Looking up at Colesbourne Park

Like most visitors, my trips to Colesbourne Park are generally spent with eyes firmly cast downwards. The garden is well known for its snowdrop collection and in January and February little else gets a look-in. Yet, at this time of year, with the snowdrops still safely underground, it pays to look up. Only then can you appreciate Colesbourne’s other collection: its trees.

Colesbourne Park
It’s easy to miss what’s above your head

Champion trees, endangered species, the unusual and rare, the Colesbourne collection covers all these and more. Indeed, the garden works with Kew and others to offer a home to special trees, such as the coffin tree, Taiwania cryptomerioides, which is endangered in the wild.

“We play our part in conservation as a host to endangered trees,” explains Head Gardener Arthur Cole. “We’ve got a bit of a world view here.”

The garden is also trialling the Lutece elm, the result of a breeding programme to find something resistant to Dutch elm disease.

Colesbourne Park
Colchicums are found throughout the garden

“When we planted it 10 years ago, it was one of only three in the whole country,” comments Sir Henry Elwes, the current owner of Colesbourne Park. “I think it may be the tree of the future.”

The arboretum was started by his great grandfather, Victorian planthunter Henry John Elwes with a Wellingtonia the first tree to be planted. It’s a collection that is still being added to, although Sir Henry concedes that he is running out of space.

As we walk around the garden, he points out some of the more unusual trees. There’s the cut-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, with finely cut foliage quite unlike the commonly seen beech.

Colesbourne Park
The tilia is taking on a pink tinge

A beautiful lime, Tilia henryana, that’s getting tinges of pink on its foliage, was planted to mark Sir Henry’s 75 birthday and a Dawn Redwood marked his 21st.

The Serbian spruce, he tells me, can get to 100ft-tall but remains slender, like a giant rocket pointing skywards. Already, his tree is beginning to tower over others nearby.

Then there’s a champion weeping birch that at 100 years old is 40 years older than most birch, and the Thuja plicata ‘Zebrina’ named for its zebra-like striped foliage.

Colesbourne Park
Sir Henry Elwes

Meanwhile, the unusual cut-leaf hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Heterophylla’, was found on the estate and has what Sir Henry describes as “nettle-like” foliage.

Colesbourne Park
The nettle-like foliage of the cut-leaf hazel

One of the rarest trees is a Californian nutmeg, which produces seed on average once every 15 years.

“They’re devils to germinate,” says Sir Henry. “We had 120 seeds one year and only three germinated.”

Colesbourne Park
The Spring Garden has a blanket of cyclamen in autumn

He’s had more success with other trees and several are ‘second generation’, including a Siberian elm raised from cuttings when the original tree fell down.

“Every arboretum has its celebrity, its film star and this is one of them,” says Arthur, pointing to a large oriental plane. Walk under its twisted branches and it’s easy to see why. Moss covers some of the beautifully marked bark and the branches curve and turn, creating a living sculpture.

Colesbourne Park
There’s a sculptural element to the Oriental plane

Like many of Colesbourne’s trees, it also has a great back story having been grown from a cutting taken from a tree on an Emperor of China’s tomb by Henry John Elwes in 1902.

Similarly, a Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, was collected as a seedling in North Japan and transported back in a cigarette tin on the Trans-Siberian railway. Records show it as planted 20 yards from the Ice House in 1901 where it is still growing.

Colesbourne Park
The Ice House

Elsewhere, a foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa, was given to Henry John by planthunter Ernest Wilson. The original blew down about 20 years ago but two root suckers have now grown into fine trees.

And Arthur points out some Irish yews with pride; all Irish yews can be traced back to a tree given to his ancestor in Northern Ireland in the early 18th century.

Colesbourne Park
Colesbourne Park has several Irish yews

It is stories such as these that make the trees at Colesbourne more than just a botanical collection and a guided tour so entertaining.

Colesbourne Park Arboretum is open on September 16, 17, 22, 23 and October 21 and 22, 2017, from 12.30pm to 4.30pm. Entry is £7.50 for adults, children under 16 enter free. Free guided tours by Sir Henry Elwes and Head Gardener Arthur Cole start at 1.30pm and continue throughout the afternoon. For more information, visit the website.

Chastleton House: gardening with the weeds

It’s not often I encounter an open garden where weeds are deliberately left, especially one that’s run by the National Trust. But Chastleton House is different.

Rather than neatly mown lawns, elegant topiary and carefully co-ordinated borders, the garden near Stow-on-the-Wold has shrubs draped in bindweed, grass encroaching into the gravel and unstaked perennials flopping onto the ground.

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Perennials are not staked

It is, explains garden supervisor Rosy Sutton, all part of a policy of “managed decay”.

