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.

It took considerable restraint not to linger for the rest of the afternoon in the ‘plantarea’ section of the Nursery, where many of the rare plants we had admired are for sale at what looked like very reasonable prices. I noticed that the sales areas are divided between damp and dry garden plants, which highlights the right plant, right place philosophy evident throughout the garden. There’s even a zone devoted to Scree plants.

We left Beth Chatto’s garden to drive east a few miles to the coast to visit Frinton. Although I’m too young to remember holidays there, this was where we holidayed when my sister and I were very young. Why leave the county when there’s a resort with a safe sandy beach a relatively short drive away? It was fun to walk along the beach and photograph the beach huts, trying to imagine which of them we played in front of all those years ago. I wonder what changes my parents would have noticed? The turbines of the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm would not have dominated the seascape to the south as they do now, strangely beautiful in the setting sun and supplying coal-free power to hundreds of homes.

My focus turned once more to Beth Chatto when I went to the Garden Museum in Lambeth last Wednesday afternoon. In a long display cabinet devoted to Beth I picked up a little more background to the creation of her garden.

Beth Chatto celebrated at The Garden Museum

From 1976 Beth was awarded ten consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. In her Garden Notebook she chronicles the painstaking and sometimes fraught preparations for a Chelsea show. As a result of her increasingly high public profile at this time she was offered a role as George Harrison’s head gardener which she declined. As well as examples of many of the gardening books written by Beth Chatto, the display case includes a pile of the nursery’s catalogues, with their distinctive cover design graphics, the stylised nine leaf stem.

Next time I visit RHS Hyde Hall and rediscover the lost art of pargetting.

1 November 2021

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September*: 2 days at Great Dixter

I’ve visited the garden at Great Dixter twice this year, in late May and early September. On each occasion the garden lived up to its reputation for presenting an ever-changing scene to the visitor. Given the eloquence with which Christopher Lloyd and now Fergus Garrett describe this special corner of East Sussex, I don’t plan to compete but to present some photographs taken on these visits and try to convey the uniqueness of Great Dixter.

May 2021

Meadow Garden
House entrance
Barn Garden
Sunk Garden
Beth’s Poppy: the first sighting of many in May. Gifted to Christopher Lloyd by his friend and correspondent, Beth Chatto
Yew topiary towers over the herbaceous planting
We spotted Fergus Garrett working in the High Garden
The house can be seen from most parts of the garden: here from the High Garden
The Cotinus in the Long Border responding well to a severe pruning
The house seen from the Long Border
The Hovel and Topiary Lawn

September 2021

Barn Garden
Holding up the mulberry tree
Christopher Lloyd set up Great Dixter Nursery in 1954. Here are the cold frames housing some of the nursery’s treasures. Note the bananas flaring up in the Exotic Garden in the middle distance.

Farewell to Great Dixter for this year. I shall leave the last words to Christopher Lloyd, whose correspondence with Beth Chatto I’m enjoying reading at the moment: Dear Friend and Gardener. In a letter dated 14 September 1997 he muses upon the secret behind his planting style: The placing of plants in relation to their neighbours is so important and so fascinating, colour being only one aspect to consider. Heights, shapes and textures, as well as season of comeliness, are all factors to be considered……I love the bumpiness of my plantings and the way it is possible to place a tall, but thin-textured plant quite near to the front, while channels of low-growers may appear as you approach and lead you to the border’s back or centre…… Continuity of interest is a subject I find specially interesting, and the devices for obtaining it, some of them quite labour-intensive, admittedly, but by no means all.

Visiting Great Dixter in late spring and almost four months later, in late summer, meant that I saw that continuity of interest in action in all its bumpy comeliness. I hope these photographs convey some of the magic of the place.

Kew: 10 October 2021

*September Song: Music: Kurt Weill / Lyrics: Maxwell Anderson

Perch Hill and Batemans

Sarah Raven’s cutting garden in East Sussex is near the village of Burwash on the outskirts of which stands the old stone manor house once owned by Rudyard Kipling. I visited both last Friday.

