Skip to content

Stourhead garden news is moving!

September 28, 2011

You may have noticed that apart from the garden blog there has also been a Stourhead property blog running for a while. We are now ready to synchronise the sites and move to one address making it much easier for you to see news across the property as a whole. The garden will be contributing a two paragraph ‘headline news’ on the property blog fortnightly. Longer articles may be published as part of the coming property web page. The site ‘Can you dig it’ will of course keep going if other gardens and parks decide to join us in writing. Thanks so much to everyone who has contributed and enjoyed Can you dig it, I will always remember the good times!

Luv, Em.

for Stourhead news please visit:


Hedgecutting and pond life

August 10, 2011

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

George in preparation for 2012...

George in preparation for 2012...

Holy mackerel it’s been hot and sticky. As you can see by the photos above the whole team descended on the village last Tuesday. We combined churchyard work with hedge cutting allowing all of us to work in the same area, something that doesn’t happen often in the garden. All the lower areas of the churchyard got cut including the last of the long grass now that most flowers have set seed. There was weeding to be done, which Hilary and Jo and later Penny got stuck into. Mark, Joe and Matt dealt with the mixed hedge next to the old post office, then pruned the Elaeagnus at the entrance to the pub car park. Penny Snowden brought the Kubota mower, our only ride-on that collects grass, so we could cut and collect. Between us Penny Lee, George, Toby and I strimmed and collected grass in the spaces the Kubota can’t fit. We roasted in the humid heat. When the sun was at its fiercest I saw a Penny person emerge through the heat haze like a mirage bearing ewers of iced water from the office. She’s defo on the Christmas card list…

Beautiful blond duckling! (I may be biased)

Beautiful blond duckling! (I may be biased)

On Monday after the usual post weekend garden rounds George and I were on barley straw duties. The recent lake report suggested a slight modification to our straw method; take the straw out of the lake once it’s saturated, allow to dry(ish) then replace in lake. Apparently this speeds up the process of the straw reducing algal growth. Any-hoo George and I laughed so much it was painful, but I must say, for someone who’s never rowed a boat in his life he’s really co-ordinated and a good rower! Two fresh straw sausages have now been deployed at the far end of the lake. We spotted the blond duckling while we were out too, which I got a picture of for Penny Snowden (it’s her new favourite feathered friend).



George deploying sausage by boat (bath tub).

George deploying sausage by boat (bath tub).

As I write we experience some long awaited rain, good news as the wet weather jobs were piling up. Nigel and George are making more straw sausages, including a baby sausage for the dipping pond in the bottom walled garden. Penny and Toby are in the glasshouses as it is Thursday, Pelargonium care day. A plant collection for display has to be very tidy; no unsightly leaves, no pests and flowers must be removed once flowered so they don’t go to seed etc. Penny also waters and feeds the plants on Thursdays, and checks for signs of beneficial insects that feed on aphid.

Next week we hope to strim Apollo bank, and get the grass raked down to the bottom of the hill so it doesn’t make the bank look brown. We have a couple of hedges left to do and we might even get more straw into the lake…

TTFN (Ta-ta for now), as Tigger would say, Em.

When garden teams escape…

August 10, 2011

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Written 28th July 2011: Welcome to Portland House! Slide show above and text below. The whole garden team travelled to Portland House opposite Portland yesterday. Teams from Knigthshays, Hardy’s Cottage and Lytes Cary also piled in for the 8 hour makeover. Portland House was donated to the National Trust with the understanding that it should make money for the charity in some way, be it as a leasehold, short term let or simply sold off. A long-term leasehold is about to come to a close when we plan to let it as luxury holiday accommodation. I was unfortunately not on the trip but Penny and Penny tell me that it was a really hard day’s work labouring and the view was beautiful. Once the gardener and gardens advisor (Alan) have made a planting plan and we’ve got the plants together we may be lucky enough to return to finish the job! We aim to open the house and gardens to the public on changeover days in future.

You will be glad to know that the Picnic and Fireworks night went very well and I’m told that the sun set was particularly beautiful. We have just bought more christmas tree netting to make further barley straw sausages for the lake. I might even make a little one for the dipping pond in the bottom walled garden!

Today most of us are out mowing in the top garden, this is the first cut of the long grass, or meadow areas. All orchids and other wildflowers present have set seed, but the areas either side of the path before shade’s gate contain a bedstraw we’re looking to identify. This hopefully explains why some areas of grass remain uncut.

