Sunday, 29 April 2012

When my Sister isn't Doctoring and I'm not Painting or Gardening....

Visit on 11th April 2012

Everyone loves a castle, don’t they? I always feel there is a romantic aura wrapping round castles of all shapes and sizes, and Arundel Castle, towering over the small but perfectly formed town, nestled in the heart of the South Downs, is no exception.

Arundel Castle is seeped in history, as gory and dramatic as it gets - Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Catholicism, murders in towers and deaths in exile. It’s all there, but a softer profile has inspired an interesting, controversial and much talked about addition to the extensive grounds of the castle. Before WWII, there was a thriving and busy garden here, but as like everyone else’s green patches in those troubled times, this was slowly but surely given over to the production of vegetables, and, like so many other gardens, was not a priority for recovery after the war, and it was eventually covered with tarmac and used  as a car park.

Time moved on and things changed, resulting in the grand opening of The Collector Earl’s Garden in May 2008 by HRH The Prince of Wales. This new garden, designed by the successful and bold landscape design duo, Isabel and Julian Bannerman ( is sculptured and manicured to evoke a Jacobean garden,  and has a bit of magic thrown in too. The planting, unlike the hard landscaping, is restrained, though like the matching pair of green oak domed pergolas, is planned on a large, robust scale. In the courtyard, with the rill of flowing water, which is flanked by huge pots, filled with seasonal delights, the tall stone walls are softened by scented  Magnolia grandiflora, Catalpas and assorted shrubs.

As one walks through the pergolas and down the steps into the larger part of the garden, there is a delightful grass maize which circles its way into the centre, planted up with Tree Ferns, (Dicksonia antarctica) and seasonal additions, grounded by large rocks, all hand picked  from nearby Fittleworth quarry, which reflect the rock work “mountain” at the top end which, in turn,  sits low under the shadow of the cathedral’s impressive silhouette. It is always pleasing to have varying levels in a garden and this has been done to great effect here.

Sitting atop this man made hill, which has caused some concern in the town, as it, like the shrine in London’s Battersea Park, has broken the long neat uncluttered line of the  boundary, is a charming, green oak  folly. This sturdy building is full of magic, it’s interior being based on the shell mosaic, designed by Inigo Jones, to celebrate Prince Henry’s Masque on New Year’s Day in 1611. Taking centre stage here,  no mean feat among this elaborate decoration, there sits a golden coronet, ever spinning, on a stalagmite fountain - clever and delightful.

But, do not think this is all. One must make time to explore and wander through the older part of the garden, now bursting with life. This area is managed organically and boasts  many seasonal delights, amongst which, in Spring, are the glorious  tulip beds. There are whole parterres given over  to vibrant, nodding colour. The head gardener told us that appeldoorn tulips are the best repeaters, lasting for many years, retaining their vigour and colour. Each year the display areas will change, not only to surprise and excite regular visitors, but also as a help to keep tulip grey rot at bay. If these bulbs become infected with the virus, which presents as knobbly bud and leaf swellings and distortions,  tulips cannot be replanted in the same spot for 5/7 years - that’s a long recovery.

This area of the garden is undergoing change right now, not only for aesthetic purposes but also as a  prevention intervention to halt another plant disease. Box blight is slowly creeping in from the West, and so the little  perfectly clipped box hedges, which have for so long delineated the beds,  are gradually being replaced with Hebe sutherlandii, a small, grey green whipcord variety, or being removed altogether and small herbaceous perennial plugs, all grown on the estate, of course, are being encouraged to spill out and tumble over the shingle paths. The feeling is of  a much softer, less regulated garden altogether, and now is a good time to see this change in progress, and have a chance to chat with the team who are much on evidence.

Another area of particular merit, is the wild flower garden. To my amazement, each year, the ground in this section is cleared, dug over and over, re-planted with spring flowering bulbs  and, as that shows takes it’s bow, it is once again turned and sown with fresh wild flower seed mix. No two years mix is the same, and the parterres here are successionally planted, thus stretching out, even further, the season of interest.  To date, apparently, 96,000 tulips bulbs have been planted, but at  the time of going to press, there were no exact figures for the number of wild flower seeds sown! No such thing as a natural garden really, is there?

