Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sleeping Beauty's Rock Garden

I promised to tell you the story of the lost and found rock garden! Back when I worked at the University of Nottingham, there was a hillock with a sandstone cliff, topped by a ruined summerhouse - all sounds quite romantic. But this was neglect of the worst sort, a thick woodland of sycamore, swagged with heavy ivy. I knew there was the vestiges of an old rock garden under a thick blanket of leafmould but with a limited budget, there was never money available and quite frankly, I didn't really know what to do with it.

Amongst the ivy and sycamore you can just glimpse the summer house roof
Derelict but basically intact - one venerable academic could remember marking exams within its leafy seclusion many years ago!
The bones of the rock garden show through the undisturbed leafmould

One year, I finally applied for a grant to refurbish the woodland, with the general thought that I'd reduce the sycamore and add some native tree species. Volunteers from the Friends of University Park wanted to get involved and started one Saturday, slowly clearing the undergrowth. In many places there was between 30-60cm (1-2ft) of dense leafmould, an accumulation of many years! Underneath, we found beautiful sandstone paths, steps and rocky outcrops. The volunteers were ecstatic - their own Heligan!

Volunteers at work

It was quite exciting shoveling away the leafmould and seeing where the paths and steps went

The grant was approved and spent on tree surgeons, who arrived with buzzing chainsaws and a roaring woodchipper that rapidly cleared the sycamore growth of many years, revealing a bare hillside and the bones of an enormous rock garden. Initially it looked a huge raw wound on the landscape and generated lots of comment, not all complimentary! At that point the University 'authorities' demanded an explanation for my arboricultural vandalism and a management plan for the area.

By then we had realised, with somewhat mixed feelings that simply planting as a native woodland would not work and that the rock garden we had exposed needed to be restored in some way. The Friends enthusiasm escalated and together with student volunteers, they continued to methodically clear the paths and expose the rocky steps and features. My staff, seeing an enormous maintenance demand  in the future were, at that stage, less enthusiastic! (another one of Cookey's hare-brained schemes!)

The trees come down and the hillside is revealed
The rock garden can be clearly seen

Another grant from the University Development Office enabled us to go ahead and restore the beautiful little summer house with its curved roof and timber shingles.  The summer house must originally have had doors and windows but we made the decision to restore it just as an open shelter and without seats. Students have been known to have parties and 'other activities' in secluded areas and this we did not want to encourage! Since I left, the Friends have installed a seat in the summer house and I have to admit it's a lovely vantage point to sit and gaze!


The summer house is restored


A year passes while we spray off the weeds and get the soil clean before planting

We planted up the rock garden in stages over two winters. To be correct, this should have been planted with thousands of small alpine plants, requiring hours of skilled maintenance which was not possible. Instead we chose compact shrubs and low growing herbaceous perennials which would thrive with low maintenance.  Enriching the soil was not necessary as all the planting pockets already had a generous supplement of leafmould. Small bulbs were added for spring colour.

Planting complete but immature - still lots of interest

The planting is now well established

Colourful shrubs and herbaceous perennials


Spring colour round the summer house


Heathers for winter colour and groundcover
The remains of the sycamore stumps are now decaying gracefully into the planting
During all this activity, we also tried to research the garden's history. The rock garden was part of the grounds of Lenton Firs, one of the old Victorian estates that eventually went to make up the modern campus. The house was originally owned by the Shipstone family, local Nottingham brewers. One would expect that a rock garden extending to nearly an acre would have been quite a feature in its prime and would have been documented or photographed many times. However despite extensive searches in the University and local archives, back issues of periodicals such as Country Life and other garden history sources, we found nothing.

The nearby Lenton Firs as it is today
An article in the local paper generated just one response from an elderly gentleman who remembered the garden from his childhood when his grandfather  worked there as a gardener. He recalled it being called the Chinese Garden and was still in good condition in the 1930's. He had been allowed to play there as long as he behaved! Strangely, although there is a natural sandstone cliff as part of the garden, the rockworks and paths are made from an imported, rather than local sandstone. We conclude it was constructed somewhere around the late 19C or early 20C and probably became derelict in the 2nd World War. Deep in the woods behind the rock garden is a headless statue of a lady - I wonder what she could tell us of the history of the garden!

Worthless and incomplete but she was once very graceful!


