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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Gardeners celebrate their wartime roots

There will be more than a hint of wartime spirit this weekend as gardeners celebrate Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary at the annual summer show.

cheltenham horticultural society

The present society was founded in the midst of the Second World War in 1942, partly in response to the Dig for Victory campaign although there had been a horticultural society in Cheltenham since at least 1832, which ran until the outbreak of the First World War.

And special classes at this year’s show will pay tribute to the gardeners of the past.

“We have tried to include items in each section that reflect the food that was grown, the food that was prepared and items made during those difficult times,” explains Cheltenham Horticultural Society chairman, Dot Ward.

These include contests for a low sugar and low fat carrot cake, a pair of parsnips and an embroidered tray cloth. Other wartime-themed sections include a loaf of potato bread and carrot tops grown in a bowl or dish.

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Growers will be showing off their best roses

The Pittville Pump Room will be decorated with bunting knitted by society members and there will be a display to explain the society’s history.

Among the special classes will be regular favourites including contests for roses, annuals, cut flowers, pelargoniums, runner beans, carrots and tomatoes.

There are also craft, photography and floral art sections and special competitions for youngsters.

As well as the exhibits, there will be plants for sale from both society members and local nurseries, homemade cakes and refreshments.

“We’re planning to make it a 75th anniversary show to be proud of,” added Dot.

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Nick Macer is the speaker for the anniversary lecture

The show runs from noon to 3.30pm at Pittville Pump Room on Sunday August 20, 2017. Admission is £2 with free admission for children under 16.

On Friday October 6, the society will host a special anniversary lecture at Balcarras School, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham.

Gloucestershire nurseryman and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants will talk about ‘Things that turn me on – confessions of a plant freak’.

The doors open at 6.30pm for the sale of refreshments and the talk starts at 7.30pm. Tickets are £6 and must be bought in advance as there will be none on the door; email Yvonne Gregory for details: yvonnetgregory@yahoo.co.uk They are also available from Dundry Nurseries. For more information, visit the Cheltenham Horticultural Society website.

Review: Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock

There’s a commonly held view that growing veg is possible only if you have a large garden or access to an allotment. Tiny plots, courtyards or the balconies and window boxes of generation rent make grow your own impossible. Or do they? In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Caleb Warnock sets out to prove otherwise.

tiny garden huge harvestThe American self-sufficiency expert believes it’s possible to grow in the tiniest of spaces, in fact he says a small space can be beneficial: “For busy families, a tiny garden creates a manageable and sustainable workload.”

And he tells us that in a garden of just 8ft by 8ft, he managed to harvest 207lbs of veg.

The key is choosing the right things to grow – and the best varieties – and making full use of the space available.

In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Warnock, who is based in the Rocky Mountains, sets out how to achieve this and passes on the tips and tricks for using space efficiently that he’s learned over the years.

tiny garden huge harvest
The book has charts and lists to help

In a small garden, there’s no room for passengers so the first rule is to grow only what you like to eat: “This may seem obvious at first, but surprisingly, many people fail to take this into consideration.”

Crops that take up a lot of room for relatively small reward, such as sweetcorn, are also best avoided and it pays to look carefully at the time from sowing to harvesting when choosing varieties.

One good trick is to grow things that give a long season of cropping. Cut-and-come-again lettuce is an obvious example but you could do the same with many other crops, including chard, kale and celery.

He also points out that the leaves of beetroot and turnips can be harvested for weeks before the roots are used, giving two crops in one.

Every inch of a small plot needs to earn its keep and successional sowing is a good way of making sure ground is never idle. A chart giving four possible crop plans is just one of many handy charts and there are also suggestions for things that will grow in shade.

tiny garden huge harvest
Chard can be harvested over many weeks

Having outlined what to grow, the book turns to how to plan your space. This covers traditional small gardens, balconies, containers and even vertical gardens in a bookcase-sized area: “Imagine you are in a library standing in front of a shelf full of books – except instead of books, these shelves are lined with potted plants.” Even potatoes, cabbage and squash could be grown using this method, he says, while a trickle-down watering system is easy and efficient.

The book is small – just over 60 pages – pocket-sized, making it ideal for use outside, and easy to read with Warnock’s ideas clearly and simply explained. Unfortunately, while his ideas of sustainable, grow-your-own living are very current, the book has a rather dated feel due to the black-and-white photos, used, presumably, to keep production costs down.

It’s worth ignoring the initial impression this gives as the book has many easy and interesting ideas and, while it doesn’t cover how to grow, it would be ideal for novice or established gardeners who want to get more out of their garden.

Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock is published by Familius, RRP £4.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Familius.

Read more book reviews here

Downsizing a garden in style

Moving to a smaller plot is never easy but it’s a problem that one Gloucestershire gardener has solved with style.

When it comes to plants I’m a greedy gardener. I want to grow something of everything and whatever’s in flower is my current must-have. Downsizing my garden is unthinkable.

But it’s something that many gardeners have to do – unless they have the money to employ help – and it can be challenging. What do you keep and what do you resign yourself to not growing? How do you plan a smaller plot when you’re used to the space to indulge your plant passion?

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Veg was the first thing to go into the new garden

It’s a dilemma Pamela Buckland faced when she moved from her cottage in Coalway in the Forest of Dean to a nearby bungalow. Well known in the Gloucestershire National Garden Scheme – she’s a former assistant county organiser – she swapped a third of an acre for a plot that’s roughly half the size.

