June 08 2017
About ten years or so ago, I was fortunate enough to meet somebody called Joe Verrecchia. He is a garden designer and consultant who has worked with me on the grounds of our studio, The White Hart. When I look back at old photographs, I can easily recall standing there, on this unloved tarmac car park, and feeling both a mixture of despair at what a state it was in, but also utter excitement about all of the ideas that were buzzing away in my mind. Today, that once uninspiring space is something that both myself and Joe care deeply about, and find rather special.
My gardening project started with what now feels like such seedlings of ideas. Upon consideration though, I suppose they were precisely that. I remember those initial sketches I did for Joe, showing how I wanted a touch of structural planting here and pleached trees there, with the edges softened by herbaceous borders. Joe called it ‘the bones’ of our garden vision. I had a pretty cottage-style garden in mind – something quintessentially British – but with a dose of topiary formality.
We began with our small orchard. We have selected apples, pears, plums and greengages of the heritage cultivars varieties because they are the ones that have stood the test of time and are known for their delicious crunch. Our apple trees are Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley Seedling, the latter being just perfect for apple crumbles in winter. My favourite pear tree is our Doyenne de Comice, and our Victoria Plum trees are ideal for jamming season! Joe planted the orchard over two years ago and this year, the trees should bear fruit for the very-first time.
The other great consequence of an orchard is that one is traditionally planted in a wildflower meadow, which is a feature in its own right. I find them to be so wonderfully natural and serene. Joe has performed the most incredible task. He worked with suppliers that specialise in seed mixtures for the local environment, creating a blend that is tailored to the Cold Ashton soil. In fact, they trialled it in the St Catharine’s valley just around the corner and it bloomed so beautifully. Joe made sure it strongly featured perennial seeds so that our flowers return year after year. To avoid flowerless spells, we have also planted an annual seed mix to provide us with almost-instant floral impact. My favourites are the meadow buttercups, common sorrel and oxeye daisies.
Growing alongside The White Hart fruits is our vegetable garden. There are four beds and Joe runs a seasonal crop rotation. He does this for quite functional reasons. We have different groups of vegetables, such as legumes (we grow sugar snap peas and French beans), roots (beetroot, carrots and parsnips), alliums (shallots, garlic and spring onions) and brassicas (purple sprouting broccoli, cavolo nero and kale) and they each put back different things into the soil as they grow. By rotating them, we can be sure our soil never becomes impoverished.
Aesthetics too are a valuable consideration, so we have introduced artichokes more recently because I think their silvery, architectural foliage is divine. Next to them we plant peas and beans so there is some variation in height; Joe’s team grow them on coppiced hazel as opposed to plastic or bamboo. There have been many occasions where we come out of meetings and Joe will have gathered the most incredible harvest for us to root through and take home for supper.
On the subject of all things green and wonderful, I suggested only recently that we begin to grow our own mint, because my team adore fresh mint teas. I thought how lovely it would be for them to step outside and pick the leaves that we have cared for ourselves. Joe ventured on a bit of a herb mission, during which he found Jekka’s Herb Farm. It is a local establishment and now I am so happy to say they have become part of our foraging story.
My outdoor spaces matter as greatly to me as my indoors. They have a such a close relationship, complementing and mirroring one another. I am so far from being a natural gardener. I appreciate their beauty, their depth of design, and their ability to lift one’s mood, but planting is not something that comes naturally to me. I have had many-a battle with snails and slugs spoiling a crop, over-watering (and the reverse), and failings at taking something from seed to sprout, but when you get it right, the feeling is such a happy one. For me, gardens are one of the most complex areas of design, but one of the most rewarding.