My father always used to say that if you hung onto something long enough it would eventually come back into fashion. It appears the same could be said of gardening. Reading Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening, it seems that even fads and fancies of gardening taste have their roots in history.
Very little is new from the idea of a British wine industry – the Romans established vineyards and lifted restrictions on wine production – to seed swapping among enthusiasts, medieval monks we are told “exchanged and bought seeds across the Continent”.
Meanwhile, today’s assertion that growing things is good for physical and mental well-being echoes advice by Shirley Hibberd in 1877 that “Contact with the brown earth cures all diseases”.
Even the Dig For Victory campaign of World War 2 had its origin in a similar drive during the First World War when city parks produced vegetables and some gardens were turned over to medicinal herbs, themselves reminiscent of the ‘physic’ gardens of medieval times.
The book takes us on a journey through time from the earliest growers – broad beans go back to the Iron Age – to the ordered and organised Romans who “created our first plant-filled spaces intended purely for enjoyment”, the first use of gardens for self-expression under Elizabeth 1, to twentieth century modernist designers such as Brenda Colvin.
While Uglow deals with big movements and landed gentry, such as Lady Rolle, who planted a 500m-long monkey-puzzle avenue at her Devon home, sparking a craze for the trees, the history does not neglect more humble growers. We learn of catching bats with Victorian under-gardener William Cresswell and meet Friar Daniel who is believed to have had 252 different varieties of plants in his 14th century Stepney garden, “perhaps the first botanical garden in Britain and the friar our first gardening expert,” comments Uglow.
The text is peppered with facts: wheelbarrows arrived in the 1190s, possibly introduced by Crusaders who saw them in the Middle East; Catholics, barred from worshipping under the Stuarts, planted knot gardens with coded religious meanings; rhubarb in white wine was once used as a hair dye. These snippets and the engaging tone lift the book beyond a mere historical account.
A Little History of British Gardening was first published in 2004 and has now been updated and reprinted, with what Uglow describes as “some weeding and tidying of the text”, although the unfortunate placing of Hidcote in Oxfordshire rather than Gloucestershire remains.
At the outset, she says that “Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present”. There’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering that in tending our plots we are continuing something that has been done for centuries.
• A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Chatto & Windus.
• More book reviews here
Worried about wildlife but don’t know how to kick the chemical habit? I’ve been finding out about gardening organically.
It’s not so long ago that gardening organically was considered a bit strange. When I first started writing about gardens, I could number those that used no artificial fertilisers or sprays in single figures. Nowadays, I frequently meet gardeners who have decided to grow more naturally, spurred on by reports of the threat to wildlife and concerns about pesticides on food.
And if organic suggests an ugly mix of weed-smothering old carpet, diseased roses and slug-ravished hostas, you need look no further than the Cotswolds’ flagship organic garden, Highgrove (pictured top), to see that organic can still be beautiful.
Yet, if you’re someone who’s used to reaching for the pellets to protect against slugs, or spraying at the first sign of greenfly, ditching the artificial answer can be a big step.
The important thing is not to expect an overnight fix, explains Elaine Shears, chair of the Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group. It takes time to get the right mix of pests and their predators.
“You need to hang on as it takes a while to get the beneficials in place. Don’t reach for the chemical bottle and eventually you will get a really good balance.”
Elaine, who has been gardening organically for 30 years, describes it as a way of life and believes it’s important to treat the garden as a whole rather than limiting the spray-free zone to the vegetable patch.
“What you do in one part will affect plants in another part.”
Here are her ideas on where to begin.
Start at the bottom
The first step to a good organic garden is feeding the soil rather than the plants. Well-rotted farmyard manure, homemade leaf mould, compost made from garden and kitchen waste will improve the structure and nutrients in the soil.
Green manures – available from seed firms – are also a good way of protecting the soil over winter and adding nutrients, either directly to the border or via the compost heap.
“You can dig them in, cut the tops off and put them in the compost or dig the whole thing up and compost it.”
Elaine also advises rotating crops around the veg plot rather than growing the same type in the same place year after year. This will help stop the build-up of disease and protect the soil’s fertility, as different crops require different things.
