Setting some gardening resolutions

New Year’s resolutions aren’t confined to those wanting to shed pounds or quit smoking. Gardeners also see the start of the year as the chance to tackle the inevitable ‘to do’ list and gardening resolutions are common.

I’ve yet to come across any gardener who’s happy with what they’ve achieved. There’s always something they want to improve, something new to try or a part of their plot that just isn’t working.

Among the most self-critical are those that open to the public. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like knowing your efforts are going to be scrutinised by visitors.

I’ve been talking to some of the Cotswolds’ National Gardens Scheme members about what they have planned for 2017.

Dealing with a pretty thug

gardening resolutions
Thalictrum is spreading happily among the roses

At Littlefield, at Hawling, Thalictrum delavayi is exercising Federica Wilk’s mind. Planted as a companion to pale pink roses in the Rose Garden, it is doing a little too well and self-seeding profusely.

“For the last couple of years, just before the garden open days, I have gone into the borders and thinned the thalictrum drastically in places, to try to strike the right balance between the roses and this very exuberant tall plant,” says Federica. “This is tricky, but extremely satisfying once the job is done.”

This year, one of her gardening resolutions is to start the job early and not leave it until just before the garden opens in July.

Spare plants are potted up and sold on NGS days where they quickly sell out.

“Visitors seem to like thalictrum a lot, probably because of its dainty, light purple bell-like flowers, which go so well with the roses.”

Another of her gardening resolutions for 2017 is replacing the lavenders in the Yew Walk, which have outgrown their allotted space.

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Lavender is going to be replanted in the Yew Walk

‘Hidcote’ and ‘Imperial Gem’ will be replanted in spring.

“They vary in colour only slightly but the overall effect is superb, if the plants are placed diagonally opposite each other along the edge of the sinuous path.”

At the same time, Federica will thin out the Geranium ‘Jolly Bee’ so that it is in scale with the young lavenders.

She is also planning to get the basics right with a concerted effort on producing good compost – a long-held ambition.

“It’s looking promising and from next year perhaps I will never have to buy potting compost from a nursery again.”

Making an early start

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Cutting back perennials early will stop a rush before opening

At Barn House, Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, an early start is top of the gardening resolutions list.

Leaving the tidy up and division of perennial borders until spring is, says Shirley Sills, proving a race to beat the clock of opening day, as the two-and-a-half acre plot is looked after by just her and her husband, Gordon.

“It’s a rush to clean and clear, split and replant borders in time for our first opening at the end of May and a lot of stress and cutting of corners to achieve it. In fact, this has led to a couple of borders not having had plants split for some five to six years!”

She is trying a different approach this year, and has strimmed all the perennials and left the dead top growth as a protective layer and habitat for insects over winter. This will then be raked off in spring, something she is hoping will take days rather than the usual weeks.

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Perennials and trees are two of the garden’s highlights

“This largely due to fact that new growth has started before I’m ready to tackle it, which involves more care in clearing borders. It’s an experiment but one I hope will work.”

Removing some trees that are growing into the boundary of this walled garden is going to lead to a rethink of one area.

“This will let a lot of light into a previously dark corner but one that until now I’ve been able to ignore as part of a woodland area so needing little maintenance.”

The resulting space is going to be an east-facing border of around 20m wide and 2m deep that will still have a few trees in it, including espaliered apples, a perry pear and Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’. Clearing the rampant ground elder will be the first task.

“I have promised Gordon that I will not add to our workload with whatever I plan,” says Shirley. “Neither of us are getting any younger and there’s already too much work for us in this garden.”

Taking back control

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The woodland is a spring highlight

New possibilities thanks to the removal of trees is also shaping the gardening resolutions of Celia Hargrave at Trench Hill, Sheepscombe.

A large area has been cleared of old or dangerous trees and replanted with new plus a mix of cornus and euonymus for stem and leaf colour. One of the felled trees has been turned into a dragon-shaped seat.

“The area is now covered in weeds because we have let in more light and moved soil, explains Celia.

She is determined to “get this area back under control” and plans to plant it with ferns, hellebores, cyclamen and spring flowering bulbs.

