, my own hard work

 Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

Séamus Heaney

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:

The First Cut is the Deepest

I spent last Saturday attending a ‘Pruning Fruit Trees’ course at Writtle University College just outside Chelmsford. I’ve always resisted pruning clients’ fruit trees as I feel it’s such a specialised art and I don’t want to get it wrong. The course was postponed from last January and I was keen on getting some practical tuition. Why did I have to travel so far? It was quite hard to find a course: they seem to get booked up incredibly quickly and they tend to be held for a limited period in midwinter when the trees are dormant.

The beauty of the course was that it was really hands-on. After a brief introduction, the tutor Steve Ashley took us into the grounds of the college to demonstrate the basics. Working on a mature apple tree, Steve explained that the main aim is to prevent the tree becoming so tall that the fruit is beyond reach when it’s time to harvest it. He took out several water shoots, that slim upright growth that rarely bears fruiting buds and merely congests the tree. When he removed a pretty substantial upright branch from the centre of the tree, the structure immediately looked more open. That classic goblet shape was beginning to emerge, which allows both optimum air circulation and access of light to all the branches.

In a nursery bed in another part of the grounds, we were taught the importance, when planting a new fruit tree, of not planting too deep and ensuring the graft union, where the scion meets the rootstock, is above ground. If buried, the likelihood is the more vigorous rootstock will send up suckers and, if left unchecked, overpower the cultivar. Spiral rabbit guards are placed around each trunk to prevent the cuddly but destructive rodents damaging the bark of the young trees. As for pruning a young tree, Steve removed the central upright stem, the leader, to encourage the side shoots to bulk up and create a tree with branches yielding fruit within picking reach.

Across the road from the main campus and beyond some playing fields, stands a large orchard populated with dozens of mature apple trees, many of them needing renovation pruning. Here Steve demonstrated how to remove a limb without tearing the bark. Using a bow saw with a very sharp blade, he identified the branch that was for the chop, and first made a half cut into it a foot or so above the site of the final cut: this is the undercut. On the opposite side of the branch, and an inch or so beyond the first cut, he cut half way through the limb. Then, pulling the branch towards him, it came away cleanly leaving a stepped cut. The third and final cut is just above the collar, the line where the branch meets the trunk. The cut should be straight across leaving as little surface area as possible, rather than at an angle.

At this point we formed into pairs and were let loose on the trees. As instructed, we had all taken secateurs, pruning saw and loppers. I teamed up with Sara and we worked on two trees with Steve dropping by to inspect our handiwork. To start with it wasn’t as easy as he had made it look. But we practised the step cut and satisfyingly, found it made removal of a substantial branch much easier. The trees we chose were quite gnarly specimens and had several outer limbs which turned at 90 degrees and rose skywards. These we removed taking care not to remove more than a third of the branches. As Steve said, further renovation can always be done next year. As ever with pruning, we kept standing back to look at the tree as a whole to determine what else we might trim off. We followed the 3 Ds principle of taking out dead, diseased and dying branches as well as any crossing branches which might rub against each other, damaging the bark and allowing pathogens to penetrate. We learnt the importance in early summer, after the June drop, when the tree naturally sheds some fruit, of reducing the number of fruits to ensure that what remains matures to a decent size.

Before I left the college I took a walk through the campus and admired the generous planting throughout. In a bed clearly designed for winter interest, were red-stemmed Cornus, complemented by bergenias with deep maroon leaves. In contrast were hellebores with pale mottled leaves and clumps of snowdrops. Height was provided by pollarded willows and by silver birch. Elsewhere Cornus Midwinter Fire, the multitude of stems shading upwards from pale gold to deep orange, stood out vividly against the dark evergreen of the hedge behind.

The main driveway is flanked by superbly planted gravel gardens, appropriate given the relative proximity of Beth Chatto’s famous example of such a garden 15 or so miles up the A12. It is also sensible to garden in such a style in Essex, a county with a low average rainfall. Earlier in the day Steve had explained that the gravelled borders had been designed by a fellow horticulture lecturer. Even on the last weekend of January they were looking splendid, with plenty of height and texture and contrasting shapes and heights. Stands of spear-leaved Phormium and Astelia were woven through with several varieties of grasses, giving movement to the scheme. Scaly rounded cardoon heads (Cynara cardunculus: even the name is redolent of dinosaurs) added structure and drama.

Fortified by tea and cake at the Tiptree Tea Room opposite the college, I headed home to West London, after my second trip to Essex in six months. Being able to work on the trees myself was invaluable and gave me confidence to tackle the annual maintenance pruning of a modest sized apple or pear tree. However I would still leave a major renovation pruning job to an expert.

