4 Apr 2018 03:42pm

How does your garden grow?

Running a world-renowned garden comes with challenges not experienced by most amateur gardeners, from preserving historic designs to managing a team of workers and volunteers. Patricia Carswell meets the head gardeners of three famous gardens and finds out what they love about their work and what wisdom they can pass on
Caption: Photography: Unisplash

Nick Dakin-Elliot

Head gardener
Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy

Villa La Pietra was created by an Anglo-American family, is owned by New York University and has an English head gardener. It is a Renaissance revival garden with views across to the city and is open to visitors by appointment.

When he arrived 20 years ago, Nick Dakin-Elliot only intended to stay for 12 months. “Somebody asked me whether I would be interested in starting the restoration of Villa La Pietra. It was only a year’s contract and it seemed to me that I’d got nothing to lose.”

On the first day, though, Dakin-Elliot “met a Florentine lady” and when he was asked to stay on, he was delighted. “It seemed like my fate.”

This wasn’t the only surprise. “I foolishly imagined that gardening would be very nice in a warm climate, but what I didn’t realise was that the weather was very extreme. It can be very hot and very cold. When it rains it never stops raining and when it’s dry it never seems to want to rain.”

For all the difficulties, though, Dakin-Elliot says his role is, “the most stimulating job imaginable. I love the challenge of being a bridge between an American university on one side and the Italian state on the other.”

Under his stewardship, Villa La Pietra has undergone a substantial rebirth. “The restoration project was formulated by a London-based landscape architect called Kim Wilkie. He was very keen that the garden looked like it had looked in photographs from the 1930s but he wanted it always to feel like an historic garden – not a new garden built to an old design.”

In addition to the ornamental areas, Villa La Pietra has a kitchen garden. “It’s a slightly fanciful garden with lemons and oranges in pots and vegetables growing between them.”

The produce is eaten by students from the university, but this isn’t the only benefit they get from the gardens, according to Dakin-Elliot.

“Whether it’s performing on a blissfully warm Tuscan evening in the outdoor theatre or helping the gardeners to perfect your Italian, I really believe that working in the garden at Villa La Pietra has the possibility to change their lives.”

One student, reading Italian, was so captivated by La Pietra that he went on to do a PhD in botany and later became executive director of the United States National Botanic Garden.

The biggest lesson that Dakin-Elliot has learned from his work at Villa La Pietra is timeliness. “The thing that old Italian gardeners know is that they do everything at the right time. So when it is really hot they’ve got everything under control and can deal with the watering and when it’s really cold there’ll be a big pile of wood to split to warm up. “You do jobs at the right time of year.”

Geraldine King

Estates manager
Chiswick House and Gardens, London, England

A 65-acre estate, Chiswick House and Gardens features formal gardens including an Italian garden, cedars imported from Lebanon, a lake, wilderness, kitchen garden and historic camellia collection. Managing a landscape such as this, explains estates manager Geraldine King, is all about respecting its historical context.

“It’s a Grade I heritage garden with several layers of 18th and 19th century gardening,” she says. “The priority for the garden is managing the historic landscape, trying to keep what Lord Burlington and William Kent had in mind. There is some flexibility but most of it is about maintaining it back to that period.” Alongside managing the historic landscape, the gardening team uses sustainable practices wherever possible.

All of this work requires a large team. “We employ a contractor to cut our grass, look after our hedges and trees and do the litter. I have two gardeners, and we have an amazing army of about 50 volunteers called the Goosefoots who do everything from helping us create dead hedges and habitat to reducing the height of shrubs and looking after the high horticulture.”

An important part of the estate is the kitchen garden, which produces cut flowers, vegetables and herbs. “They grow produce for our café, for a local butcher and for the public,” says King. “It’s an amazing educational resource. We have school groups who come and learn about plants, biology and insects and have [visits from] a special needs school. Because it’s a walled garden it gives them a bit of protection and they’re able to get outside and get their hands dirty.”

The role brings huge rewards, according to King. “It was the birthplace of the English landscape movement – lots of gardens then followed on from there – and we have the oldest collection of camellias under glass. Those are things to be really chuffed about.

“The team and the volunteers are such a diverse and interesting group of people, and I’m incredibly proud and humbled to be the manager because it’s such a major part of the community in Chiswick. It’s a beautiful landscape and it’s got a lovely footprint here in west London.”

For all its grandeur, there is much that amateur gardeners can learn from it, says King. “A good garden’s always on the move. It’s about thinking about what you like, so if your favourite time of the year is spring, look at what’s happening in various parks in the spring. If you see something you like, ask the gardener and then go to your local garden centre and have a look.

“When you manage a historic landscape, you’ve got to be a bit more sensitive, whereas the beauty of having your own garden is you can put in whatever you like. Put in what you love.”

Neil Porteous

Head of gardens
Mount Stewart, Co. Down, Northern Ireland

 Mount Stewart is on UNESCO’s list of the top 10 gardens in the world. It features formal areas including Italian, Spanish and shamrock gardens, a family burial ground called Tir n’an Og, a lake and a woodland garden.

When he arrived at Mount Stewart in 2011, Neil Porteous’s brief was to revive the style and ethos of its founder, Edith, Lady Londonderry. A free spirit, Edith was a suffragist and her boldness and modern thinking were reflected in her style of gardening. “The garden had slid a bit,” says Porteous, “so we wanted to get some excitement and pizazz back into it, both in the way it was presented and in the exotic and rare plants that it had in it. Edith was very experimental.

“It isn’t really an English garden,” he says. “There are formal areas but there isn’t a straight line in them – they’re completely Irish, slightly wonky, and it’s not uptight, which I like. We’re not too prescriptive in the way we garden; we allow plants a bit of latitude. If we find that they’re seeding in the gravel we leave them. Edith wouldn’t let the gardeners cut the grass if there was a nice crop of daisies on it. We try to garden in the same way.”

Mount Stewart is blessed with its own microclimate. “Because there’s a shelf of shallow sand that goes out into [Strangford] Lough, on a warm day the water evaporates in the atmosphere and the temperature starts to drop in the mid-afternoon. All this lovely airborne moisture falls out of the skies as dew and douses the plants for about eight hours a day.

“Part of the challenge in building the collection is that we have to propagate more frequently than a lot of gardens because stuff comes and goes very quickly. That’s a great challenge as well as a great opportunity. I’m never bored.”

Like many head gardeners, Porteous has to spend a lot of time at his desk. “I don’t get as much hands-on time in the garden as I’d like, though I do place every plant in the garden in the autumn and spring. I do tours and talks and I’m researching a book on Edith and her garden right up to the present.”

Porteous is just back from a collecting trip to Tasmania and Eastern Australia. “These were places that Edith sponsored expeditions to in the 1920s and 30s to collect seed. We are also planning to do a big-scale renovation – a modern take on Edith’s love of manipulating the microclimate. We’re going to see if it’s possible to make a two-acre section of the walled garden totally energy neutral by trapping, storing and converting all the different energy sources so the whole garden is sub-tropical.” One suspects Lady Londonderry would approve.