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.
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.
Many of the interesting plants in this plant lover’s garden are sold in the plant centre. Just beyond the stands of plants for sale is a raised bed built from what looks like the hamstone which features in much of the architecture of south Somerset. This showcases specimens of a couple of dozen geraniums, all clearly labelled, a perfect way to compare colours and leaf shapes, scale and habit. This display is just one example of the way in which this garden inspires the keen gardener: so too do the absence of lawns, the myriad of herbaceous perennials, the planting combinations.
On this occasion I shall let the photographs demonstrate the beauty of this peaceful garden. What they cannot convey is the soundtrack of birdsong and the clip clop of horses’ hooves along the village street just beyond the walls of the garden. As soon as I got home I ordered Margery Fish’s We Made a Garden to learn more about the genesis of a very special place.
I left you at the end of my last post on the threshold between the Collector Earl’s Garden and the rest of the extensive grounds of Arundel Castle. This part of the estate is called the Landscape and nestles at the foot of the castle fortifications. According to the Gardeners’ Chronicle article of July 1875 I mentioned last week, this part of the grounds
was used as a kitchen garden, but Mr Wilson, the present gardener, did away with it as such and and laid it down in grass, planting on it a considerable number of coniferous trees
The ‘present gardener’ Martin Duncan has planted hedges and areas of perennial wildflowers. Swathes of spring bulbs sweep through the wooded areas, in which I spied an impressively gnarled cork oak (Quercus suber). Turning our backs on the castle walls, we entered The Fitzalan Chapel’s White Garden, bounded on one side by a flint wall and on the other by the perpendicular style windows of a former priory now a nursing home. The focal point of the garden is the huge stained glass window of the chancel of the parish church of St Nicholas. Thought to be unique, the building combines the Church of England tradition in the main part of the church and the Catholic in the chancel, the resting place* of the Earls of Arundel and Dukes of Norfolk.
Wall shrub Exochordax macrantha ‘The Bride’ clothes the walls of this peaceful space, and the densely planted border is crammed with White Lizard and White Triumphator tulips and the oddly named Summer Snowflake, (Leucojum aestivum) whose white bells resemble elongated snowdrops. In the lawn opposite the border stands a plain rectangular tank pool, its corners marked by Chusan palms. The haunting silhouette of a soldier stands guard, one of thousands erected across the country in 2018 in the ‘There But Not There’ campaign to commemorate the first centenary of the First World War.
Our route to the Rose Garden led us past the longest stretch of cloud-pruned hedge I’ve seen, trimmed we were told with hand shears, its bumpy bulk lightened by airy pink blossom.
Planted on the site of what was the Jacobean bowling green, the Rose Garden entrance is formed by a perpendicular arch clothed in the climbing rose Adelaide d’Orleans. In keeping with the eye for detail evident everywhere in these gardens, a similar arch stands opposite it, sheltering a black seat backed with triple gothic arches, echoing parts of the castle architecture. Crisply clipped box edging surrounds the beds, each centred with a tall obelisk entwined with climbing rose The Generous Gardener. Now that I’ve studied my photographs more closely the gold hoops topping the obelisks remind me of quidditch goals, not surprisingly perhaps, given that in part 1 of this blog, I wrote that these gardens have a magical atmosphere! Indeed, in her account of our visit, one of my fellow Garden Media Guild members, Laura, one third of the brilliant 3 Growbags, likens the gardens at Arundel to a fantasy film-set.
The rose beds have been filled with a very generous manure mulch, through which grow Delft blue hyacinths and yet to open Angelique tulips. In another of his video tours, Martin Duncan guides us through the Rose Garden at its summer height and shares his prescription for healthy, blackspot-free roses: 2 tablespoons of Epsom Salts (high in magnesium) dissolved into 8 litres of water administered monthly in April, May and June.
