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:

Magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden

I love the view from the window of the spare room in March. An early flowering cherry, a starry flowered Amelanchier and a large Magnolia with pale pink flowers grow in the gardens behind mine. The Magnolia is now very large indeed. Sometimes on a dull day the sun breaks through the cloud and illuminates the shell pink petals, which shine out all the more against the grey of the sky. This year the Magnolia seemed to come into flower earlier than usual.

On a walk with a friend in Kew Gardens on 2 March several of the Magnolia Grove trees were flowering, including a couple of the very large old specimens, the flowers high above very difficult to capture in a photograph. Welcome as the sight of these gorgeous flowers was, after the dreariness of winter, we both expressed the same thought, that we hoped the magnolias would last until 29 March! I had persuaded my friend and her husband to join me on that date for a magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex. I rationalised that the trees in Kew were more advanced because the temperatures in London are higher than in the countryside. Driving to jobs in the weeks that followed I saw magnolias in glorious bloom everywhere, and had begun to resign myself to having to imagine Borde Hill’s trees in flower rather than seeing the real thing on the day of the walk.

Thanks to Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, the great grandfather of the current owner of Borde Hill, this 35 acre garden a couple of miles from Haywards Heath is home to around 150 different species and cultivated varieties of Magnolia, including summer flowering evergreen specimens. Colonel Stehenson Clarke (‘Stephie’) bought the Elizabethan house and the surrounding estate in 1893 and created the garden, planting trees and shrubs collected by some of the famous plant hunters of the early C20.

The walk was led by Borde Hill’s Head of Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, and Dori Whatmore, Senior Gardener. Harry joined the team last November from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where after attaining his Kew Diploma he worked as a Dendrologist and Horticultural Taxonomist. The two-handed presentation by these knowledgeable gardeners worked really well and it was inspiring hearing about the work being done at the garden and Harry’s five year plan for it.

Dori and Harry at the start of the walk

In his introduction, Harry explained that the Borde Hill private archive includes letters to Colonel Stephenson Clarke from plant hunters like Ernest ‘China’ Wilson and George Forrest forming a fascinating record of the creation of the garden and the stories behind the introduction of new species. As we had noticed earlier in the month, magnolias are indeed beginning to flower earlier as a result of climate change, but Harry reassured us that because of the vast range of magnolias at Borde Hill we would still see plenty of trees in bloom during the walk. Colonel Clarke chose the property because of its geology: eight different types of clay have been identified on the site. It stands on an east-west ridge meaning it has both north and south facing slopes creating several different climate niches.

The Magnolia Trail

At our first stop near the entrance to the garden we were shown four trees which derived from seed collected by Ernest Wilson, including the fabulously named Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’, the Goddess magnolia. Near a pathway along the perimeter of the garden stands another Wilson discovery, not a magnolia but a rare tree which flowers so infrequently that when it does it’s a very special event: Emmenopterys henryi. Searching Wikipedia later I read that flowering (apparently the flowers resemble lace cap hydrangeas) seems to be triggered by long hot summers and that the tree is part of the Rubiaceae family, another member of which is the coffee plant! At Borde Hill, it last flowered in 2018.

We skirted the part of the garden called the Azalea Ring to find the next trees on our route. Named after a former head gardener from Caerhays near St Austell in Cornwall, Magnolia ‘Philip Tregunna’ is a young tree whose goblet like blooms are shaded deep pink at the base and fade upwards to a paler pink. Nearby, Harry described M. ‘Peachy’ as having ‘sickly looking flowers’. They reminded me of that shade ‘nude’ which was so popular in shoes a few years ago. Next was a tree which survived the Great Storm of 1987 despite being blown over, M. x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’. Harry explained that the species from which this white-flowered beauty derives was named for Etienne Soulange-Bodin (1774-1846), who founded the French equivalent of the RHS, Le Société d’horticulture de Paris. We then encountered the first of the TROBI champion trees* at Borde Hill, a 60 foot high M. campbellii, a champion because of its great girth.