Make your own food
When you do need to feed plants, use something made from natural ingredients, such as seaweed or pelleted chicken manure, rather than an artificial fertiliser.
You can also make your own from comfrey or nettles: cover the leaves with water (weighting them down helps keep them wet) and leave to steep outside somewhere sheltered, preferably with a lid on as the mix will smell. Use the liquid diluted roughly 1:10; the darker it is, the more it needs to be diluted.
“I use comfrey liquid on my greenhouse tomatoes and I mulch the outside ones with comfrey leaves,” says Elaine.
Stop the pests
Most gardeners’ biggest enemies are slugs and snails and Elaine suggests a two-pronged offensive: reducing their number and protecting young plants.
Wet weather brings out slugs and snails and is the ideal time to gather them up, while regular checks under plant pots, in greenhouse corners and under leaves will help to keep the numbers down.
Plastic slug collars put around vulnerable plants help to protect them, as do copper bands and Elaine also uses cloches made from old drinks bottles.
“I don’t do a lot of direct sowing and tend to grow things in modules in the greenhouse,” she says. “With direct sowing, if I get a problem, I just have to do it again.”
When it comes to beating cabbage white butterflies, Enviromesh, a fine nylon mesh, is her choice but it must be set above the crop to stop the butterflies laying eggs through it. At the end of the season, Elaine puts it through the washing machine to clean it up ready for the next year.
Make good friends
Bring in wildlife to help you fight off pests by giving them what they need: food, drink and somewhere to shelter.
Water is important not only for birds but for attracting frogs and toads; Elaine has sunk half barrels into the ground as there’s no room for a pond.
Give wildlife somewhere to shelter: plenty of shrubs and trees for birds; a ‘bug hotel’ for things to overwinter in; or simply a more overgrown area.
“Don’t be too tidy,” advises Elaine.
Make sure fences have gaps under them to allow hedgehogs access into your garden and be careful when clearing piles of leaves in late autumn.
Put food out for birds year-round and grow flowers – particularly those with single rather than double blooms – to attract pollinators and things such as hoverflies that will also eat aphids. Mixing flowers with veg not only looks good, it also gets the good bugs where you want them.
Finally, Elaine suggests taking time to make sure you know who’s a friend and who’s a foe; it’s all too easy to squash a ladybird larvae by mistake.
• Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group meets on the third Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm at St John’s Church Centre in Churchdown, Gloucestershire.
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A recent report by the King’s Fund for the National Gardens Scheme has linked gardening to better health but it also has a role to play in end of life care as shown at the Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice.
Gardening at Leckhampton Court
It’s the view that’s most surprising. An almost panoramic vista across the Gloucestershire countryside with the Cotswolds and Malverns visible in the distance, it seems at odds with the hospice’s location just on the edge of town. At odds, but also somehow fitting: if anywhere should have the benefit of a close link with nature, it’s here.
Then there’s the garden: nothing fancy but carefully tended and filled with colour, adding to the sense that this is just a well-loved family home rather than a modern, specialist centre for palliative care.
It’s an impression the team at Leckhampton Court are keen to foster: not only does it help to humanise what is often a distressing experience, the garden and indeed gardening have been shown to help in their work.
“It’s an important part of the care we provide here,” says Hayley Clemmens, the hospice’s spokeswoman, who stresses that the hospice is not just somewhere people go to die.
“Fifty-four per cent of our patients come in and go home again,” she explains.
Most are day patients – Leckhampton Court has just 16 in-patient beds – and many are being helped with long-term, life-limiting conditions such as multiple sclerosis and dementia.
As well as providing soothing, peaceful surroundings for patients, their families and the hospice staff, the gardens have been used in assessment and treatment, while difficult conversations are often eased by walking around the grounds or sitting on one of the many benches.
A new feature that is proving particularly helpful is a raised vegetable bed near the day hospice room.
Tall enough to be accessible to even the frailest patient, it is filled with a delightful mix of colourful flowers and veg: celeriac, curly kale, purple sprouting broccoli, beans and sweetcorn rub shoulders with sunflowers, petunias and marigolds. Meanwhile, tomatoes are being grown in pots alongside.
