Sunday, 21 June 2015

Silent Sunday - Gardens to visit - Parham House, West Sussex

Parham House in West Sussex is open every Sunday throughout the season 12.00 - 17.00. Also open Wednesday to Friday. Admission to the garden is £8.00 for adults (free to HHA members). Other notable gardens nearby include Sussex Prairies and West Dean.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Last chance to see Little Wantley in Sussex for NGS opening this weekend

Imagine a house overlooking a wonderful lake and a garden full of surprises - this is what you'll find at Little Wantley in Sussex if you visit this weekend. It's a little piece of heaven - brainchild of the late Hilary Barnes, who died last year - created over the last two decades and now a peaceful oasis, complete with rowing boat for the family to use. But it's also provided a wonderful canvas and allowed the owners to plant a range of water-loving plants that couldn't flourish without it.
Everywhere you turn in this 4.5 acre garden, you'll find something different, like the rope walk (above) flanked by glorious borders brimming with perennials and roses, leading up to the pergola; and the Stumpery (below), made up of old roots of oak and chestnut, which took four years to collect. And as Hilary once said: "We were stumped on how to begin ... so we lifted the largest roots into place to form the base and then fitted the other pieces into position, like a jigsaw puzzle."  
Everywhere you turn there is another charming vista, like the flower garden below - bursting with colour; a secret garden accessed through a pergola; a cantilevered jetty with its own pergola; and glorious views over the lake, which incorporates two islands.  This garden is a masterpiece, and although Hilary once said: "Opening your garden is like baring you soul!", this is definitely one to visit this weekend, because it's the last chance you'll have to see it.
Little Wantley opens for the NGS for the last time this weekend - on Saturday, June 20th - from 14.00 - 17.30. Admission £5.00. Do get there if you can. And for other open gardens, you can use the NGS garden finder to see what there is on offer in your area.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Silent Sunday - Gardens to visit - Monks House, East Sussex

Located at Rodmell near Lewes in East Sussex, Monks House is a perfect cottage garden to visit on a Sunday afternoon. Former home of Virginia Woolf, it is now owned by the National Trust and is open from 13.00-17.30 (free admission to members).

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Hidcote Manor Garden - Paradise Lost and Found in the Cotswolds

