Dreaming of flowers
Imagine this: you and a friend grow cut flowers on an old Oxfordshire estate and in your spare time restore and design walled gardens. Welcome to the world of Henrietta Courtauld and Bridget Elworthy, aka The Land Gardeners. Meet them in this extract from their new book The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers.
Gathering dahlias in the early morning: ‘Otto’s Thrill’, ‘Santa Claus’, ‘Wizard of Oz’, ‘Burlesca’, ‘Eileen’ and ‘Blue Bayou’. Credit: Clare Richardson
A shared love of learning about plants, soil health and the creation of beautiful, productive, truly alive gardens inspired us to start The Land Gardeners in 2012. We wanted to connect with our gardens and encourage others to do the same.
We had met years before at our children’s nursery school in London, talking plants to avoid talking play dates at the nursery door. Although brought up on opposite sides of the world (Bridget in New Zealand and Henrietta in England) we had so much in common: we had both spent childhoods playing in the garden, then trained and worked as lawyers, before becoming obsessed with plants and changing tack to study garden design and horticulture.
In the early days we spent hours in cafes together scribbling our dreams on paper tablecloths. We knew we wanted to grow, to learn; we wanted to spend our time in gardens humming with life, and we wanted to laugh. We craved beauty, but grounded in the reality of mud under our nails. We wanted to learn more, to work with nature, not against it, supporting, not controlling it.
We started running our design business, specialising in the restoration of old walled gardens and the creation of new productive gardens, while also researching soil health when we stumbled across the idea of growing cut flowers. In an impulsive moment, we agreed to start growing the flowers at Bridget’s home Wardington Manor, in Oxfordshire, reawakening its history of cut-flower production.
Dahlia ‘Thomas Edison’ grows in zinc pots on this London roof terrace, showing that you can gather cut flowers even from a small space. On the table is a vase of cosmos ‘Dazzler’: these last well in water and continue to flower if deadheaded in the vase.
Credit: Clive Nichols
The Walled garden
Over the years the walled garden at Wardington had gone the way of many walled gardens: home to a few rows of heeled-in perennials and a small compost area.When Bridget moved in, she reinstated the paths and the quadrant of four large central beds from the original plans for the garden. These are now predominantly rotated with a mix of cut flowers and annual vegetables. We find that the more we can mix flowers, herbs and vegetables, the happier they are. Luckily, the soil in the walled garden is wonderful - deep and friable - and we take a minimal no-dig approach. Unless the soil has become badly compacted, we have found that just broad-forking in some compost in strips aerates the soil without exposing light-sensitive microorganisms to too much sun, leaving narrow walkways for us to walk between the lines of plants.
In spring we gather daffodils, buttercups, cow parsley and apple blossom from the orchard - all easy to grow and to pick.
We replanted the beds around the outside walls with a mix of perennials, including summer fruit (gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, red and white currants - and rhubarb, which we also force under terracotta forcing pots), globe and Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish and herbs. We have an area for madder and woad, plants traditionally used for dyeing textiles. We planted heritage damsons, quinces and step-over apple trees - and we paid homage to the peach house, now sadly gone, by planting a young espaliered peach tree. We pruned an old fig that had grown unruly and unproductive; we dug around its base about 50 centimetres from the trunk, built a brick wall beneath the soil level to restrict its roots, and ever since it has produced the most delicious figs.
We planted peonies that came all the way from Craigmore, the Elworthy family farm in New Zealand, which had been established in the 1980s by Bridget’s mother-in-law, Fiona. In 2003, Bridget and Forbes had escaped the confines of London and were spending two years in the French countryside. Fiona went to visit them in the hottest summer in 500 years, arriving with a large leather trunk of peony roots that had travelled halfway around the world. Having been shocked into dormancy in the freezer before their journey, the roots were quickly planted into the garden in the ferocious heat, with little hope that they would survive. Astonishingly, some of them flowered in early autumn, in tune with the New Zealand seasons, and then again the following summer.Nine years later, we lifted some of them and brought them to Wardington. They are now planted in the perennial borders in the walled garden, interplanted with foxgloves in spring, and fennel later in the summer.
Rows of tulips march through the borders in spring, and alternating sweet peas and the ‘Sunset’ heritage runner bean, with its lovely pale-peach flowers, climb over a central arch. Teepees of sweet peas rotate around the beds following the brassicas, and in autumn cosmos ‘Dazzler’ and large dahlias like ‘Elma E’ and ‘Otto’s Thrill’ abound among the many rows of vegetables.
We often pick foliage from the walled garden, letting parsnips go to seed for their tall, lime-green umbelliferous flowers, collecting fragrant trugs of mint, rosemary and feather fronds of dill, fennel and asparagus. No plant is safe from our clutches; we even cut long canes of flowering raspberries for arrangements in autumn.
This is an edited extract from The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers by Brdiget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld, published by Thames & Hudson.
Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana) and clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica) stand tall above their skirts of lilac catmint (Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’). Giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea) flutter among delphiniums (Delphinium ‘Blue Jade’) a the back of the bottom lawn border. We love picking the floribunda rose ‘Sally Holmes’ for her trusses of creamy satin blooms and peach buds.
Credit: Clare Richardson