Monthly Archives: September 2014

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Dorset’s revival garden

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the gardens at Kingston Maurward College near Dorchester in Dorset are such a pleasure to visit? As Head Gardener, Nigel Hewish, explains ‘it is a very unusual place. To have an Elizabethan Manor and an 18th century house on one site is unusual enough. But we also have an early 20th century formal garden and a Capability Brown-inspired landscape. I can’t think of anywhere else quite like it.’

Kingston Maurward College is housed in the grand Palladian-style building in the middle of the estate. Built in 1720 for George Pitt, it was positioned close to the Elizabethan Manor House that belonged to his wife. Within a few decades, the family had developed the parkland around both houses in typical 18th century style; incorporating clumps of trees, an impressive lake and a neo-classical temple.

At the start of the First World War the estate was bought by a man with impressive gardening credentials: Sir Cecil Hanbury. His father, Sir Thomas, created the famed ‘La Mortola’ on the Mediterranean border between France and Italy. It was here, after his father’s death that Sir Cecil set up an exchange programme for the students at Kew.

In common with many other estates of its size, Kingston Maurward was requisitioned during the Second World War. Inevitably, the gardens became overgrown, while the parkland was used to store fuel for the D-Day landings. When the War was over, Lady Hanbury sold the property to Dorset County Council for use as a Farm Institute. Today it’s a thriving College offering courses in agriculture and horticulture.

Nigel Hewish joined the Kingston Maurward team in the early 1990s. The College was looking for someone who could mastermind the revival of the Hanburys’ early 20th century garden whilst nurturing an educational link with the college. Nigel was ideally suited to the task.

The revival of the formal gardens was a gradual process and took place over a period of five years. ‘The structure’ Nigel says ‘was already there; it just needed a bit of t.l.c. We didn’t have any written documentation to follow so we used a set of black and white photographs from the late 1920s and 30s and slowly worked our way around.’

‘The design of the garden is excellent’ explains Nigel. ‘The Hanburys made really good use of the space. It works well for visitors too. They enjoy the fact that the gardens are divided up into rooms. They can see ideas here that they can take away to use at home.’ From the semi-tropical planting in the Balustrade Garden to the moisture-loving plants along the stream in the Japanese Garden, there’s certainly plenty to inspire, whether in the ‘Edwardian’ gardens or in the gardens beyond.

In the formal gardens, tall, neatly clipped hedges, enclose nine garden rooms, each beautifully planted and with an atmosphere all of its own. They are designed in a way that invites exploration. Despite the thick hedges that divide them, most include a tempting glimpse of at least one neighbour. From the Brick Garden, an area that Nigel considers to be the gardens’ hub, there are views in 3 different directions. Ahead, the wide gravelled walk of the Terrace Garden leads towards the Palladian House, while to the left lies the Red Garden with its tranquil lily pool and to the right, bursting with summer colour, is the double Herbaceous Border.

One particularly exciting view was discovered quite by accident. Nigel says that while walking alongside the yew hedge that surrounds the central Crown Garden, he caught a glimpse of people working inside. He peered through to get a closer look and spotted a metal frame hidden in the hedge. ‘ I took out my secateurs and snipped’ he says. There was a diamond-shaped hole: a perfect example of a claire-voyee. The gap in the hedge is now restored to its former glory and offers a view up the hill to the Temple of the Four Winds.

A must for any visitor is the short walk to the Temple. The mound upon which it sits was used to survey the estate during the construction of George Pitt’s house. It’s easy to understand why. From here there are views across the formal gardens and the lake and out into the countryside beyond.

As far as the planting is concerned, Nigel and his team use the old photographs as a guide rather than as a rule. Sometimes they have to be flexible. ‘For the last 15 years we’ve had low box hedging around the edges of the beds in the Brick Garden in keeping with the planting in the photographs’ Nigel explains. ‘Unfortunately, earlier this year it was hit by box blight and we decided to take it out’.

‘This summer we planted the beds with their usual argyrantheums, cannas and salvias’ says Nigel. ‘But without the box hedging, the balance wasn’t right. We’ve added some diascias to give them a colourful edge. It seems to have worked. It’s something we haven’t needed to think about for 15 years’.

Visitors don’t have to be too eagle-eyed to notice the large numbers of salvias and penstemons in the gardens. Kingston Maurward has National Collections of both plants. The soil is gravel over chalk, so it’s poor and free-draining. ‘We do have to improve it slightly to stop the penstemons drying out’ explains Nigel ‘but the salvias love the conditions’.

All the plants at Kingston Maurward are propagated on site and of course, propagation plays an important part in the horticultural students’ education. It’s worth walking to the walled garden near the Elizabethan Manor to see the learning material that is provided for them. The area has been used as a demonstration garden for several years but it is now open to visitors.

The revival of the Gardens at Kingston Maurward has evidently been very successful. Are there any sections with which Nigel and his team are particularly pleased? ‘It might seem strange as its something most people don’t notice, but the bit I like best is the metal edging we put in between the grass and the gravel paths’ says Nigel. ‘It was a big job and took a number of years, but it makes a huge difference both to the way it looks and to the maintenance.’

Visitors take note when wandering through these delightful gardens, that as much ‘t.l.c’ has been given to the small details as it has to the delicious planting. There is a lot to enjoy. Be sure to admire it all.