Hidcote Manor has undergone a £3.5 million renovation programme since the Millennium
When I first visited Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire several years ago on a hot summer morning in June. It was nothing short of a nightmare! The car park was heaving with coaches, it was over-run with visitors and I came away feeling that I'd been short-changed at a garden theme park ... hustled, bustled and shoved out of the way by foreign tourists desperate to immortalise Lawrence Johnston's iconic Cotswold garden on their memory cards. But if you consider that Hidcote and Sissinghurst are to England, what Giverny and Villandry are to France in terms of drawing garden visitors, it is not surprising. So try and arrive late in the afternoon, as I did this time, at the tail end a rainy day and you might find it more appealing.
First view of the cottage garden at Hidcote Manor as you enter the property
Hidcote has undergone a huge transformation and reincarnation during the last decade, under the stewardship of the National Trust and a committed team of gardeners headed by Glyn Jones. Regarded as one of the most influential 20th century gardens in Britain, it was created by a passionate gardener - Lawrence Johnston - who was no more than an amateur when he arrived in Gloucestershire in 1907. But he became extremely skilled during the 40 years that he lived and gardened here. It was the first property given to the Trust exclusively as a garden, but during the next fifty years of their "parenting", it lost much of the original spirit in which it had been created. 
Lawrence Johnston used hedging and trees to protect his ever-growing plant collection at Hidcote from the winds
As the Millennium approached, a decision was made to restore the garden to the way it was when it was when given to the Trust in 1948. Twelve years and £3.5 million later, Hidcote is back on the map looking the way it did when Johnston left it. The 300-acre estate at Hidcote Bartrim, was originally purchased by Lawrence's mother, Mrs Gertrude Winthrop in 1907, but she had never envisaged a garden here because she was more interested in being lady of the manor. Fortunately, her son had different aspirations and he reclaimed 10 acres from the estate to create the garden that is there today. 
Much of the charm of Hidcote is the vistas through the various garden rooms
Hidcote occupies an unlikely position for a garden of this stature, because it sits on top of a hill overlooking the Vale of Evesham. There was nothing here but fields when Johnston arrived with his mother and the garden rooms were born - using walls and hedging - as a result of his endeavours to provide protection to his ever-growing plant collection. Little has ever been published about him, although he was an ex-patriate American who settled here and fought for his new homeland in both the Boer and First World Wars. He was known as the quiet American, and was the son of a wealthy Baltimore family. 
The red borders at Hidcote are like a firework display
Fortunately for modern visitors, it appears that Lawrence Johnston was an early 20th century plant "geek". He was obsessed both with his garden and plants and travelled widely collecting plants during the 1920s. But equally fortunate was the extent of his mother's wealth, because it would have been impossible to have amassed such a fine collection of plants in those post-war years, without considerable financial backing. He also acquired his second garden property in the roaring 20s - Serre de la Madone - in the South of France, near Menton, and used this as the home for plants that could not survive the English climate. He later retired there because of ill health and today, that garden is also being restored.
Anna Pavord has argued that Johnstone was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement at Hidcote
With little gossip and nothing more than a couple of letters and diaries left behind by Lawrence Johnston about his life or his garden, it is hard to know where he acquired his sense of design. It has been suggested by Anna Pavord that he was influenced by the emerging Arts and Crafts gardening movement, spearheaded by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. His close neighbour and friend, Mark Fenwick lived at Abbotswood nearby, and he had plans drawn up by Lutyens for his own garden in 1902. And although Hidcote does not bear the normal hallmarks of the era in terms of pergolas, terraces, urns and ornaments, the massed planting style does. 
Hidcote's Rose Walk offers colour and variety throughout the seasons
The restoration project undertaken by the National Trust at Hidcote has breathed new life into a property that was beginning to look somewhat sad and dishevelled at the end of the 20th century. Fortunately the Trust has had the vision to recreate this important property and restore the original planting plans in the various garden rooms.
The Bathing Pool Garden where the water in the pool
changes colours with the seasons

Although the garden covers only ten acres, there are 28 different garden areas here, each with different themes, ranging from the White Garden to winter borders, the magnificent newly-restored Plant House to a Poppy Garden, and the Bathing Pool garden, where the water changes colour according the seasons, ranging from an icy blue in winter, to the vivid green of high summer. But the master plan is more complex even than the number of garden rooms because to the south of the manor, the different gardens are all on different levels, with paths winding through them and a staggering array of secret entrances through topiary dividers. 
     There is no preferred route around Hidcote - you find your own way through the gardens and try not to miss anything, although a single visit will never be sufficient to take it all in. To the north of the manor, there is a very different feel to this garden, and the magnificent restoration and rebuilding of Lawrence Johnston's famous Plant House is a credit to the National Trust and the plantsmen who keep this garden alive. But whichever route you take, try not to miss anything - there are many hidden corners at Hidcote. You have to start south of the manor because the entrance is through the house, but it's easy to get diverted and miss the north part of the garden.
The Rock Bank has undergone a complete restoration at Hidcote as part of the renovation work
To the north of the manor house you'll find the magnificent Rose Walk, ablaze with colour in high summer; and the welcome shade of the Plant House, filled with exotic plants, overlooking the lily pond, as well as the Kitchen Garden, filled with tempting produce. Elsewhere in the garden, the Rock Bank (above) has also been restored, and although it is early days, given all the replanting, this will come into its own as it matures. Also worth remembering about this garden, is that a change in the seasons will bring about a change in the look of the garden, because it was originally planted to ensure that there was always interest, even in the harsh winter months.
Hidcote is open every day throughout the spring and summer months (April to end of September), from 10.00-18.00. Best times to visit are as it opens or later in the day, if you want to enjoy the garden without too many visitors. Entrance is £10.45 for adults (free to National Trust members). Do make sure you don't miss Kiftsgate Court on the other side of the road if you make the pilgrimage to Hidcote Bartrim.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