Thanks, Em.

Wet weather boosts grass growth

July 28, 2011
Ducks resting on barley straw sausage.

Ducks resting on barley straw sausage.

I was so sure I published this last Friday, sorry guys!

The grass has been slow to grow so far this year, which means less frequent mowing but bare path edges. The rain over the weekend and damp conditions this week  sees the grass grow noticeably. We’ve been trying to keep up with mowing, at the same time as continuing the weeding in the landscape after strimming last week. We are also preparing for the Picnic and Fireworks night on Saturday. Penny and Oli are in the bottom walled garden thinning fruit including apples, pears and pruning stone fruit (plums, nectarines and peaches). The busy schedule has postponed other tasks such as adding more barley straw to the lake. Nigel, Martin from the visitor services team and I deployed two straw sausages the other week, but I need a total of 600kg of straw to keep such a large lake from going green. The lake will benefit greatly from the recent rain, both cooling the water and adding oxygen to the surface slowing the rate of algae growth.

When Penny, Toby, Jo and I were out weeding yesterday Penny found a flax flower (Linum perenne) in the landscape. I know flax as a plant with many uses and traditionally grown widely in Sweden. Penny Snowden said northern Ireland was the same when she lived there, flax is used for everything.

Bright blue Linum perenne.

Bright blue Linum perenne. © rbge

The seed can be used unprocessed to enrich food like porridge, bread and muesli, or processed into linseed oil. Some seed is kept and stored for the next crop to be sown. The stems are strong and fibrous and used with hemp to produce linoleum (lino) or material (linen). And I’ve just remembered we used to feed horses some pre-soaked linseeds for extra fibre back in Sweden.

Whilst we wait for the rain to clear there is much indoor activity going on. Dormouse boxes are being assembled, chainsaws cleaned and sharpened, cut bamboo is being prepared for use and Penny and I are doing admin. I also have good news about our progress in digital media. Sarah has been collecting material, including photos and co-ordinates of 90 plants around the garden that will be used in an iPhone app. More info to come!

And I fogot to mention that the iron bridge is going to be repaired soon;  pedestrians can pass as usual. The garden team are going to help in the garden at Portland House next Wednesday. And the finishing touches have been made to the middle walled garden which is now open for perusal. I’m doing a slide show of path work next week.

Thanks folks, Em.

All out mowing!

July 15, 2011
Tulip tree in June 2007. © MF

Tulip tree in June 2007. © MF

We finally finished working on the walled garden paths on Monday. The work has involved putting in steps up the slope to the top walled garden, new wooden edging and a brand new path surface. I can’t tell you how relieved Matt is to get out of there, it was quite stressful at times! It is now done, and it looks great – I’ll take pictures as soon as I locate the camera…

One of the limiting factors was the imminent mowing of the landscape necessary before the fireworks night on the 23rd. Previous years we used to cut every blade of grass this side of the Watford gap in the two weeks running up to the fete. And let me tell you it hurt. Try spending 8 hours a day four days a week strimming banks in July. Plus dodging swarms of horse flies and still smiling at the public. Thankfully these days we have Penny Snowden who knows that killing yourself mowing is pointless and destructive. So, this year we have mowed, strimmed and collected the grass from the north side of the lake easily due to our change in grassland  management. Happy days! Penny and I also found some yellow rattle at the Pinetum on Monday, and a suspected pyramid orchid at lily lake. Yellow rattle is a hemiparasitic plant that both uses nutrients from other grasses and produces its own carbohydrates through photosynthesis. If you ever have time, the study of parasitic plants is truly fascinating. I digress…

Tulip tree in 2009. © MF

Tulip tree in 2009. © MF

We’re having a touch of bother growing the dahlias round the fountain. We’re collecting beer and spent coffee grounds from the ice-cream parlour for our slug control, but none of the plants are bulking out. We’re removing flower buds and pinching shoots to encourage bushiness. We’ve been watering them when necessary but they still look pathetic. Any ideas? Perhaps other more permanent plants need to accompany bedding plants for support? Maybe the soil really is rubbish? Time will hopefully tell.