The walk paused at this stage to enable us to examine in detail the structure of a magnolia flower. Laid out on three picnic tables were small branches bearing a few blooms. Harry encouraged us to strip back the petals to the centre of the flower and explained the complex morphology of what is one of the most ancient of the flowering plants, including the fact that magnolias are pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects, which they pre-date.

We learnt that most magnolias dislike alkaline soil and prefer a neutral to acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.6 pH, the ideal soil texture being a good loam. Magnolia stellata is the exception in that it can be grown on alkaline soil. When planting a magnolia, incorporate organic matter into the planting hole and feed with an organic mulch. Harry has already created ‘tree circles’ around many of the specimens where the ground beneath the trees is cleared of grass and any competing growth. This not only looks attractive but makes mowing easier and prevents damage to the tree or shrub. He was asked if he would stake a newly planted magnolia and explained that he tends not to do so, preferring that the plant becomes stronger when allowed to move with the wind. Were he to stake he would angle the stake towards the south west and attach it to the tree with a rubber tree tie. In Harry’s five year plan for the garden the priority is to propagate the collection, ensuring its survival for years to come. Propagation is done by grafting one year’s growth from seed onto material taken from the tree’s own rootstock.

Continuing the walk we passed the rear of the house with a view across to the property’s North Park. In the area of the garden called the Garden of Allah, we were shown a couple of evergreen species, M. obovata from eastern Russia and Japan and M. fraseri from the south-eastern USA. Both bear scented flowers in early summer. the M. obovata is a TROBI champion tree by girth and the species’ wood is used for furniture making.

In the same way that we all exchange plants and cuttings and cuttings with our friends and neighbours, the next tree M. officinalis was a gift in 1933 from a neighbour, Col. Messel of nearby Nymans. In its native China an extract from the bark is used in traditional medicine as a cold remedy and the tree is becoming increasingly rare. Harry shared a sobering statistic: 48% of the approximately 240 species of magnolia across the globe are threatened with extinction, through logging and change of land use to agriculture and development. Which makes it all the more important to preserve and propagate collections of these magnificent trees such as that at Borde Hill. Because fleshy magnolia seeds are ‘recalcitrant’ they cannot be dried and stored in seed banks such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a few miles away from Borde Hill. Like acorns and chestnuts, they have to be planted and grown on in order to be preserved, which makes gardens like Borde Hill with botanic collections of rare plants, conservation communities in their own right.

Perched on a knoll across from M. officinalis is a near relative of the magnolia, the tulip tree. Liriodendron chinense again hails from China and was collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson. Harry described the leaves as saddle shaped, with their blunt upper edges. Like its American cousin, L. tulipfera, the tree flowers in early summer.

In the north-west of the garden, in an open space called Gardiner Grove, named after magnolia expert Jim Gardiner, several specimens of two species of magnolia have been planted: M. springeri and M. acuminata. The young trees are protected with guards against rabbits which are attracted to the sap in the wood. They are soon to be fitted with TreeGator watering bags, zip up bags which release water over a three day period whilst the plants establish themselves. As the walk continued we all admired M. Black Tulip with its dark purple tulip-shaped flowers.

Magnolia Back Tulip

The final stop on the tour was the Italian Garden, a formal space with a rectangular pond at its centre, created on the site of a tennis court, with a view out to the South Park. To one side of the garden stands a large example of M. stellata with its open long-petalled flowers, which are slightly scented. It’s a popular choice in small gardens or as a border shrub.

Chatting to Harry and Dori at the end of the tour we discovered that a small horticultural team looks after the garden, supported by a small group of volunteers. They must work tremendously hard to keep this varied space looking so good. We were strongly recommended to return in June to see the Rose Garden.

After the walk we had delicious freshly made sandwiches and excellent coffee at the open-air Gardener’s Retreat Cafe and then retraced our steps and explored the area around the Rose and Italian Gardens more thoroughly, finding some fascinating plants and intriguing pathways as we went. Tucked in the south-western corner of the garden are the roofless remains of the old potting sheds which have become a charming garden in their own right, planted with tree peonies and primroses, a vivid Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba) scrambling across the mullion windows which still contain their leaded lights.