The mini veg plot is popular with patients, some of whom are distressed at no longer being able to care for their own gardens, and many take home bags of produce.
Tending the plants can also help with those in pain, says Senior Staff Nurse Katherine Grace.
“I did a lot of planting with one MS patient who was struggling that week. It really took her out of herself.”
Her colleague, occupational therapist Anna Primrose-Wells, uses the raised veg bed when assessing patients, such as those with dementia.
“One voluntarily picked up the courgette plant label and read it, which was massively informative for me to understand the level of his perception.”
The plants have all been donated while the bed itself was built by volunteers. Indeed, Leckhampton Court is reliant on volunteer gardeners as, along with the rest of the hospice’s work most of the costs have to be met through fundraising by the local community.
A small team meets weekly to care for around five acres of garden in the total of just over 14 acres of grounds; there’s a sizeable wood as well as a lake and even the car park has planted boundaries.
There’s also an area of donated trees on the site of a former orchard, although tools rather than trees would be a more welcome gift today with wheelbarrows top of the list.
As well as tending borders filled with lavender, spiraea, hollyhocks, hemerocallis, leucanthemum and roses, the team also raise cuttings from existing plants to help fill spaces; penstemon are being targeted when I visit.
Pride of place is a new border by the main entrance created by Peter Dowle, a Chelsea gold medal-winning designer who donated the plan to the hospice.
“The bed was full of roses that were about 40 years old,” explains John Millington, who organises the team of volunteers. “We couldn’t replace them and had to go for something different.”
Planting for the raised bed was funded thanks to the Farrell family, who raised the money with a charity golf event.
The new border was still being finished when I visited but already perennial wallflower, thyme and Erigeron karvinskianus were settling in around old stones from the manor house that have been carefully placed so that initials chiselled into them can be seen.
“It’s such an important bed as it’s the first one people see going up to the front door,” says John.
It’s also an important part of the ‘home from home’ feel that the hospice tries to create and the sense of peace that is so apparent.
“Lady Ryder believed that healing was helped by the environment,” says John. “This environment has healing properties because it’s peaceful and tranquil.”
• For more information about Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court hospice see here
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A dazzling debut
Living in a county with so many good gardens, I rarely have to travel far to find somewhere interesting. What will tempt me further afield is a new garden, or one that promises something other than the usual Cotswold herbaceous border.
Recently, I travelled to the outer reaches of the county’s National Gardens Scheme to visit two Gloucestershire gardens that tick both boxes: one is making its debut in the NGS; the other is an old favourite with a plant list that starts with the owner’s love of grasses.
Admittedly as I headed towards the border with Wales, I did wonder if the trip would be worth the journey, while trying to navigate the extremely narrow lanes with their sparse signposting reminded me of getting lost on childhood house-hunting trips in Norfolk with my father convinced the locals had ‘switched’ the road signs.
It is a long drive from my side of the Cotswolds but the chance to see two varied and interesting gardens makes it more than worthwhile.
My first stop was at Greenfields, which has been created from an almost blank canvas over the past five years by Jackie Healy. As such, it is still a young garden but a strong underlying structure and some impressive growth mean it more than earns its NGS slot.
The one-and-a-half acres has some noteworthy features: beautiful mature trees, stunning views towards Wales and not one but two streams, one a winterbourne that dries during summer, the other a constant flow through the garden.
The soil is more of a mixed blessing: acid enough to be able to grow rhododendrons and azaleas (unusual among Gloucestershire gardens) and reasonably fertile but difficult to work thanks to the combination of stone and solid clay.
“If you want to put something in, you have to get a pickaxe out first,” observes Jackie.
That job usually falls to her husband, Fintan, while the plants are her domain; in the past she has worked at a nursery and has a particular interest in propagation.
She describes the garden as influenced by Great Dixter and what she calls a “wonderful mix of formality and total chaos”. As such, there is little colour theming – beyond borders alongside the house where lavender mingles with agapanthus, delicate pink thalictrum and purple clematis. Elsewhere, there is a riotous mix of colours.
