In my formative years as a gardener, I can honestly say that I never thought that trees would play such a significant part. I mean, I learnt about them, planted a few, chopped bits off a few more and did my fair share of ident’ sessions, but did I really get to know and understand trees?
Naturally I grew up with trees all around, as most people do: trees in our family gardens and down the street, a huge conker tree in the school playground, even the Christmas tree in the corner each December. (OK, maybe that last one was a bit of a stretch!) But did I really take proper notice of them?
Welcome to my GardeningWays blog, where this week I shall attempt to give rise to the significantly trivial formal garden hedge.
You see, we finally managed to make a start on trimming the yew hedges in the garden at Sulgrave Manor, and whilst there’s a long way yet to go, at least we’ve made a start.
In preparation, I found myself sharpening, and sharpening and sharpening the trimmer teeth, and whilst lost in the moment I started thinking about the formal hedge I was about to trim for the first time. I also began considering formal hedges in the wider world of gardening, and particularly about their reputation.
Welcome to a slice of what normally would be my garden journal. Last week I actually drove down a new lane on my journey to work and delivered myself to a new garden called Sulgrave Manor.
To coincide with this new chapter, and in an effort to develop my garden writing I’ve decided to take my blog in a new direction also. For the foreseeable future therefore, I’m going to try some posts that explore particular topics or themes related to gardens, horticulture, heritage or the natural world – all subjects that surround me everyday and remain close to my heart. My GardeningWays blog will henceforth feature posts with individual titles. Let’s hope I don’t run out of ideas!
Whether we believe in Blue Monday or not, many people do feel down in January, maybe because of all the hype and increased activity of the festive period. In truth though, there can be many times throughout the year when our spirits can for whatever reason, drop. Feeling over-worked, stressed, overwhelmed or just a little lacklustre, all are common feelings to many people at one point or another. But there’s hope…
One thing I have come to understand is that I definitely need quality time alone to unwind and recharge, maybe you feel the same too? “Ha!” I hear some people say, “like when do I ever get quality time to myself?!” Well, I’m familiar with this as well – very much so.
Now, I’m fortunate to work in the field of horticulture, which is to say that I spend most of my working days gardening. Something I’ve realised recently is that whilst I’ve prepared, restored and created gardens for people to visit, enjoy and relax in, I’ve also been able to experience these myself, even whilst busily working away.
Whilst in these spaces, I’ve always remained aware of the busy, thriving world outside because of lorries in the distance, jet planes overhead, ‘trends’ seen on social media during tea break and even by email – and yes, gardeners do get emails! Either way, I know that I’m never really that far away from the hustle and bustle yet, whilst I’ve been in my garden space, I have in a way been enjoying respite away from that congested, energy sapping world outside.
Please don’t misunderstand me, gardening is all-engaging, can be very stressful in many positions, and often, when a calm day of gardening appears to be ahead, a physically and mentally challenging day actually unfolds. Yet, through my work I’ve come to understand how, when ‘at one’ with nature and the green, growing environment; I can be completely calm and at my happiest.
I’ve also met many garden visitors and heard countless comments about how they love visiting and just being in gardens. “I love it here,” is something I’ve heard often. I’m completely sold therefore on the concept that gardens, woodlands, landscape and the outdoors in general can offer more nourishment to an individual than may be quantified. Put simply, if there’s a green space where one can be alone for a while to escape from the hectic world around, or even from a situation that needs more thought, then surely it must be a good thing for the individual.
Well, to get to my point, I’d like to introduce you to a set of green spaces where you can head for restorative purposes – and to an initiative that is ‘Silent Space’.
I will not attempt to explain at length, for it’s very simple – Silent Space encourages us to put our phones aside and to take a moment in a garden or green space. For all the reasons mentioned above, and more, Silent Space is an initiative that empowers us to breathe in the green space around us, to reconnect with nature, and to revive our spirits.
Where? You might ask, as often there are no quiet places nearby that ever come to mind for this sort of activity. But stress not, for wonderful people who believe in Silent Space have already prepared and opened areas of their gardens and venues as Silent Spaces, for you to visit.
True, if your garden or the park down the lane offers you a place for solace, then embrace it and use it, but the silent space I refer to here may just takes things up a notch or two.
