COTSWOLDS GARDENS an article for WCHS members written by VICTORIA SUMMERLEY
author of “The Secret Gardeners” (Britains creatives reveal their private sancturies)
I once went to a lecture by gardening journalist and television presenter Gay Search. It was organised by the RHS, and the title was “The Good Life”. Before the talk began there was a picture on the screen of an allotment – but Gay was not actually talking about vegetables or self-sufficiency. She was talking mainly about biophilia; about the beneficial effects, both mental and physical that gardening provides. The talk was fascinating and at the end, everyone politely applauded. Gay asked if there were any questions, and a lady in the front row put up her hand. ” I had trouble with my cauliflowers last year” she said. “They didn’t really develop very good heads. What was I doing wrong?”
As a gardening writer, I have to remember that most of the time what people really want to know is how to grow things. I might find the convoluted history behind some bit of botanical nomenclature fascinating – did you know that there were five attempts to name Sequioadendron giganteum before everyone was happy? – but, like the lady in the front row, most normal gardeners usually just want a simple answer to the universal query. “What am I doing wrong?”
So does looking at beautiful gardens, belonging to people with lots of money actually tell us anything that might be useful in our own plots? Well, I think it does. I moved to the Cotswolds in November 2012, at the beginning of one of the worst winters in recent memory. The cottage I bought had been someone’s second home for 40 years, so the garden was a bit neglected. It consisted of several mature (ie enormous) trees, some scruffy paddock grass and a few shrubs. If you were being charitable, you would call it a blank slate. The garden slopes, but any hard landscaping features such as steps had been demolished, so the whole garden could be sheared over by someone using a ride-on mower.
Once I’d moved in, I spent most of 2013 researching my book, The Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds. I would leave my blank slate adorned with ground elder, bindweed, nettles, brambles, creeping buttercup and any other perennial thugs you care to mention, and drive off to see some manicured piece of gorgeousness where there were five full time gardeners and an unlimited budget.
I would return home feeling that there was no way on earth that my garden was ever going to look presentable, let alone look as good as the one I had just seen. Yet, as I visited more and more Cotswolds gardens, I noticed there were underlying themes. I’d hear the same phrase over and over again. One was: “When we moved in, this place was an absolute mess”, followed by stories of how there was nothing but brambles, or pigs, or a derelict farmyard when the owners took possession. (You can imagine how much this cheered me up.) Indeed, the architect, Edwin Lutyens, when asked to remodel the house and garden at Abbotswood, near Stow on the Wold, in 1901, advised the owner Mark Fenwick to blow the whole thing up.
Another frequent comment was: “The first thing we had to think about was providing some sort of shelter from the prevailing wind.” When I’d finished writing the book, I used to joke that if I ever saw another yew hedge, I would throw up all over it. However, yew hedges are invaluable when it comes to dealing with the great Cotswolds dilemma – how to enjoy the view without being knocked flat by a stiff breeze. Yew, unlike box, is almost indestructible – immune even to honey fungus – and in the Cotswolds it acts as both shelter – for example at Upton Wold and Kingham Hill House – and focal points, such as the imposing totem poles at Westwell Manor.
Even the stiff breeze can have its uses. I noticed that gardens with box hedging and topiary seemed to suffer far less from box blight where the box was grown in an open situation where the air could circulate, rather than in an Edwardian style “garden room” surrounded by walls or high hedges. Box blight is a problem everywhere in the UK, and in the Cotswolds, remedies vary. Stephanie Richards at Eastleach House has used dwarf Thuja orientalis in her formal garden, thus avoiding the problem altogether. (Lonicera nitida is another popular substitute for box )
Paul Nichols, head gardener at Bourton Hill House swears by feeding with seaweeed based plant food ( on the principle that healthy plants are less likely to succumb to disease ) and spraying with copper sulphate. Above all, improving the soil is key. Cotswold brash is stony, shallow and lime-rich, and although any soil content tends to be clay or clay loam, the percentage of stone means it is free draining and lacking in nutrients. It requires constant application of organic matter if you want to sustain the sort of planting you would expect to find in a garden open to the public.
Thankfully, there is just enough clay content to satisfy roses and clematis – the ingredients of a traditional English garden – and their colours provide a soft romantic foil for the honey-coloured Cotswold stone. Roses like soil that can hold on to nutrients, but they dislike poor drainage, and while there is enough rainfall in the Cotswolds to satisfy their demands for moisture, the high stone content means they don’t have to sit in a frozen puddle all winter.
Lavender can struggle a bit in a cold, wet Cotswolds winter unless it is planted somewhere that is both sheltered and free draining. The best performer in my garden is Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’, a strongly scented lavandin like the classic Provencal lavender, which is growing against the south-facing wall of the house
A good alternative, though not evergreen, is Nepeta, which provides the same clouds of misty blue flowers to soften a pathway or a retaining wall. As a beekeeper, I like it better than lavender, because honeybees prefer it. I grow a lot of marjoram for the same reason
I think the biggest lesson I learned was this: no matter how unpromising the site, or how daunting the task may seem, you can always create something beautiful. It might take a little bit of money, it might take a lot of back-breaking work and it might stretch your ingenuity, but you’ll get there in the end.
Wyche and Colwall Show 2019
In 2019 the show was held in Colwall, on Saturday 10th August. Over 70 exhibitors took part, many of them being members of the Wyche and Colwall Horticultural Society. The society have organised the show since the 1960’s. Before then it was known as the Wyche and Upper Colwall Show and had been running since 1942.
Members of the horticultural society donate the proceeds of various events each year to The Percy Picton Memorial Fund.
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