Englefield: What it takes to maintain a 400-year-old garden

PUBLISHED: 13:45 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 13:45 25 May 2018

As the seasons change the gardens surrounding Englefield House provide a perfect setting

As the seasons change the gardens surrounding Englefield House provide a perfect setting


Sue Broughton is looking forward to her second spring as the Head Gardener at Englefield Gardens, which are open to visitors every Monday and are available for weddings and corporate events. She tells Fran McElhone what it takes to maintain the 400-year-old garden

Green carpeted corridors weave under a canopy of trees, their fingertips interlinking overhead. Splashes of colour suggest spring is around the corner.

Elegance is the defining trait of Englefield Gardens, which has its roots in the early 1600s, but there is also a sense of intrigue. It’s the sort of garden that likes to play the odd trick on you; you can be wandering one way, apparently aware of your destination, but then end up with a surprise when you arrive somewhere else instead. A game of hide and seek would be unsurpassed anywhere else.

First and foremost a family garden for Richard and Zoe Benyon who live in Englefield House, an Elizabethan country manor, the origins of the garden as it appears today were created in the 1860s, with the woodland garden developed in 1936 from a forest. At the same time, a stream was constructed and the area planted by landscape gardeners, Wallace & Barr of Tunbridge Wells.

The garden, which has two tiers, connected by two grandiose stone staircases, has been the passion of many generations of the Benyon family. Today the creative direction is a collaborative effort between the family and Sue Broughton, the Estate’s Head Gardener since 2016. They meet on a weekly basis and work is carried out by Sue and a team of six gardeners.

As we wander along the lower terrace, stone chippings crunching underfoot, the house rising resplendently to our right and the early morning mist effervescing in the deer park to our left, Sue tells me how she used to be a secretary but, yearning for a life outdoors, the 49-year-old studied horticulture during her evenings and weekends to gain qualifications from the City and Guilds Association and The Royal Horticultural Association.

The overarching ideal at Englefield, she says, is to keep the garden “moving forward and interesting”.

“You’ve got to be patient as a gardener though,” she says. “Because you don’t get to see the fruits of your labour often for months, sometimes years.”

In addition to the main garden, the gardening team is responsible for the kitchen garden and the vast lawn skirting the deer park and wildflower meadow, all the way to the gates.

Up ahead of us is an area that bursts into yellow when spring turns to summer, leading on to ‘Joe’s garden’ (different areas of the garden have different names, “mainly so members of the gardening team know where each other are”) which will be teeming with blues and yellows come June.

A view of the deer park from Englefield GardensA view of the deer park from Englefield Gardens

“We like to make changes and take opportunities to introduce new planting schemes to keep things interesting,” Sue continues. “Hopefully people can come and get ideas for their own gardens. But it’s also nice to come and see something you can’t do in your own garden, either because of space or soil type, so we try and do unusual things here too.”

I suggest the garden is like a giant 3D canvas, with the family, Sue and her team the artists. “Yes!” Sue smiles, throwing her hands up. “I love this job because you can be so creative, but it’s a long-term picture.”

Sue enthuses over the planned “hot border”, a bed which she is planning to fill with red hot pokers and other hot-headed flowers. And we marvel at the garden’s “absolutely beautiful” elderly sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant sequoia). “Our objective is to create a natural flow around the garden,” she says. “We want people to walk in and say ‘Wow!’, what’s the rest of the garden going to be like, and be excited about walking round. This is all part of the challenge.”

On a bit further is the gunnera bed, an area full of prehistoric looking plants which Sue’s team has covered over with their own leaves to keep them snug over the winter months. “They’re fantastic,” says Sue. “They grow up to here,” she says, gesticulating to above head height.

The garden also draws a lot of its character from its trees. “It’s like an arboretum really,” says Sue before reeling off a few around us; pine, robinia, catalpa, cryptomeria and beech.

When Sue came on board she instigated a plan to turn the woodland away from one planted with semi-formal beds of shrubs, to one reflecting the woodland’s original character, which includes planting more rhododendrons to add to those planted in the 1930s.

“We’re also going to plant more camellias to create a glade,” she enthuses. “And plant primroses and bluebells as well as more trees. We want to give this area its own distinct identity.

“When I first came to the garden and walked in the woodland, I wanted to name all the old rhododendrons. It seemed an almost impossible task considering there are over one thousand natural species and 25,000 hybrids; but recently I was handed a box containing some of the history of the garden and letters of correspondence from 1935 to 1938 between the Benyon family and Wallace of Wallace & Barr. These list all the rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and magnolias they planted, which gives a fascinating insight into the garden in a former era.”

Sue leads us to where the stream gently makes its way down the length of the lawn. I get a strong but extremely pleasant whiff of a Daphne bholua, “a beautiful plant” native to the Nepalese Himalayas, even though we’re still several metres away. A recent project has been the reshaping of the beds along the stream in order to open it up. “It takes a lot of maintenance,” she explains. “But we want to maintain the stream as an important feature of the garden.”

The gardens form part of the historic landscape at EnglefieldThe gardens form part of the historic landscape at Englefield

By the end of the year, the creation of a children’s garden in a corner of the woodland, with stepping stones and a selection of simple, nature related activities, is planned.

Another task this spring is the labelling of the plants: “It’s really important to me that people can enjoy the garden on different levels, So people can also learn from it if they want to.” The garden is at its best in spring and summer, but it is also charming in autumn as the leaves turn, and even in mid-winter it doesn’t deprive you of colour; winter blooms include aconites, snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen, winter honeysuckle, winter camellias and Daphne set amongst trees boasting colourful skins and berries.

“The gardens are lovely all year round,” says Sue, “but different areas come into their own at different stages; the lower terrace borders for example flower in spring and summer. In spring they are full of tulips, daffodils, and alliums and in summer, roses and perennials and annuals.”

The garden’s spring flowers also include camellia, daffodils, chionodoxa, fritillaria meleagris and magnolias.

“Our programme of work is dictated by the seasons,” she continues. “Autumn is a busy time of year with the fallen leaves to collect; we store these and they make brilliant mulch. We also begin to plant new plants and spring flowering bulbs and cut back perennials.”

“During the winter we do a lot of pruning including the climbing roses, trumpet vine, wisteria and newly planted woodland trees, which is formative pruning to create a good shape for the future of the tree. And the winter is also when we do most of our repair work.

“In spring we begin to prune the flowering shrubs that flower after mid-summer, because these flower on the current season’s growth. Pruning also prevents congestion and encourages younger replacement growth. Spring marks the start of our lawn maintenance programme as well as digging up and dividing perennials such as hosta, phlox and geraniums. In the summer we’re busy hedge cutting, deadheading, weeding, grass cutting and watering, although the watering is limited mainly to those plants newly planted and the annuals in the urns and the pots.”

Also in Sue’s remit is the walled kitchen garden which provides flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs for the family home and events. There are two greenhouses and the walls are lined with fruit trees; including peaches, plums, cherries and pears: “In the future it would be nice to offer guided tours of the kitchen garden, including tips on how to train and maintain the different edible plants you can grow there,” she says.

Sue was keen to take on the challenge that comes with managing such a large garden as well as putting her stamp on a centuries old landscape. Plans are afoot for the cataloguing of all the plants in the garden and Sue’s goal is to develop the garden as a place of horticultural excellence.

“Working at Englefield means I can be involved in the decision-making process and help shape the future of the garden, while maintaining and building upon the achievements of previous generations of gardeners and family members,” she says.

“I would like to keep a record of all the work we do and all our new planting. It was exciting to read the old correspondence when I joined, and I would like to leave a similar legacy for a future gardener to read in decades to come.”


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