To Gravetye Manor born - Tom Coward talks about his first five years in the garden created by William Robinson

Tom Coward arrived at Gravetye Manor just five years ago, but has achieved remarkable results during his time as head gardener there. He has not only embraced the challenge of restoring William Robinson's former garden to its former glory, but has worked hard with the new owners of the property to find the right balance between allowing the planted areas to progress, while preserving the history and the unique planting style championed by Robinson, who was a vocal and committed advocate of "wild" gardening.

Tom Coward in the garden at Gravetye Manor
with his dog Vera
William Robinson was a somewhat enigmatic figure - a distinguished horticulturalist who wrote prolifically during his 98-year life - and who championed the idea of "wild" gardening and naturalisation of bulbs in both his writing and his own garden at Gravetye. His best-known books: 'The Wild Garden' (published 1870) and 'The English Flower Garden' (15 editions published between 1883-1933) had a huge influence on other gardeners at the time, yet there are no great gardens attributed to him except the one he created at his manor house in Sussex. 

Tom is no newcomer to gardening or writing and contributes a regular column to Country Life. He came to Gravetye from Great Dixter, where he had worked previously with Fergus Garrett and became well-acquainted with abundant perennial flowerbed planting schemes and wild meadows. He arrived shortly after the hotel was bought by Jeremy Hoskings, who saved it from receivership in a last-minute buyout in 2010.
When I first interviewed Tom in 2011, as he was settling in to his new post as head gardener at Gravetye, a five-year plan had already been formulated for the gardens, which included restoration of the unique elliptical walled garden and Victorian glasshouses; the planting of many new trees; installing a new pergola and planting thousands of bulbs to allow them to naturalise in Robinson style. His hard work has paid off and today the garden provides seasonal colour and a flowering palette that appears effortless. And although the credit for the gardening goes to Tom, he is adamant that no restoration or progress would have been possible without commitment from the owners, who see the garden as a vital part of the guest's experience.
The original pergola at Gravetye Manor when Tom Coward arrived in May 2010
In reality, this look could never be achieved without the tireless efforts of a team of gardeners under Tom's stewardship. It helps that the owners are firmly committed to restoring the gardens and have had the vision to draw on a number of research sources to reinstate the original Robinson look. Tom has been actively involved in searching archives around the country to find photographs and paintings showing how the gardens looked in Robinson's day, and referred to paintings by Alfred and Beatrix Parsons, which had been particularly helpful during the last five years with reference to plant choices and placement.
The new pergola at Gravetye Manor, replanted by Tom Coward since he arrived
William Robinson moved to Gravetye in 1884 and lived there for the remaining 51 years of his life, devoting his time to creating a well-planned naturalistic garden from the surrounding acres of woodland and pasture, by planting mixed perennial borders and using ground cover plants to hide bare soil areas. He was well known for his dislike of the prevailing 'landscape' movement and wanted his garden to be full of flower combinations, with what appeared to be "wild" planting and drifts of colour. 
The walled garden at Gravetye is elliptical - Tom Coward has overseen its restoration and it now provides much of the produce used in the restaurant, as well as fresh flowers for the hotel
Today the owners are determined to recreate the original Robinson look and Tom Coward is well-equipped to carry out their vision. He agrees that he has an easier job than his predecessor with the wide range of plants available from modern sources, but there were teething problems at the outset because years of neglect meant that the beds adjacent to the house had to be replenished and replanted - no easy task with a constant stream of hotel guests wanting to enjoy the quintessentially English garden on their doorstep.
A typical garden view for hotel guests at Gravetye - abundant "wild" planting and colour
Part of the challenge that he most enjoys is the hotel element of the property. "We're never closed", he says, "but the real joy is seeing guests use and interact with the garden". He is also deservedly proud of the walled garden, where all produce is used by the restaurant and flowers are cut daily for the manor. Not surprising therefore that his gardening team has doubled since he arrived at the manor with so many new projects in progress.
Newly-mown meadow at Gravetye Manor - Tom and his team have planted thousands of bulbs including daffodils, camassias and tulipa silvestris since he arrived
Training is another important part of the garden philosophy at Gravetye. Tom has a constant throughput of trainees from various different schemes including the Historic Botanic Garden Bursary. He enjoys having them on site because he says it's rewarding to see their enthusiasm and how they develop in the unique garden environment he oversees. He thrives on their constant desire to learn and improve and feels that the garden is a particularly good training ground because there are so many different components to it -flower beds and borders, an orchard, meadows, the walled garden and the greenhouses - affording the opportunity to see diversity in the workplace and acquire different skills.
The gardens at Gravetye in September - there's still plenty of colour in the borders
Ask Tom what his favourite local gardens to visit are and he will tell you: Great Dixter, Prospect Cottage and Sussex Prairies. If you would like to visit Gravetye Manor, but have no plans to stay there, the best way is to have afternoon tea. You can then wander the garden at your leisure. Alternatively, head for the William Robinson Festival on Saturday, 4th July from 10.00-16.00. Tickets are £15.00 and all proceeds go to the Chestnut Tree Children's Hospice.
There's little doubt that Tom is doing an amazing job at Gravetye and I certainly look forward to seeing what happens there in the next five years.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Swing into summer with a visit to Sussex Prairies - a veritable feast for the eyes!