“It’s supposed to look like there’s one gardener who’s really struggling.”

Chastleton House was built in the 1600s and its history charts the fortunes of the family that owned it until the 1980s, with periods of prosperity when the house and gardens were enlarged and stretches of financial hardship with no money for repairs or maintenance.

chastleton house
Some bindweed is left to wind through borders

While the house was in a bad state when the Trust acquired it in the 1990s, it was also unmodernised, giving a rare glimpse into the past.

As such, it was decided to leave it untouched as an illustration of the decline of private country houses. Cracked windows were laminated to make them safe but not repaired and woodworm holes filled with resin but the wood was not replaced.

Outside, it was clear a garden of the National Trust’s usual standard would be out of place and so the “managed decay” approach has been adopted.

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Seed heads are left.

It leads to a delicate balancing act between on the one hand reflecting the remit at Chastleton House while on the other keeping something that is still attractive for visitors.

“It is trickier than in the house,” says Rosy, “because the garden is not static.

“It’s a real juggling act to create this slightly Sleep Beauty-esque feel.”

chastleton House
Dahlias are one of the late summer highlights

She and her team of volunteers achieve it with careful management. Shrubs are pruned not every year but every three and then only one out of a group will be done. Tall herbaceous plants are not staked but allowed to fall into each other.

As for the weeds, some, such as toadflax and grasses, are tolerated while dandelions and milk thistles are removed.

“My poor volunteers. They ask ‘Are we allowed to weed that one’,” says Rosy with a smile.

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The topiary is one of the garden’s stranger features

This unusual approach extends to what is possibly Chastleton House’s most memorable feature: a circle of bizarrely shaped box topiary set inside a yew hedge. Originally part of ‘The Best Garden’ on the east side of the house, the box was once clipped into recognisable shapes, including a goblin and cow. By the time the National Trust took over, those shapes had long gone and it was decided not to reinstate them.

“We manage what we’ve got and keep them to what are misshapen lumps.”

Likewise, what would have been borders of Victorian carpet bedding are now represented by longer patches of grass.

chastleton house
Sweet peas are still giving some colour

However, work is going on to rejuvenate the yew with the first stage of a long process of cutting back to generate new growth now underway.

While the garden is not manicured, it is full of colour. The long borders at the front of the house are a soft mix of gold and pink, designed to blend with the Cotswold stone while not detracting from the house.

These have been revamped since Rosy took over in 2013, with plants divided and thugs such as Saponaria officinalis, or soapwort, reined in.

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Senecio doria is a recent addition

In the double herbaceous borders, she’s been adding more dahlias, most of them grown from seed, to give colour later in the year. Taller plants, such as cardoons and the rarely seen Senecio doria, discovered at Harrell’s Hardy Plants, are also being introduced to increase the height; originally the borders were designed to screen the kitchen garden and reduce the risk of seeing a gardener at work.

Both borders have a dual role: the outer edges have flowers for cutting on one side and vegetables on the other. Nearby, beds cut into the grass are planted with veg on a rotational system while this part of the garden ends in a semi-wild area of fruit trees and long grass.

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The dahlias have been grown from seed

What was once a rose border alongside the croquet lawn has also been revamped with a more varied planting palette. The roses are now underplanted with geranium, achillea and hemerocallis to give a longer period of interest.

Croquet is important at Chastleton House, as the family that owned it were the first to publish formal rules for the game and a croquet event where visitors can learn how to play is held each year.

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The fruit trees are laden

While Rosy is limited in what she can change there is still scope for development: new cold frames have just been built and will form a display feature; she is trialling ‘pretty weeds’ at the foot of hedges.

chastleton house
I rather liked this water butt alongside the pretty greenhouse

What Chastleton House lacks in precise horticulture it more than makes up for in atmosphere. There’s a real sense of walking into a garden that the owners have stepped out of while the tranquillity means many visitors stay for hours and frequently return. It’s also one of the few National Trust properties that does not leave you feeling depressed about the state of your own garden.

Chastleton House is open Wednesday to Saturday until October 29, 2017. For more details, visit the website.

Discovering The Mill Garden

I’ve ventured further afield this week to explore Mill House in Warwick.

It’s easy to stick to the tried and tested when it comes to garden visiting: National Trust properties, well-established private gardens that open regularly; members of the National Garden Scheme. But sometimes it’s worth taking a chance.

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There are a lot of plants packed into Mill House garden

On a work trip to Warwick, I passed a sign advertising an open garden. It wasn’t one I was there to visit, or somewhere I’d heard about however, having a bit of time to spare, I decided to take a look.

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Glimpses of more garden entice you to explore

What I discovered was a varied garden with plant-packed borders that showcased some clever colour combinations.

