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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.