The central aisle at Sussex Prairies, with Pauline's metal bison on the horizon
There's no other garden anywhere like Sussex Prairies. This is the largest prairie-planted garden in England and, if you haven't visited before, definitely one to see this summer.  This unique six-acre plot will enchant you, as will the home-baked cakes you can enjoy in the tea shop during or after your visit. Paul and Pauline McBride (who you're highly likely to encounter during your visit) are the brains behind this landscape, which they created from a field at the rear of their home near Brighton in Sussex. 
As you cross the wooden entrance bridge, you realise Sussex Prairies is a unique garden phenomenon
This unique naturalistic garden offers vistas you will see nowhere else, planting that will lift your spirits and plenty of alternative entertainment throughout the summer months including workshops, theatre and music events and, at the end of the summer, a Rare and Unusual Plant Fair (September 6, 2015) that attracts some of the best plantsmen in the country, showing their wares. 
The McBrides planted this garden just seven years ago, but you'd never guess this when you see the acres of plants stretching before your eyes. The planting is naturalistic, in Piet Oudolf style, and there are more than 30,000 plants here, grouped together in swathes of unusual colour schemes and a density that makes you want to wander through the various beds and be close to the flowers stretching out before your eyes (you are encouraged to follow the paths through the beds here ... no signs saying "Keep off the grass" or more importantly, "Don't walk on the beds"). You can even take your "well-behaved dog" with you.
Paul and Pauline met many years ago when they were both working for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in France, and later went to work for a wealthy landowner in Luxembourg, who commissioned Piet Oudolf, doyenne of naturalistic planting, to design a new border for his garden. It was their time in Europe that ignited their interest in prairie planting and when they later returned home to Pauline's parents small-holding in Sussex, they decided to create their own garden in one of the fields at the rear of the property.
Another unusual feature here is the wide range of sculpture on display throughout the gardens. Pauline is very committed to supporting local artists and every year approaches different sculptors and invites them to exhibit at Sussex Prairies. The result is a constantly changing exhibition and everything you see is for sale. This year, there are also artists in residence at the garden, with a new exhibition in the tea barn.
The gardens open at the beginning of June and remain open daily (except Tuesdays) until the end of October. And although the public don't have the opportunity to see the way the prairie looks in winter, it retains a huge amount of structural interest (particularly on frosty mornings) throughout the depths of winter. And then, weather and wind permitting, Paul and a team of helpers burn it to the ground in preparation for spring. (Click link here to see pictures of Sussex Prairies burning).
Part of the charm of this little stretch of rainbow heaven is the wonderful freedom it gives the visitor. You can wander around the plants and through them, marvelling at the colour combinations and astoundingly abundant planting . Every cultivar seems happily placed and it's the sheer volume of flower heads that are guaranteed to amaze you. There is colour and a strong sense of optimism here. Watch out for all the grasses and rare perennials.
Sussex Prairies is open from June 1st until October 11th this year, every day except Tuesday, from 13.00-17.00. Admission is £6.00 for adults and £3.00 for children (RHS members go free throughout the season). There is ample parking in a field next door to the garden, a tea shop on site and the gardens are easily accessible to wheelchair users. Other notable gardens nearby include Borde Hill and Nymans