The garden was laid out more than 40 years ago by Arthur Measures and it’s now run by his daughter and her husband, Julia and David Russell.

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Clematis climb through trees and scramble over shrubs

While they have inevitably altered some of the planting, the layout is essentially the same: a mix of winding paths and mixed borders designed to divide the garden into smaller areas.

And it’s the setting as much as the garden that makes The Mill Garden stand out. The third of an acre plot runs down to the River Avon and shares a boundary with Warwick Castle. As a backdrop, the ancient stone walls are unequalled while the river was a cooling presence on what turned out to be a warm afternoon.

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Few gardens have a backdrop as impressive as this

The planting schemes are designed by Julia and she obviously has an eye for colour with borders that team hot yellows, oranges and reds contrasting with others in shades of pink and mauve.

David, a retired nurseryman, told me that the couple also include lots of bedding in their borders and I spotted scented leaf pelargoniums, begonias and masses of verbena among the phlox, hydrangeas and achillea.

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The river is one of the main features

It was, he explained, because the garden is open so often: “No matter how good your herbaceous is, if you’re open to the public you’re guaranteed colour everywhere with bedding plants.”

They run the garden with help from volunteers and raise thousands every year towards both its upkeep and charities; in 2016, they raised £13,000.

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There’s the remains of a medieval bridge

While The Mill Garden is a member of the NGS and, it appears, well known to locals, not least as a prize-winner in Warwick in Bloom, none of that was apparent from the sign. I was glad I took a chance.

Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

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The colour combinations have been carefully planned
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Sometimes foliage is the key to a scheme
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I liked the contrast of melianthus with crocosmia
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Pink with just enough darker hues to stop it being bland
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The garden has many different hydrangeas
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A hot border and an old summerhouse framed by planting
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I wasn’t the only one who liked the planting
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Every open garden should have a seat and Mill House has plenty
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The castle is never far away

The Mill Garden, Mill Street, Warwick, is open daily from April 1 to October 31 from 9am to 6pm. Admission is £2.50. For details, see the Visit Warwick website

Ducks, stones and planting plans at Painswick Rococo

Painswick Rococo Garden is well known for its stunning snowdrop display but this quirky Cotswold favourite is more than a one-season wonder and summer is also a good time to visit.

Not that you will get the flowing herbaceous borders that are a feature of many gardens in the region, as new head gardener Roger Standley explains.

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The Eagle House is one of the striking follies

“There’s not much in the way of flower borders here,” says Roger, who started at Painswick Rococo two months ago. “It was not a big part of what they did.”

What they did do when the garden was laid out in the 1740s was big theatrical display and Painswick Rococo is well known for its eye-catching follies: the striking Red House, pale pink Eagle House and Exedra that stands like a curve of intricate icing in the garden.

painswick rococo
Marigolds in the vegetable garden

It’s the planting around the Exedra that’s occupying Roger when we meet. While the beds match the original shape – as shown on a 1748 painting of the garden by Thomas Robins – what’s in them doesn’t fit the period.

“The 18th century had a lot more space around the plants rather than a mass cottagey planting.”

Lavender has been forced to grow tall in some places and is flopping over its neighbours elsewhere; eupatorium is too big and is blocking views of the roses; Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is just the wrong plant.

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The lavender is going to be restricted to an avenue up to the Exedra

“Much as I love the crocosmia, it’s very much a Victorian introduction and a good 100 years too late for us.”

Not that this winter’s replanting will favour historical accuracy over gardening common sense: “Where the look of the plant fits we will use modern varieties of the species.”

Roger is planning to remove some things, drastically reduce the size of others and replant the lavender, restricting it to just to an avenue leading up to the Exedra and its reflection pool.

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The vegetable garden is in full swing

Next summer, he will also be using more annuals in the spaces that are created between perennials.

“We will possibly have a theme in these areas with one year lots of varieties of nicotiana and in another sunflowers.”

Spring bulbs are also going to be added to extend the display. And that’s the dilemma of somewhere like Painswick Rococo: while it aims to be historically accurate to fit its status as the only surviving garden of the period that’s open to the public, it is also a charity enterprise that needs to attract visitors year-round to fund its upkeep.

Painswick rococo
Part of the stone display

As part of that drive to encourage people to visit out of snowdrop time, this summer sees a sculpture exhibition in the garden by stone balancer Adrian Gray, who put on an award-winning show at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Seven of his gravity-defying pieces are on display until the end of August and their almost mesmerising quality perfectly fits the Rococo Garden’s tranquil atmosphere.