The single link that follows will take you not just to a website, but to a growing world of much needed Silent Spaces that may offer exactly what you’re looking for. A growing number of gardens and landscapes are featured, and there’s likely to be one near you to try this year, and if there’s not, then why not ask for one, for Silent Space offers us so much, & is sure to keep growing…
As I write this the final days of my employment for Compton Verney are diminishing, and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it will be to walk away. Nevertheless, I know that time has come for change, and to move on, literally, to pastures new.
A lengthy notice period has meant that I’ve found myself stuck in limbo, which has given much time, possibly too much time, for contemplation. My head’s been full of thoughts and concerns, partly about challenges that are ahead in my new role, but also about the place I will leave behind, a place that has literally been my baby for nearly ten years now. Mentally, it’s a very weird place to be…
You see, I have spent recent years managing, tending, developing and nurturing the historic landscape garden that is Compton Verney, on behalf of a charitable trust. The area I’ve looked out for is a garden that rests in the subtlest of valleys, with a meandering pool system threaded and widened at its very heart. If you ever sensed a place with spirit, then you’ll know what I mean; Compton Verney is not left wanting when it comes to spirit of place.
Some landscape views thoughtfully created in the eighteenth century have survived the test of time. Those views, especially from the central mansion or bridge capture slices of farmland and look, to all intents and purposes perfectly natural. However, every hollow and mound, all the woodland groups and all the key views have been designed and manipulated by people. From the most recent light-touch planting and habitat creation projects, right back through the classical Georgian era, and still farther back through the Medieval period; the ground has been worked and worked again. Compton Verney simply exudes history and character, even the mansion stonework displays fossilised remains!
There’s an enchanting woodland garden with a handful of sheltered and calm spaces, that play host to a mixed age collection of native and exotic trees – some over 400 years old, and each having their own hidden history. Layered around are shrubberies, flowing lawns and established large-scale wild flower meadows, with close-mown paths weaving within and beyond. As if this were not enough, the whole venue has also become a local wildlife site of significance.
It is, as you may have deduced, one heck of an area to look out for. Oh, did I mention Compton Verney’s present landscape is the handiwork of one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown? I might have spoken about him once or twice over the years…
When I describe my present place I always see it from high above, whilst looking down across its key character areas. Down on the ground however, I have come to know the site so intimately, and there aren’t many square metres where I haven’t trod, studied, considered, fixed up, planted, photographed or, on occasion, had strong words with. One area even hides my wedding ring that was lost during a restoration project – a discovery for future archaeologists I think!
If you haven’t collected the thread by now, it is that Compton Verney, an incredibly atmospheric and beautiful place has gripped me, and I wanted to register this fact for posterity. I would say that I’m very aware it is not a Waddesdon, Kew Gardens, Chatsworth or otherwise, and it doesn’t pretend to be Wisley or Hampton Court; it is Compton Verney, a place that is individual, singular and uniquely brilliant.
I’m endeavouring, I guess, to record the Compton Verney that I know and respect. Regardless of whatever job title I’ve had pinned to my shirt, I’ve fundamentally acted as a custodian, an overseer or curator, and as anyone who cares for an historic venue is likely to tell you – it is this that matters most, and can sometimes weigh the heaviest. For me, it has always been about protecting and caring for the fabric of the landscape, and about pulling it back to something of its former splendour.
From the very first moment I stepped foot onto Compton Verney ground, I knew I could make a positive horticultural difference. What I didn’t bargain for was the journey it would take me on, the challenges or pain it would throw my way, or to what degree the place would embrace and hold my imagination. Like many historic landscape gardens, whilst its original design has suffered the inevitable passage of time, its atmosphere and presence remains ever-present, and has continued to grow and improve with every year of input.
Remembering that passage of time, and the changing use of the place itself, it may be interesting to note that even with the present trust ownership model; the ‘fabric’ of the landscape that I have looked out for has remained much the same as it has for centuries. In this context, and with full respect for the role I’ve been employed to carry out for almost a decade; you can hopefully see why, as one of a very long line of gardeners, I have always felt a strong commitment to do what felt right for the landscape itself.