Thanks to Harry and Dori’s informative tour of Borde Hill’s extensive collection of magnolias I’ve learnt a great deal more about this elegant tree. Borde Hill Garden is a delightful place and I shall definitely return at another season to discover more of its treasures.

10 April 2022

*TROBI (Tree Register of Britain and Ireland) champion trees are the tallest and largest trees in Britain and Ireland. There are 75 champion trees at Borde Hill.

Here are some more images from the day at Borde Hill Garden giving a flavour of the different sections of the garden and the diversity of planting.

Marching forwards

Meteorological spring starts on 1 March heralding a new season in gardens. Bulbs which have been nosing through the soil for several weeks without progressing much have suddenly burst into life and the garden is full of tight clumps of Tete a Tete daffodils. The days are stretching out too and the prospect of visiting other gardens is very inviting.

I started the garden visiting season by going to Hinton Ampner in Hampshire ten days ago. Run by the National Trust, this largely formal garden near Cheriton in Hampshire occupies a magnificent position overlooking the South Downs. From the terrace nearest the house (largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1960) the view extends south across downland studded with copses of trees, sheep grazing peacefully in the fields. Yew hedging separates the garden from the adjoining farmland. The four rectangular beds which make up the Sunken Garden are punctuated with plump yew pepperpots, the immaculate topiary lending this part of the garden its character. Much of this section of the garden is currently roped off, to prevent the grass being damaged in the winter months. But it is still possible to steal tantalising glimpses along vistas such as the Long Walk, where huge Irish yews stand like a guard of honour either side of a grassy avenue leading from a sundial to a marble statue of the goddess Diana.

The Sunken Garden

We walked beyond the garden across the fields in bright sunshine, the sensation of the wide sky and open space exhilarating for me, so used to working in smaller gardens where borrowed landscape means a neighbour’s tree and where the horizon (glimpsed from the footbridge over the District Line tracks) features a disused brewery in one direction and the Kew Pagoda in the other. Admittedly not a bad view but lacking in sheep.

More clipped yew, fashioned into billowing clouds several metres tall

The outside wall of the large Walled Garden is intriguingly buttressed with clipped box, the spaces between filled with dense swirls of winter jasmine.

To one side of the Walled Garden stand several lean-to glasshouses, one a vinery where the vines are planted outside, like the venerable Black Hamburg vine at Hampton Court. The whitewashed far wall of a neighbouring house supports a beautifully trained peach or apricot (I was peering through the glass and couldn’t see a label) which basked happily in the sunshine. This walled garden is full of variety: vegetable beds at one end and a lawn into which sinuous beds of daffodils have been cut. A deep shrub border lines a path to the side of the garden, featuring winter interest plants such as Cornus Midwinter Fire and Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill: the tallest I’ve seen outside Wakehurst Place. The scent of the Daphne stopped me in my tracks.

The church of All Saints stands a short distance from the house, beside an orchard. I was intrigued by the tiled roof of the bell-tower which I read in the guidebook was added in 1879 when the tower was added to the C13 church. Spring flowers stud the East Lawn beyond the church, the daffodils superseding the snowdrops.

I mentioned the track-stopping scent emanating from a Daphne at Hinton Ampner. This reminds me that it’s easy to overlook how fragrant another winter flowering shrub can be. Yesterday I was at North Hill Nurseries near Chobham, buying plants for clients. The shade tunnel which houses shrubs such as Pittosporum and hardy Fuchsia is home to a large number of Skimmias . Their sweet perfume was intensified by the warmth of the spring sunshine and the confined surroundings. These are such good plants for small gardens: their domed form never seems to get too dominant and as evergreens they look good all year. My favourite (which I have in my garden) is Skimmia x confusa Kew Green: its creamy green flowers have been flowering for months.

When not at Hinton Ampner or spending other people’s money at the nursery, I’ve been working hard to make clients’ gardens (and my own, when I’ve time) ready for the warmer days. I’ve applied mulches to most of them: some shredded horse manure, some composted bark. I’ve pruned roses tall and small, trained climbers and a few ramblers, and weeded and pruned like fury, producing enough green waste to fill a recycling centre skip. Thankfully many clients have their own green bins but I do tend to make at least two visits to the tip a week, bulging bags crammed into the car.