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Wild flowers are being encouraged by letting grass grow long

Some of the sculptures are sited in the orchard where the grass is being allowed to grow long. A serpentine mown path enables visitors to wander through the meadow area, which is already attracting more insects.

painswick rococo
The garden’s newest residents

If the stone sculptures are a temporary feature, the ducks are now permanent residents. Brought in to manage the weed on the pond – which barley treatments had failed to shift – the group of Jemima Puddle-Duck look-alikes and their floating duck house are proving popular with visitors; the duck house is modelled on one in a painting by Thomas Robins of a Rococo-style garden at Honington.

Nearby, the plunge pool beds are another area Roger is keen to tackle: “It needs a new design and something a bit more in keeping with the 18th century.”

painswick rococo
The plunge pool border is going to be revamped

Shade planting under large trees is fine but the other beds are, we agree, a bit of a mish-mash of different things.

Meanwhile, the formal vegetable garden – part of the original layout – now supplies not only the garden’s café but also a bistro in the village and visitors can buy surplus produce and plants.

painswick rococo
The ducks have a floating house

Ultimately though it’s the sense of fun and discovery that draws people to Painswick Rococo.

“There’s a fantastic historical layout to the garden and the setting is incredible.”

For more details about Painswick Rococo Garden, visit the website

Strong design pays off at Brocklehurst

Brocklehurst may be one of the smaller Cotswold gardens I’ve visited but the design principles that underpin it are the same as for far larger plots.

There are changes of mood, secret corners, long vistas and – most important – plenty of places to just sit and enjoy.

Brocklehurst
The garden has many peonies

It was the deciding factor when Anne Wood first saw the property: “It was the garden that sold the house to me,” she recalls. “It definitely had the bones of a good garden.”

Brocklehurst
Many of the roses are in pastel shades

Anne spent the first year learning about her new garden: “You have to live with a garden to what gets the sun and the light, to see how things work,” she advises.

It was obvious to her that Brocklehurst had been carefully laid out, in what she describes as “patchwork style” with hedges dividing it into smaller rooms. Using this as her basis, she has gradually adapted and tweaked the layout to put her own mark on the garden.

Brocklehurst
Anne designed the gate

At the back of the cottage, she has levelled the ground and extended a Cotswold stone wall to create a large enclosed terrace; an ornate gate, made to her design, gives glimpses of a small kitchen garden beyond.

Around the generous outdoor sofa, she has put scented plants, such as lavender, and herbs including sage and rosemary, while Rosa ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ scrambles over the wall.

Brocklehurst
‘Teasing Georgia’ is the only yellow in the garden

Indeed, roses are a feature at Brocklehurst. Most are white or pale pinks, such as ‘Generous Gardener’ and ‘Spirit of Freedom’ but she has put in ‘Teasing Georgia’ against a wall near the entrance. Chosen for its name – her goddaughter is called Georgina – it is the only splash of yellow, a colour Anne dislikes, in the garden but is tolerated for its strong growth, abundant blooms and because it looks fabulous against the Cotswold stone.

The path to the front door used to be box-lined but blight led to its removal and it is now lavender-edged. Again, scent is used by a seat – this time philadelphus whose perfume is ‘trapped’ in the space by hornbean hedges.

Brocklehurst
There are long views down the garden

Flower borders edge two sides of the lawn in the middle section of the garden. The planting is mixed – roses, geraniums, astrantia and peonies – all protected from Anne’s dogs by low rusted ‘fencing’ that she had made. Split into lengths, it’s easy to move when she needs to weed and acts as a support for the herbaceous as well as a protection.

A long hornbeam hedge used to run across the garden but it’s been shortened to allow the creation of a shady bed and new arches have been cut to allow different routes around the garden.

Brocklehurst
A carefully positioned statue and bowl of planting add interest to a box cube

Tucked away behind hedges, the wildlife garden is shady surprise. There’s a small pond, masses of hellebores and nettles that are left for the butterflies.

Brocklehurst
The new terrrace gives another place to sit

In contrast, colour dominates the last of the flower gardens where four ‘mirror’ beds surround a formal, raised pool. Many of the alliums and peonies were already there but the forced removal of box hedging, again due to blight, has allowed Anne to add to the collection and bring in Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.

Again, there are places to sit – a bench under one of the hornbeam arches and a summerhouse – while ‘badgers’ in the corner are a quirky touch.

Brocklehurst
Badgers hide in one corner

“They’re the only badgers you want in your garden,” she says with a smile.

Six years on Anne has achieved much but still has more ideas. A new terrace to give somewhere to sit and look over the flower borders has just been completed and there are plans for a small garden, probably with a Zen influence, in memory of her son, Daniel, who died earlier this year.

Brocklehurst, at Hawling near Cheltenham, is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sundays July 2 and 9 from 11am to 5pm in conjunction with Littlefield. Combined admission is £8 for adults; children’s entry is free.