Next stop on the tour was the newest part of the gardens to open to the public (July 2020), the Stew Ponds. In contrast with the formality of the White and Rose Gardens and the manicured grandeur of the Landscape, these water gardens are a haven for wildlife and wild flowers. But nature has had a helping hand here: last autumn the garden team planted 1,500 water plants, wildflowers and bulbs in this area. Two large ponds are divided with a wooden boardwalk, to one side of which nesting swans zealously guard their nest. In 2020, six cygnets hatched and recently moved out to give way to this year’s brood which it is hoped will emerge soon. The ponds are fed by a spring and at the far end of each stand wooden thatched buildings: a boat house and a round house, the latter used for education groups.
We returned to the Collector Earl’s Garden via the motte, the dry moat which surrounds the castle. Strategically located atop a hill, this castle had no need for a water filled moat for defence. The steep slope beside us would challenge even the most sure-footed gardener, let alone an armour-clad attacker. We were told that the bulb planting on the steepest slopes was undertaken using some form of abseiling technique!
I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Arundel Castle gardens, open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 5.00pm. Thank you to the Garden Media Guild for arranging a splendid visit there a fortnight ago: a very special way to celebrate the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions.
A day or so after my visit I heard Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ read on Radio 4, with its poignant final line: What will survive of us is love. Thinking that the mediaeval tomb which inspired the poet must be in the Fitzalan Chapel, I did an internet search and discovered in fact that the stone effigies of the third Earl of Arundel and his Countess (their hands entwined) lie in Chichester Cathedral a few miles to the west.
When she was a little girl, my niece, on the drive from Sussex to Hampshire to visit her Granny and Grandad, would look up to the Arundel skyline and call it fairyland. The spires of the cathedral and battlements of the castle still lend the view an other-worldly appearance. On Monday I visited the castle’s gardens and found that those apparently impenetrable walls do indeed shelter an enchanted space. With fellow members of the Garden Media Guild I was there to see the gardens in their spring livery and in particular the thousands of tulips which are planted every year.
Having been divided into small groups, our tour began in the courtyard of the Collector Earl’s Garden with head gardener Martin Duncan, whose enthusiasm and passion for his domain was infectious. The immediate impression is of a historic formal garden decorated with pavilions, pools and fountains. Closer inspection reveals that the pavilions and columns are built of oak rather than stone and Martin explained that this part of the garden was created only 14 years ago, by the design partnership of Isabel and Julian Bannerman. Dozens of pots of brightly coloured tulips stand at the foot of the classically styled ‘Hunting Temple’ which is decorated with deer antlers from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate. Noting from their website that the Bannermans had also designed parts of HRH’s garden at Highgrove, I saw that there too is a rustic temple constructed of green oak.
In November Martin and his team planted 180 different named tulip cultivars throughout the gardens: fringed, parrot, lily and peony flowered, Darwin hybrids and many more. Some of the larger pots contain 60-70 tulip bulbs which are treated as annuals and replaced each year.
This section of the garden is a tribute to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), known as the ‘Collector Earl’, who when travelling extensively on the continent on diplomatic missions, amassed a huge art collection. On one of his trips he was accompanied by the architect Inigo Jones of whom more later. Between the water garden, which represents the nearby River Arun, and a spectacular labyrinth of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, stands a double wooden pergola clothed in newly emerging hornbeam. Martin explained that in a week or so red Apeldoorn tulips will appear amidst the white Narcissus in the labyrinth.
The curving borders around the labyrinth comprise the Exotic Borders and are dominated with multi-stemmed Trachycarpusfortuneii, which were sourced in Italy. At a lower level, ruby Rheum leaves thrust through the foliage of orange Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and yet to flower Alliums.
On a raised terrace at the far side of the labyrinth, stands a turreted wooden pavilion topped by a dome. True to the magical atmosphere of the gardens, this is Oberon’s Palace. Inside is a shell grotto, the walls decorated with planted urn images fashioned from navy blue mussel shells with a bubbling fountain in the centre of the space. The plaque states that the building is based on a design by Inigo Jones for a masque first performed in 1611, ‘Oberon the Fairy Prince’. Martin drew our attention to the distinctively shaped planters on either side of the entrance to the temple, which he had commissioned and which resembled lead but were in fact made with distempered steel, and cost a fraction of the price.