The Only Way is Essex: part 1

Beth Chatto Gardens

Writing about my gardening heroes and their gardens is like standing on the shoulders of giants. In this post I shall try to do justice to Beth Chatto (1923-2018) whose unique garden in Essex I visited a week ago today. In the same way that Christopher Lloyd stamped his personality and vision for his garden on Great Dixter (see my last blog post) the garden in Elmstead Market is redolent of its charismatic creator. You find yourself referring to ‘she’ and ‘her’ as you walk around the place, noticing details that she introduced, such as the three grass-covered bridges crossing the Water Garden and the pot garden in the courtyard close to the house, the displays changed according to the seasons. It was easy to imagine her walking around her domain chatting to visitors and inspecting the precious plants in the Stock Beds from which she and her team propagated the plants sold in The Nursery.

Reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook and Dear Friend and Gardener, the latter a collection of letters between Beth and Christopher Lloyd, I’d already formed an impression of the garden itself and the daily influence Beth Chatto exerted on the Gardens that she and her husband Andrew began to create from an unprepossessing wasteland in 1960, the site ranging from ‘parched gravel’ to ‘boggy ditches’, according to the blurb on the visitor map. So when a conversation with a friend earlier in the summer revealed that we both wanted to see both Beth Chatto’s garden and RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford, a plan was hatched for a weekend trip to the county of my birth!

At this stage I shall digress to sing the praises of a much maligned county. Essex is far more scenic and interesting and indeed record-breaking than its detractors would have you believe. It boasts what has been described as the prettiest village in England (Finchingfield, also the home of Dodie Smith, of One Hundred & One Dalmations fame), the longest bar in England (in a pub in Southend, one of its several seaside resorts) and arguably the largest village green in the country in Great Bentley, a mile or so from Elmstead Market. And not forgetting two world class gardens: Beth Chatto’s and Hyde Hall. Once you travel beyond the commuter belt to the east of London, the countryside is dotted with picturesque villages and small towns, many with ancient churches and market halls built with the wealth generated by the wool trade in mediaeval times.

Essex also boasts a relatively low average rainfall in comparison to other parts of the country and this was a major preoccupation of Beth Chatto in her vision for her garden. Whilst the lower-lying, boggier parts of the site were excavated to create a water garden consisting of three elongated pools fed from the reservoir on neighbouring land, the dry upper section of the land, on which a car park was originally built, was transformed in 1991 into the Gravel Garden. As I write this in the week of COP 26, this garden is a pioneering example of one watered only by rainfall. In her book The Dry Garden, Beth reiterates her planting philosophy of ‘right plant, right place’, demonstrating that plants will grow in difficult places if you choose the species that will thrive in that location. In the third week of October, the Gravel Garden was as attractive as it would have been in high summer. The palette is beige and grey with occasional pops of purple. Felty silver-leafed plants from the Mediterranean form low mounds punctuated by dozens of swaying grasses, substantial lumps of Verbena bonariensis and related species tinting the aspect with deep mauve.

All plants are clearly labelled and I repeatedly noticed plants that have not crossed my radar before, such as the deeply veined, penny sized leaves of Marrubium ‘All Hallows Green’. This wasn’t the only hint of the Halloween season. Elsewhere in the garden the propagation manager has placed colourful displays of pumpkins and other decorative gourds, some carved, others displayed for their colour and shape. Rather than hollowing out the gourds, the designs have been executed on the surface of the skin, enabling the artist to create faces ranging from the comic to the macabre.

In the Water Garden the deciduous conifers, the swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum) were just beginning to change colour, their emerging russet foliage echoing the woodwork of the little rowing boat moored alongside the Gunnera. Elsewhere the still pools reflect the lush planting on the banks. And again, more unusual plants such as the pretty mauve pom-pom flowered Succisella inflexa.

Beyond the Water Garden stands the most recently created part of the garden, The Reservoir Garden, opened the year before Beth died. This series of island beds was a mass of spectacular grasses, asters (now Symphyotrichum) and tempting but poisonous blue-flowered Aconitum. To the rear of the border alongside the neighbouring reservoir, stand multi-stemmed shrubs and small trees, including Sorbus glabriuscula with its small white berries flushed with pink.

The Reservoir Garden
Sorbus glabriuscula

Soft autumn colours are beginning to emerge on the trees of the Woodland Garden, the understorey comprising intriguing ground cover plants. I imagine this element of this area of the garden is at its height in spring, and for now it’s the trees which are the stars of this show, both their bark and foliage.

Between the Woodland Garden and the Nursery is yet another mainly herbaceous border where I spotted the leaves of Bergenia, more asters, a clump of pampas grass and both pink and deep red Persicaria flowers. When so many other plants have finished flowering by late October, the elongated, slightly twisted spires provide colour and low to medium vertical form. Plunging back into the Reservoir Garden we encountered a couple of beds of different grasses, in one the rice grain-sized flowers attached to strands of Panicum Frosted Explosion resembled raindrops.