Greenfields – a secret garden

One of the delights of the National Garden Scheme is that it gives you the chance to look around otherwise private plots. Occasionally, it is a ‘peep over a garden wall’ into a space that is otherwise completely hidden. Greenfields, Little Rissington, is such a garden.

I must have driven past on the road out of Bourton-on-the-Water countless times but thanks to hedges and gates there’s no indication of the garden behind.

greenfields
The garden has been created over the past 16 years

Not that 16 years ago when Diana and Mark MacKenzie-Charrington bought the old Cotswold house there was much of a garden. Grass, some trees and a lot of black sheds pretty much sums up what the couple took on.

Looking at the garden now, it seems hard to believe. Despite visiting on a less than perfect day – frequent showers, grey skies and a blustery wind that was scattering blossom like confetti and battering the remaining tulips – there was plenty of colour and interest.

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Wind and rain were scattering blossom

It’s obvious that this garden has been designed: carefully focussed vistas, colour co-ordinated borders and glimpses of garden through neat blocks of hedging.

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Carefully placed gaps in hedges allow views through

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Diana had ‘phoned a friend’ for help. Katie Lukas is well known among Cotswold gardeners, the former owner of Stone House at Wyck Rissington (now called Laurence House) and a garden designer.

greenfields
The path weaves through mounds of plants

She in turn suggested calling in Sherborne Gardens and John Hill’s influence is obvious in the long snaking path through mounds of lavender, hebe and geraniums, topped by mop-headed Portuguese laurel. It’s similar to the Yew Walk at Littlefield and just as effective.

Against the wall alongside are roses, ceanothus and a golden hop, a reference to the family’s brewing history.

At Greenfields, the path forms the perfect view from Mark’s office to a white seat backed by yew.

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Alliums and ceanothus are the stars at this time of year

In fact, views from the house were high on the list of requirements when John drew up plans for the garden.

“What I always wanted and always liked is that you can see the garden from every single room in the house,” says Diana. “We’re so lucky because not many people have that.”

Near the house, a sunken area is used for al fresco meals while what was originally intended to be a herb garden because of its proximity to the kitchen is now used for annuals: tulips and anemones followed by cosmos and gaura, which is lifted every year and overwintered in the greenhouse.

greenfields
Hebe is used instead of box to give structure

“It’s at the bottom of a hill on heavy clay and it rains a lot in England so everything died,” says Diana with a wry smile.

Beyond, the edges of what would have been a large rectangular lawn have been rounded off by borders filled with roses in pink and cream, and perennials, including phlox, aconitum, hostas and, at this time of year, masses of white and purple alliums. The planting is punctuated with mounds of hebe, an interesting variation on the traditional box balls.

“It’s quite a flowery, pretty garden,” comments Diana.

greenfields
Crab apples add height to the front garden

It’s a theme that continues into the garden in front of the house, which Diana has created with Katie’s help. Crab apples pruned to a neat goblet add height to borders of peonies, exochorda, and frothy Alchemilla mollis.

Against the house itself is a beautiful Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ and – when your own wisteria has been hit by frost – an envy-inducing display of pale lavender blooms.

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Wisteria cloaks one wall

Throughout Greenfields, Cotswold stone walls and hedges – beech, hawthorn and laurel – have been used to divide and create smaller, more intimate areas or to hide the ‘working parts’, including chickens, compost and a neat vegetable garden.

A recent addition has been the creation of a wildlife pond – the spoil has been used to make a ‘viewing mound’.

greenfields
Cow parsley is allowed its head on the edges of the garden

Diana says she didn’t want a garden that was too structured and, towards the edges, the style softens with cow parsley and mown paths through long grass, giving a gradual movement into surrounding fields.

There is, however, just enough structure to give it shape and interest – even on a gloomy day.

Greenfields Little Rissington is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday May 28, 2017, from 2-6pm. Admission is £5, children’s entry is free. The event is part of the NGS Anniversary Weekend marking 90 years of the scheme and more than 370 gardens will be open across England and Wales. For more details, see the NGS website.

Discovering new gardens

I’ve been venturing further afield with a Garden Media Guild trip to see two of Herefordshire’s notable gardens.

Not even icy air and occasional hail storms can dull the delight at discovering new gardens. Not that the two I visited last week were entirely unknown to me. I interviewed Sir Roy Strong and reviewed his book about The Laskett some years ago, while the country plot of Tamsin Westhorpe, former editor of The English Garden magazine, is well-known in gardening media circles. But I had never seen them and was intrigued.

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The Dingle is Tamsin’s favourite area

We started with the four-acre Stockton Bury, and what Tamsin describes as “quite a new garden”.

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White wood anemones made a lovely display

These include a working kitchen garden with beautifully shaped apple trees, shrub and perennial borders and a water garden, all set against some stunning old buildings: the dovecot with an entrance so low even I had to duck and barns that are now used for displays of old tools and as a restaurant.

