English Gardens


Border at Barrington Court

Border at Barrington Court


Nancy in the White Garden at Barrington Court

Nancy in the White Garden at Barrington Court

Espalier and veggies            Whenever I get the chance to go see any of England’s great formal gardens, I take it.  With their huge staffs and labor-intensive plantings designed for pure asthetics, they’re pretty far from the spirit of permaculture: nonetheless they are worth seeing just as any great art is worth seeing, no matter who commissioned it or what the class status of its patrons.

 So—I finally had a day off, and my friend Nancy and I drove out from Glastonbury to see two gardens now maintained by the National Trust.  Lytes Cary was the home of a famous herbalist in the seventeenth century.  It has a manor hall that goes back to the 1500s and some lovely grounds.  It’s kind of an English garden thing to divide up the grounds with hedges into square garden ‘rooms’, lushly planted with borders that spill out all over the place in color-coordinated mass plantings.  Actually I think it’s the perfect representation in plantings of the British psyche, if there is such a thing.  All those high, trimmed, hedges stiff as an upper lip, controlled, repressed—then behind them and within those secret rooms, cascades of life and color and scent spilling out over the borders in lush profusion as if they’d had a few drinks and lost their inhibitions.   

Barrington Court was rebuilt in the nineteen twenties, and it has a fabulous, walled kitchen garden, built of Somerset stone.  Inside, fruit trees are espaliered all along the walls.  To espalier a tree means to prune it into a flat plane, often on wires or against a wall, where it will soak up heat from the stone and where fruit will ripen earlier and more evenly.  Barrington also has a fabulous white garden—an idea that was started by Vita Sackville-West at her garden at Sissinghurst back sometime in the ‘twenties.  Vita was a Bohemian and Virginia Woolf’s lover, although she remained in a long term marriage herself.  A little bit of scandal is always good for a garden.  I dragged my own long-term marriage partner to Sissinghurst one spring when the roses were still gray sticks but the daffodils were blooming in profusion under the pink clouds of fruit trees.  David doesn’t much like gardens but I’ve dragged him to quite a few, where he generally heads for the tea shop to get out of the rain while I have my own private raptures about just how the roses are pruned and mentally criticize the color combinations. 

But Nancy was a great companion, happy to admire the foliage and sip tea in the company of middle-aged ladies in sensible shoes.  It’s always a bit hard for me to remember that I am a middle-aged lady (well, I’m a woman but I ain’t no lady!) in sensible shoes myself.  Nancy herself has a beautiful, small garden in North NIbley—and you just don’t get more English than that! 

Some of the beds in the kitchen garden at Barrington mentioned that they were trying out a new, no-till system—mulching in permaculture fashion rather than double digging.  So permaculture is making its way even into the National Trust.

(I wrote this over a week ago–then just didn’t have internet access to upload it until now.  I’ve got a couple new updates to fill in–then I’ll be home by the end of the week and hope to post more regularly!_

11 comments to English Gardens

  • I love espaliered trees, like the one in the last photo. One of the great inventions of the Middle Ages. Not only beautiful — and you can make interesting patterns! — but REALLY useful in limited space — or indeed, any space –because all the branches have light. So they can bear a great deal of fruit.

  • Sue S

    What a lovely explanation of the borders and “rooms” of the English garden! I read that the National Trust stopped using peat moss quite a few years back, and they’ve just started growing a permaculture kitchen garden at Sissinghurst, and using the produce in the cafe there.

    Nice evolution for Vita’s grand plan.

  • Earthymama

    The National Trust are releasing some land for allotments; in light of the report on food supply in the future this can only be a ‘Good Thing’!
    Adam Nicholson, Vita’s grandson, has recently written a book about the struggle he and his wife, Sarah Raven, had with the NT. They wanted Sissinghurst to be a working farm that produced the food for the cafe and restaurant on site, reducing food miles etc.
    Classic gardens are such an inspiration, however, the good old cottage garden is a more practical solution in my tiny plot and I am lucky enough to remember my grandmother’s garden with the vegetables interplanted amongst the Granny’s Bonnets and Michealmass Daisies.

    • Well, David always says that it was worth being dragged around to all those gardens when I finally looked up at him and said, “I’ve realized all these gardens have major staff and endless water, and I’m just not going to be able to reproduce this part time in Cazadero!

  • Brian Kardash

    Gardens are always beautiful when tended to so carefully. The summer must be beautiful in England during this time of year. I was lucky enough to spend some time in Portugal and Spain this summer and was impressed by some of the gardens there. I recommend the South of Spain and the city of Seville.

  • Dia

    Ah, how I envy your treck to these lovely gardens!
    I’ve grown herbs for a long time, & recall a wonderful Brit friend coming to see a presentation I made (long before Power Points, lol) with photos & fav herb books, inc one about Herb Gardens of Britan.
    My garden is more random & unkempt – but I love dreaming of these & the teams of gardeners!

  • robin burton

    I think that you are perhaps misled over the idea of “teams of gardeners”. My father was head gardener at Barrington. He had a staff of just five to look after the gardens and all of the orchards and parkland. When I think how much effort I have to put into my garden of just one acre I cannot imagine how they kept it up to such a high standard.

    We lived in the cottages at the end of the drive and had our own vegetable garden out the back including chickens. Seems like such a long time ago…

  • robin burton

    And Barrington Court is a place of many stories. From the mysterious iron shaped depression in the table in the buttery, to the missing Satyr’s tail in the white garden, the mysteries of the Roman camp to the tales of the bold Duke of Monmouth on his way to Sedgemoor and defeat by the King. It is much more than just a garden. As a teenager I often worked as a guide in the Elizabethan house. Often times on my own waiting for visitors… it was a very atmospheric place. A lot of the old atmosphere has gone since the current furniture company started using it for a showroom, but much still remains. Visit on a slow, wet, Wednesday. Just stand still. Listen

    • Robin, how fascinating! I’ve been to Barrington before and always loved it–especially that beautiful kitchen garden with the stone walls. And to think that your father was head gardener! With only five staff–well, I’m sure they knew how to work fast and efficiently, and worked long and hard! I’ll have to visit again when I’m in that part of England–I’d love to hear the stories. Thanks so much for writing.

  • Clare Gill

    Amazing blog. I am a new gardener. What sort of vine/plant is used in the bottom picture in vegetable garden?

    • That plant is an espaliered fruit tree–I believe it is a pear tree. That’s a method of training fruit trees and pruning them so they grow flat against a wall or on wires, both to save space and because the wall holds heat and helps the fruit to ripen. Looks really cool, too!

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