During my contribution there have been many misty morning starts, with intimate views across that we’ll known mirror-pool lake view. There have also been dead of night walks beneath star speckled skies, whilst discovering bats and ‘butterflies of the night’. Countless projects have brought me to my knees on parched or damp earth, with many a planting pocket forced into the ground with an iron bar and back aching digging session. Other, rarer projects have given opportunities like walking beside the historic roof tiles of Brown’s chapel, to look down, bird-like over that flowing, beautiful, naturalistic landscape.
Some days have filled me with anger at the loss of a branch off a special tree, and some have set my mind wandering about the futures each freshly planted tree would witness. Frozen fingers have been warmed by the exhaust pipe of the ever suffering tractor, after hours of snow clearing yet conversely, gushing cold water has often flowed from hosepipes to cool a sun-baked head. I could fondly continue…
Naturally I can always re-visit, and I will, but before long all I shall have are images and memories to remind me of my seemingly long but all-too-short time at Compton Verney. Though I write of my personal experiences, I must importantly take time to thank a wonderful team, some of whom journeyed beside me and contributed to those landscape triumphs over the last few years.
Through our combined efforts, newly established wild flowers have fed, & will continue to nourish bees and butterflies. Beetles and rare fungi have flourished on the tons of dead wood we’ve hidden away and the stump-wood we have retained. Bats have continued to thrive in tree hollows we’ve ‘not’ pruned away, and new trees will cast valuable shade for decades, even centuries to come.
Revitalised open spaces will capture and restore peoples’ senses, a variety of planting will blossom to lift spirits, and new eye-catchers will challenge ideas of art and landscape. To all of you; you did a great job, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
I may not have been the best organiser or record-keeper, I never did promise to keep a tidy desk, and that dreaded flu might have taken me down a few times, but I feel that I’ve done my bit for the landscape and I’m proud of how it looks and of how we’ve executed our tasks along the way with humour.
So here we are, nearly at the end. ‘My baby’, as I mentioned at the top of this article will soon be my baby no longer. I’m happy though to see that it has grown some and will continue to mature. I look forward to seeing its progress in years to come, and to supporting if I can, and I will rest assured that whilst soon I will not be there in person every day, I’ll be there in spirit. My inputs were thoughtful, considered, and at all times with the best of intention.
Compton Verney historic landscape and garden: Veni, vidi, vici…
(Or more appropriately: I came, I saw, I gardened!)
“Gardeners, I think, dream bigger dreams than emperors.”
Mary Cantwell (1930-2000)
When I read the above quote from Mary Cantwell, an American journalist and novelist I believe, it certainly set my mind thinking. It reads simply, initially, and for me sparked inspirational thinking in relation to gardening projects or garden expansion. It made me think of growing more challenging, bigger and unique specimen plants, and it reminded me of my bucket list of gardens to visit in exotic, far-flung locations.
The quote could therefore be a simple, straight forward vehicle to encourage bigger thinking, like that expected of an emperor, but by an ordinary person. I guess it naturally sets a gardener’s station relatively low, but instantly lifts that station through some easy to achieve, bigger dreaming; and I have no worries where that’s concerned.
Nevertheless, whilst I doubt that Mary intended to speak directly to gardeners, the quote does take on a new meaning when I read it purely from my perspective as a gardener. I can see for example that the apparently simple quote could have deeper notes; notes that instantly make it more relevant to me on a daily basis. Let me briefly explain…
When I dream, day-dream that is, I’m often seeing gardens.
Or more specifically; I’m seeing garden spaces as parts of a larger garden. I might
have an ornamental border in mind that is ready for change, or occasionally a larger
space to work with and think about. Either way, the space is very rarely a completely
To this end as a gardener, I have to dream. I have to time travel and look into an imagined future to see the plants growing and to see the space fully developed. I’d also say that it’s not just me but we, as a creative gardening community that need to dream on a daily basis in order to achieve a reality that many people enjoy.
We have to dream that journey of each plant and its growth from seed – to sometimes gigantic proportions. To know the vulnerability of each plant is to encourage dreaming that enables ‘sight’ of the plant growing, and enables us to know that plant in its mature form, with competing plants all around.
In that dream-zone we have to make allowance for the challenges each plant will face along the way. Animal and human pests, accidents, stress, neglect and extreme weather will challenge the existence of each plant and garden. That imaginary journey of each plant will therefore trigger precautionary or protective measures to ensure the best chance of success, and it will certainly lead us to delete a dozen plants from any wish list before a single seed is sown, or plant ordered.