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I’d not seen a white form of the skunk cabbage before
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Moss on walls and staddle stones gave the garden an established feel

Although horticultural standards are high with weed-free beds and neat lawn edges – helped by wooden edging boards – this is part of a working farm and the garden has to work with, among other things, moving stock.

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Tender plants were sheltering in the greenhouse

“It’s the scariest event when we have these sheep coming through,” Tamsin tells us.

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Tropaeolum tricolour

Among the highlights for me were the Dingle, a spring-fed water garden that Tamsin says is her favourite place to work, and the newly constructed auricula theatre alongside the farmhouse.

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The auriculas are a recent addition
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I also liked the informality of the garden with plants spilling out of walls

The Laskett is another relatively young garden, created by Sir Roy Strong and his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman.

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There’s topiary throughout The Laskett

Sir Roy describes it as autobiographical, not least because the garden was funded by the couple’s work in the arts; Julia was a designer, Sir Roy director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

the Laskett
Colonnade Court replaced the kitchen garden in 2013.

The garden is like a four-acre series of stage sets, many named for events – ‘The Silver Jubilee Garden’ – or for the source of funding, such as the ‘Pierpont Morgan Rose Garden’, paid for with the fee for a series of lectures Sir Roy gave in New York. I particularly liked Elizabeth Tudor Avenue with its juxtaposition of pleached limes, swagged beech and clipped yew.

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Contrasting hedges in Elizabeth Tudor Avenue
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The pleached lime was much admired

There are numerous ‘props’: statues, urns, and rescued pieces of ancient stonework, including pieces from the old Palace of Westminster.

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Crowned rose from the old Palace of Westminster which burned down in 1834.

And, like any good stage set, there are multiple ways to enter and exit each space, with long vistas or tempting glimpses enticing you to explore.

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The Silver Jubilee Garden

The Laskett, once a purely private space, has opened regularly since 2010.

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The apple blossom was lovely

“It’s given me a new focus in my life,” says Sir Roy, who has bequeathed the garden to horticulture charity Perennial. “It’s such a delight to share it.”

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The Diamond Jubilee Urn at The Laskett

The Laskett is open to pre-booked groups from mid-April to the end of September. Details on the website

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Beehives at Stockton Bury garden

Stockton Bury is open to groups by appointment from April to the end of September. See website for details.

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Blockley gardens: a lesson in colour at Church Gates

Blockley gardens are one of the most popular village openings in the National Garden Scheme’s Cotswold calendar. I’ve been admiring the tulips at Church Gates.

Visiting gardens can be a dangerous pastime. I rarely leave without at least one more ‘must-have’ plant on an ever-growing list. And Brenda Salmon’s cottage garden is particularly perilous.

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The ‘polite garden’ is a mix of pink, purple and white

Although it’s one of the smaller plots in the Blockley gardens group, it is stuffed with envy-inducing plants, including one of my favourites: tulips.

Name a colour and she has an example, from yellow, white and orange through to deep crimson, pink and lilac. There are slender tulip-shaped blooms, blousy doubles, tall, stately varieties and others that squat low to the ground.

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Lavender Tulipa ‘Candy Prince’ is one of Brenda’s favourites

What makes it stand-out thought is her skill in putting a border together, proving that you don’t need acres of space to make a real impact.

The garden, in the shadow of the village church, divides into what she laughingly refers to as “my polite and my impolite gardens”.

Visitors, who encounter the polite version first, are lulled into a sense of traditional English charm. Shades of purple, pink and lavender dominate a long border that runs most of the length of the cottage garden.

blockley gardens
Wallflowers in shades of mauve partner the tulips

Backed by one of the beautiful old Cotswold walls for which the village is known, it is a harmonious mix with just enough white – mainly from Tulipa ‘Purissima’ – to stop it becoming bland.

Just some of the tulips that have crept onto my list for next year are the double purple ‘Showcase’, lavender ‘Candy Prince’ and the dark ‘Negrita’. I also fell in love with ‘Flaming Flag’, a pale lavender white with darker purple feathering and ‘Vanilla Cream’, which has a hint of green to its creamy petals.

Woven through the display is a striking purple-flowered honesty with dark stems, which has self-seeded along the border.

blockley gardens
In a small space even the compost bin must look good

“As I was planting, I just pulled out what I didn’t want,” says Brenda, “so it appears random, which is quite nice.”

Big clumps of wallflowers in chintzy shades echo the colours of the tulips, there’s more purple from a recently added cut-leafed elder, and the promise of later colour with geraniums, phlox, aconitums, astrantias and masses of alliums.

Like many of the Blockley gardens, the layout of Brenda’s plot isn’t a regular shape and a second part of the garden is hidden from immediate view behind a wall.

