Hestercombe: a proper Designer Garden


Great Plat? More like Small Fringe

On Sunday  I removed more of the front lawn to widen the border and plant the final Sweet Williams.  It is a small development I have been planning for a while as there is little room elsewhere for the Mrs B’s favourite cut flower, but if I had needed some ideas for more garden design then our trip to Hestercombe Gardens on Saturday would have provided them in spades (and wheelbarrows).

I have to admit to complete ignorance of Hestercombe prior to receiving my brother-in-law’s Christmas gift of vouchers which allowed us entry to the gardens with afternoon tea in the Column Restaurant.  The gardens are stunning in a variety of differing styles, from the English landscape behind the house, to the formal gardens next to it as well as the Victorian shrubbery (“a shrubbery?!”).  But the real star of the show is the Great Plat: designed by Edwin Lutyens and complemented by planting from the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

What makes the Plat so interesting is the different levels and the use of water throughout it in rills, ponds and trickling waterfalls, all lined with local stone.  The planting follows what could be a strongly linear design but softens it with borders of bergenia and other  subtly coloured silver and greys.  Some of Mrs B’s pet hates were there, but even she had to say that in this context Canna Lilies and peach coloured gladioli looked just right set against the bergenia.  Cannas were something my mother would plant around the sun-dial at the old place and were the first things we replaced when we planted lavender.  They are not unattractive plants – they just need the right context.  And Hestercombe is able to do this as the Great Plat has the size and structure to accommodate some sizeable and numerous plants including some magnificent Japanese Maples as well as vines over the impressive pergola.

There was a video giving a brief history of the house and garden.  The sunken parterre was an enormous undertaking in terms in the movement of tons of soil and the quarrying of rock from the estate to build the beds.  It illustrated just how much work went into it.  But when you have such a vast estate, as the owner Edward Portman clearly had at the turn of century, one simply employs a lot of men to sort it for you.  Although it had fallen into disrepair, it is has been restored over the past twenty years and looks close to its former glory now.

Of course the main reason we had gone was to have a champagne afternoon tea, so the  walk round the gardens was essentially killing time prior to our date with tea and cakes.  But we were blown away by the brilliance of the gardens and would heartily recommend a visit.  We managed to fill a couple of hours easily, courtesy of some stunning views and the fact that our tour was directed by Mrs B who had control of the map, so we went a little further than we at first envisaged.

But it served to whet our appetites for the excellent afternoon tea which, after choosing one of the many varieties of tea, involved consuming an impressive selection of sandwiches, cakes, a compote, sausage roll, and scones.  All washed down with a very palatable glass of English sparkling wine.

We waddled back to the car, replete.

Cheers Richard

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Autumn Approaches

Autumn came knocking this morning.  There was a sharpness in the air and a mist across the fields which reminded us of October breaks in a Monmouth farmhouse when we were younger.

The greenhouse retains the fecund smells of summer, but with the dewy dampness of approaching autumn and while some veg, such as tomatoes are coming to the end of their season others have made a resurgence (spicy salad, Chard and Cavolo Nero).



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Fresh Fruit (for Rotting Vegetables?)


Victoria Plums

Last week I was at the Old Place to check it was in good order for potential buyers wanting to view the property.  Setting aside my feelings on the impending sale of the family home (a home for me in my youth and latterly in parenthood) it was good to take another look around the garden and reminisce with Josh about the times spent there.


The veg patch is no longer recognisable as such, but the fruit trees have been very productive this summer.  Ironically Josh and I decided to pick some of the plums excellent plums.  The irony lies in the fact that when the Old Man was in charge of the show we felt no compunction to harvest them  despite cajoling and instruction from the Lord of the Manor.   In his day, he would gather them in by the ton and the freezer has a good few bags of plums of varying vintages.  But picking them the other weekend they tasted good.   We also picked some pears, but TOM would have sighed at the comedy duo (trio with Josh’s GF in attendance) trying to reach the best boughs of plums with a dodgy step-ladder and some old loppers.