From here the exoticism of the labyrinth borders gives way to the symmetry and formality of clipped yew hedges, forming compartments housing the herbaceous borders. Judging by a video tour on the castle’s website, again led by head gardener Martin, these look stunning in the summer months. Martin proudly pointed out that the yew spires which separate this part of the garden from the next, deliberately mimic the spires of the cathedral. Arundel’s Victorian cathedral church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, dedicated as a cathedral in 1965, forms a spectacular backdrop to this part of the garden.
Hidden by the yew spires is another enchanting area, the Stumpery, which, Martin pointed out, is in an open position and gets more sun than those which are usually built in shadier spots and are planted with ferns and hostas, for instance the stumpery at Highgrove. When I checked later I found that too was designed by the Bannermans. The massive upturned trunks, roots akimbo, are sourced from trees downed in the park during storms. Each stump provides several planting pockets into which are tucked exquisite specimens: a rosy coloured Hellebore, diminutive species tulips, snakehead fritillaries, dainty dog tooth violets (Erythronium), primroses and Thalictrumaquiligifolium. In a corner of this garden stands a willow bower fit for a fairy queen, the fresh new leaves beginning to clothe it in a green mantle.
I should at this stage mention that the long gap between this and my last blog posting is due in part to the online English landscape garden history course that I have just completed. I found it incredibly interesting and absorbing, but the course, a busy period of spring tidying in clients’ gardens and a new web content writing role has left little time for the blog. One of the activities in week 8 of the course, when we studied Victorian gardens, was to dip into the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a weekly illustrated journal, to which we were given online access. I lighted upon the editions of 3 and 10 July 1875 and amidst advertisements for Calceolaria seeds and lawnmowers, a book review of a ‘Book for Beekeepers’, reports of onion trials in Chiswick, a weather report from Blackheath (29 June fine, but dull and cloudy throughout. Rain in early morning) and want ads for gardeners (wages £1 a week), was a two part article by T.Baines about ‘Arundel Castle: the seat of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk’. Featuring a history of the castle and a beautiful engraving of the castle, the article details a tour of the gardens which at that time consisted of extensive kitchen gardens and an arboretum.
The article describes numerous fruit and plant ‘houses’ for peaches, nectarines, vines (Muscats and Hamburghs), melons, cucumbers as well as flowering plants ‘for decorative purposes’ (presumably for the Duke’s apartments in the castle) such as orchids (Cypripedium and Dendrobium), pelargoniums and nepenthes. The author mentions no less than four ‘pine-pits’, each 45 feet long! Today the castle’s organic kitchen garden is impressive but more modest in scale, though it does have two very fine glasshouses, one a restored Victorian vinery dating from 1853. The garden was restored in the mid 1990s and is based on the design of the gardens at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park.
We were told that the garden is operated on a four year rotation for growing vegetables, and that there is extensive use of companion planting, with flowers such as Sweet Williams planted to attract pollinators and create a natural barrier to deflect pests like carrot fly. Martin pointed out an elaborate network of ropes almost at eye level along which gourds will be trained later in the season. The beds are edged in box and the walls shelter several fan-trained fruit trees: Morello cherry, plum (protected with a tarpaulin on the day of our visit which was unseasonably cold) and Conference pear among them. An arched frame running through the kitchen garden is trained with old apple varieties including the wonderfully named Peasgood’s Nonsuch. In one of the beds is a pocket meadow to bring in pollinators and there’s also a very fine house for that master slug-slayer, the hedgehog. At the foot of the long glasshouses stand a rank of cold frames all heaving with seedlings ready to be planted out once the risk of frost has passed. We were shown red-veined sorrel and a species sweet pea called ‘Tutankhamen’.