Gardeners do though have to understand the reality behind the dream, the processes and resources that enable us to grow from seed, to nurture cuttings or select plants. Gardeners also, sadly, have to understand how other factors may impact the future of a garden. Changing attitudes can sweep away a gardener’s dreams almost overnight. Each new generation can play to the new fashion; and a whole garden can all too easily be swept away with a new broom. Understanding that reality means that a gardener must dream and see the final vision, in order to make the often challenging journey bearable.
Finally, therefore, to return to the quote about gardeners who dream bigger than emperors; I have to say that I agree on all levels. To undervalue that ability to dream big is to stifle imagination, and to prevent the creation of something that may to one person be distasteful, but to another be beautiful, restorative, and life changing.
Gardeners ought to be encouraged to dream, for it is they who create, adapt and grow the unique and heavenly places so important to us all.
Perhaps we shouldn’t tease someone who appears to be day dreaming today, for in ten years we may be applauding their great gardening achievements, and in fifty years we may be celebrating their visionary foresight….
It’s probably my favourite gardening month, so I just had to write about my borrowed garden in May…
Upwards driven, arrow headed Aquilegia flowers begin to open, tainted only slightly by greenfly nestled in a few flower stalks – and not a ladybird to be seen.
De-headed tulips with their bleached foliage continue to
fade from their recent fiery display, twisting this way and that, whilst continuing
to roll ever inwards.
A cascading Gypsophila overflows its pot whilst flowering freely with dozens of tiny white trumpets, all worshiping the light, while from its Lewisia neighbour rise numerous slender stalks bearing exquisite pink blushed floral disks.
Accompanying the above mentioned delicate beauties are many cherished terracotta pots, each supporting a carefully chosen and treasured plant. The plants are not all star performers, some being the most ordinary specimens, but they’re my selections, my collection, and I appreciate each and every one for its own qualities. Collectively, they are my garden.
I have to say, there’s a good few immortal and less attractive plastic pots in use too, which refuse to die. Mind you, I can’t remember when I last threw a plastic pot away, as ‘they’ll all come in handy at some point’. If they’re here now, we might as well use them.
Overriding the flowers just now the foliage reigns supreme, with many textures and forms blending together in communities possibly never to be found in the wild. I would like to say it makes for a lovely floral display, or it’s a tapestry of colour, but to be honest it’s mostly green foliage, and I love it all the same. All that juice moving through the tiny vascular systems – refreshing, fascinating and energy giving.
Lighter, clearly fresher foliage can be seen on a range of
evergreen plants, from a pot restricted cedar in its early stages of topiary
formation to a cloud trimmed, shrubby box in a heavy clay pot. Still, I can see
at least a dozen different plants in flower, (not including the lawn daisies!) with
the promise of many more to come.
A curving rear wall supports a Pyracantha, which to my mind has been neatly trained over many years. It is just now reaching its first annual climax as it begins to burst its many champagne coloured flower clusters. I particularly like the informal holes where birds fly in to go bug hunting.
Along another border, waist high Miscanthus is beginning at
last to own its space, whilst beneath and between forget-me-nots, the happiest
of accidents light up the ground.
Directly opposite, the purple and mauve bells hang in fanned clusters from stout hairy stems, above the most giving of comfrey leaves. Beside this another happy accident, a Welsh poppy, demands attention with its wide open, paper-like orange petals.
Just a little further away a darkly coloured bugle sits unobtrusively beside a towering foxglove, its own statuesque form leaning slightly to catch the light. Each and every year I’m wowed by the strength and beauty of each little flower tube.
And finally on the face of the fence, and arching from a stringy framework of dubious strength climbs a young clematis, its white twisted petals finally open now to appreciate the sunlight. Of course, it wants to scramble every which way I don’t want for it, but it’s a delight nonetheless.
It’s a complicated but fun mix of pots in my garden, and especially lovely in May; probably my favourite month. Whether it is a borrowed garden or a gardener’s garden, or a bit of a shambles I don’t mind; it’s my oasis and it’s imperfectly perfect for me just now. I hope your gardening space is equally challenging, delightful and inspirational, and I’d love to hear about yours.
