Places: A Secret Garden

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Austere as the granite fortress may seem, perched on the edge of a gorge-like valley overlooking rugged countryside and bleak moorland beyond, it was never intended to defend or do battle. The highest garden owned by the National Trust, 862 feet above sea level and only completed in 1930, Castle Drogo is a modern masterpiece, and the last castle to be built in England.

I have grown up with Castle Drogo right on my doorstep. As a little girl I carried armfuls of flowers through the wood-clad corridors and watched the local flower club, which my mum belonged to, bring the house alive. Formal fireplaces were set ablaze with bold stems of scented lilies, while the kitchens were a cottage garden delight of produce and annuals. In my teens I performed in a play that told the story the Drewe family who once lived in the castle. The gardens were our stage and the moving performance wound its way down to the imposing granite entrance of the cosy castle.

The Drewe family bought the empty plot of land and gave gifted architect, Edwin Lutyens, a budget of £50,000 to build the house and £10,000 for the gardens – although the project had cost three times the original estimate by the time it was finished. Lutyens embraced the unusual brief of a Norman fantasy fortress, but made sure that the castle had all the mod cons it would need to be a snug family home. The design included a flat asphalt roof, which began to leak soon after the castle was completed and continued seeping water into the house until a major scaffolding-clad restoration project began in 2012.

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Completely detached and hidden from the family home, the gardens are approached by a set of moody granite steps; flanked on either side by towering yew hedges, which are guarded by a windbreak of beech trees. With out this wall of greenery the borders would be battered by unforgiving moorland winds – the location receives an average rainfall of 45 inches every year. Anyone making their way down the long, sweeping drive would travel straight past the gardens completely oblivious. There are no entrance lodges, ornate sculptures or flawless topiary, just unruly heathland and beech trees.

Lutyens put as much effort into the gardens as the castle and with the help of knowledgeable plantsman George Dillistone, the area was divided into three separate spaces. The first room, discreetly hidden by the yew fortress, is a formal garden. A checkerboard of rose beds divides the pristine lawn, with four newly planted crab apples adding height to the lowest part of the garden. Making sure the roses are healthy is a labor-intensive job as the soil condition is poor acidic and stony. Each corner of the formal garden is punctuated with breathtaking domes of pleached Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Pendula’) – welcome areas of cool air and shade on hot, still days and simply planted with hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) and European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum). On either side of the lawn are raised terraces with deep herbaceous borders. A path runs from one end of each terrace to the other, although instead of being a continuous line, elliptical curves allow planting to spill over the path and create a meandering walk. It is believed that the design work Lutyens did in Delhi influenced the shape of these paths.

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More glittering granite steps, with twisted wisteria mirrored on either side, lead to the next level of terrace – a small fragrant garden. Again, balance is key. The long strip of terrace has two of the four Persian ironwood domes at either end. Yew forms the skeleton of this area also; two benches look back down towards the formal garden, positioned in alcoves cut from the hedge.  It is clear how important shape and symmetry are in the formal garden below. Even though there are multiple levels, the strength of shape and sharp line makes it all interlock seamlessly.

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The formality suddenly changes, after climbing another flight of steps, as crisp lines of the pathway disappear, blurred by the branches of Japanese maples, magnolias and azaleas. Winding woodland paths loop around the back of the shrubs where ferns and foxgloves grow side-by-side under the towering beech trees. The formal garden is a distant memory, with the boundaries of the surrounding Dartmoor National Park trying to creep into the garden. The Shrubbery is a complete contrast to the perennial-heavy formal garden; it provides a fiery display in spring and autumn when the rest of the garden taking a breather.

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One last room awaits and it is possibly the boldest space in the entire castle. A final ascent of steps leads to the huge, but empty, circular croquet lawn. The simplest but most striking part of the garden, a pathway circles around the island of grass, with a loop of familiar yew hedge and beyond that the halo of beech, appearing taller than ever. The framing provided by the trees makes the sky as important as the plants themselves. The branches seem to reach up and touch the clouds, pulling the atmosphere down into the garden. For an enclosed space, the structure and size of the trees and hedging, coupled with the vastness of sky, stops the garden feeling small and understated. The simplicity of the croquet lawn never ceases to excite me whenever I visit.

The gardens at Castle Drogo are not large, especially compared to many stately homes. However, this helps them to feel more like a family space, not a statement of wealth or something boasted about whilst taking tea in the drawing room. It owes its success to three elements: beech, yew and granite– the backbone of the design, and the defense system guarding the precious microclimate. Combined with beautiful planting and enforced by inspirational line and shape, Castle Drogo is a garden that will always feel like a second home – forever welcoming me back with open arms.

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BBC Gardener’s World Live – The Show Opens

GWL1GWL2It’s just over a week since the BBC Gardener’s World Live came to a close and I think my head has nearly stopped spinning.

