(This is the second part of the two special blogs written for visitors who would have come to our garden on a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. As everyone will know by now, we have had to cancel all National Gardens Scheme visits because of the pandemic.)
The previous blog post was a quick tour through the more formal parts of the garden. Now I want to turn my attention to those other, more spontaneous or natural areas. Many of them grew up quite slowly – and yes, we did ‘design’ the fundamental layout behind them, but it was Mother Nature who did much of the rest and quite often we altered the layout to fit in better with the direction she was taking things. I think it very important that garden designers get a good feel for local context of the gardens they are designing. If you must import ideas from other places – and I concede this is an essential element of all modern design – then you should alter them to fit in with the surrounding landscape, the soils, the size and the scale of the garden. So a massive fountain the size of the ‘Great Squirt’ (that’s what I call it), at Chatsworth House, would look odd in a suburban setting; similarly, a brightly-coloured pavilion from a sandy rhododendron wood might appear rather out of place in a gentle Cotswold farmhouse meadow.
I’ll start this tour where you’re supposed to begin most visits: in the front garden. Our front garden has a chequered history. It had difficult beginnings. The silty soil here is very soft and the builders needed good firm access to the front of the house. So it soon became a bit of a quagmire, mixed with disused bricks, roof tiles and scrapings of mortar. When work on the house finished, I have to confess I stayed away from the chaos at the front. As a result, over the first two winters the deep wheel-ruts filled with muddy water then everything set like concrete in the heat of summer. The soil there had no structure whatsoever; it was completely dead – even more dead than the rest of the field in which we built the house, which had been relentlessly ploughed, harrowed, rolled and fertilised for at least forty years, without a fallow break or rest of any sort. It took about five years for earthworms to return in any numbers. We didn’t have a mole even pay us a visit, for at least that time. Then, sometime in the later 1990s, we took the front garden in hand. We dug in vast amounts of manure and slowly something that vaguely resembled soil began to reappear. It’s still a bit thin, but very much better. It’s certainly a gardening challenge.
My first picture is a view from the edge of the front garden with the Hybrid Musk rose ‘Prosperity’ in the foreground and an almost-finished peony ‘Bowl of Beauty’. These are both planted behind the wooden hurdles, bought at Melton Mowbray Cattle Market, which skirt the garden along the front driveway. In the background is one of the paddocks, complete with suitably peaceful-looking sheep, grazing.
If you take about ten paces backwards from the first picture, you’ll bump into the wirework of the four-arched dome that forms the central feature of the front garden. When we first planted this garden it was all very controlled, but since then, fuchsias have really gone mad and both roses and peonies seem to love it too. Even clematis, that normally don’t seem to welcome wet-retentive soils seem to love it; having said that, versions of the Clematis texensis (and yes, very surprisingly it’s named after the state of Texas!) have always liked damp ground and they do very well in our garden. So some time ago, we decided to stop over-controlling the front garden and it really has worked: last summer large numbers of visitors told us how much they enjoyed the rampant fuchsias around the dome arch.
You may have noticed in Part 1 that when I was describing the Rose Garden I mentioned the Long Walk that runs along its north side, beneath the trunks of two quite substantial Dawn Redwoods. Here’s a view looking back towards the spot where I photographed the Rose Garden, with one of the redwoods in the right foreground. Although they like damp ground, Dawn Redwoods create a rising slope around their trunk and roots which is often very dry and well-drained. This gives you an opportunity to plant cyclamen and other dry-loving plants which can look very striking at certain times of the year (they’re not in this picture as it was taken too early in the season). On the left is the wonderfully fragrant Hybrid Musk rose, Cornelia.
If you head down the Long Walk, which isn’t actually that long, you’ll pass a small enclosed semi-formal garden, which for some reason hasn’t featured in either of my two blog posts. Once past that, the path swings right and then left and you are now passing through quite a substantial birch grove. Somehow this rather sinuous path acquired the horribly pretentious name the Serpentine Walk. I think at first it was an ironic reference to the garden of some stately home, somewhere. But then sadly it stuck. So the next picture shows the Serpentine Walk looking back towards the Glade Garden on the left, at the end.