Arundel Castle is a perennial in the calendar of gardens to visit, and I  make at  least 4 trips per year. I learn from and watch each seasonal development and look forward to each new year’s opening dates, which are available at

Monday, 23 April 2012

Gardeners Delight

“Informative, friendly and inspirational!”, read the on-line caption of the ‘how to find us’ on the Sarah Raven, Perch Hill Farm page in Google.... and yes it was.  My colleagues and I thought that  perhaps Ms Raven was shy, which considering her public profile was interesting.  Her husband was charm itself, warm, welcoming and jovial, but he has had a lifetime of such a role, being a  Nicholson, after all.

I was expecting to find fault and to be disappointed with this visit, bearing in mind the high octane merchandising publicity that goes on - how wrong I was. Instead,  I found riches of visual and intellectual delight. There were long rectangular beds of companion planting, known in the trade nowadays, as the head gardener at Arundel Castle gardens informed us on the Thursday evening before, as “fleg” planting, ie. flower and veg. together. These  beds were raised with wooden boards and were inventively and successfully staked into box frames about 25 cm in size, constructed with wood batons, tied together,  to compliment what was being grown in them. For example, on this occasion, the place was  alive with hot, brilliantly coloured spiky tulips, for which Ms Raven is justifiably renowned, mixed in with purple leafed Kale, ‘Red Bor”, and both were nodding happily in the strong breeze,  neatly squared off in their sections. The breeze  and temperature fluctuations, which  I  imagine would be fairly prevalent here, as the site is on an exposed hillside in East Sussex,  
 had been diverted and calmed successfully, to some  degree, by carefully planned tall hedges.

In another long raised bed, rows of delphiniums and allium, amongst other flegies,  had been loosely, but effectively, lassoed by long twists of hazel, wound round and round the plant formations, like lovingly twisted scarves. It all looked natural yet  beautifully maintained. There were several other creative treats too. For example, the path between the beds at one point had been punctuated with metal arches, which were made from pale jade green wire, crafted to look organic, while themselves supporting old gnarled clematis. The whole avenue not only complimented the arch cut into the hedging on the far  side, but leant this section of the garden an almost Eastern, mystical atmosphere.

Moving on deeper into the gardens didn’t disappoint either. There were a number of intimate “rooms”, as Sir Roy Strong first penned these types of gardens within gardens, again, mainly, divided by hedging. At each beginning there were helpful and interesting notices of information. In one section we learned that half the roses here would be treated organically, while  the other half would be chemically treated to deter beasties! At the end of the summer the results would be logged and much will have been learned, the results of which, I hope, will be made public to Ms Raven’s adoring public.

Turning another corner, we tumbled upon some rich and flowing, almost prairie style planting in classic cottage bed schemes, and some very old climbers, snuggled round the barn walls,  though here the upkeep looked like heavier work. The beautiful Sussex tile hung cottage was crying out for some tlc, and I understand the couple were about to make Perch Hill their main home. Paths were a mix of gravel, brick and old concrete blocks and we were led naturally, though not in any pushy way, to the hub of this commercial enterprise. A large, low half conservatory, half greenhouse building was buzzing with  walls hung with specially packaged seeds, books, and garden ephemera. We headed straight for the dining tables and the teaching areas - both delighted us. Lunch was simple and simply delicious and the list of classes and talks inspired us.

Sarah Raven is renowned for her confident and exuberant use of colour, famed for her tulips and dahlias. Having seen the tulips in situ, we have vowed to return later on in the year to feast on the dahlia extravaganza. My colleagues and I  agreed on and were most impressed by the feeling that this garden had retained the personal touch, no easy task when running a large business. Here one could imagine the family picnicking and sipping tea in  glorious privacy amid bursts of colour, while being gently soothed by the borrowed  landscape of the South Downs.

Details of further open days, classes and shopping opportunites , are all available on the website