At Osterley over the last few Fridays we’ve been edging the beds in the Tudor Walled Garden, ridding a border to the south of the house of green alkanet, and picking up the dead wood sprinkled across the lawns by Storm Eunice. Sadly the storm brought down a number of trees in the wider park and tore off a branch of the enormous Cedar of Lebanon on the Temple Lawn. We’ve also taken time out to admire the beautiful display of winter shrubs and spring bulbs in the Garden House. More winter fragrance here, with sweetly scented Sarcococca confusa overpowered by Narcissus Paperwhite Ziva.

To round up this summary of recent activities, I have two other items to report:

  1. I picked the first rhubarb of the season in a client’s garden last week. It is a large mature crown and must be a particularly early variety. I rushed home to check progress of my now three year old crown, growing in a container. The leaves are stretching out from the creased buds but it’ll be several weeks before I can pick a stalk or two.
  2. A large clump of frogspawn has appeared in my pond this week. Frogs occupy the pond every summer but this is the first time I’ve seen frogspawn. I can’t wait to see the tadpoles develop and hope there are enough ponds in the vicinity to house what promises to be a large brood.

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.

Support Act

In January, if I’m not spreading manure on my clients’ gardens, I’m installing strainer wire supports for climbing plants on fences and walls. It’s one of those jobs that’s easier in winter, when the borders are clearer and the subject to be supported will, if it’s deciduous, have shed its leaves. I bought a new drill last year, which has made this job much quicker and means that I can drill into cement posts which I couldn’t with my old Black & Decker drill (inherited from my Dad). Once I’ve drilled the holes, tapped in the rawlplugs (if I’m working with brick or cement) and screwed in the vine-eyes I do battle with the coil of wire! When I first started putting these supports up three years ago I got into horrible tangles trying to unravel the wire from the coil without creating kinks in the wrong places. I’ve now learnt to pay out the wire gradually and avoid this problem. My favourite part of the procedure is after fastening the wire to the vine-eyes when I tighten it by turning the vine-eye through 360 degrees using a screwdriver. It’s so satisfying when the line is good and taut. Depending on the height of the wall or fence I’m working on, I put up 3 or 4 tiers of supports: enough to provide plenty of options when tying in the climber or wall shrub.

With a climbing or rambling rose, my modus operandi is to train the branches horizontally along the wires, tying them in as I go and only then pruning the branches back to an outward facing bud. Last week I worked with two very large climbing roses which had been attached to stylish horizontal timber fencing but in a vertical direction meaning that the flowers had accumulated at or near the top of the rose, 2.5 to 3 metres from the ground. It took several hours and a return visit to finish the task but now these two roses should I hope flower at eye level. Both were English climbers from David Austin, one Rosa Wollerton Old Hall and the other Rosa Mortimer Sackler: the first pale apricot, the other light pink. In the David Austin catalogue, Wollerton Old Hall is described as having a ‘strong, warm myrrh fragrance’ with ‘intense hints of citrus’: sounds gorgeous. Hopefully my efforts mean that this summer the perfume is pumped back into the garden rather than wafting skywards.

Installing these supports has made me consider the myriad of methods used to control the plants in our gardens by either holding them up from the ground or back against a wall or fence. Here I share a few examples from gardens I’ve visited and from volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House. In no particular order, here they are.

Wall supports

In early December last year we garden volunteers cleared ivy from the brick wall between the Long Border in the Tudor Walled Garden and the American Border. I noticed that a stretch of wall was studded with fixings for wire supports and Head Gardener Andy Eddy explained that the wall had once formed the backdrop of one of the Victorian glasshouses at the property which had been used to grow stoned fruits such as peaches and nectarines. The plants would have been trained against the wall onto wires arranged in closely spaced tiers. This was my first experience of using a tripod ladder and it felt so secure and steady in comparison with a stepladder, as well as being more manoeuvrable.