Perch Hill

The open day at Perch Hill started with lunch served on Emma Bridgewater crockery in an open sided marquee decorated with bunting. Nasturtium flowers and Dahlia petals decorated the salad.

The varied palette of colours compensated for the overcast conditions.

The Dahlia garden is a treasure trove of shades and flower types.

Unusual roses in the rose and herb garden include the two tone ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

Pot gardens and individual containers abound.

These Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’ were grown from seed 4 years ago

Perch Hill isn’t just about Dahlias: the roses are fragrant as well as beautiful.

Container lined arches add height and echo the wavy hedging to the rear.

Narrow stepped paths connect the terraces in this hillside garden.

Everything in the garden is clearly labelled.

The beautiful High Weald lies beyond the garden: note more wavy hedging.

Grasses and single-flowered dahlias in the perennial cutting garden.

Rare breeds in the chicken run.

The profusion of flowers in the garden is powered from the compost ‘palace’.

A rich burgundy Salvia in a metal container, and Sarah herself re-filling the seed display in the shop.

Batemans

The first thing I spotted when we arrived at Batemans was a sign quoting the following lines from Kipling’s 1911 poem, ‘The Glory of the Garden’.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.

Putting to one side the patriarchal tone of the poem, when read in its entirety*, it does evoke the atmosphere of an Edwardian country house garden tended by dozens of gardeners. How sad to think that so many of them left estates such as Batemans within three years of the poem being published to fight in the trenches, never to return.

How much hands-on gardening was undertaken by Kipling I do not know, but he designed much of the garden layout himself. The formal water garden consists of a round pond surrounded by roses from which a cherub fountain feeds a short rill leading to the large waterlily pond.

The house dates from 1634, the entrance framed by a profusion of shrubs and perennials.

A majestic dovecote highlights this peaceful scene.

Exuberant planting in the walled garden includes fountain grass combined with statice.

 *The Glory of the Garden

OUR England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye. 

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You’ll find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dung-pits and the tanks,
The rollers, carts, and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise ;
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows ;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray 
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away ! 

Rudyard Kipling, 1911

They made a garden: East Lambrook Gardens (and a vertiginous bluebell wood)

I’m gradually discovering what a beautiful and interesting county Somerset is. I visit regularly to see my niece and her family (with whom I’m in a bubble) and it’s been a joy exploring with them some nature reserves and gardens over the last couple of years. During my last visit a week ago we fitted in trips to a magnificent bluebell wood and a garden with a special place in twentieth century garden history.

The wood, to the east of Taunton, is managed by the RSPB. On the morning of our visit the sun had emerged after a heavy shower, the weather this month being more characteristic of April than May. The scarp walk we followed was aptly named, taking us up steep slopes, with steps built in in a couple of places. Bluebells flourished beneath the broadleaved woods, the blue haze interrupted here and there with other wildflowers.

East Lambrook Manor Gardens was created by Margery Fish and her husband Walter in the 1930s and is an exquisitely planted showcase for the English cottage garden style which she championed in her garden writing. Narrow stone-paved paths wind through the various rooms of the garden, allowing you to admire the treasures planted throughout. The immediate impression is of informality, until you reach the avenue of tightly clipped egg shaped evergreens. Thinking at first they were yew, closer inspection showed they were in fact conifers and I have since read on the website that they are Chamacyparis lawsonia fletcheri, raised from cuttings of the original ‘Pudding Trees’ planted by Margery Fish.

The pudding trees

Tempting as it is to keep looking downwards at the wealth of herbaceous perennials in the garden, there are several trees to admire which would look well in small and medium sized gardens. For example, Cornus florida which I fell in love with in Kew Gardens many years ago, distinctive for its large white bracts in April and May. Another favourite. of which there is a sprawling specimen in Kew’s Mediterranean Garden, is the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastris). East Lambrook’s specimens are far daintier.