The most peculiar moment of the whole experience was when the medals were awarded the day before the show opened to the public. We had been told that it would happen at 2pm, so I eagerly arrived at 1:30pm only to quickly realise that the medals were already waiting for us. However, there was no one else around! So I coolly walked down the row of borders, peering at each medal in turn until I reached my own and to my complete amazement saw a gold medal in front of me. It felt very strange that there was no else there to tell the news to, I think I whispered my exclamations of shock and excitement before reaching for my phone and calling my parents.GWL5GWL6The show days were absolutely fantastic. Different Academy members joined me each day, it was lovely to share the experience with them and I definitely needed their energy and enthusiasm because I was feeling pretty exhausted. Everyday I was overwhelmed by everyone’s comments. I had never set out with the intention of designing something that was going to be a ‘crowd-pleaser’; in fact until the show began I had not even contemplated what visitors were going to say. I think I was probably too worried about what the judges were going to say first!

When I first arrived at the show I was surprised to see how organised so many of the other designers were when it came to planting. I was pretty jealous, why hadn’t I done a dress rehearsal at home, or devised a planting plan so exact I could unload the plants straight from the van onto the border? Whether my laid back approach was right or wrong, I had an album of key words in my head, which described the atmosphere I wanted to create and I just kept repeating them to myself. I couldn’t visualise the position of every plant, but I could close my eyes and know exactly how I wanted it to feel. I wonder whether this is why it struck a cord with so many people. With out trying to sound overconfident or bigheaded, I somehow managed to cram a mountain of emotion and mood in a 3x3m plot. So when people saw the border it was so much more than just a collection of plants.  GWL8GWL7The three Salix (willow) trees were a big talking point, so many people had to go and inspect the braches to see whether I had glued them on, or arranged them in florist’s oasis. The Rhodanthemum (Atlas Daisy) were incredibly popular too and when the sell-off neared on the final day, people tentatively waited by the border 45 minutes before the sale had even started, just to make sure they could buy a daisy to take home.GWL3When the bell rang to signal the start of the sell-off, I climbed into the border and began digging up plants that people wanted. It was a frantic experience and after around 30 minutes of just digging, placing in a pot, passing to the eager crowd and repeating, I looked up to see my Beautiful Border transformed, like a tsunami had washed all of the plants away. It was a little upsetting, but I knew I couldn’t take the plants back with me. The upside was that, because all of the money raised was going to be donated to two charities, Macmillan and Greenfingers, I raised over £700!GWL4I had anticipated that the breakdown of the border would probably be an emotional experience. However, I was surprised that it did not feel wrong and on Monday morning as I watched the diggers scoop up the last mounds of soil, I felt happy to have seen the process travel a full circle. I could not feel upset after having the best and most exhilarating week of my life, plus I was too busy contemplating where I should build my next show garden…

A full plant list and details about the border can be found here.

PLACES: Piet Oudolf @ Hauser & Wirth

 

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Layers and layers of planting

I couldn’t quite believe it when I found out that one of Piet Ouldolf’s newest garden designs was a stone’s throw away in the quaint village of Bruton, Somerset. The renowned designer and plantsman has worked on some truly incredible projects, from The High Line in New York to the Serpentine Gallery, London. A leading figure (he basically invented it) of the New Perennial movement, his design style is effortless, natural and unlike any other. For many designers he is someone to idolise and aspire to.

The garden in question, at Hauser & Wirth gallery, has been planted with no less than 25,000 plants! All carefully placed around the modest 1.5-acre site. It is a perfect example of the New Perennial movement, layered swathes of grasses and herbaceous perennials with sinuous pathways that guide you around the space. I wish there had been places to sit with in the garden. With out places to pause it felt like I was on a conveyer belt, being slowly led around the garden with all the other visitors. However, it was still a delight. Each turn created a completely new perspective of the garden and a new collection of plants layered together.

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Looking up the garden from the gallery

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A small selection of key plants

Alongside the garden there is an exhibition of Oudolf’s planting plans, an insight into how he creates and develops his signature style of planting. They are definitely worth seeing and a great reminder (particularly for me) that it is best not to be too precious about your work. If something needs changing, grab a pen and change it!

What also interested me, as I walked around the gallery of felt-tip pen planting plans, was this idea of gardens as art. To go and visit an art gallery to appreciate scribbles and lines on tracing paper. It is probably a subject with no perfect answer; I definitely don’t know where I stand. However, it did make me wonder whether placing garden design in hushed, whitewashed rooms would unlock horticulture to new audiences. Does linking gardening and contemporary art make it appear youthful and trendy? Or does it just raise Garden Design up another step higher on the social ladder?

I could probably dedicate an entire blog to debating the subject and perhaps still end up with no definitive answer. If you like art, wear those peculiarly cool-but-oversized-glasses and haven’t heard of Piet Oudolf then the exhibition is probably a good thing. If you are a 16-year-old school leaver with a slight interest in horticulture, but you don’t know how to pursue it, then a pretentious art gallery probably isn’t for you.

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Perfect colours even in the dull weather

It’s hard to end a post when I cannot even come to a conclusion with myself. Promoting garden design and horticulture in new and unique ways is obviously a good thing. However, I hope garden design never looses sight of the dirt under its nails.

Not forgetting Piet Oudolf and his marvellous new garden, here is a lovely and rather apt quotation from his book Designing with Plants. ‘In the same way that a painter works with a palette of coloured pigments, so the garden designer can select what plants to use from the palette of plants’.