Trying to work around the boys in the middle walled garden has been hilarious. Toby and I have been busy looking after everything for Penny whilst she’s been away – much helped by Penny’s volunteers! We’ve been selling beetroot, potatoes (early second Anya), artichokes, lettuce and even sweet peas to decorate the restaurant! We’ve planted out squashes, more dwarf french beans, lettuce and of course the brassicas under enviromesh. All whilst avoiding a digger, hydraulic wheelbarrows, people and many power tools. I think we did quite well, and Penny is still talking to us which is good news indeed. Toby’s plot in the middle walled garden is looking particularly good by the way…

In other news Martin emailed me a succession of images of a tulip tree we planted together.

Tulip tree 2011. © MF

Tulip tree 2011. © MF

I’m pleased to introduce you to the young tree planted on the 4th April 2006 on oak patch that will carry on Stourhead’s great heritage of awesome tulip trees long past our mortal lives.

Thanks, Em

Let’s talk Geology

July 13, 2011

Again please excuse me, this post is a week late but still interesting reading…

Welcome to another installation of the gardeners’ views at Stourhead. We’re pleased you could make it! The sunny weather is putting smiles back on our faces, although Matt and George are being slow roasted in the walled garden working on the paths. Toby and Penny are trying the new-fangled brassica protection: enviromesh, designed to keep even the most persistent pest, cabbage white butterfly, away from the crops. The enviromesh is a tightly woven material that you put over hoops covering the crops, Penny will report back I’m sure! Mark and Joe had a nasty start to the day yesterday when they had planned to start tree work on a massive beech next to the Pantheon. The tree is about 100 yrs old, no age for a beech, but they grow so quickly here that they become susceptible to a number of ailments. My guess is that beech bark aphid first arrived many years ago, not hazardous in itself but it killed the outer bark which allowed secondary infections a foothold. Honey fungus has colonised the base of the tree and a much more aggressive fungi – Ustulina – is now advanced. If the tree fails the trunk will snap low down, and could fall either on the Pantheon, iron bridge or over the circuit path. None of which are acceptable outcomes. So, I’ve been watching the tree for the last four years (not literally…) and the progress of decay is such that I had no other choice but to apply for its removal and call the council tree officer. Back to the present, the boys got to the tree yesterday and noticed a wasp nest at the base of the tree! All plans went up in the air and the nest had to be treated before work could commence… Luckily there’s always a tomorrow, and the work has to be done so they went back out today to start dismantling the tree. Pictures hopefully to follow…

Please may I introduce to you my good friend Bruce the Geologist, who has very kindly compiled the following for your reading pleasure (a dictionary may be handy ;-)):

“Stourhead has a simple layer-cake geology under the grass, trees and shrubs. There are three layers, the topmost being the Chalk of White Sheet Down and Zeals Knoll, the bottom one is the Gault Clay which underlies the Lake and Turner’s Paddock. The most scenic layer has to be the Greensand in the middle, which forms the plateau in front of the House and the slopes above the lake. Close to the top of the Greensand are layers of Chert, a hard rock which resists erosion, and hence forms the flat top surface and the steep drop-off. The plateau inclines gently towards Mere because the rocks hereabouts dip (slope) at about a degree and a half in that direction. At various points along the scarp edge the Chert has been quarried, leaving distinct pits, these are at about the same elevation around the lake. The largest quarry left the flat terrace on which the Temple of Apollo was built: quarrying extended further to both sides with a gently sloping access track leading down towards Clock Arch. Along this track is the one place that Chert can be seen in-situ.  The stone was used to build Rock Arch and some of the Grotto, which also includes cave tufa from the Mendips, and a lost and lonely ammonite.

Chert is a reasonably-common rock type, though its close relative Flint is better known and its origins are better understood. Chert is a hard but brittle rock made of almost-pure silica, it breaks readily in any direction to give smooth curves and sharp edges. There are some large blocks used in the Rock Arch, though the inner structure is of brick, the largest perhaps at ground level by the path at the lakeside. When freshly quarried it may have glistened darkly in the sunlight, perhaps adding to the structure’s other-worldly quality.

The Greensand really is green below the surface, being coloured by the mineral Glauconite. It weathers to a dark brown fine sandy soil which is both moisture retentive and yet well-drained, a phrase loved by RHS examiners. It’s on the acid side of neutral, so Rhododendrons do well, and I believe the iron content derived from the glauconite is appreciated by Hydrangeas. Beneath the Greensand is the Gault Clay: any rain percolating down through the one is stopped by the other, so in general it flows through the sand down the dip slope just above the clay. Thus there are springs at the Grotto and along that side of the lake. Those who know where to look can see the brick tunnels, built to collect the seeping spring water for the Grotto pools. With a few feet of Gault above lake level thereabouts, springs flow down to the lake and the ground can be wet and claggy. I expect the Swamp Cypress appreciates this. It’s the presence of the Gault Clay that made creating the lake and other pools possible, for it provides a waterproof base and probably was dug to build the cores for  the dams.