Hurdles

I saw these in use at both Great Dixter in East Sussex and at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in Somerset. These ‘Sussex hurdles’ measure H56 x W69 cm and resemble mini gates. They are used to support herbaceous perennials, preventing them from flopping onto and swamping other plants, or to prevent lawns and meadow areas from being walked on. In one of those moments of frugality I didn’t buy a hurdle from the nursery at Dixter, despite being tempted to do so and have put my name on a waiting list for one. They are made in the Great Barn there, from chestnut harvested on the estate.

Tree stakes

I usually install a single tree stake for small saplings, such as a Prunus Amonagowa I planted in a newly replanted local garden in November 2020. I wrap an adjustable black plastic tie around both tree and stake, ready to be let out once the trunk’s girth increases. I was very taken with this double staking method seen in the orchard beside the World Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex. The tree looks sturdily supported and if the crop is anything to go by, the tree is very happy with the arrangement.

Apple tree at RHS Hyde Hall , October 2021

When I was in Kew Gardens today I was able to study the superstructure for the two huge stands of Wisteria growing in the northern end of the Gardens, between the Stone Pine and the Duke’s Garden. These are deliberately grown to eye level only, rather than on a taller support which means that you can see the flowers at close quarters in April, as well as appreciate their delicate fragrance. The plant’s sturdy branches are attached to cylindrical tree stakes measuring about a metre and a half, using buckled ‘belts’ which can be loosened or tightened as necessary.

Rose supports

Apart from the system I described above for training climbing and rambling roses against fences and walls, there are many different ways to support vigorous roses. I first saw the swag arrangement in Queen Mary’s Garden in The Regent’s Park, where tremendously thick ropes are swung from a wide circle of timber supports. It’s an absolute picture in June when it’s smothered in rambling roses. I saw a similar system, bare of flowers of course, in the Kitchen Garden at Chatsworth in November using a chunky chain rather than ropes. Another favourite of mine is the obelisk, which I’ve seen installed in varying heights in different gardens. Those punctuating the Broad Walk Borders at Kew Gardens are about three metres tall as are those I saw in the Rose Garden at Arundel Castle last April.

In my own garden I grow Rosa Blush Noisette against a wooden trellis and Rosa White Star around the timber support of a single arch. I attached strainer wire to each of the vertical planes of the post and each year I train the branches of the rose around the post in an anti-clockwise direction. Last year, in its third year, it reached the top of the post and I shall now encourage it along the archway.

At Osterley roses are grown against walls and on timber frames. Here is the rose trained onto the rear wall of the Garden House.

Metal supports formed into an arched tunnel were festooned in roses and clematis in Kate Stuart Smith’s garden at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire which I was lucky enough to visit last July. A metal archway is a relatively new feature at RHS Wisley, located near the old entrance into the garden.

In September dahlias are the main attraction in Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. It was an education to see the methods used to support the array of colours and forms of dahlia abounding in this garden which showcases many of the varieties in the inspirational catalogue. Although almost hidden by foliage I could just make out a timber framework constructed I believe from silver birch. In her book A Year Full of Flowers*, Sarah Raven devotes several pages in the April chapter to the structures used at Perch Hill, each constructed afresh every year. I also admired the cat’s cradle effect of string between coppiced branches in another part of the garden.

Talking of coppiced branches, I spotted this simple but very effective way to hold up lavender used along the driveway at North Hill Nurseries, the wonderful wholesale nursery near Chobham where I buy plants for my clients. A single pole is supported by shepherd’s crook style metal stakes at just the perfect height to prevent the shrub sprawling onto the grass.

In the last year or so I’ve discovered the merits of the half hoop metal support, the taller versions of which are very valuable for keeping exuberant perennials like Salvia Amistad in check. They are very versatile: for example, two can be arranged in a ring formation or a single hoop can be enough to separate one plant from another. They are not cheap though and I shall continue looking for the mythical versions a client told me were once stocked at an excellent price by Wilko!

My final images are a miscellany of sui generis solutions to unique scenarios. V-topped struts support a limb of an ancient lime tree at Great Dixter. A massive banana plant in the Temperate House at Kew is held upright by strong wire encased in rubber tubing attached to very substantial wooden posts. And perhaps the ultimate in plant supports, the brickwork buttress for the trunk of the Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) in Kew Gardens, the horizontal branches of which rest on metal stands.