“I must also make a decision on how much of this area will be completely tended and how much will be allowed to become more like the majority of the established woodland. The decision is difficult as more creativity leads to more maintenance!”

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More hellebores are on Celia’s planting list

The second of her gardening resolutions is making more of her vegetable garden. Feeling it has been somewhat neglected this year, she is hoping to be more organised both in terms of what she grows and how she uses it.

Top of the list is not over-planting things such as runner beans, staggering the sowing of salad crops and keeping a closer eye on courgettes so that they do not become marrows.

“I love the idea of a beautifully ordered vegetable area but never feel that I achieve this so it seems that early preparation followed by regular maintenance and use is key.”

Creating a new look

The pond is getting a new path and jetty.

The New Year will see some major changes at Brockworth Court, near Gloucester. Tim Wiltshire is planning to revamp both the pond and garden by the historic Tithe Barn.

A new jetty, new path to the water’s edge and some, as yet, unspecified new planting are all top of his gardening resolutions.

“Probably the jetty will be painted the same green as the Monet bridge but I have not yet decided.”

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Work is being carried out in the rose garden

He is also changing the look of the rose area by creating a pebble path around the central border. It’s going to be edged in cobbles that were in the old stable building.

“There’s a bit of recycling going on.”

Adding box hedging on the outer borders will complete the revamp.

Filling in the gaps

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Grasses mix with perennials throughout the gardern

Kate Patel at Barn House, near Chepstow, which is known for its grass collection, has a long list of gardening resolutions headed by tweaking what she describes as a “weak corner” in front of her kitchen window.

Originally purple echinacea were used as a contrast to a band of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and drifts of Sedum spectabile but over the years the coneflowers have dwindled leaving noticeable gaps in the display.

Kate has already added clumps of Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ to give some more interest but says the two grasses are crying out for a contrasting hue.

“The answer would be to sharpen the spade and divide the congested clumps of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Pink Glow’ and then remember to Chelsea chop them (done a little later in early June here) to keep them at the right height to contrast with the taller grasses behind them.”

Veronicastrum has already been used as a contrast further down the bed.

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The garden is known for its collection of grasses

“It makes a stunning combination of seed heads against winter-blond grass that lasts right through the dreary winter months.”

Kate is also planning to boost the spring display by adding more bulbs, such as tulips. These need regular replanting as few like the combination of her heavy clay soil and wet winters but she believes it’s worth the effort for the effect of colour among the newly emerging foliage of deciduous grasses.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ is another combination that she likes with the purple pom-pom heads of the allium looking good coming through the nepeta, which in turn hides the uninspiring foliage of the allium.

Other gardening resolutions include renewing some ageing compost bins and growing more veg in 2017. Over the past few years, the vegetable beds have been used mainly for raising grasses and perennials either to restock the garden or to sell on NGS open days.

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Colourful squashes are on Kate’s list of things to grow

“Now I think it’s time to earmark a few of them for the things I’ve missed most like artichokes, multicoloured beetroots, borlottti beans and colourful squashes that are almost impossible to buy around here but that both taste good and look so attractive in a bowl on the kitchen table.”

Most importantly, she is planning to take the time to appreciate her garden in 2017.

“I want to set my never-ending To-Do list aside and make more time to just sit and enjoy the garden over a cup of tea while watching the dogs play in their paddock.”

As gardening resolutions go, that’s one we should all try to follow.

For opening dates for 2017 see the National Gardens Scheme

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Gardens open by arrangement

Beautiful borders, unusual plants, design inspiration or maybe just the lure of cake, whatever the reason, the Gloucestershire National Gardens Scheme is thriving with hundreds of people visiting plots across the county every week. Yet there’s one group that’s often overlooked: gardens open by arrangement rather than on a set date.

It may, agrees county organiser Norman Jeffery, be a very British quirk, a fear of being a nuisance, of putting someone out, but visitors are often reluctant to approach these garden owners to organise a trip.

“It’s a shame because they are missing out on some really good gardens,” he says.

