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.”

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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.

Sarah takes over at historic Cotswold garden

When we meet, Sarah Malleson is just one week into her new role as Head Gardener at Hidcote Manor Garden and still shaking her head in disbelief.

A career change 13 years ago saw her join the world-famous Arts and Crafts garden on a National Trust apprenticeship scheme in 2005. Now she is heading up the 11-strong gardening team.

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Hidcote’s new head gardener Sarah Malleson

“I still cannot quite believe it,” says Sarah, who is the first woman to run the Hidcote garden. “Thirteen years ago I never thought I would reach this.”

She has taken over in the lead role following the departure at the beginning of last year of Glyn Jones to become head of gardens at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Hidcote attracts thousands of visitors a year

Glyn had worked for the Trust for 29 years and had been in charge at Hidcote for 16 years, overseeing the huge 10-year restoration project that has seen elements of Lawrence Johnston’s original garden reinstated, including the plant shelter and alpine terrace.

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Winter shows off the structure that underpins Hidcote

Sarah didn’t apply when the job was first advertised, as she had just started work as Hidcote’s Visitor Experience Manager, drawing on her previous experience in customer services and marketing. But when the Trust did not appoint and the role was re-advertised last autumn, she put her name forward.

“Doing the Visitor Experience Manager job was a good thing and I enjoyed it but it made me realise my heart is really in the garden,” she says, adding that it’s also given her a better understanding of how Hidcote and the Trust are run.

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The clipped framework of branches is clear against a winter sky

Meanwhile, Michelle Bailey has been appointed as the new Visitor Experience Manager, and Richard Armstrong took over as Catering Manager last year.

So soon into her new job Sarah has few detailed plans but priorities include maintaining standards of horticulture, getting to know her team and recruiting for another gardener to bring their numbers up to full strength.

She’s also unlikely to make any huge changes after an unsettled few years: Hidcote had a caretaker Head Gardener in 2014 while Glyn was on secondment to Dyffryn Gardens in Wales, followed by Glyn’s departure and part-time guidance from Stourhead’s Alan Powers over last summer and autumn while the Trust sought to fill the job.

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There’s plenty of colour in the garden

“This year is about settling things back down, learning about my role and making longer term plans.”

Adding more jewels and banishing blight

It will include drawing up a five-year plan, important in any garden but particularly so in one with the historic background of Hidcote and Sarah will be working closely with the conservation management plan.

“It will help us see whether things are as they should be.”

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Reinstating the Plant Shelter was part of the restoration project

Sarah, who oversaw the restoration of the Kitchen Garden a few years ago, is planning to look at each of Hidcote’s ‘garden rooms’ to ensure the planting is as good as it can be.

“I want to look at the historic plants and see what we’ve got, what’s missing, what things need propagating, what needs to be brought back into the garden.”

Some of that work has already been started by Assistant Head Gardener Sarah Davis, who has been rejuvenating the “horticultural jewels that sparkle in the borders”.

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Jasmine scents the air in the Plant Shelter

The team are also partway through restoring The Fuchsia Garden, a move that was forced on them by box blight. Like several Cotswold gardens – not least Highgrove and Barnsley House – Hidcote has had to remove some of its old box hedges.

It’s been used as an opportunity to redo the rest of the area with the beds cleared and brick paths relaid, using traditional lime mortar. Research is now being carried out on what planting Johnston used in this part of the garden.

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Work is ongoing in The Fuchsia Garden

“We’re not going to rush the planting but will look back at the history.”

There’s also been no decision yet on what to use to replace the box. Ilex crenata was tried in this part of the garden but failed to thrive and the team are waiting to see how Euonymus japonicus microphyllus fares in The Maple Garden.

“We need to wait and see how that does before planting The Fuchsia Garden because we will need a lot of plants for there.”

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Hidcote’s history guides today’s gardening team

Already the ‘to do’ list is starting to grow but Sarah says that’s the beauty of working at Hidcote.

“What’s nice is there’s plenty to get your teeth into here. It’s not as though it’s all done and you’re just trying to keep it the same. It’s ever changing and keeps the creative ideas flowing, which is exciting.”

Hidcote reopens on Saturday February 11, 2017 for one week during half-term. It is then open at weekends with normal opening from March. For more details, visit the website

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All change at Hidcote

Glyn Jones is leaving Hidcote Manor Garden after 16 years of leading the gardens team.

He is going to be Head of Gardens for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon looking after five gardens in and around the town.

It was, he said, a big decision to leave Hidcote and the National Trust, where he has worked for 29 years, but he was looking forward to the new challenge, which he begins on February 1.

“It took me a while to make my mind up, as I really love Hidcote,” he said, “but I’m really excited.”

A turning point was his year-long secondment in 2014 to the National Trust’s Dyffryn Gardens in Wales where he was responsible for writing a management plan.

“I learnt a lot at Dyffryn last year. I came alive and really loved it.”

During his time at Hidcote he has overseen a 10-year project to rejuvenate the garden and restore Lawrence Johnston’s original features, including covered alpine beds and a plant shelter for tender specimens.

“Glyn has played a pivotal role in getting Hidcote to where it is today,” said Ian Wright, the Trust’s SW gardens advisor. “He will be missed from the property as it enters its own next phase of development. We wish Glyn every success.”

The job at Stratford will involve looking after gardens with a wide range of styles, including a traditional orchard at Mary Arden’s Farm, a cottage garden at Anne Hathaway’s family home and a new garden at New Place, which is due to open in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Glyn will head a team of eight and two apprentices, who he will help to train.

“One of my real passions is training the next generation. We’ve done so much of that at Hidcote.”

The National Trust is expected to begin the hunt for Glyn’s replacement at Hidcote in the New Year.