Tackling the roses at Sudeley

Climbing onto the rose bed, secateurs in hand, I suddenly feel a little nervous. It’s said you can’t be too harsh when pruning roses but that’s of little comfort when they are not yours. I am about to tackle some of the bushes in Sudeley Castle’s centrepiece Queens’ Garden and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Luckily, talking me through it is Jess Hughes, one of the four-strong gardening team, who demonstrates how they prune to get the best display and then watches as I start on the first one.

A few late roses linger in the Queens’ Garden

The secret, she says, is to remove the three Ds – dead, diseased and damaged stems – any stems that are crossing another and then cut back to an outward-facing bud to give an open, goblet-shaped bush. Anything thinner than a pencil is cut right back, the rest is lightly trimmed; the gardeners, led by head gardener Stephen Torode, are experimenting with whether to prune the roses lightly or hard.

I am helping with the long winter task of tidying and shaping the nearly 500 roses in the garden, named for the four Queens who have walked there: Katherine Parr, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I.

Sudeley is steeped in history

It’s not ideal gardening weather with occasional light drizzle and low cloud that almost touches the 150-year-old yews enclosing the rose garden but, if anything, it adds to the almost ethereal feel of the place. With the castle as a backdrop and its historical links – Sudeley was once the home of Katherine Parr, one of Henry VIII’s more fortunate wives – this is a place of romance and I am lucky enough to experience it when it is closed to the public.

Decades-old topiary is one of the features

I’ve been seconded to the gardening team at Sudeley, at Winchcombe near Cheltenham, as part of an experience run by Worcestershire-based Humdinger Days. The chance to garden at the award-winning site – either for a half or full day – is just one of the experiences, which range from learning to joust to spending the day as a leatherworker.

“We helping people achieve things they’ve always wanted to do,” explains Liz Davis, who founded the company with her son, Jordan.

Katherine Parr is entombed in the 15th century church

The firm offers a ‘bucket list option’ so that friends and family can club together to fund something and will tailor-make experiences to fit individual’s dreams. They also provide a personal concierge for each client to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The Sudeley experience is, says Liz, ideal for anyone with an interest in gardening.

“You are working with the professionals and learning as well as having a memorable experience.”

Pruning vines could be one of the tasks carried out

With 10 different gardens at the castle, the tasks could include anything from edging lawns, raking leaves, dead-heading or weeding; each experience would include a mixture of things and there’s the chance to quiz the gardeners and pick up tips; I’m intrigued to see piles of melianthus leaves dotted along the East Border. It turns out they are forming a protective blanket for the plants, which the team have left in the ground rather than lifting and storing over winter.

Melianthus leaves protect the crown of the plant over winter

As well as pruning roses, I’m helping Jess and her colleague Will Thake with bulb-planting; the other member of the Sudeley team is Pete May.

While the castle has always had tulips and other spring bulbs, this season it’s being done on a massive scale with 40,000 bulbs ranging from narcissi and crocus to alliums and colchicums.

“This year we’re adding early spring and end of season interest,” says Jess.

We are planting Narcissi ‘Double Campenella’ in grass alongside the banqueting hall ruins where it’s hoped they will naturalise. The heavy clay soil makes bulb planters difficult to use so the gardeners make the planting holes with metal poles. The narcissi are left uncovered until all are planted so that there’s an even spread and no danger of plunging the pole through an already planted bulb.

Jess and Will planting with the help of metal poles

It’s slow, methodical work but each bulb – many already showing signs of shoots – holds out the promise of spring. I for one will be visiting to see how my work turns out.

For more information on Humdinger Days see here

For details of Sudeley Castle’s gardens and opening dates see here

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