Elsewhere the colour of nostalgia was of a different hue as I saw that my own Worcester Pearmain tree at the end of the garden has a good number of apples on it despite having only a few spindly twigs masquerading as branches.  It was pleasing to see and I am still intent on getting the tree transplanted to the new estate.  The sapling is of sentimental value as it was given to me by a grateful parent whose extremely talented off-spring it had been my good fortune to teach and coach.  They were parents who had a balanced and intelligent outlook on life and were always open, honest and grateful to those who were doing their best to educate their children.  Happy days when parents and departmental managers were empathetic and supportive.  I hope that next year I will have Molly and TC’s Worcester Pearmains in my own front garden.

We can’t transplant any plums trees, but, at Mrs B’s request, we did acquire a greengage plant from a visit to the open day at Pennard Plants over the summer.  So in future I can look forward to telling any visitors to the Midlife Garden to “pick some plums” and perhaps in due course I too will be filling my chest freezer with the soft fruit harvest.

Plum crumble anyone?


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Veronica or Veronicastrum Virginicum?*


Let ’em Dangle

I read a good article by James Wong in the Grauniad this weekend in which he gave his four top tips for beginners in the garden. I never feel like I have a great well of knowledge about gardening, although I have friends who see me as the expert in gardening, in relative terms that is, because I actually plant stuff, grow stuff and harvest or cut other stuff at the end of the process.  Although I still regard myself as a beginner in this big green-fingered world, reading James Wong’s article made me think that perhaps, in the horticultural educational ladder, I would most probably be in a position to now graduate from beginners’ to improvers classes.

James Wong says persistence is key – to not be put off by things dying on you.  Well, I think I do that.  There have been times when growing veg this summer has felt like a Sisyphean task – as successive batches of chard and peas have perished on the raised bed killing fields like ranks of yeomanry heading over the top to be mown down by slugs, sparrows or simple drought.  But I have rolled that metaphorical rock back up the hill and actually made it stick on occasion to reap the benefits in plentiful courgettes and beans, amongst other things.

Second piece of advice is to avoid worrying about weeds, which are simply flowers int the wrong place.   Using new raised beds has been a real treat this summer, especially with the dry weather so there has been little or no weeding to be done, but I have taken James’s idea to one extreme by allowing some of the random seedlings that emerged from the mudslide of the great greenhouse disaster to flourish in the warm indoor beds.  So I now have a sprinkling of zinnias and Ammi poking through the sweet peppers and tomatoes.  Why not?

Tip number three is simply to plant stuff in the ground and not bother with pots too much.  This is something I could take heed of as I am the worst helicopter parent when it comes to germinating and growing seeds.  I put them in lovingly sieved compost in individual seed trays and then check on them everyday – perhaps every hour – until they are poking through.  Then fuss over them even more watering and watching until they are bursting out of the trays and need to be potted on or planted out.  Then – to my amazement – when let loose from their molly coddled world of shop-bought compost and careful watering, planted out in the naked earth, they flourish.  Like grumpy teenagers living away from home for the first time they suddenly take flight, get on with growing up properly and become sensible members of the community.  So why not sow more seeds direct into the earth?  It might be what they really want.  Perhaps I’ll try that…

And finally Mr Wong advises using Latin names for everything.  Just get out and learn them he says:  no one really knows how Latin – a dead language – should be pronounced so no worries there.  And by using the correct Latin name you can be sure of what you are buying rather than vaguely describing the blue one of this or that flower, you can be pedantically specific.  But as someone whose school coerced him into taking Latin O-Level (My fault: I was one of only a few who actually revised for the exam in the second form) and subsequently scraped a C grade at sixteen (a “4” in today’s exciting GCSE grading), I have never been keen on the language even in horticultural use.   Until recently I would have assumed that streptocarpus was a fish flavoured throat lozenge.  But I will perhaps try the Latin way more often.  Does that include more gesticulation when I speak, suffering wild swings of emotion and using the horn on my car with impunity?  If it makes the broad beans grow, I’ll give it a shot.

I may not have been happy with being made to do latin as a schoolboy, but if things don’t go as planned, it is better to laugh than to cry.   As a latin student might have said of my designated superiors at the last educational establishment I left:

“Eos si iocus non possint pedicabo…”



*With apologies to Elvis Costello

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Mid-Term Reports

img_20180808_084533092Deadline for reports was about three days ago but as I no longer have someone to swear at me if I am perceived to be late or include too many ‘gramatical errors’ (sic),  I have stuck to my usual report writing schedule, by submitting mine in my own time.

