Garden conservation work at Chartwell
Whilst the garden at Chartwell might look effortlessly beautiful, plenty of work goes on behind the scenes to ensure that historical elements are restored and brought back to life. Here are some of the important projects the garden team has worked on over the past few years.
Meadow restoration is an important part of our conservation work within the garden. This is a long-term project to restore a meadow and bring the garden back to how it would have looked in Churchill’s time with areas of wild and longer grasses.
Restoring the meadow isn’t just great for historical accuracy, it also creates a brilliant new environment for wildlife and wildflowers. Concentrated around the orchard and the front of the studio, the meadow helps to soften and blend the formal areas of the gardens into the parkland and countryside beyond.
Thanks to this project, the grass and wildflowers are allowed to grow long throughout the growing seasons of spring and summer. We refer to this area of combined grasses and wildflowers as the ‘meadow sward’.
Every year, in late August, early September, the long grass is cut in the same way as with managing hay meadows. The ‘arisings’ (all of the dead and now unwanted material) are left for a week after the cut, allowing the wildflower seed time to drop out into the soil.
The arisings are gathered up and processed in the composting area and the grass cut a second time down to 1cm, replicating natural grazing. Removing the arisings at this stage is a crucial part of meadow conservation to stop them rotting down and releasing nitrogen into the soil.
The current meadow sward consists of a high percentage of grasses, so it has been over-seeded with a meadow mixture from the local Weald area. An important plant species for managing meadows is yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor. This grows in between the grasses within the meadow sward, weakening them, allowing other wildflowers room to grow.
As October comes around, reseeding starts. Up to 2kg of seed is mixed with sand, which is then hand broadcast over the entire meadow area.
In order to give the seeds the best possible chance to grow, spaces were created within the meadow sward so the seed had direct contact with the soil. Using a compact tractor and an attachment that scarified the whole area, the garden team created pockets of bare soil, removing thatch build up from old grasses. This replicates the impact action that grazing animals have on the surface with their hooves.
As well as seeds, the garden team has also been busy planting thousands of bulbs into the meadow. These have included many thousands of purple Crocus tommasinianus, snakeshead fritillary Fritillaria meleagris, the wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus and two different species of blue flowering Camassia.
Mansion border restoration
In autumn 2019, we decided to fully restore the Mansion Border at the front of the house. Since the existing plants were not historic to the Churchills and were not particularly significant from a horticultural point of view , it was decided to take the opportunity to dig out the existing plants and redesign the border in a way which kept the view open, provided year-round interest and better reflects the pastel theme of the rest of the garden.
Before this project began, the overgrown shrubby planting scheme consisted mainly of various Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Rhododendron, Prunus laurocerasus (Cherry Laurel) and Philodelphus (Mock Orange). The planting was mostly evergreen, which provided good cover but lacked seasonal interest and had also outgrown its space, blocking the view to the south across the garden and towards the High Weald.
A tough job
The ground was prepared, which included using pickaxes and mattocks to remove any remaining roots. The area was levelled through repeated rotavating, raking, shovelling and mattocking. The soil was quite poor in this border, so the next step was to bring in several trailer-loads of Chartwell’s homemade compost, which was spread with shovels and then dug in with the rotavator.
Discovering an old wall
During clearance works an old sandstone retaining wall was discovered which had roots growing through it and was partially collapsed. The team removed the roots by hand and rebuilt the wall to turn it into a feature.
Out with the old and in with the new
The old shrubs had been shading out the yew hedge at the back of the border, creating several dead patches. A big group of staff and volunteers rallied to help cut out the dead wood and plant new yews to fill in the gaps.
Finally, the border got a slight reshape by turfing part of it so that the edge lined up with the hedge around the Croquet lawn.
Approximately 50 shrubs were planted including Cornus kousa (Korean Dogwood), Hydrangea serrata and Viburnum x juddii. The shrubs were also underplanted with 150 perennials, mainly long-flowering geraniums to help hold colour and interest throughout the year.
They have been chosen not only to fit with the pastel colour scheme found in the rest of the garden, but to flower at all times of year to improve seasonal interest. Most importantly of all, the shrubs are nearly all small to keep the view open as the planting matures.
Many of the plants in this border, and across the garden, have been selected to bring benefits to local wildlife. This is no less true for the Mansion border which has several plants which are particularly good for everything from moss to mice.
In the springtime, the small but beautiful cherry blossom or Prunus incisa Kojo-no-mai is highly attractive to both wild bees and those from the hives our beekeepers look after. During summer, you’ll be able to find different types of geraniums including 'Rozanne' and 'Mrs. Kendall Clark' all along the border, helping support the bees as the blossom falls away.
For autumn, see if you can spot the wonderfully named Ceratostigma plumbaginoides – these are small blue flowers with contrasting red stems that bloom in autumn to further support the beehives.
Restoring Iris Walk
When the Campbell-Colquhon family lived at Chartwell, the 80m long narrow border below the main terrace wall was originally an herbaceous border. When the Churchills moved in it was subsequently simplified to mostly bearded iris, a flower loved by Clementine Churchill, and hence became known as the Iris Walk.
Lady Clementine’s Irises
Breeding new colour combinations of iris became popular in the 1920s and 30s, with notable British breeders leading the way. The Churchills acquired what would, at the time, have been an unusual and varied collection.
Although bearded irises are beautiful plants, they have a relatively short flowering period in May and June, so in 2018 a new scheme was designed to extend the season of interest into the summer and autumn whilst still leaving the irises as the star of the show earlier in the year.
The first task was to identify the irises already in the border. Lists of irises recorded as being in the garden in the 1930-40s and 1990s were used to discover the different varieties, including ‘Lord of June’, ‘Grace Sturtevant’ and ‘Mrs Alan Gray’ – all from the Churchills’ time at Chartwell.
The team worked closely with nearby Sissinghurst Castle Garden, where extensive research about their collection has been carried out. Historic varieties are being nurtured in the cutting garden.
One of the Churchill-era iris varieties ‘Corrida’ which, like many of the older varieties, is no longer commercially available, was found by one of the Sissinghurst team and it is hoped they will be able to provide Chartwell with some rhizomes once their stocks mature.
The gardeners at Polesden Lacey are involved in a similar project and they too have shared some of their historic iris varieties.
Planting the new border
Once the irises had been sourced and a planting plan drawn up, work began on replanting the border. Herbaceous plants, and those with contrasting foliage colours and textures, were also included into the border. These will continue to flower after the irises have gone over to keep the border looking lovely throughout the summer. All the plants chosen are drought tolerant as the soil along the Iris Walk is poor, stony and very dry.
Enjoy the views that the Churchills chose Chartwell for, and explore the garden they created and loved, from Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden, to the Walled Garden Sir Winston helped build.
The fruit and veg plots in the Walled Garden are a year-round hive of activity. From spring to winter, there's always something new growing, or being planted ready for next year.
Discover the history of nurturing butterflies and bees at Chartwell, from Churchill’s passion for them to how we ensure we garden for them today.
The greenhouses have played an important role in gardening at Chartwell, and a project in 2018 saw them restored to become energy efficient and more sustainable.
Discover more about the extraordinary life of Sir Winston Churchill in this permanent exhibition at Chartwell, including five must-see items from the curator.