Thursday, 27 May 2010

Woodbrooke's gardens and grounds

I've done several post here recently on aspects of gardens and growing, and I thought: I really must do a post about the gardens and grounds here at Woodbrooke.

So I asked Steve Lock - Woodbrooke's gardener - if he would walk me around and tell me what's going on at the moment, and what he'd like people to know about.

If you know Woodbrooke well, and I haven't included your favourite part of the grounds, I apologise! If you don't know the grounds, you can see a plan that shows where everything is.

One of the things that Steve hopes to achieve is to help people who come to Woodbrooke, for whatever reason, to reconnect with nature and the outdoors.
One of the remarkable features of the grounds at this time of year is the variety of shades of green, and the way in which they aere changing, almost daily, as the new light coloured spring growth matures and darkens.
If you are a gardener yourself, and you make a habit of walking around your patch every day, you will know what tiny changes you notice from one day to the next. Steve watches this, daily, over 10 acres and has a deep knowledge of the nooks and crannies and the details. I walk around the grounds here from time to time, but I don't know them intimately, like I know my own garden, and I certainly have never known intimately such a large patch of land. This year, Steve told me, the woodpeckers and swifts are back, but the bats are late - the long cold winter has many effects lasting right into the spring, and beyond.
A feature of Woodbrooke's land is that some of it is gardened and some of it managed as conservation woodland, but all of it is organic and wildlife-friendly. The woodland beyond the lake has been designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). The lawns around the house contain specimen trees, some of which go back to the original planting of the garden.

As we walked around Steve drew my attention to bird-nesting sites that I wouldn't have noticed by myself. In this first picture, you will see the label with the botanical name of the tree, and above it and to the left a nesting hole.

In the second picture an old tree-stump, starting to rot, provides a safe nesting site.

The wildlife has its own effects on the garden, of course. Steve had been wondering why we don't have water plants in the lake - why the lack of vegetation? Tests on the water quality showed that we weren't suffering pollution from the brook ('Woodbrooke') that feeds the lake . . . so what could be the problem? Steve, working with a knowledgable volunteer, set up a fenced-off test site, and the vegetation thrived. It seems the the variety of water-fowl for whom our lake is either home, or a resource-rich stopping off point, were nibbling the vegetation so much that it couldn't get established. So now there are plans for more protected sites around the margins of the lake, to try to get more native vegetation established in the water.

This also shows the importance of volunteers in the garden. Here are two, working on a routine maintenance task in the herb garden, but volunteers also bring their own experience, knowledge and approach - so each new volunteer adds something unique to the garden, as well as their physical work. We have long-term volunteers during the peak growing season each year, as well as shorter term volunteers (a week or two) who come, perhaps each year at certain times. We also have local volunteers who offer us one day a week.

"Interpretation" is an important feature for visitors. This is a plan of the herb garden, mounted on a wooden pole and facing you as you enter the walled garden from the main lawned area. Steve is preparing new interpretation sites (to be ready for our 'yellow book' garden open day). Coppiced chestnut poles will be used as stands for boards placed at strategic points around the garden, drawing visitors' attention to what can be seen from that spot - and especially features that they might well not have noticed otherwise. Once in place, these boards will remain as guides for course or conference particpants, day-visitors, or anyone else passing through.

There are other, more quirky, kinds of "interpretation"! If you walk through the arboretum area, you will come to this wooden step, set into the ground. It is quite worn now, but you might just be able to see that it says 'look up'. This was made and installed by Steve's predecessor as gardener, Barney Smith. There are two of these, one at each end of the main arboretum path. They are both now very well-worn, because of weathering, but also because of the numbers of people who have stood on them, and have 'looked up'.

Looking up, you find you eyes following the convering lines of the trees, up to the patch of sky visible between them at the top. The detail of the view varies with the time of year, the weather, the light - it's always worth stopping to look; and the view at the other end of the path is startlingly bright (the camera couldn't handle the contrast) on a sunny day because of branches that were brought down in the last storms we had, leaving a much bigger patch of visible sky.

Throughout the garden, Steve tries to reuse everything possible. Weedings and prunings, as well as kitchen vegetable waste, are all composted. Grass clippings from the regular lawn-mowing, and hay from the wildflower meadow areas, are dried and used for mulch. Coarse and woody branches are used to create habitats, and logs are left for beetles and other insects to colonise. Winter tree surgery, part of regular maintenance, produces wood that is then chipped and used either to add dry matter to the compost, if there is not enough other dry/coarse material, or to maintain the footopaths through the woodland, or the working paths between the beds in the walled garden. Plants are moved and divided to add interest to new areas. Seeds are saved and sown the following spring. Tree stumps are made into seats.

An attempt to make a wildlife pond didn't quite work that way. A hole was dug in a boggy area, but it leaked, so it has been left to regenerate and now it's gradually maturing into a varied bog garden, with water-mint and other native bog plants.

Although the whole area works together, some of the garden is managed primarily with an eye to wildlife, some for food and some for beauty and for the pleasure of visitors (and staff).

The beauty may be an all-year round feature, or the happy moment as the cycle of the year brings certain shapes and colours together.

An example of the former is the cloud hedge - a substantial (deep as well as tall) hedge, cut to resemble billowing clouds - a tricky thing to do, to keep an eye on all dimensions as you're cutting. It's a form of topiary that comes from the Japanese tradition of garden art.

An example of the transient moment is the intense purple-blue of the bluebells that come into flower under the copper beech, just at the point of the year when it has turned from its winter dark green foliage to its new-season copper-red.
(It's worth enlarging your screen view to be able to see the bluebells under the tree on the right side of the picture.)
Close-up of bluebells under hanging branch.

The Chinese Garden provides varied year-round interest. At this time of year it is an area of lush abundance.

The gazebo, in among the flowers of the herbaceous borders, provides a solitary quiet space for reading or contemplation.
Whereas the chairs and tables on the grass outside the dining room and verandah create a convivial space for enjoying the sunshine while eating or drinking. The group here has just ended its coffee break and is about to return indoors for the next session of a course.
The labyrinth is mown into the grass each summer, and then left over the autumn and winter to allow the grass to recover. To create such clear paths requires shaving the grass very close to the ground - and the roots need time to recover each season. But it is a popular feature of the summer garden, and much used for walking meditation.

And one last item for this week. Steve calls this his 'Isaac Pennington Clematis' (it's climbing up the pea sticks and is a bit difficult to see in the photo, but you can see the cluster of leaves at the bottom). Why? It's because of a quote from Pennington's writing:

“Our life is love and peace and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another, but praying for another and helping one another up with a tender hand.”

But what's that got to do with a clematis? Well, Steve was, for some time, puzzled as to why the clematis wasn't flopping all over the place. It's not tied in, it's not well supported by the sticks, it's constantly growing long, floppy tendrils. Then he realised: this plant is just outisde the external door that leads to the Quiet Room - this is the place in Woodbrooke where Meeting for Worship is held every day, and where other groups regularly meet. So people are passing this plant many times a day . . . and as they go past (some of them, anyway) they see a stem of the clematis lolling over the path, and they just tuck it in as they go past . . . so, "helping one another up with a tender hand.”

I think this is enough for one week's post! Next time, I'll do a separate post about the fruit and vegetables, and the walled garden.

Woodbrooke is open to the public for 'Yellow Book Open Gardens' on Sunday 20 June in the afternoon.
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