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Kitchen Garden delights

Ask any keen gardener about the gardens they most enjoy visiting and a walled kitchen garden is likely to feature somewhere on their list. Greys Court, a beautiful National Trust property in South Oxfordshire has plenty to offer a kitchen garden fan. With a history stretching back to medieval times, brick and flint walls provide a perfect setting for its organically run gardens. Its last private owners, Sir Felix and Lady Brunner, donated it to the National Trust in 1969 but the family continued to live in the house and to develop the gardens, alongside the Trust, until Lady Brunner’s death in 2003.

I met Head Gardener, Rachel Edwards, and her Deputy, Jayne Lake, to find out about the role the Kitchen Garden played in the estate’s recent history and to ask how they keep it looking as good as it is productive.

When the Brunners arrived at Greys Court in 1937, its walled Kitchen Garden had been abandoned for nearly 20 years. Their gardener, Charles Taylor, brought it back to full production. Within a few years, the estate was growing produce for the war effort. For most of her life, Lady Brunner played a central role with the Women’s Institute and so during the war, Greys Court grew large amounts of herbs, and provided soft fruit for W.I. jams and jellies.

Over the following decades, the family’s need for fruit and vegetables decreased and the planting in the Kitchen Garden became more ornamental. Globe artichokes and fennel replaced crops like potatoes and cabbage and one section became an orchard. The remaining growing space was redesigned with raised beds for Lady Brunner’s 90th Birthday.

Today, the design and its permanent planting are well established. Four square and four rectangular raised beds sit in its centre. They, and the beds that surround them, overflow with a mix of soft fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers: a mix that reflects the use that Lady Brunner made of her Kitchen Garden.

Around the main growing area are twelve splendid espalier apple and pear trees. Billowing hedges of nepeta and marjoram edge some of the beds but there’s plenty of innovation too. ‘Every year we introduce a different combination of annual planting’ explains Jayne. ‘This year we’re trying Sunflower ‘Vanilla Ice’ with Cornflower ‘Blue Ball’’. It’s little wonder that the garden teems with bees and insect life.

The cultivation is intense and the soil needs to be in good condition to cope. ‘Some of our annual flowers such as sunflowers and calendula, go on looking good through the autumn, so we don’t clear the beds until November‘ says Rachel. ‘In January and February we top-dress them with manure from a local farmer. We let the frost get at it and then in March, we dig it all in. Finally, we add organic chicken pellets. Once everything has started to grow we use monthly liquid seaweed feeds to keep everything in good shape’ she explains.

As Jayne points out, rotating crops is important for keeping the soil healthy. ‘Although there’s some permanent planting in the beds, soft fruit and globe artichokes for example, we rotate our crops as any other vegetable gardener would. Growing brassicas, salads, roots and legumes in a different bed every year stops the build up of pests and diseases in the soil. Our rotation is slightly different, as we don’t grow potatoes. They don’t look good for long enough and they take up a lot of space.’

Companion planting has been an enormous success in Greys Court Kitchen Garden; working with nature so that the properties of one plant benefit another. A sharp-eyed visitor will see that almost every flower has been planted for a reason. When a strongly smelling plant such as Tagetes (French Marigold) for example, is planted next to tomatoes, it camouflages their smell and the pests stay away.

‘ We use Nasturtiums’, Rachel explains ‘ as sacrificial plants. Aphids and Cabbage White butterflies love them. If we plant them close to Runner beans, they ignore the beans and settle on the nasturtiums. As soon as they’re covered in black fly we pull them out by the arm full and use the space they’ve left to grow something else’.

Under the espaliered apple trees sits a long line of chives. ‘They help to keep the apples trees free of apple scab’ says Rachel. ‘But they’re just as useful for keeping carrot fly away from the carrots’ she adds. ‘This year, we’re trying growing foxgloves in the orchard. The leaves give off a gas that helps apples to set on the trees and to stay healthy. It’s the same gas that’s used when apples are shipped as it helps them to stay in good condition during the journey’.

Birds love currants and berries so it’s surprising to see the Greys Court redcurrant bushes heavily laden with berries despite a lack of protection. ‘We leave dishes of water for the birds’ Rachel explains. ‘It stops them stripping the fruit. They don’t want the berries for their nutritional value. It’s just the water content they’re after’.

Some gardeners might trim their marjoram hedges to stop them flowering and to keep them neat, but in Greys Court Kitchen Garden they are in full flower and a mass of pollinating insects. No doubt they’re finding plenty of nectar for the Greys Court beehives. ‘Yes, we let them flower and don’t cut them back until the bees and butterflies have finished using them’ says Rachel. ‘Marjoram is a useful barrier plant too. The slugs don’t like crawling through it’.

For those of us who struggled with slug and snail damage earlier this year, it’s heartening to hear that National Trust properties like Greys Court were struggling too. ‘This year has been the hardest in the eight years I’ve been here’ says Rachel. ‘A lot of pests survived the mild and wet winter. We’ve had far more flea beetle damage than usual and more slugs than ever but we seem to be winning the battle at last’.

‘The next challenge is to keep the garden going for the rest of the season. The mild winter meant that everything started growing early so many plants are coming to the end earlier than we would usually expect’. There’s no doubt that should autumn arrive early at Greys Court, Rachel, Jane and their team will still provide plenty of inspiration for visitors to the Kitchen Garden.