No More Bull Shit – herewith the mid-term garden reports.

Beans, Broad

A good start to the term, and working hard in the early weeks, they seemed to get lazy and did not capitalise on the good work early on.  The results were, frankly, disappointing with grade E across the board (or is it 1 now?)

Beans, Runner and Green

Runners and Greens have had a good term.  It is clear that MFL and PE are their strong subjects, and they have easily adapted to the European-style heat and the need to compete in hot weather.  They need to keep on, though as there have been signs of letting up in recent weeks and some of their work has started to look a little shoddy.


A truly memorable term for the Courgies, with early efforts, leading to excellent results to the point of being embarrassingly good.  I have rarely seen such excellent results with undoubtedly so much more to come.  Well done – a super effort.


Another one who looked to have settled into the new year, but seemed to become distracted and unruly, never really progressing.  It appears that there was some disruption with bullying by sparrows which might have been an issue.  The second intake of peas seemed to have settled this problems with Special Needs fleece being used to provide protection, but unfortunately the late start for these and lack of nursery education has meant lower than expected grades.

Potatoes:  Swift, Duke of York, King Edward, Sarpo Mira

Spuds have had a variable term.  Swift did do well to begin with, but could have done better with a more conducive setting as a lack of resources seemed to hamper development.  The Duke of Yorks have struggled too, with their results showing a wide fluctuation from 9 to 1 in grading.  It is too early to report on King Edward or Sarpo Mira.


In general salad has a had good term, although the dry weather has affected their ability to concentrate for too long.  Too often they have complained that slugs and other bugs are distracting them and hampering their progress, but when they have established a good working routine the work produced has been of a fair quality.  There is no doubt that they could do better if they tried, particularly the chard and rocket which have had a particularly disappointing term.


What an excellent set of results.  Tomatoes have been a revelation this term.  They have been excellent individually and have also shown the ability to excel in small group work as sweet millions have produced some very impressive early results with the Jersey Devils promising to submit course work of very high standard.  Mrs B, the head of tomato assessment and monitoring has been particularly impressed with this years tomato cohort and they will undoubtedly be contenders for the the “most improved” prize on speech day.


Well done to basil on yet another excellent year.  Italian has been a strength of this year’s intake – “molto bene!”

Squash: Crown Prince and Blue Kuri Kabocha

Squash have been very active this term, bordering on the unruly, although they have seemed to settle into the new premises.  The work produced has been extensive, though it remains to be seen how focussed and concentrated this has been and how this is actually going to translate into favourable results: i.e. good sized ripe squashes.

Kohl Rabi

Kohl Rabi were late starters this term with a lack of nursery time leaving them behind other veg in the early years group.  Only time will tell if they are able to make this up but they are trying their best, with an A1 for effort, despite the distractions of cabbage white butterflies.

Kavolo Nero

Early work was hampered by the bullying sparrows while their later efforts have seen no homework handed in for weeks due to the destructive influence of cabbage white butterflies.  Between times there have been some excellent pieces of work and when the butterflies have gone there might perhaps be more good work to come.

Mixed Ability Class: Carrots, beetroot and chard

This has been the best ever intake of carrots.  They have been well-mannered and orderly and have delivered excellent results showing the way to beetroot and chard which have sadly failed all their exams so far.  Beetroot tried re-sits later in the summer but once again succumbed to exterior distractions.  Chard appears to be doing better in working towards some re-takes in the autumn for which we hold out high hopes. While this, along with the success of carrots shows that the standard of gardening is at times excellent, overall  there is a feeling that it “Requires Improvement”.

Next report deadline: some time in late summer / autumn-ish.


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The Birds, The Birds


Blackbird on a wire.  Well, fruit tree actually.

One of my former flatmates had a phobia about birds flapping anywhere near her.  I thought of her recently when we found a jackdaw in the shed when we were clearing out the Old Man’s place the other day.  One of my brothers screamed like a girl when he opened the door and onlookers would have been amused to watch four men in their mid-to-late 50s (I’ll be kind to my eldest sibling) flapping more than the startled bird as it – and they – tried to get out of the door.

