These two blog posts (this is the first part only) are written for the benefit of those visitors who would have come to our garden in a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. Sadly we have had to cancel all visits as part of the National Gardens Scheme, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having said that, I’m delighted to report that all the cancelled tours have been re-booked for 2021 – when hopefully things will be rather different. Now I’m well aware that looking at a phone or laptop screen is a very poor substitute for being somewhere, outdoors, surrounded by the scent of roses and the rattling tree-tapping of numerous woodpeckers, but I hope this short blog post will help to make up for missing your visit this year. And with luck we’ll see you next year. Meanwhile, to use a current cliché, please stay healthy!
My original idea, when I began writing this, was to offer you a carefully-structured virtual tour of the garden, complete with maps, numbers, keys and arrows. Then we could both plod our way around the borders and through the shrubs, pausing dutifully to look at this or that, before moving on to the next dutiful pause. YAWN! To be honest, I couldn’t face it: I have a low threshold of boredom and the map-led ‘virtual tour’ was well beyond it. And besides, when you do manage to get here next year, you’ll be able to consult many maps and plans. Unlike 17th– and 18th-century landscape gardens, such as one of my favourites, Rousham, in Oxfordshire, we don’t have a preferred route that allows you to admire selected views from carefully-staged temples or waterfalls. We’d rather visitors found their own way around and their routes will depend on their inclinations at the time. But we have tried to avoid dead-ends: you should never have to turn back and retrace your steps. You may glimpse the same things from time to time, but always from a different angle. One of the questions I always enjoy is when visitors ask me about something they glimpsed in passing, but now can’t find! I always tell them where it is: I never take them there. Gardens should be about imagination and discovery.
No piece of writing can be completely without structure, so I have decided to write the first part of this Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden about the more structured part of the garden. Part 2 will turn to the less formal areas, where you’ll meet fewer people and hear more birdsong. And where better to start than in the most rigidly structured part of any garden: the vegetable plot.
Our veg garden is subdivided into four sub-plots, one of which is dug over with a thick mulch of well-rotted compost and sheep manure every winter. This allows us to maintain a four-course rotation, with potatoes going into the freshly dug plot in late March. The next year sees onions (year 2) then cabbages and other brassicas in year 3 and summer veg (runner beans etc) in year 4. This view was taken in early June and shows the onions (foreground); beyond are the summer veg, including a large steel hurdle which I use as a frame for sweet peas, behind that are the potatoes. The new Rhino greenhouse in the background is really earning its keep and is filled with young tomato plants, many of which are about to be planted next to the potatoes.
Here’s a close-up of the greenhouse and the plot of Sweet Williams outside it. I’ve always liked growing cut flowers for the house and Sweet Williams are one of my favourites. They smell delicious and last in a jar for a good week, if not longer. They also resist the effects of rain, which can devastate old-fashioned varieties of roses. The beds immediately outside the greenhouse are not a part of the 4-course rotation and tend to accumulate bits and bobs of stuff, such as the two giant Cos lettuces, which got there somehow. I think I might have bought them as plugs late in the winter. Anyhow, they tasted delicious and each one kept us supplied for at least six meals. One advantage of growing your own lettuces is that you can pull them out of the ground, with roots intact. I then wash off surplus soil and remove outer leaves, plus any slugs and snails and take them indoors, where I put them in a stout stone jar, with the roots in water. That way they can stay beautifully fresh for at least a week. It also avoids cluttering-up the fridge. But I’m starting to ramble: time to return to the Tour.
This is the path to the veg garden (visible through the gap in the hedge) that runs behind the barn. Our original intention was to pave it, but we ran out of free paving stones (I acquired a couple of tons of used slabs from a friend at the Peterborough Development Corporation when they closed down in, I think, the early 1990s) and couldn’t afford to buy new ones. So we grassed it over, as a temporary measure. It gets a bit worn in wet winters, but not too badly. We now have absolutely no intention of paving it over. Mud can be reduced by spreading chainsaw sawdust and a light sprinkling of seed in the spring gets the grass back in a few weeks. To the right of the path are two open soakaways that take run-off from the barn roof. You can’t really see them in the previous picture, but here is a close-up of one of them.
Notice the water-loving Iris lavigata variegata and the huge green leaves of the North American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. Skunk cabbage is highly invasive and must never be planted near streams, in Britain. The soak-away is ideal for it. The dwarf, twenty year-old jasmine on the bank behind the irises looks dead. It hated the wet winter we’ve just lived-through and we both thought it was stone dead, but about 10% of the branches have come back to life. It needs a very careful prune and plenty of fertiliser – but it’ll probably die, anyhow.
This is a view of the Long Border, looking towards the pergola at its eastern end, which is almost completely hidden beneath climbing roses, which aren’t in flower yet. It was taken in early June and we were both taken completely by surprise when some roses started to flower in the final days of May. By mid-June the garden was a blaze of colour and the absence of rain meant that old roses were particularly fine. I always hate to see it when their bright, fresh and delightfully scented flowers are rained on and rapidly disintegrate into shrivelled odourless, brown paper parcels. So sad. Whoops, I’m starting to sound like Trump. This picture was taken after a day of frantic border weeding. The lawn hasn’t been cut for a week and the border edges need a good trim. But even so, I think it looks stunning. The lovely pink rose in the foreground is ‘Geoff Hamilton’, a modern shrub rose by David Austin.