Think ahead

The key is to downsizing a garden is planning ahead and don’t leave moving plants to the last minute: “I potted up my favourite perennials early in the year,” Pamela tells me.

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Grasses were one of the collections that moved with Pamela

Limit yourself to those favourites and unusual varieties; in Pamela’s case these included heucheras, geraniums, her collection of around 20 different varieties of hosta and several grasses.

She took on a garden that had obviously been loved but was badly in need of an overhaul. Paving slab paths criss-crossed the area – “Everywhere I moved something or cleared a space there were paths” – and the many shrubs were too large for the space, while a heather bed spread 8ft by 6ft and there was an enormous pampas grass.

“You really couldn’t see what was here,” she recalls.

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Bird cages add a decorative element

Pamela started by sorting out the sloping ground at the side of the bungalow, which became two distinct levels: vegetables in raised beds at the top and flowers below.

“The vegetable garden was the first thing I did.”

Putting in a small greenhouse came next – it’s used for tomatoes, cucumbers and raising seeds – and only then did Pamela start to think about the rest of the garden.

Plan carefully

It’s tempting to start by clearing a bit of space and getting on with planting but it’s far better to get rid of everything you don’t want first rather than doing it piecemeal.

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A large magnolia is one of the few original plants

In Pamela’s case, this included removing several large shrubs, including hydrangeas, weigela and choisya, the many paths and filling 10 green refuse bins with Spanish bluebells.

Once the garden was cleared, it was easier to see how to change the design.

Keep it simple

The danger with moving from a large garden to a smaller space is that you try to have a bit of everything with the result looking far from planned.

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Sticking to simple colour themes helps with planning

It’s a pitfall Pamela has avoided by grouping plants according to colour. Two side borders have distinct themes: one is pink and white with dierama, geraniums and astrantia; the other a hot bed of reds and oranges, including Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’.

Meanwhile, at the front, she’s ‘disguised’ the driveway by bringing planting into the gravel and putting many of her pots of hostas into one corner; the rest now occupy a side path.

“I like what you can do with pots,” she says, adding that not all are planted up but instead form a feature in their own right.

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Pots are used as a feature

The main area of garden at the back of the bungalow has a blue and green theme that’s reinforced not only with the planting but also with the hard landscaping. An ugly concrete path has been painted, as have the fence and a table and bench, while a necessary storage shed blends in thanks to a coat of blue paint. Even a breeze block wall has been painted and reused as a trough for lavender.

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An old wall has become a planter

“I find the greens and blues such a relaxing colour scheme.”

In one bed, her collection of grasses is a delightful mix of green and cream with touches of bronze, while Ammi majus and pink cosmos give some seasonal colour.

Height comes from a pergola, which also helps to draw the eye away from neighbouring properties, while climbers such as clematis along the fences blur the boundaries.

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The remodelled wall and painted path

Pamela’s also made a feature of what was a crumbling wall that divided the plot. The loose top and an end section have been removed and the ‘gap’ between bungalow and wall filled with a custom-made wrought iron gate and screen. The iron is continued over the top of the wall, creating a strong unifying effect.

“I like the fact you can see different areas.”

And that’s the real achievement: despite its size, this feels like a much bigger garden.

20 Forsdene Walk, Coalway, Gloucestershire, is open by arrangement for the National Gardens Scheme from May to September 2017. See NGS website for details.

How to keep your garden blooming while you holiday

Going on holiday during the summer can be difficult if you’re a gardener. With the British weather notoriously unpredictable, you could easily return to wind and rain-battered plants or containers full of dried up twigs.

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Pick courgettes unless you want marrows when you return

The perfect solution is to find a friend or neighbour to keep an eye on things, water if there’s a heatwave, pick sweet peas and beans to keep them producing and courgettes to stop them turning into marrows. But what if there’s no one to help?

Here are some steps you can take to make sure your garden survives the holiday separation.

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Group pots in the shade

Move plants in containers out of direct sun into somewhere shadier and make sure they’re not sheltered from the rain by overhanging porches or house eaves. Standing them in saucers or trays will help conserve moisture while grouping them together makes it easier if someone’s coming in to water.

• Invest in a drip irrigation system for thirsty crops, such as tomatoes, or make your own using plastic bottles with small holes punched into the lid. Water the soil well then fill the bottle with water, put the lid back on and place the bottle upside down into the pot making sure it won’t fall over.

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Deadheading will keep plants flowering

Deadhead thoroughly including any flowers that have opened but will be over before you return from holiday.

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Don’t leave weeds to seed around

Get on top of the weeding before you leave, especially weeds that seed freely such as dandelions and bitter cress.

Stake tall plants to prevent wind damage, in particular any with large flower heads, such as sunflowers or dahlias.

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Stake tall sunflowers to stop them snapping

Harvest your fruit and veg and either eat, freeze or give it away. If you’re on holiday for more than a few days, pick baby veg, including beans and courgettes, to keep the plants productive.

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Pick beans to keep the plants producing

Mow the lawn and do the edges as there’s nothing worse than coming home from holiday to a meadow.

Check the weather forecast: water everything thoroughly if it’s going to be dry and just the greenhouse if a monsoon is expected.