There are more than rocks for me to point at. Liriodendron (Tulip Tree) and Magnolia both have a type of flower that dates back to the Cretaceous, when huge dinosaurs may have browsed on such trees. There were no bees then, so the flowers were simple open cups to attract beetles, much less-able fliers. Davidia (Dove Tree) shows an even simpler flower type, the ‘petals’, strictly bracts, look like white-coloured leaves, showing a stage in the development of flowers.  Older in origin than all these is the Ginkgo, an amazing survivor, with ancestral types in the Jurassic. It disappeared from Europe about two million years ago. The fruits fall to the ground and subsequently begin to smell like rotting flesh. I’ve read the suggestion that originally this attracted small scavenging dinosaurs (the equivalent, perhaps, of hyenas) that swallowed the fruit and thereby transported the seed.

Now can someone please direct me towards a Wollemi Pine?”

Hope you liked it, thanks Bruce. That’s all folks, Em.

Bustling activity in the Walled Garden

June 22, 2011
Toby demonstrating a coat from the new ragne of clothing.

Toby demonstrating a coat from the new ragne of clothing.

Rain, rain and more rain, yet the paths remain intact! Thank goodness for the efforts of Mark with the tractor bucket dragging all the gravel back into place last Friday. I should stop praising the paths now as I’ll jinx them – we may have more rain to come this week. Poor Joe got soaked on Monday when he was removing deadwood from the red oak northeast of the house. The problem with tree work is that you have to finish the job regardless of the weather, and waterproofs on the outside of chainsaw trousers are not an option. Bless. We managed to get the village, house, churchyard and walled garden grass mown yesterday though, as promised it was the nicest day of a soggy week. Also, the first batch of our new clothing arrived yesterday! The National Trust underwent a refreshment of its image recently, a process which included contemporary clothing for staff. We’re now in smart black with orange text, and other dirt-proof colours. Very nice indeed!

The lads, Joe, Mark and Alan are pruning the hornbeam over the entrance to the car park this morning. The other lads, George, Matt and Toby are in the middle walled garden doing path work. Yesterday we were all in there digging back beds and lifting turf ready for the new board edging. George had to move his row of mange tout yesterday so the digger doesn’t eat them! Matt says they’re removing the deeper layers of gravel today, I think he’s secretly building a moat… We’ve found no historic underground structures so far, but then we’re digging in areas already dug before.

Martin smiling in spite of the rain?

Martin smiling in spite of the rain?

Martin spent time in the top garden with an edging machine last week. We’ve always cut lawn edges by hand at Stourhead, starting with the most obvious areas like in front of the house. More formal beds have been created near the house so inevitably we run out of time and lower priority areas remain uncut. If we can make edging quicker, we can keep all the edges neat. Hence trialling an edging machine in the top garden. I’ll try to catch Martin in action so you can see what the machine does.

Toby planted out more veg in his plot last week. Lettuce, a courgette plant, leeks dwarf french beans and more. Penny has been planting out lettuce, the chard is growing, the borage is ready for harvest or digging in and many of the artichokes are ready to pick. The broad beans are ready in stages and sold in the Farm Shop or served up in the restaurant. Our crop of asparagus was particularly good this year which we’re putting down to a number of reasons. Firstly, the plants have been in their current position for four years, which is considered the minimum time of establishment for asparagus plants before you start harvesting. Secondly, the position of the bed is perfect, gently sloping and south facing on stony soil. Thirdly, we added plenty of compost from Rocky last autumn, beneficial according to Penny as it is dry and rich in woody material. Asparagus spears grew early this year and so we subsequently stopped cropping earlier to avoid removing too much energy from the plants.

George emptying scrapings from the paths in the walled garden.

George emptying scrapings from the paths in the walled garden.

Ali, who works on the plant database, is on holiday so I’m putting on my database hat and will collect data from my colleagues so we don’t fall behind. Luckily planting and clearance work has halted and shouldn’t restart until autumn, so I’ve got a while to catch up with labelling whilst the collection remains unchanged.

Try to stay dry, Em.