While these plots are not completely overlooked, they don’t generally fare as well as their set date counterparts.

gardens by arrangement
Ampney Brook House has seen extensive remodelling

Some gardens open by arrangement because a lack of parking means they could not cope with an influx of several hundred people – a problem that is common in some of the Cotswold’s tiny villages.

Others, explains Norman, like to have some idea of how many people are going to turn up; NGS open days can notoriously be a case of ‘feast or famine’ and numbers are hugely influenced by the weather.

“Being open by arrangement gives them some control over the numbers which makes the organisation of the day easier.”

gardens open by arrangement
Trench Hill has well-planted mixed borders and stunning views

Norman adds that it’s a system that also works in the visitors’ favour as they get a “more exclusive experience”, often with a guided tour of the garden by the owner.

“Garden owners enjoy the fact that they can give the personal touch a bit more.”

There may also be the chance for refreshments other than the traditional tea and cake with some gardens offering the opportunity for evening visits with wine.

Other Gloucestershire National Gardens Scheme members have both set dates and open by arrangement visits – a good way of still getting to see a plot if you missed the NGS day or the weather was bad.

gardens open by arrangement
The Old Rectory is the home of designer and writer Mary Keen

The numbers needed for a private visit vary from garden to garden with some setting an upper limit, others a minimum number required and many being open to any size of group.

Often these arrangements are used by gardening clubs or other societies but they are also an ideal way for a group of friends to have a day out.

“You get to see the gardens with friends and in a more exclusive setting,” says Norman.

It’s also a good way of keeping the garden visiting season going as the number of set days tails off during August and September.

Gardens with veg, flowers and views

gardens open by arrangement
Cotswold Farm is an Arts and Crafts terraced garden

In Gloucestershire there are several gardens open by arrangement only and lots more that allow private visits on top of their NGS days. Here are some that are open by arrangement from now until the autumn.

Ampney Brook House at Ampney Crucis is nearing the end of a five-year project to create a varied garden with herbaceous borders, woodland and vegetables.

Late summer colour is one of the strengths of The Meeting House at Flaxley. The two-acre plot also has a reed bed sewage system and an orchard with wild flowers.

Daglingworth House, Daglingworth, (pictured at top of page) is a garden that skilfully combines well-stocked borders, lovely views and humorous touches.

gardens open by arrangement
Brockworth Court has a pond with a thatched Fiji house and Monet-style bridge

Pasture Farm, Upper Oddington, has been developed over the past 30 years. It includes topiary, mixed borders and ducks.

Greenfields and Barn House, both at Brockweir Common, offer the possibility of arranging to see both gardens on the same day. Greenfields is a recently developed garden of different ‘rooms’ while Barn House has a large collection of grasses.

The unusual backdrop of a ruined castle makes Beverston Castle an atmospheric and romantic place to visit. It also has a large, walled kitchen garden and glasshouses.

At Hodges Barn, near Tetbury, the house includes a converted C15 dovecote while the garden is wide-ranging with mixed borders, water and woodland areas.

Designer and writer Mary Keen offers visits and a short talk to groups at her garden at The Old Rectory, Duntisbourne Rous. Dahlias are a late season feature in this garden that’s planted for year-round interest.

Another writer with an open garden is Victoria Summerley at Awkward Hill Cottage in Bibury. Described as a ‘work in progress’, her garden is being redesigned to encourage wildlife and includes both formal and informal planting.

Upton Wold, near Moreton-in-Marsh has wonderful views, wide-ranging planting and some unusual trees, including the National Collection of walnuts.

gardens open by arrangement
Hodges Barn is just as lovely later in the year as in spring here

Views are also a feature of Trench Hill at Sheepscombe whose three acres includes woodland, ponds, vegetables and mixed borders.

The Arts and Crafts garden at Cotswold Farm, Duntisbourne Abbots, has a Jewson-designed terrace, bog garden and allotments in a walled garden.

Brockworth Court blends many different styles from cottage to formal in a garden that includes a natural fish pond, kitchen garden and historic tithe barn.

