Where the wild things are

PUBLISHED: 11:26 16 March 2011 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Waltham Place

Waltham Place

Waltham Place may be a stately manor house, but you won't find any manicured herbaceous borders here, says Naomi Slade

Waltham Place, occupied by a manor house for at least the last thousand years, has a long and distinguished history. Owned at various points by Turold, designer of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the first Windsor dynasty, it has been in the Oppenheimer family since 1910 and is now home to Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer. But while its pedigree is impeccable, this is not your average grand garden.
The Oppenheimers are staunch supporters of organic husbandry in all its facets and this is reflected throughout the 170 acre estate, which consists of garden, farm and woodland. After more than a decade reviving and renewing the garden and planting, in 1999 Strilli Oppenheimer visited Priona Gardens in Holland; impressed by what she saw, her approach changed and she asked owner and designer Henk Gerritsen - contemporary of prairie-planting wunderkind Piet Oudolf - to create a new design at Waltham.
The result is rich but emphatically unmanicured. The garden embraces a naturalistic philosophy and rather than waging war on weeds and clipping the plants into a sulky submission Gerritsen sought to combine his talents with the natural environment to create a lush garden where wildlife, native flora and people can happily co-exist.
The planting is carefree and effusive. Late summer borders tower with ornamental grasses and flowers, carefree, whimsical, even slightly decadent; and although annuals and young plants are given a helping hand until established, weeding is not high on the agenda. Perhaps surprisingly for those of us brought up on an 'English garden' diet of neatly edged lawns and monoculture rose beds, the garden is the better for it.
The long border by the house has grasses such as Miscanthus and Panicum, used for their strong form, and perennials sprinkled almost at random to retain the impression of naturalness. Among these, hedge bindweed is trained up towers and other weeds flourish to their hearts content - the garden is still a garden, but the unplanned and indigenous find a home too.
But all is not horticultural anarchy. The walls provide a strong structure as do mature trees and shrubs. Cloud-pruned yew hedges provide a deep green backdrop to anchor the naturalistic planting in the borders, grass is mown and the plants riot around a subtle yet strong bone structure. Gardening in partnership with nature brings unique surprises and rewards. Not only in terms of visiting wildlife but the plant combinations that spontaneously arise when plants are allowed a certain free rein, if not exactly left to their own devices.
In the centre of the garden, the large, walled kitchen garden is run on biodynamic principles and cardoons, rosemary, rhubarb, soft fruit and salad crops flourish. The greenhouses and coldframes are a productive hub and, while occupied with tomatoes and peppers at this time of year, they maintain a source of fresh salad throughout the winter. Indeed, the tea rooms and farm shop are exclusively supplied by the gardens and organic farm.
The garden at Waltham Place offers a challenge to the visitor; a challenge to address existing preconceptions of what a garden constitutes and how it should be managed. It blurs the boundaries between nature and horticulture and calls upon one to accept 'weeds', native species or unplanned planting, call it what you will, as part of the tableau and the experience. All in all, it is a pleasing intellectual and aesthetic prospect.


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