One breezy, rainy afternoon recently I made a curiosity visit to Elgar’s Birthplace, and enjoyed a pleasant surprise. To the uninitiated, Sir Edward William Elgar, (1857 -1934) was an English composer particularly noted for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Cello Concerto, and Salut d’Amour. He was born in a quaint red brick estate cottage known as The Firs, around 3 miles northwest of Worcester, now under the care of the National Trust.
On the day of my visit the clay roof tiles glistened, cars splashed through puddles in the nearby lane and the Malvern hills were barely visible for cloud cover. This scene I describe created the most perfect collar gripping, hat pulling atmosphere for a visit, although causing an all-too-swift walk from the museum centre, through the garden, to the shelter of the front porch. The dimly lit rooms beyond, with music drifting through the upper floor were, I have to say, completely enchanting.
As mentioned, my visit was born out of curiosity and as such, I was in a casual, light-touch, information grazing kind of mind set. However, I couldn’t not listen Elgar’s music, which infused many of the museum spaces. I couldn’t not read the museum labels, stories and quotes, or watch the introductory video. Furthermore, I couldn’t miss the considered introductions the volunteers offered.
Looking back as I type, I can see that the visitor centre, birthplace cottage and the garden were delivering, for me at least, a consistent message. Supporting this message were the misty vista from the front porch, wind blown cherry blossom branches filling the bedroom window view, in fact the whole view looking out from the cottage. It all blended to hint, I believe, at a nourishing and guiding light in Elgar’s life: nature.
Let’s be honest, I have spent a mere blip of time learning about Elgar, but I drew clear connections with him due to the way the museum has been presented, and the messages that unknown curators have brought to the fore. I learned less about what he composed, and more about how and why he composed – this, for me, was perfectly pitched.
“The trees are singing my music.” wrote Elgar from a home, Birchwood Lodge, in the saddle of the Malvern Hills.
I was challenged above all with the realisation that Elgar was very well aware of his need for mindfulness and wellbeing; things that are increasingly referred to everywhere these days. Sir Edward Elgar, despite being of another age and situation, appeared to face similar work, life, confidence, and creativity challenges as many people do today; and the museum engaged me in this aspect of Elgar’s life completely.
Museum text:“Elgar chased fame and fortune from a young age [but] on the other hand, he was happiest living the simple and rustic life that he had been afforded as a child. Often he’d retreat into the peace and serenity of nature when work commitments became too much for him.”
What materialised for me was that despite Elgar’s success, wealth and worldly travel; he still appeared to yearn for the peace, escape, and personal inspiration that the Malvern Hills and other rural places offered him. We’re all familiar with the ‘escape to the country’ idea, but for Elgar whose living and success depended on productivity; the inspiration and creativity he drew from the Malvern Hill, or nature generally, was clearly very important.
We may not all be creative composers, but most of us will recognise and identify with Elgar’s need to relax the mind. Creating that escape in order to properly refresh our minds and bodies helps to restore balance, and helps to prepare us for the next period of intense activity.
Elgar had certainly found his place, and one thing I took away from my visit was the need to find my own place. If I needed to further prove the point, I just turn again to Elgar’s example, who, although leaving his birthplace at the age of two, revisited often, retained a close connection with the area, and expressed a wish to purchase the The Firs if ever it were to become available.
Elgar wrote: “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”
Returning to the garden, the benches were sodden from rain, but I spent a good while in the garden whilst trying to pick up on its spirit of place.
The tall, rolling, country lane style hedges shivered in the breeze. Freshly composted, mixed cottage style borders were packed full of plants, and although hellebores and primroses drew the eye, the winter structure stole the show with standard roses, a range of budding shrubs and an ironwork arch over a path entwined with climbers.
A rustic, thatched shelter nestled against a wattle fence, offering a shady place to perch. Gravel and wavy lined brick paths crossed the garden, and a bench in a far corner was itself a sculpture of Elgar relaxing whilst taking in the Malvern Hills vista.
Clearly the garden, whole property even, had moved on with the passage of time, but generally appeared to hold true to its original form judging by the old images available. It was a delightful little garden and was so valuable in allowing me to experience the all-important rural idyll that was so very important to Elgar.
I completely tuned-in to his need for mindfulness, and for the need to invest in his core self; and in this respect, The Firs connected me with Elgar, and the environment, perfectly.
During his final illness in 1933, Elgar hummed a concerto’s first theme to a friend and said, “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.”