Gardens Open Charity Event
Broad Chalke village
There’s nothing better than setting out on a glorious sunny morning in May to visit not one, but three beautiful gardens. The excitement is even greater when the gardens in question are privately owned and not therefore usually open to the public. And a private view too, what more could I ask? Well, nothing as it happens, as the gardens all lived up to and beyond, my sense of anticipation. I jumped at the opportunity to take a sneak preview of a handful of gardens in the village of Broad Chalke as the garden owners prepare for their biennial Open Day in aid of various charities. This year the money will be raised for Help for Heroes, of which there will be a small exhibition of the work undertaken by this charity in the village hall, and the local appeal for the Chalke Valley Play School, a pre-school located in Broad Chalke itself.
The event takes place on Sunday 19th June and the owners of the ten gardens opening to the public are all praying not only for good weather on the day, but for kind conditions during the remaining run-up so that the gardens will be looking at their seasonal best.
The village event is organised by Ian Nason and his wife Anne with a group of willing volunteers to help with the parking and serving teas and of course, the essential co-operation and generosity of the garden owners. This year, there will also be concurrent activities in the church with a flower display organised by the village flower club, a ringing of the six bells with access to the bell tower (although one hopes, not simultaneously!) and an organ recital. Parking will be available at locations throughout the village and at least half of the gardens are in easy walking distance from the centre of the village.
The four gardens I was privileged to visit were all quite varied in style. Ian and Anne’s own garden, Mount Sorrel Farm, is a wonderful place sited on a slope with the main garden rising up behind the house. Children would adore this garden with its winding paths and overhanging branches, an orchard, a tromp-l’oeil door in a wall and plentiful secret hiding places. In addition, the bountiful roses bring a sense of romance to a garden already steeped in wonder and excitement.
The garden at Kings Old Rectory has the space in which to play with the notion of ‘rooms’ within a garden while retaining a fairly open structure. We enter initially into a semi-formal space with ancient worn cobbles, retaining and boundary walls, clipped box and yew, all giving structure and a sense of timelessness to the garden. The borders in mid May are full of promise for the summer to come and are carefully tended by a dedicated gardener. There are wonderful surprises within this garden giving one pause for thought and contemplation, which one discovers when following the paths and bridges alongside the River Ebble and subsidiary waterways which flow through and dissect the garden.
Further downstream is the garden at Coniston. Here the river tumbles into the garden at first busily but quickly broadening out and becoming languid. The water separates a wild garden from the formal lawns and borders, which gracefully reach down from the terrace along the back of the house to the river bank. In the wild part of the garden it is hard to sense the boundaries and we can become gloriously lost in this area of water meadow, full of wild flowers, trees, moorhens, ducks, a kingfisher if you are lucky and the sound of busy insects. Paths cut into the grass lead us amongst this haven and out again into an open lawn where seats beckon us to sit and watch the river flow by.
In contrast is the garden at Manor Farm. It is a new garden set out in the grounds of a C17th brick and flint farmhouse and with the imposing backdrop, both in terms of architecture and history, the owner has done a superb and sensitive job. Sensibly, in the first instance the backbone and shape of the garden was marked out in yew hedging. It stands at approximately 4ft high at present and curves around in mirror form either side of a formal lawn creating enclosures for large flower beds. Tulips dominate these beds in spring, followed by plentiful catmint, astrantia and other colourful herbaceous perennials for the summer. Equal importance has been given to the design and implementation of a kitchen garden and the mouth waters in anticipation of the wonderful produce that will ensue from here.
Having seen only a handful of the gardens to be on show, I none the less feel confident that visitors to the village will find plenty to enjoy and lots of ideas from which to take great inspiration. It is the gardeners’ burden to always strive for better, to constantly be looking at ways to improve the garden, to find a more successful planting combination, to produce the ultimate ‘wow-factor’. Perhaps that is why Ian Nason, Anne and the other hard working residents involved in the gardens open event, will I am sure, be planning the next one almost as soon as the garden gates close for this year. I certainly hope so. These are gardens worth following as their stories continue to unfold and grow.
