At the end of March I read in my Sunday paper that in barely two weeks time there was to be a garden festival at Highgrove, the private country home in Gloucestershire of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. I remember the first time we visited the gardens at Highgrove and it must be around fifteen years ago. As secretary to our local gardening club I had been urged to get our names down for a group visit and after a wait of a year or so we got a place. No-one knew a great deal about what to expect from these early visits and we had half a dozen spare seats on our coach despite asking other gardening clubs to take them up. I still remember our amazement at the fabulous time we had arriving first at the magnificent Orchard Room, built for entertaining guests to Highgrove, with its huge stone pillars based on the old market building in nearby Tetbury. Here we met our guide and would later be served tea and Duchy biscuits, very new to the market at the time. There was no charge for visits in those days as by giving us the opportunity to see the results for ourselves Prince Charles wanted to share with gardeners and others what could be achieved by gardening only on sustainable and organic principles and by setting aside harmful chemicals and sprays. We bought items and plants in the shop, where all profits went to the Prince’s Trust, and had a thoroughly good day and with these memories still firmly in mind I went on-line and booked two tickets for the very first garden festival at Highgrove, held in April this year.
There were various tickets available and we chose the full deal with a speaker, a lunch and a guided tour of the garden and I just knew it was going to be very special. We booked a couple of nights at the Premier Inn in Stroud and, yes, Lenny Henry is right – the beds are very comfortable! On Saturday 16 April, we arrived early at the Westonbirt Arboretum to pick up the shuttle bus to Highgrove. It was very cold and we would discover later that snow had fallen and settled not far to the north of us. We first went into the plant pavilion and I was enthralled by the magnificent display all along one side at table height. Visitors are not allowed to use cameras at Highgrove, because of the security, and so I have to carry a picture of this beautiful arrangement of plants in my mind. Backed by a low yew hedge, there were examples of wildflowers, garden flowers, vegetables, herbs, old tree stumps, moss, dried leaves, chestnut palings, trimmed box, statuary and more. All this was woven together to produce a living tapestry to represent the garden at Highgrove and I wanted to stand in front of this for as long as possible, soaking it up, but time was getting on and it was off to coffee in the Orchard Room before our talk. I had chosen to hear Jake Hobson speak about creative pruning.
Jake, who now lives in Shaftesbury, studied sculpture at London’s Slade school and then went on to be inspired by the tree pruning techniques he encountered in Japan and following further study of topiary, pollarding, hedge laying and more in use here and abroad he showed us many an inspiring photo to illustrate his experiences and techniques. He also encouraged us to appreciate how the farmers’ flayed hedges hug the landscape and create patterns across the countryside. I had attended one of Jake’s courses, about ten or more years ago, and I remember taking a small twiggy shrub, poking out of the top of a plastic carrier bag, home with me on the train. When we moved to Sherborne my creation lost its top, which is now growing again and I am pleased with my very own little piece of creative pruning. Following the talk there was a delicious lunch of salmon and an appropriately regal ‘Queen of Puddings’. There were ten of us at each table and there was much stimulating conversation mostly centred around what a great time we were all having. The glasses had bees on them to remind us of the underlying message of the day and later I bought four glasses to take home. After lunch we finished with a guided tour of the garden. I have been lucky to see the garden on two other occasions in high summer but I think it was even more beautiful on this cold, sunny day when the leafless trees looked magnificent under planted by delicate narcissus and all manner of Spring flowering bulbs and plants. All the way round we could hear the song of a thrush and various little trills and outpourings from the many birds who inhabit the garden. The driveways now have grass growing up the middle as the only way this can be removed organically is by hand weeding or using a flame gun and so Prince Charles has decreed that this should now be left and is a very good example of the more relaxed approach that must be adopted when ‘working in harmony with nature rather than against her‘ the words spoken to us in the welcoming address recorded by Prince Charles and relayed before the start of each talk.
All the speakers involved gave their time for free and all profits went to the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation. It was a fabulous day all round and next year, all being well, I am going to book one of the later talks which will give the opportunity to indulge in an afternoon tea.
Above: Topiary – my own rather humble offering on the left and the real thing on the right.
Below: Hedges in the local landscape in May.
To encourage wildlife friendly gardens, you can make a ‘Bug Hotel’. Here (below left) is a new one recently opened at Castle Gardens in Sherborne to coincide with the announcement of this year’s Wildlife Friendly Garden competition run by Dorset Wildlife Trust. For the story see here. My own much smaller bug house is below right, where nearly all the drilled holes are currently home to overwintering insects.