Finally, there’s the chance to visit the well-known Barnsley House, former home of designer Rosemary Verey and now a hotel. Groups with a minimum of 10 people can see the famous potager, knot garden and mixed borders.

For details of dates, admission prices and numbers required at gardens open by arrangment, visit the NGS

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Trench Hill lights up spring

Planting under trees is something that defeats many gardeners. The ground is often poor, generally in shade for a large part of the year and tree roots can make it nigh-on impossible to dig. Yet, get it right and the results can be magical, as Trench Hill garden proves.

It’s a display that for once fully justifies the cliché ‘a tapestry of colour’. Hellebores sport blooms of every shade, there are clumps of mauve and purple crocus, a few remaining snowdrop flowers, blue hyacinths, cerise cyclamen, pulmonaria in pink and blue, and flashes of yellow from narcissi, all bordering a long path beneath trees. What makes it more remarkable is that it has been created out of what was little more than scrub.

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The woodland walk is a mass of colour

The project, like so many in this varied garden of nearly three acres, began modestly.

“I thought it would be nice to have about a metre of garden near the patio, just a few flowers there,” explains Celia Hargrave, who has been developing Trench Hill for the past 23 years. “It was a mix of weeds and scrub.”

That was 10 years ago and the ‘few flowers’ now spread for some distance on either side of a chipped bark path.

Trench Hill
A porthole in a piece of artwork gives a glimpse of the garden beyond

Clearing the weeds, including ivy and nettles, was one problem, the stony soil was quite another: “Once you dig down there’s a huge amount of stone. It’s a big issue.”

The bigger pieces are now used to edge the two borders, giving an informality that suits the setting high up above Sheepscombe.

She was luckier with the soil itself as decades of falling leaves had left it in pretty good shape, and this has been further improved over the years with the addition of homemade leaf mould.

Trench Hill
Narcissus ‘Jetfire’

Much of the success of this area is down to the careful choice of plants. Not only will they cope with shade once the trees are in full leaf, they also flower early when light levels are at their best.

The borders start quietly in February with the white and yellow of snowdrops and aconites, are in full flower through March and early April before finishing softly with bluebells and wood anemones. A few fuchsias, lilies and cornus give interest at other times but it is really spring when the display demands attention.

It is particularly good this year after the addition of 1,000 ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Pickwick’ crocus, whose deep purple and lilac striped petals add a real zing to the show. Already, Celia is planning to plant hundreds more in the autumn.

'Pickwick' crocus are a new addition
‘Pickwick’ crocus are a new addition

The recent felling of some larch and a mature beech that had become unsafe has allowed her to extend the garden behind the woodland walk. Here, she has planted hundreds of bulbs, more cornus and a mix of trees, including lime, sorbus, red oak and another beech. Choosing smaller trees will, she hopes, keep the improved light levels. Meanwhile, the old beech has been transformed into a dragon seat that allows you to linger and enjoy the beautiful view across Cotswold countryside.

Elsewhere, a large ash that also had to be felled was in the process of being carved when I visited. The exact finish had not been decided but a green man and lizard were possibilities, yet another addition to the artwork and carvings that enhance this stalwart of the National Gardens Scheme – it has just celebrated 20 years of opening.

Trench Hill
Pussy willow and fiery Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ add interest to the main pond

It sits alongside another recently redeveloped area of small ponds, which have been enlarged, while curtailing a pair of nearby borders has allowed the creation of a better seating area.

Some alterations are less radical: removing an overlarge conifer in one of the foliage beds has given room for new plants, such as pittosporum and white hydrangeas; cowslips, primroses and fritillaries have been added to grass under the fruit trees.

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The garden has wonderful views

It’s typical of a garden where nothing is allowed to stagnate.

“Sometimes things just need refreshing,” comments Celia. “You say to yourself ‘It’s been brilliant but it’s had its day’.”

Trench Hill is a long way from being in that position.

Trench Hill, Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire, is open from 11-6 for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday March 27 and Monday March 28, 2016. Admission is £4 for adults, children enter free. For details of other open dates, visit http://www.ngs.org.uk/

Trench Hill