I don’t want this late winter garden blog post to become a piece of anti-designer invective, because I have to concede that some of the finest gardens ever created were actually drawn in advance of their creation, on sheets of paper. Of course the garden designers, or landscape architects (as we would call men like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown today), would nearly always visit or survey the sites in question before they began their work, but the fact is, by the very nature of their jobbing profession, they rarely got to live in the spaces they were transforming.
Brown’s early work at Stowe (where he wanted to site a lake, which the geology wouldn’t accept!) is an exception, because he joined the great estate’s staff as a very young (age 25) Head Gardener, in 1741 – and I still think his planting there, is a wonderfully sensitive reflection of the gently rolling Buckinghamshire landscape, even if it doesn’t remotely resemble the craggy landscapes of Greece. I somehow doubt if this scheme would have been quite so restrained, had he simply visited Lord Cobham’s magnificent house. Incidentally, 2016 is the 300th anniversary of his birth, and we’re going to hear a lot about the great man when the stately home garden-visiting season hots-up, after Easter. I’ve subscribed to an Unbound book on him, which promises to be an excellent and highly informative read – and there’s still (just) time to subscribe.
As I’ve started this digression into garden designers, I might as well continue. Our neighbour for many years was the leading modern garden designer Arne Maynard and the flat Fen landscape seemed to suit his architectural style of designing, which has always stayed clear of modern minimalism. Maisie and I were actually chatting to him at Chelsea when he was told the news that he’d just won the most coveted Best in Show award – and for his first appearance there! It was a stunning achievement and was greeted with a lot of hugging and jumping about, before we slipped away as soon as the Press started to materialise. We’re still in touch, and our garden has several plants that he has given us, including the first of the snakeshead fritillaries that will probably be out in early April, or even in March, as this season is so far advanced. Although our styles of gardening were very different, I think Arne rather liked our rather chaotic and slightly hit-or-miss approach. Of course as a professional, he couldn’t afford to make mistakes and I know he learnt from ours. I mention Arne because a book has just been published which describes and illustrates some of his better-known gardens. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like his other books, it’ll be well worth buying.
Our garden has a few structural elements that act as a basic skeleton. These bones can be tweaked or modified, but they are unlikely to be removed. The curving front drive (and I have to admit I don’t like the modern Americanism ‘driveway’) is such a feature. When we laid the garden out, it was just a flat, open Fenland field and we needed privacy and protection from the north-easterly winds that are such a feature of the Fens in winter. So the drive curves through a small orchard, which stands between the house, garden and the outside world. The rural lane that runs down one side of our holding is raised on a very low bank, and marks the edge of the parish drainage in the early Middle Ages. Beyond the bank was the open parish grazing, on land that would then have been less reliably dry, especially in wintertime.
I laid-out the front drive long before we started building the house or barns, back in 1993. And the method I used was highly sophisticated: I drove onto the field in my four-wheel drive and we pegged-out the tracks left by my wheel-ruts in the soft soil behind me. Simple, really. Then it took a tracked excavator, plus 16 forty-ton loads of bricks to build-up the foundations of the drive and farmyard. They’ve had some abuse over the years, but are still looking as good as new. And passing tarmac contractor cowboys please note: I don’t want a ‘neat’ black-top approach. Tarmac spills water; our bricks absorb it. Besides, I like our twin wheel-rut drive and the crocuses that grow in the shallow soil that’s built-up above the bricks along the verges.
After we had built the house and laid-out the garden we dug a pond just to the north of the house (but sufficiently far away to avoid any subsidence problems). This takes run-off from the roof. It’s natural and un-lined with a healthy population of newts (which are back again, swimming around, this year). Sadly it dries-out in prolonged droughts, but I daren’t deepen it further, in case it destabilises the house and drive.
The drive separates the house and garden from the sheltered paddocks that we use to graze the ewes and young lambs in the spring, when they’re first put out. We wanted to plant a rose hedge along it. So Maisie did some research. We didn’t want the long viciously thorny shoots of the native British wild rose, which can also be very invasive; neither did we want a rose that would somehow look too formal and ‘gardeny’. So we opted for an American variety, Rosa suffulta which grows about six feet (2 metres) high when fully mature. It isn’t very thorny or invasive and it forms a thick clump when cut back. It has delightful pink flowers throughout the summer and stunning hips in the autumn. These hips are an important food-source for blackbirds and thrushes throughout the winter. We cut the hedge back to the ground two and three years ago so the new shoots are a wonderful, deep red colour, which they’ll gradually lose over the next three years.
You can’t say that many things in life or gardening have been a huge success, but Rosa suffulta certainly has been. It’s both beautiful and practical and it provided an effective screen and windbreak when the garden was still young and immature. Now in its old age, we’ve renewed it by cutting back its entire length in two sections and it has rewarded us with some stunning winter colour.
But there is a second component of our drive in wintertime that has also been surprising. It, too, has been the result of some rather drastic renewal surgery, in this case caused by the re-pollarding of some white willows that we planted between the drive and the pond – in part to consolidate the latter’s banks. The variety we chose (Salix alba, Chermesina) was noted for the colour of its young wood. I’ve featured this willow in an earlier blog post, but then I was writing about mature trees in winter. The fresh young wood of recently pollarded trees is much more strongly coloured.
Best of all (and I must confess this wasn’t exactly planned), the reds of the pollarded willows and the young roses set each other off superbly. And they lighten up what has been a very grey, wet, overcast winter. Let’s hope spring turns out to be a bit drier – and colder. Cold, dry weather is much the best for lambing, as it discourages the spread of bacterial diseases. We start lambing on March 19th. So stay tuned for over-excited blog posts. Even though I’m now an old hand, I can never take lambing for granted.