How does my garden grow? With chilblains, slugs and damned hard work

How does my garden grow? With broken fingernails, chilblains, rampant slugs and damned hard work: As an enchanting diary of the labours involved in opening a garden to the public reveals

  • Tamsin Westhorpe is the head gardener at Stockton Bury in Hertfordshire
  • Former journalist has penned a diary of the four-acre garden and rural Herts
  • She reveals the drawbacks of keeping poultry and replacing a lawn with gravel 

BOOK OF THE WEEK 

DIARY OF A MODERN COUNTRY GARDENER 

by Tamsin Westhorpe (Orphans £20, 248 pp)  

When it comes to gardens, no one does it better than us Brits. From Sissinghurst and Kew in the South to Harlow Carr and Chatsworth in the North, we have some of the world’s most dazzling gardens.

A hundred years ago, every country house employed at least a couple of gardeners, and a big estate would have had dozens of them (all men, of course).

But today, even large private gardens operate with just a handful of staff, and professional gardeners — as opposed to garden designers — are a curiously undervalued breed, who tend to shy away from the limelight.

Tamsin Westhorpe (pictured) reveals the challenges of being head gardener at Stockton Bury in Herefordshire, in a fascinating new book 

Tamsin Westhorpe is head gardener at Stockton Bury in Herefordshire, a highly regarded four-acre garden owned by her uncle and his partner; the farmland surrounding the garden has been in her family for five generations.

A trained gardener, she worked as a journalist and magazine editor before returning to Stockton Bury to take charge of the garden.

Her diary kicks off in freezing February. We amateur gardeners may regard January and February as non-gardening months but, despite her running nose and icy fingers, Tamsin has too much outdoors work to think about retreating to the potting shed.

She is plagued by chilblains — ‘most gardeners will suffer from them at some point’ — but won’t wear gardening gloves, taking pride in her battered hands. ‘I adore the gnarled, wrinkled and soil-engrained hands of a true gardener,’ she says. ‘These are the people who know their stuff.’

The vagaries of the weather are a constant refrain in her diary. It’s not just a matter of her own discomfort: when there’s been too much rain, the clay soil is so heavy it’s impossible to dig; when it’s too dry, the ground becomes rock hard. Snow is one of the few things that drives her indoors.

Being outside every day does mean that she notes even the smallest change in the garden. By early March, the pond is ‘like a boiling cauldron. There was so much frog activity the water was almost bubbling’. By April, the plants are putting on new growth by the day. ‘This is my favourite time of the year for visiting gardens,’ she says, while noting ruefully that visitors are few and far between in spring. ‘People choose to stay in their centrally heated homes, rather than put on an extra layer.’

By the end of the month, the garden is a bower of flowers: pear blossom, followed by dessert apple blossom and cider apple blossom. Here’s a top tip: ‘If you’re clever with your planting, you can enjoy a relay of blossom from fruit trees right through until the end of May.’

Tamsin who was a judge at Chelsea, revealed summer is as much about tending to the garden as keeping paying visitors happy. Pictured: A garden filled with wisteria from Tamsin’s book

In late May, Tamsin is lured to London to be a judge at Chelsea, the crème de la crème of flower shows. She takes the job very seriously. ‘I was moved so much by one particular garden that I had a job not to shed a tear,’ she admits.

The Chelsea experience leaves her feeling ‘exhausted, elated and at the same time bereft’; she breathes a sigh of relief when she is back home with her husband and young son, surrounded by home-grown flowers and birdsong.

By high summer, the head gardener’s job is as much about keeping the paying public happy as tending to the garden.

She takes pride in the cleanliness of the Stockton Bury loos — ‘when you open a garden to the public, toilets are everything’ — and swallows her irritation when her gardening work is constantly interrupted by people asking the names of plants. It’s like Mastermind, she sighs, and ‘my chosen specialist subject is: “You’ve got a green plant — what is it?” ’

Tamsin (pictured) revealed visitors to the garden drop off sharply towards the end of June because most people stay home to watch Wimbledon 

Come the end of June, although the garden is ablaze with roses and poppies, visitor numbers have dropped off sharply — everyone is staying at home to watch Wimbledon.

By August, the garden has become less romantic and more anarchic but, to Tamsin’s eyes, just as beautiful. ‘It takes nerves of steel to open in August . . . gardeners are capable of a lot, but they cannot keep a garden in May and June attire all summer long.’

As well as a diary of the garden, this book is a love letter to rural Herefordshire, from the frustration of moving sheep — ‘you need to be able to run at speed in wellies and you also need to be a mind-reader’ — to the charms of the local village hall where she gives a talk about gardening.

DIARY OF A MODERN COUNTRY GARDENER by Tamsin Westhorpe (Orphans £20, 248 pp)

‘This was the hall in which I learnt to Scottish country dance as a child and it’s also been the venue for many local funeral wakes … it’s a vital part of our community.’ Her talk is a success, she notes, because only one person fell asleep.

Tamsin Westhorpe is a gardener I know and admire, and her diary made me want to rush out into my own garden and get planting. There are useful pointers on everything from the drawbacks of keeping poultry — ‘rats and chickens go hand in hand’ — to the folly of replacing a lawn with ‘low maintenance’ gravel.

‘You’ll trek gravel into your house . . . plus you can’t walk barefoot on gravel.’ And don’t plant a groundnut vine, Apios americana, anywhere near your windows, because it smells like a blocked drain.

Reading Diary Of A Modern Country Gardener leaves you full of admiration for the hardy men and women who battle the elements, slugs, snails, rabbits and deer daily to create beautiful gardens.

Theirs may not be a fashionable or high-profile job, but without them we would be losing a vital part of our heritage.

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