This element of surprise has been used to the full with little to prepare you for the blast of colour that awaits. Tulips in fiery shades of orange, yellow and scarlet, narcissi in gold and lemon, yellow and orange wallflowers, and scarlet ranunculus dominate the ‘impolite garden’.

blockley gardens
The ‘impolite garden’ has fiery colours

It should be a jarring clash of colours but it works thanks to the copious amounts of green from still-to-flower herbaceous and the acid green of Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’, which threads its way through the beds.

“What I want is for people to come around the corner and say ‘Oh! That’s different,” she says.

blockley gardens
Lots of green helps to bind the bright colours

While it’s easy to be dazzled by the immediate display, what both gardens have in common is the need for closer inspection. Tucked in at the feet of the tulips are smaller delights: named varieties of primula and dainty muscari among them.

Step-over apples form a pretty, low ‘hedge’ alongside the greenhouse, there’s a collection of planted ‘pails’ on the tiny patio and a small rockery filling an otherwise awkward space by steps.

Despite its size, the garden has numerous clematis and more than 50 roses, most draped over the boundary walls.

blockley gardens
Step-over apples make a low hedge

Each plant is carefully labelled and the main borders are divided into lettered blocks, a trick learned in her previous Cornish garden, which included a 90ft by 10ft border.

“It helped to know where to go to look for things,” explains Brenda, who moved to Blockley with her husband, Graham, six years ago.

Now, on a smaller scale, the grid system means she can organise her planting more easily: “I spend hours doing plans beforehand but things don’t always go exactly where I planned.”

blockley gardens
Pails are planted with a mix of spring bedding

She usually leaves the tulips in the ground and just adds to the display but fed up with too many ‘blind’ bulbs this year she is intending to lift them all and start again.

Despite the well-stocked beds, she, like me, has a growing ‘must-buy’ plant list and when we met had just been scouring the local market for new things.

blockley gardens
Brenda is planning to replace the tulips for next season

“Because I do plant so close things get overtaken sometimes and I have to move it or lose it,” she says. “It depends what’s the most important.”

Church Gates is one of seven Blockley gardens open for the NGS from 2-6pm on Sunday April 23, 2017. Combined admission is £6. For more details, visit the NGS website

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A garden crafted by nature

Sometimes nature proves to be the better gardener. So often in my own plot self-sown plants have colonised corners I’d overlooked or created partnerships far better than anything I’d considered. The knack is knowing when to let nature have her head and when to take control.

Home Farm is one of those Gloucestershire gardens where the attraction is not a carefully planned herbaceous border, neatly clipped topiary or clever design. Rather it is the chance to savour a slice of unspoilt English countryside with spring flowers and envy-inducing views.

home farm
Naturalised daffodils are a spring highlight

The garden is one that Torill Freeman has known since childhood – she moved to Home Farm from the nearby Manor House 26 years ago – and she remembers playing in the woods as a child.

It’s these woods, a mixture of larch, sweet chestnut, lime and cherry, that form the backdrop to a spring display that starts with snowdrops and finishes with bluebells.

And most of it has been crafted by nature, with ‘gardening’ kept to the lightest of touches.

home farm
The view stretches to the Cotswold Hills

“The only management I do in the garden is to have the undergrowth cleared once a year between October and Christmas,” says Torill. “Then the spring flowers will all come up.”

The garden has a walk through woods and fields of about half-a mile, which takes around 20 minutes – if you are not distracted by the flowers.

You start at what Torill refers to as ‘Larch Corner’ and, at this time of year, a show of yellow. There’s a large clump of open-faced narcissi – name unknown – and the start of the dainty, Dymock daffodil. This is called after the nearby village of Dymock and grows wild throughout the area.

home farm
The Dymock daffodil grows wild in the area

Torill has added some acid-lovers, including a single, pink camellia that is covered in blooms.

“I was determined to have a single pink, not a double and not a dark pink.”

home farm
The camellia is covered in blooms

Cross a field and the next big display is in ‘Snowdrop Wood’, although it is now sporting shades of pale yellow and mauve rather than white. The snowdrops – the common Galanthus nivalus, both single and double, and another unknown variety – are still in evidence but the display is now being handed on to more Dymock daffodils.

These rise out of a carpet of purple-blue vinca blooms, which, like the daffodils, is a result of nature’s hand rather than Torill’s. It is a beautiful combination.

“Most of my garden is God-given,” observes Torill.

home farm
The purple-blue and yellow make a lovely combination

The next stage is her own work. ‘Spring Spinney’ is a slightly elevated section of path that has been planted up with more open-faced narcissi. When I visited, there were only one or two in bloom but the bulging buds signalled the full display is not far away.