The garden is divided into distinct – and even labelled – areas that offer Jackie the chance to indulge her eclectic plant tastes.
Behind the house, a semi-woodland area has lent itself naturally to a collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, dazzling in spring, and a cool retreat in the summer, particularly on the warm day that I visited.
The mound that is part of Offa’s Dike runs through it and prevents some parts being cultivated but Jackie is still managing to create a garden in the space. Part of the stream-side has been planted with plans for a possible stumpery further along.
“When you’ve got natural water it’s a fine line between controlling it [the planting] and just accepting that nature will do what nature will do. It’s always a balancing act.”
So far, it’s a battle she’s winning but constant vigilance is needed to keep on top of weeds and plants that become thuggish in the damp growing conditions.
Further down, terraces are full of summer colour, first in golds, oranges and yellows, moving on to pinks, purples and blue.
A striking crocosmia – ‘Paul’s Best Yellow’ – catches my eye, as does ‘Kwanso’, a lovely double hemerocallis in burnt orange tones.
On the next level there’s a perfume whose source I struggle at first to locate. Jackie laughs and points out a rather unprepossessing shrub, rather straggly in habit and with small white flowers. It’s actually Philadelphus maculatus ‘Mexican Jewel’ and it’s definitely punching above its weight.
“There is nothing much to say for it from a shrub point of view,” agrees Jackie, “but at night this whole area is just filled with its scent.”
It’s not the only plant of note and elsewhere in the garden there’s a Japanese pepper tree, Zanthoxylum piperitum, Impatiens tinctoria, with its orchid-like blooms, the fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus and a schefflera that is surviving thanks to the microclimate.
The ‘Formal Garden’ is full of what she describes as “everything and anything that I love”, particularly dahlias, grown in pots that are sunk into the borders. It makes them easier to lift and helps to protect them from slugs.
Below, a raised terrace is divided into sheltered quarters that provide different growing conditions: two shaded, two more sunny. Again it’s a relaxed mix, including hemerocallis, Crambe cordifolia and penstemon.
A new grass area has a more regimented style: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and golden lonicera around a seat that allows views across the garden through a pleached hornbeam hedge.
Elsewhere, stipa is part of a newly planted grass walk and Molinia caerulea arundinacea ‘Transparent’ is being used to edge ‘The Jungle’. Here, damp-lovers, including gunnera and hydrangeas, revel in moisture from the stream that pops up after a long section underground. Old bricks have been used to give the impression of water running through ruins and there are plans to build a swing seat nearby.
Surprisingly, given that she has long gardened, this is the first season that Jackie has grown vegetables. The veg are obviously unaware of her inexperience and the neatly fenced Kitchen Garden is brimming with cavolo nero, French and broad beans and carrots, all set against masses of nasturtiums, grown as a sacrificial crop to keep blackfly off the beans but thriving and adding a wonderful touch of colour.
With many features, including yew hedges, still to mature, it will be interesting to see how this newcomer to the Gloucestershire gardens scene develops.
• Part two: Barn House next week.
• Greenfields, Brockweir Common, near Chepstow, is open by appointment for the National Gardens Scheme until September 10. Phone 07747 186302 or email firstname.lastname@example.org A combined visit to nearby Barn House may be possible.
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Young gardeners are being encouraged to have a go at creating their own garden in a competition run by a Gloucestershire plant nursery.
Tortworth Plants, at Tortworth near Wotton-under-Edge, is hosting the miniature garden competition as part of Tortworth Estates open day on Sunday June 5.
Gardens have to be created in a standard sized seed tray and there are three categories: six years and under, 7-11 and 12 and over. Entries need to be handed in to the nursery at Old Lodge Farm between 9.30am and 10.30am on the day.
The event is part of the national Open Farm Sunday and will include tours of the estate’s dairy farm, tractor rides, a farmers’ market and plants for sale.
Tortworth Nursery specialises in herbaceous perennials and unusual alpines and also has a range of herbs and classic favourite garden plants.
• For a full feature on the nursery see here
• For more information on the Open Farm Sunday event visit Tortworth Nursery