Gardener's ramblings: June

Two ladies are working amongst the greenery to prune at Stowe
Published : 01 Jun 2018 Last update : 11 Jun 2018

What you’ll need: 1000 plants, shrubs and trees; ten tonne of peat free compost; diggers, excavators and hand tools; an award winning designer and at least 30 staff. Now here’s one I prepared earlier…Those immortal words uttered by many Blue Peter presenters over the years can be used to describe the show gardens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show every year. They make it look so easy to achieve with immaculate planting, beautiful lawns and pathways leading to an incredible seating area (sometimes suspended in the sky, or so it feels!).

These ‘instant’ gardens that pop up for just a few weeks of the year are a gardener’s paradise; they showcase the very latest plants and designs we could have within our own gardens. Therein lays the problem. Until you actually go to the show you don’t think there is anything wrong with your own garden but when you arrive, see all the beautiful plant combinations and the meandering path through scented borders of plants you think “I want that!”

I admit the lure of these gardens as much as anyone else, but - and there is a but - if you look closely at these gardens, specifically the planting combinations you’ll notice something is amiss. Many of the plants that they use for the show gardens have been carefully grown by nurseries to look their best and in full flower. Much of the flowers you see would never normally be in flower together, usually flowering at slightly different times of the year and so it gives a somewhat distorted view of how the garden would look in ‘real life’ as it were. Having said this not every garden will use this technique but it’s worth looking out for and seeing if you can spot the difference.

A historic map shows a section of the gardens at Stowe from 1739. You can see a more formal straight lined path network. The Sleeping Wood is to the North West of the large octagon shaped lake and is a central circle with straight and winding paths.
A black and white map of the gardens at Stowe dating back to 1739
A historic map shows a section of the gardens at Stowe from 1739. You can see a more formal straight lined path network. The Sleeping Wood is to the North West of the large octagon shaped lake and is a central circle with straight and winding paths.

In my job I don’t get to do much design work. I have been involved with a few restoration projects within the gardens and my next one will be at the Sleeping Wood. In a couple of years’ time the Sleeping Wood will be expanding to its original size. I don’t get to design the layout as this was completed in 1719/20 by Charles Bridgeman. I’ll still be able to lay out exactly where the paths would have been and where the beds were, which will be exciting for me as I enjoying restoring these gardens back to how they would have looked originally.

This historic map of Stowe shows the layout from 1756. You can notice how the octagon shaped lake has now been softened into a rounded shape and the Sleeping Wood is accessed on new paths.
A black and white map of the gardens at Stowe dating back to 1756
This historic map of Stowe shows the layout from 1756. You can notice how the octagon shaped lake has now been softened into a rounded shape and the Sleeping Wood is accessed on new paths.

What I can do is design the planting plan. I can only use plants that would have been available to use at that specific period of time and up to the 1740s. This is to make sure that it will look as it would have done when it was first planted. I use two books to help me find out when specific plants, shrubs and trees where introduced into England.

The gardeners at Stowe rely on historic knowledge of plants the help restoration
Two books detailing the plants used in eighteenth-century gardening
The gardeners at Stowe rely on historic knowledge of plants the help restoration

We use records from visitors to the gardens at the time that tell us how it would have looked and we know what the fashion was at that time for garden design, for example whether it would have been a more formal or informal garden design.

When I've decided what will be planted within the new area of the Sleeping Wood, I can start thinking about growing most of the stock that I’ll need. We have a new nursery area that has just been built within our Gardeners’ Yard. Next month I’ll be showing you how it all works and how we’re making sure we have the highest standards of Environmental Practices we can.

Happy Gardening