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I noticed my first snowdrops this winter towards the end of January, a little clump under the hedge next to my dustbins. This often seems to be the way with snowdrops. They are unassuming and shy to begin with, they blast no fanfare with their entrance onto the stage but suddenly, one day, there they are. As if they have popped up out of nowhere. And then, as their courage takes a hold, their modest advance party having tested the conditions, overnight there are hundreds and thousands of them. A veritable carpet of tiny bobbing white heads. Our eyes then become attuned to them and we start to see snowdrops everywhere. Certainly my heart is lifted by the sight of them and I am made to feel encouraged by their cheerful resilience. The gardener and t.v. presenter, Carol Klein, lists the snowdrop as one of her ‘Cinderella plants’. In her book, ‘Plant Personalities’, she says, “Cinderella plants shoot to stardom in a matter of weeks, accomplishing their whole cycle – flowering, pollination, setting seed – then disappearing into dormancy before the clock strikes twelve.”
Certainly, if any plant is disposed towards personification it is the snowdrop and I can’t help thinking that some sort of conscious planning goes into their spread as they naturalise in the woods, hedgerows and roadside verges in my local countryside. I see them growing in the woodland and follow their trail as they trickle or flow down into a ditch and jump up onto the bank on the other side, continuing their journey with seemingly purposeful intent. I wonder how far they will travel, as they prefer the shelter of deciduous trees or belts of hedgerow to open ground or indeed the heavy shade of evergreen forest. These fleeting spring flowers that inhabit the woodland floor disappear well before the overhead canopy fills with leaf, thus depriving them of light and water. And so they remain dormant until the optimum conditions return for them the following winter.
Of course, the same is true of the snowdrop in our gardens and they will do well under the canopy of twiggy winter shrubs and trees. They may well migrate south over the years heading towards the gentle winter sunshine but they won’t go far into open ground, opting to keep their roots in soil that won’t dry out in the summer. In my own garden I will be watching with interest over the next few years some rogue snowdrops that have popped up in a relatively exposed area at the bottom of my garden. Their presence here is due to large amounts of soil being moved about last summer to level the ground. The little bulbs must have been disturbed from a clump and now they are taking their chances, dotted around in singles, looking rather juvenile and forlorn at the moment but I feel confident that certainly some will remain, perhaps those closer to the hedge, and multiply into new colonies.
Snowdrops can be propagated by seed or by bulb offsets and if left to their own devices and in optimum conditions, will happily get on with the task without our help. (Note: some are sterile and incapable of setting seed so be sure to identify what variety you are purchasing or attempting to propagate and familiarise yourself with any particular cultivation instructions). If however, we want to introduce them into our gardens, a simple way to do so is to plant them ‘in the green’ which means procuring them as soon as the leaves die down after flowering and planting immediately in humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil in partial shade. And be sure to buy your snowdrops from a good garden centre or nursery as they will be able to assure you of the plants’ provenance.
Christopher Lloyd, the famous plantsman, gardener and garden writer, said of the snowdrop, “snowdrops are graceful, welcoming, sheer delight and I fail to see how one could have too many of them.” And we are certainly not short of varieties and species to chose from. The most common in Britain is Galanthus nivalis and while there is debate as to whether or not it is an actual native, it has never the less naturalised extremely well, especially in Scotland. Christopher Lloyd recommends G. ‘Atkinsii’ as a good snowdrop from which to start a new colony as it clumps up speedily and, to my mind, has the archetypal snowdrop flower shape, slender, and markings, small heart-shaped green mark on the inner petal. For those demanding more flamboyance from their snowdrop, G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ is a strong grower with double flowers looking like a ballerina’s tutu. For those attracted to the more rare and unusual, G. plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ has golden ovaries (the bulbous bit at the top of the flower at the end of the stem, usually green) and pedicels (the top of the stem) and golden markings on the inner petals.
In my opinion, the delights of the myriad variations of the snowdrop can be left to the galanthophiles. For me, the simple delight in winter of coming across snowdrops carpeting the woodland floor or peeping out under the hedge is enough to lift the heart and to feed the soul until the more colourful signs of spring arrive.