Because the flowers turn to face the sun, visitors walking the suggested route look up into them as they climb the path.

“I had no idea of that when I first planted them,” admits Torill. “It’s just a very happy accident.”

home farm
Vinca covers the ground

The walk ends with‘Bluebell Wood’ where April will see masses of English bluebells and wood anemones. This early in the season, interest comes from a few snowdrops – around 1,000 have been moved up there.

Home Farm also has an area of orchids with the common spotted, early purple and, some years, bee orchids. Again, I was too early to see those.

There’s also a fun element: Torill has planted an ‘Alphabet Wood’ with trees ranging from A to Z, using either their common or Latin names. Among its members are Acer davidii and Zelkova serrata.

home farm
‘Snowdrop Wood’ is turning yellow

Near the house, there’s a small vegetable garden, a wide range of shrubs and an enclosed space full of pink and white winter heathers. Even here, care has been taken not to block the view, which stretches out to the Cotswold escarpment.

It’s a view that Torill never tires of watching and one of the reasons why she opens Home Farm for the National Garden Scheme.

“It changes every hour. It’s quite fantastic. I do so enjoy it but I think it’s very important to share it.”

Home Farm, Huntley, Gloucestershire, is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday March 12, and also on April 9 and 30, from 11-4pm. Admission is £3, children enter free. Visits are also welcome by arrangement. For more information, visit the NGS website.

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Cheered by the sight of yellow

The publication of the National Garden Scheme guide heralds the start of the gardening year and in Gloucestershire there’s lots on offer.

Maybe it’s the cheerful yellow cover but there’s nothing quite like the arrival of The National Garden Scheme’s handbook to lift the spirits.

It marks the start of the garden visiting season proper and opportunities to discover garden gems while raising cash for charity.

national garden scheme
Sezincote is one of the original NGS gardens

And it’s an anticipation that doesn’t dull with time; I’ve been writing about and visiting Gloucestershire NGS gardens for nearly two decades but I still eagerly await the new season.

Partly, it’s the possibility of discovering something new, partly the chance to revisit old favourites, to catch up with their owners and see what changes have been made.

The National Garden Scheme raises money for a range of charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, and this year celebrates its 90th anniversary – dropping the ‘s’ on Garden in its name as part of a rebranding. Four Gloucestershire gardens have been opening since 1927: Berkeley Castle, Sezincote, Stanway House and Westonbirt School.

In Gloucestershire, the combination of entrance fees, plant sales and the famous homemade teas raised nearly £120,000 last year.

“We are delighted,” says county organiser Norman Jeffery. “It was our second-best result ever and slightly more than the previous year.”

This season, there are five new main plots in the Gloucestershire collection spread right across the area from the Forest of Dean to the north Cotswolds.

national garden scheme
Berkeley Castle is one of the ‘1927 gardens’

First to open among the newcomers is Forsdene Walk, Coalway, on April 30 and again on July 2. Regular Gloucestershire NGS supporters will know the owner, Pamela Buckland, from her previous garden, Meadow Cottage, which she opened for many years.

This is her new plot, which she has redesigned to have different areas filled with perennials, climbers and lots of pots.

The garden will open jointly with her former garden, which is also in Coalway.

The next new garden to open is Downton House, another small plot this time in the heart of Painswick. Owned by a plant enthusiast, this walled garden features many rare and unusual specimens and opens on May 17.

Greenfields, at Little Rissington, is a two-acre country garden surrounding a classic Cotswold stone house. It’s been developed over the past 16 years with a mix of flowers, fruit, veg and free-range hens. It opens on May 28.

Oakwood Farm did open last year to stage a plant fair but this year it’s joined by three gardens in the village of Upper Minety, near Cirencester. The event, on June 25 will include a flower festival in the village church and the plant fair featuring specialist nurseries.

national garden scheme
The Manor House, Blockley is part of a village opening

The last of the newcomers to open is Brocklehurst in Hawling, near Cheltenham. Described as a “romantic Cotswold garden”, it has traditional herbaceous borders and a woodland wildlife garden. The open dates, on July 2 and 9, will be combined with Littlefield, another NGS garden in the village.

In addition to these, there are several new gardens in long established village openings, including Blockley, Ashley & Culkerton and the Eastcombe, Bussage and Brownshill group events.

As part of the National Garden Scheme 90th anniversary celebrations, there is a special Festival Weekend on the Bank Holiday weekend from May 27-29. In Gloucestershire, 14 gardens, including two village events, will take place, promising a bonanza for garden-lovers.

For full details of individual openings, including timings and ticket prices, visit the NGS website.

The national handbook, Gardens to Visit 2017, is priced at £11.99. The Gloucestershire county booklet is free with donations welcomed.

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