Trapped birds seem to be a theme this week, as I found a black bird in the new greenhouse hiding under the basil and tomatoes.  I ushered the relieved bird to the exit and got on with weeding, picking out side shoots and cutting salad.

But then things got more sinister as, in a scene lifted from Hitchcock, I visited the greenhouse a few days later to check on my (now ripening) tomatoes.  The Sweet Millions are my little darlings – they are being produced in burgeoning numbers.  Under my careful direction they are my leading actors in the annual greenhouse summer blockbuster.  But the dismay and horror (the horror!) I felt when I stepped into the greenhouse, like Tippi Hedren into the old farmer’s house, to find a scene of devastation and lying in a corner, behind the basil, the red eviscerated remains of my cherry tomatoes.

Cut to the next scene as, with the symphonic score rising in a crescendo, I ran breathlessly from the scene, unable to scream or even explain what I had witnessed as I got into my old ford truck and drove away.

Ok, so perhaps I over-dramatise.  There were no dead bodies in the greenhouse – it was only a couple of tomatoes that had been eaten.  I was not so upset that I screamed but I did utter an expletive, which Tippi would not have been allowed to do on-screen.  Nor did I  jump into my Ford truck:  the only car in the vicinity was Mrs B’s Honda Civic.  And I probably did discuss the situation with the only sentient being in the vicinity – Ella the Labrador – as I tried to work out what had been eating my tomatoes.

She did not have much to contribute to the discussion.

In retrospect it is obvious, but in the absence of smashed glass, or birds impaled on the windows, it was not entirely clear who was harvesting the tomatoes twenty-four hours prior to me picking them.  It did finally dawn on me later when I saw another blackbird in the greenhouse.  This bird clearly knew exactly how to get in and out, and it’s motivation was obvious as the remains for more nearly ripe toms were left on the soil.

Birds have been a problem this year.  In addition to the usual attacks from pigeons, sparrows have destroyed my pea crop and the blackbirds had also had a good go at the blueberries and raspberries.  So now, in addition to the soft fruit being covered in netting, the greenhouse has netting draped over the roof and door to deter any airborne invasion.

The tomatoes are ripening nicely but I remain wary of flocks of birds gathering on the wires, in the trees, peas or anywhere near the greenhouse.



The evidence



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The Dry

Two weeks ago I started this post.  I don’t know what got in the way of me completing it.  Perhaps it was the end of term which passed in a whir of school trips, successive cover lessons involving repeat showings of Blue Planet or feature films and the year eight boys going mob-handedly feral at lunchtime.  Family matters have also been an issue with Mrs B’s mother slipping from this mortal coil (four days after celebrating her 70th Wedding anniversary).  But the circle of life was shown to be rotating strongly with the graduation of our little girl to the rank of qualified medical practitioner.  That’s a doctor to you or me. (No, not a nurse, nor even a pharmacist.  A proper doctor).

Time is passing so fast these days and yet what I wrote two weeks ago unsurprisingly fits well for now:


Today I saw the first rumours of hose pipe bans coming into force – though not, thankfully down here in the wet West Country.  Surprisingly, they are talking about the North West being the place they will need to impose the restrictions.  I always thought Manchester and Liverpool got more than their fair share of rain, but then I guess they also have more than their fair share of residents to drink all the water from the tap (like the Tiger Who Came to Tea).

I am not sure how the garden would cope if I were able to water it regularly via a hose pipe.  When I started the garden in the winter, it was chucking down with rain and I was more concerned with drying the clay soil out rather than retaining water.  But regular watering is a fact of life at the moment and the veg have hit their stride.  We now have courgettes, potatoes, green beans, runner beans, mangetout, kale, carrots, onions and shallots.  And we have salad coming out of our ears as well as raspberries and blueberries starting to ripen.

Tomatoes will be in plentiful supply soon, but we’re just waiting for the first sweet million to ripen, then they will all go off like a firework.

Yields have not been as good as I might have expected at the old place, but for a first season on a new plot I feel pretty pleased.


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