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Great Comp - a spectacular plantsman's garden in Kent

The gardens at Great Comp were created from seven acres of wilderness by former owner, Roderick Cameron
When you arrive at Great Comp and start walking around the seven acres of gardens, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled across an ancient site where the owner has made the most of the available landscape around crumbling Gothic ruins to create an unusual garden filled with interesting and rare plants. But the "ruins" were actually created over the years by late owner, Roderick Cameron and his wife and are a clever reconstruction of ironstone rubble found in the grounds of the house they bought nearly sixty years ago. 
When the Camerons moved there in 1957 there was little to see and certainly no garden to speak of - just four acres of land that was hugely overgrown. After 50 years of hard work and the acquisition of adjoining land, the result today is a stunning garden providing year-round interest, with some of the finest magnolias and rhododendrons anywhere in England in the spring, and a collection of salvias that attracts visitors from far and wide in the summer. The "ruins" add interesting focal points to a very personal garden and serve to protect some of the tender plants as well as providing unusual places for visitors to sit and reflect on the lovely garden around them.
Expect to see plenty of rhododendrons in bloom if you visit Great Comp in May
Part of the joy of this garden is its serenity and simplicity. It first opened to the public in July 1967 and remained open just a few days a year for the Gardens Scheme (forerunner of the NGS).  It is now open daily from April to October and because of the Cameron’s foresight in setting up a Charitable Trust, it will remain open, despite the death of its creator, Roderick Cameron in November 2009. Today Curator, William Dyson, who has been at Great Comp for two decades, manages the property and also runs a very fine nursery where you can buy many of the plants you see growing in the garden.  He exhibited at RHS Chelsea 2015 after a break of 11 years and came 3rd overall in the 'Plant of the Year Competition' with his newly-launched salvia 'Love and Wishes'.
The Italian Garden at Great Comp, created by Roderick Cameron from rubble found on site
Great Comp is a very enticing garden, with its many paths curving out of sight and large areas of informal planting. There's an impeccably mown lawn in front of the house, fringed with tall conifers, willows and oaks, and from here different paths lead off into areas of woodland. But everywhere you look there are splendid shrubs, underplanted with hostas, lilies and salvias, and you will find more than 3,000 different plants here as well as the heather and rose gardens, and an Italian Garden with its fine collection of Mediterranean plants. 
The garden is located near Sevenoaks in Kent and is open daily from 1st April until the end of October, from 11.00-17.00, as is William Dyson's nursery. Admission is £7.00 for adults. Events at Great Comp this year include The Changeling Open Air Theatre productions in July and The Summer Show in August, featuring many guest nurseries and unusual plants for sale. Other notable gardens nearby include Hever Castle and Titsey Place.