The Glade Garden was one of our biggest challenges, quite simply because it was one of the wettest spots. It didn’t help that the undersoil drainage system installed in the 1960s was blocked at this point, but even when we managed to unblock it, the ground remained stubbornly damp. Last winter there was standing water in this area for about three months. These large puddles exactly followed the alignment of much earlier, medieval channels known in the Fens as dylings. So about fifteen years ago we gave up fighting the damp in this area and instead decided to live with it. We planted a small stand of golden alders and wet-loving geraniums (such as Geranium palustre), species hemerocallis and of course bog-loving primulae (neither of which was flowering when the picture was taken). Rather to my initial surprise the birch trees we’d planted a few years earlier seemed to love the damper ground. Then Maisie reminded me that most of the trees at the wetter-than-wet Holme Fen Nature Reserve are birches. The Serpentine Walk crosses the middle of the picture, with the Round Garden (with its distinctive covered seat just visible), in the background.
If you follow the Serpentine Walk down towards the pergola at the end of the Long Border and then turn sharp left, into the Meadow, you will find yourself walking along the back of the birch grove, along the mown walk between the birch trees and the growing hay, which this season was cut on June 22nd. The photo is looking north-west towards the Bamboo Garden, with a drooping frond of one of my favourite roses, the species Rosa glauca, on the left.
About ten years ago we planted the red climbing rose Rosa moyseii at the base of the tall birch tree that occupies the left hand edge of the previous picture. Then we forgot about it, until quite recently, when we could just see spots of red high above our heads. The small red rose flowers contrast well with the pale birch bark. I love this effect. It’s very subtle and looks so uncontrived – which, believe me, it isn’t!
This next view of the bamboo garden was taken quite early in June, before the roses were in full display. I took it because Jason, who does such a good job improving and maintaining our hedges, had just tamed and cut back the rampaging spread of the two clumps of the bamboo, Arundinaria japonica, which about twenty years ago we were sold as being non-invasive (which it most certainly isn’t!). Jason has made an excellent film of the cutting-back on his YouTube channel. The two Dawn Redwoods, that edge the Long Walk, are very prominent in this picture and the variegated pampas grass on the edge of the lawn has recovered well from its annual late winter haircut, which I deliver in February with a hedge-cutter (and wearing very thick, grasscut-proof, gloves!).
And finally, as they say: the Meadow. This view was taken about a week before hay-making and I have to say the grass looks in excellent condition and eventually gave us about ten large round bales. One of the things I like about our meadow is that it’s a piece of working grassland. Yes, in spring it’s covered with cowslips and snakeshead fritillaries, and then there are wild daffodils and a mass of meadow buttercups, which found their way to it by themselves (or more likely by way of various birds’ bottoms). This view shows the grass when it’s not looking floristic and romantic. If I caught any passing shepherdess come tripping through it in a floaty floral frock I’d tell her where to go in the fruitiest of language. ‘Let that grass stay upright, or it won’t mow properly, Miss!’ – or words to that effect. The mown path is sometimes fancifully known as ‘Lady Hermione’s Tantrum’, after a fictitious previous owner of the garden, whose pompous husband used to drive her to furies of frustration. I won’t reveal what happens in the wood. That’s for you to discover when next you visit!
Meanwhile, if you’re feeling well disposed towards our garden, or to the National Gardens Scheme, do please visit their website. So far they’ve raised over £100,000 towards nursing charities, but in a normal (i.e. non-Covid) year, like 2019, they raised over three million! There’s still a long way to go! Gardens are starting to reopen for the NGS and we might do the same in late September. It will all depend on the state of the pandemic in the autumn. Sadly, neither Maisie nor I are quite as youthful as we might appear; so we have to be careful. With creaking joints, the aged author arises from his laptop, clutching stout walking stick and bottle of cheap gin.