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Current Project: Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath.

The garden consists of two woodland gardens; a walled garden and various borders; large swaths of lawn with specimen trees.

This project has been undertaken by myself and Nicky Wharton over the past three years.

Nicky and I had a garden design partnership in Cornwall and still work together on various projects. She is one of the foremost plants people in the South West and works as the plant archivist at Trebah Gardens, Cornwall.

Beginning with an outline survey we reported with observations and recommendations. These recommendations involved the removal of some large trees which opened up views and improved the general composition.

The clients are not active gardeners but are keenly involved in the design and follow developments closely. There are a team of gardeners who maintain the grounds who are very good grounds men but not horticulturalist or designers. With this type of project it does take time to get everyone on board, at least to be heard and consulted with. Regular gardeners can feel threatened by the sudden arrival of "experts" on their patch, and it takes diplomacy; the projects are more successful if gardeners are involved in the process. Only active gardening will ensure the designer's vision, so working alongside the gardeners is essential. In addition to the regular gardeners, we now have an experienced plantsman one day a week, focusing on the more specialised plant care and being part of developing the garden long term.

The Cottage Garden

Firstly we redesigned the herbaceous borders in the walled garden: this type of project takes a few seasons to mature. Design and management are so closely interlinked in the herbaceous border and the whole joy is in the continual process of minor adjustments, divisions, removals, additions and the delight of accidental plant combinations, allowing some volunteer seedling, removing others. A passionate gardener is essential for an herbaceous border to work, as it is a constantly evolving, living creation.

Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath

This spring we redesigned this border to complement three spheres commissioned from local artist Willa Ashworth . In the cottage garden a flat croquet lawn contrasts with the strong line of the sloping bed and back wall which made any bench or vertical sculpture seem out of place. Having a spherical sculpture worked well.

Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath
Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath

The Woodland Garden

The woodland garden had been neglected over the years and the plants were clearly suffering. Poor soil with little moisture retention, disease and die back with the clear presence of the dreaded honey fungus. We had a big clear out, quite ruthlessly getting rid of the sick, ailing and out of place plants. The planting had little variety, dominated by Philadelphus, self seeding Tree Peonys and was hemmed in by Yew trees. There were a few gems, mature Cornus and Magnolias, enough to retain some middle canopy and some sense of maturity.

Before we could undertake any planting we had to improve the soils condition and moisture retention by incorporating vast amounts of compost to the existing beds. This is not just a one off operation but a programme of continual improvement. Implementing a containment programme for the Honey Fungus, starts with the basic principle that a healthy plant has a stronger immunity towards disease.

The presence of Honey Fungus has limited the choice of plants: we omitted the notably susceptible genera and species (see the R.H.S Plant Pathology Advisory Leaflet No 5). These include Acers, Butula, Hydrangea, Magnolia, Rhododendron /Azalea and Virburnums.

I could not resist but to let a few Acers run the gauntlet. Some of the upper and middle canopies we planted were Liquidamber styraciflua 'Parasol' /'Stared' Parrotia persica Vanessa (an unusual form), Halesia Carolina 'UConn Wedding Bells', Tilia 'Petiolaris', a large selection of Cornus and Euonymus.
We continued the middle canopy with Corylopsis, Stachyurus chinensis, Hamamelis, Daphne and clusters of Sarcococca for deep shade and winter scent.
A couple of my favourites are Sinocalycanthus chinensis in particular Sinocalycanthus x raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine' which have beautiful dusky wine-red magnolia like flowers, which open to reveal a cream-coloured centre with a subtle fragrance in early summer.

We planted two Disanthus cercidifolius which is more of a curiosity, apparently hard to grow, we lost one and the other is so far thriving.

Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath Rejuvenating gardens of a large country house near Bath

Although having a more limited palate due to the Honey Fungus, the opportunity to plant some more unusual and rarer woodland plants has been a great pleasure. Just to be involved in such a multi dimensional composition, not just with the initial planting but to be able to have a hand in the future adjustments, nurturing it into a delightful woodland garden to be enjoyed by future generations.

I would thoroughly recommend Karan Junkers book 'Gardening with Woodland Plants' to anyone undertaking a woodland garden, also her nursery Junkers www.junker.co.uk for specialist plants.