It can seem quite a stretch to imagine that much can be taken from the gardens of large stately homes with seemingly limitless budgets, but look a little harder and there are many ideas that can be used in a somewhat more modest setting.
In the northern hemisphere summer of 2014 I was lucky enough to visit 4 such English gardens. The first was Woburn Abbey Gardens in Bedfordshire, which had surprisingly large and diverse plantings, from bog gardens to Chinese pavilions, 19th century follies to kitchen gardens, Greek temples to hornbeam mazes and so the list goes on. Humphry Repton, the renown 18th/19th century landscape gardener, was consulted for ideas for the gardens, although interestingly many of the proposals in his ‘Red Book’ were never enacted upon. As an aside, it was Repton who first coined the term ‘Landscape Designer’. He was a landscape painter who used his skills in garden design and for large estates such as Woburn, the term worked well. I find it interesting that today, most Australians seem to talk of Landscape Designers, as opposed to Garden Designers, although for me ‘garden’ feels the appropriate terminology.
I digress. The photo above shows pond side plantings of Iris and Philadelphus, so natural looking. Lush and green but with a touch of white and yellow to bring it to life and add gorgeous scent. To the right is an herbaceous border with lupins, Alchemilla mollis, Stachys byzantina, Eremurus, Nepeta and alliums. Almost all of these plants happily grow in most of NSW and Victoria with very limited irrigation and indeed lupins grow wild in New Zealand by the million! The large clumps of each species gives sophistication to the design and could be replicated in a small area. We tend to like a longer season of interest in this part of the world and so mixing this up with some evergreens such as Buxus balls or even a rich green native Westringia would convert the look into a suitable Australasian design.
The bog garden was interesting. In fact it was very dry when I was there and showed the value of the dry creek bed idea that we often see here. Plants such as geraniums and Sisyrinchium cope with both wet and dry conditions, great for areas with clay soil which get strong down pours during part of the year and drought for others. Natives such as Lomandra grass and Dianella would perform well in such environments.
Finally, at Woburn Abbey gardens, it was lovely to see little English native orchids (above, mauve flowers) growing happily amongst buttercups and grasses. Much can be said for plantings that have a natural feel and strong sense of place.
The next garden I went to was Asthall Manor gardens, in the Cotswolds. Every second year they hold a stone sculpture exhibition in the grounds and I was lucky enough to see this. It was the beginning of June and every leaf seemed to be brimming with freshness and life. This exhibition was a great lesson in the placement of sculpture, which should always look as though it had been there forever, perfectly sized and positioned for its setting. Considering each piece was only there temporarily for the exhibition, it was very impressive to see how they worked each piece into the garden. It must have looked so empty immediately after the event.
We got to enjoy the whole garden at Asthall Manor, which was designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman in 1998. Their skill at linking the garden with both the landscape beyond and the house itself is quite something and the colour combinations at every turn are exquisite. Above you can see peonies, Astrantia and honesty dominating.
The third grand property we visited was Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. Waddesdon Manor was built from 1874 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to display his art collection. In 1957 it was bequeathed to the National Trust and had hardly been lived in during its entire life. The gardens are still kept largely as they were originally designed, which is a great lesson in garden history. Given that it was built in Victorian times, bright summer bedding is the main feature, and you can see the painstaking work required in planting up features such as this bird, above, each year. Equally, the ivy, trained on the circular architectural features, whilst very effective, needs a very large team of gardeners to keep it looking this good.
For me, bright summer bedding has had its day and whilst it is lovely to see previous fashions, I think we can do much better today. It just can not make sense to plant out literally hundreds of plants per square metre twice a year, every year, with plants that need daily care, coming from areas with a totally different environment. In terms of my preferences, I enjoyed the mature wooded areas more – beautiful, stately trees, seemingly going on forever. I also secretly quite enjoyed giving the gardeners some advice on how to perk up their almost dead Australian tree ferns!
The final stately home that we visited was Cliveden House in Berkshire. Here the long parterres are the dramatic feature, leading down towards the river Thames, with Windsor castle just visible on the horizon. I always chuckle to myself when people in Australia refer to ‘English’ style gardens. Invariably they have box hedges in mind, just as above and yet the truth of the matter is that few English gardens actually grow English box! A more amateur version of the Asthall Manor garden is the typical one you see over and over again. Australians love their box hedges though and so it is good to see pristine examples and get new ideas. I apologise for the shockingly orientated photo of the symmetrical (yes, really!) parterre above. My excuse is that Cliveden is where my husband and I had our wedding reception and this was the first time we had been back since, so I was too busy thinking happy wedding thoughts instead of happy plant thoughts, for once in my life!