Great garden designers of the past used to love their set-piece views whether from upstairs windows, along manicured woodland paths, or down magnificent double borders that make ours look like a window box. But when I walk around these gardens I am often struck by the views one can get when set-piece features are approached from the ‘wrong’ angle. So we bore this in mind when we started to lay out our new garden at Inley Drove Farm, back in 1994-5. It was one of the reasons we have tried to avoid too much hard landscaping, like the construction of brick or stone walls. True, we have many hedges, but these are nearly all deciduous and they change throughout the season, losing their hard outline at this time of year. I don’t like the modern tendency to keep all hedges ‘neat’ and close-clipped at all times. You might as well have built a wall. So here’s a view of the Long Border from the outside. It looks wonderfully confused, which isn’t entirely true, because in reality it’s quite carefully contrived. The tall golden tree is the wet-loving dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, var. ‘Gold Rush’.
The structural skeleton around which most of the formal garden is arranged is formed by tall hedges of hornbeam. We chose hornbeam quite simply because our ground is too clay-rich and far too water-retentive to suit beech, which grows best on chalky soils. It turned out to be a brilliant choice. It’s very resilient and doesn’t mind being cut hard back from time-to-time. Like beech, it retains its brown leaves over winter. We normally cut our hedges once a year, usually in later July, following the main summer growth. This allows the long double border to acquire a completely different, far more formal, character during the second coming of the roses and for main aster season, in August and September. By early October the next year’s shoots are starting to appear and it’s these leaves that the hedge retains over winter. Here’s a view of one side of the Long Border, at the pergola end. In this view the pergola is visible, but the tall hornbeam hedge has almost vanished. It forms a natural background to the border that merges into the shrubs and roses along the back of the bed. It also blends with the trees standing in the Glade, directly behind the border. A tightly-clipped wall of hornbeam would look ghastly here, at this time of the year.
The next picture is a view of the Rose Garden, with the tall, as yet unclipped, hornbeam hedges in the background and the Long Walk heading away, to the left. The central shrub is in fact a dwarf tree, Thuja orientalis aurea, which we don’t clip or prune. Wrens and other small birds love it, especially in winter. Many of the roses are hybrid musks, including the pink flowers of Cornelia, which is clearly visible along one side of the Long Walk. We don’t enjoy rose gardens where roses are displayed on their own. I always think they look very stark and a bit frightened – rather like newly recruited soldiers on their first parade. So we mix our roses with peonies, geraniums and small shrubs. During last winter, large areas of the garden were very wet or actually under water for almost three months, and this had a terrible effect on the box hedges that lined many of the Rose Garden beds. We’re currently doing what we can to save them, but I fear we’ll lose about 30% of them. Still, as the late great Christopher Lloyd used to say: a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity. Right now we can’t think what the opportunities in this particular case are, but doubtless something will occur to us.
May, June and early July are the months of frantic weeding – even in an informal garden, like ours. I’m a great believer in the old gardening saying that ‘a weed is a plant in the wrong place’, but certain weeds can be very invasive and must be controlled. Happily we don’t have the two worst and most persistent weeds, bindweed (Convolvulus) and ground elder (its Latin name is impossible), but our soil is very fertile and any seeds on the air, such as dandelion, seem to put down deep roots on impact. That’s why this next picture, a view of the Small Border that runs parallel to the Long Border, features my wheelbarrow and one of the dozens of white ex-food supplement buckets we have left over from our full-time sheep-keeping days. Those buckets are strong and light and are excellent when weeding. The large cut-leaf buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia), to the right, is over ten years old and it loved all the rain that fell last autumn and winter. I’ve never known it look better. Day lilies (Hemerocallis) also love the wet and this year they have not been attacked so badly by the pests that like to develop in their flower buds. This is probably because the water standing on the ground for so long over winter may have broken their life-cycle. The large pot (more correctly a jardinière) is featured in an earlier blog post.
My final picture in this rapid review of the more formal parts of the garden, features an corner in an otherwise formal area, which is starting to develop its own rather individualistic character. This is one of the working shots I use to record progress, or the lack of it, in the garden as a whole; so it wasn’t taken with publication in mind – hence the lack of mowed lawn and uncut edges. It’s an area immediately outside the back of the house, on the north side of a wall that runs part of the way from the back door to the barn. There are two fig trees on the other, sunny side and we thought that this side would be bitterly cold and hostile, but we were wrong. It’s actually very sheltered and does get a lot of reflected sunlight off the back of the house, in summertime. The tall verbascums at the front should probably have been weeded out over winter, but I do love them, and besides, we needed more seeds. The netted fruit tree is a Morello cherry, which gave us a splendid crop of fine fruit for cooking. Morello cherries make superb jams and compotes (fruit preserved in syrup). The large-leaved small shrub is a tetrapanax, which has taken about four years to get established, but is now starting to grow vigorously. We often find that plants take awhile to get established in our heavy, clay-silt soils. But once they feel at home, they roar away – which is what I hope and pray the splendid tetrapanax is about to do. Fingers crossed!