Leaving the kitchen garden, you enter a courtyard where a dense display of tulips in pots is massed beneath a flower-laden cherry tree: another magical touch in this special garden.
Like T Baines in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, I am going to leave you mid tour until next week. But before I go, in the 1875 article, after admiring the manner in which the fruit trees in the orchard were maintained, the author states that ‘here, as in each department of this fine place, are ample evidence of Mr Wilson’s ability as a gardener’. Were T. Baines to visit Arundel Castle’s gardens today I’ve no doubt he could say the same for Martin Gardner, his team of six gardeners and cohort of volunteers.
(Next time: The White Garden, the Rose Garden and the Stew Ponds)
The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.
And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden. This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.
How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.
And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.
Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.
I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.
Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather.
Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.
Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.
Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.
Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers).
By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’.
At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations:
R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.
I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow theEddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it.
Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving.
To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars.
As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.
Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’.
Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.
What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.
Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.
Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).
The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.
Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.
The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.
Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.
The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.
Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.
Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.
The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.
Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.
The varieties Mary showed us included:
‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging
Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.
Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.
The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.
Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.
I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his business partner Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener, a writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.
The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.
Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.
I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.
The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.
The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.
A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetespatula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.
In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.
Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.
I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.
The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.
But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.
On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.
It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.
Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.
I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.
The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.
Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.
Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.
One of the joys of the gradual easing of lockdown since June has been garden visiting. From The Newt in Somerset to Vann House in Surrey I’ve enjoyed several days off from a busy gardening schedule to explore some beautiful sites. At the start of August I went to The Savill Garden next to Windsor Great Park. Despite low clouds and fine rain my overall impression was of concentrations of vivid colours brightening dense ornamental woodland. Dazzling pinks and purples welcome you in the double borders leading from the visitor centre. Edged with pinky mauve Osteospermum, a block of warm pink Salvia microphylla is given an airy feel by clouds of Verbena bonariensis hovering overhead. Alongside are dark-leaved Dahlias bearing pom-pom flowers in puce, a shade which here looks better than it sounds. Puce is one of those words describing colour (heliotrope is another) which I associate with gloomy Victorian parlours.
In the Bog Garden I found more colour than I expected with the soft sky blue of bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) contrasting in both form and colour with the buttery yellow daisy flowers of Inula. I should mention that a welcome feature of this garden is the presence of plant labels. Spoilt by proximity to the world’s greatest botanic garden, I expect to find every plant clearly labelled in all gardens which are open to the public! But I accept the argument that whilst Kew is the repository of a priceless living collection of plants from across the world, the plants in many other gardens are to be enjoyed in their own right without a similar emphasis on identification.
The Summer Gardens consists of plantings of herbaceous perennials dedicated to individual colours. Some were vivid, indeed ‘brash’ as the visitor map put it (yellows, reds, pinks) and some cooler (white and blue). Mauve Cleome blended with the furry pink tails of Sanguisorba and a tall stand of Phlox.
In the blue border, alongside dainty Salvia ‘So Cool Blue’ with its almost black stems, I found a plant I’ve not heard of before, the blue lace flower, Trachymene coerulea. I mistook it at first as a form of Scabious, due to its plump lavender blue pin cushion flowerheads atop stiff stems. But the scale of the flowerhead (up to 5cm) prompted me to find the label. The RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Plants informs me that the plant is an annual or biennial from Western Australia, long-lasting when cut. The flowerheads are composed of tubular flowers which flare out into clusters of five petalled stars studded with anthers bearing white pollen, all supported by a claw of narrow sepals reminiscent of the setting for a large gemmed ring.
Echinacea purpurea ‘Virgin’ contributed its pearly white flowers to the green and white of another border, to one side of which Thalictrum ‘Splendide White’ was thrown into relief by the dark yew of an adjoining hedge. The mass of cup-shaped flowers resembled a 3m high swarm of white bees.