Over the years, the rock garden has settled down to be quite a feature within the University landscape. The staff saw its potential and care for it with great pride. One feature remained derelict, the small cascade that ran through the garden to a pool at the edge. This structure was curious, being made of some composition, possibly Pulhamite. This was a unique cement like mixture that was manufactured and used by James Pulham and Sons who created  numerous garden features and buildings in the late 19C and early 20C. Sadly this could not be verified. Just before my retirement five years ago I approached the Director of Estates, requesting cash to restore this as my parting shot and he agreed, so finally the pool was sealed, a pump installed and the cascade flows again after being silent for probably 70 years.

Remains of the original plumbing tucked inside a false rock shell, the inside of which you can see.


The restored pool

The cascade runs once again

Not exactly the Lost Gardens of Heligan but nevertheless a restoration project I was proud to be involved with.   It is good to see that the interest continues and that the Friends have cleared a further area of the old rock garden for replanting. As for me, although I no longer have to worry about budgets, maintenance, weeds and the workers,  I would still love to know who built this ambitious garden and when?

Garden restoration continues spring 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Reluctant Spring


After Saturday's very welcome burst of sunshine, I thought I'd better make a brief exploration and see what spring flowers were braving our reluctant and very late spring. So I set off for the University campus, armed with my camera. Whilst I worked there, I used to think of it as 'my big garden' and inevitably I planted it with species that I liked. Some were planted nearly twenty years ago, so trees are getting some maturity but shrub plantings are starting to look past their prime. Over the years I was there, I also planted probably twenty big sacks of narcissus each year, that works out at around 2.5 million bulbs! I hasten to add that I didn't plant them all personally but had a team of very good staff that did the hard work - I was confined to the office! At the end of a long cold winter like this, the sheets of yellow and white flowers add vital colour and interest.

'Spellbinder'

'February Gold' still flowering!
Not sure of this one but its lovely!


'Ice Follies' - one of my favourite narcissus
The following pictures show what's in bloom and a few other comments along the way! It's very much a pictorial diary of familiar plants but to so many of us, it's ordinary plants that fill our gardens, perform well and give so much pleasure. Take the familiar Forsythia - it's so common that people could be forgiven for thinking that it's a native but of course it's not, originating from Eastern Asia. The two main species from which the modern hybrids were raised are the rambling F. suspensa which was introduced in 1833 and the later flowering F. viridissima, which was brought back from China by Robert Fortune in 1844. Can you imagine the novelty value of these brilliant, vivid yellow flowered shrubs when the nursery trade first offered them to Victorian gardeners?

Forsythia 'Lynwood' - what a great cultivar - found in a cottage garden in Northern Ireland in 1935
Euphorbia characias or similar

Fritillaria imperialis 'Lutea' - planted in my time but the clumps are getting a bit thin now
The rather hideous hotel that has ruined the vista at the end of the Millennium Garden
According to my planting records this was planted as Camellia 'Anticipation' but I'm not sure that it is.

Helleborus orientalis

And the great black seedling that I discovered last year and is still surviving!

Daphne mezereum - don't eat the berries!


Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' according to my records

Magnolia stellata - not planted by me but establishing nicely

All of the above were in or around the Millennium Garden. Crossing the road, I gritted my teeth as I walked past the hideous  extension that has been added to Highfields House. I cannot perceive how planning permission was granted for this, bearing in mind Highfields House is Grade II listed and was the original home of Jesse Boot until he donated the land to the University in the 1920's. 

This is the new extension and below is the other side, the original house - how could they!
Highfields House - built in 1800 for Joseph Lowe
Moving on and with my eyes on plants rather than buildings, I discovered a little more colour. Ceanothus 'Trewithen Blue' was bravely trying to flower and Grevillea 'Canberra Gem' had a few sprigs of colour but neither with enough to photograph.

Magnolia soulangeana just waiting to burst into flower

Euphorbia robbiae - a toughie which I rather like

Prunus x yedoensis - growing very slowly - planted probably seven or eight years ago, although the soil was awful - that dreadful stuff that's sold by recycling  businesses and seems to be mainly pulverised concrete!

Kerria japonica 'Flore Plena' - almost there!

Can't take the credit for these but aren't they pretty
Muscari photographed in a very odd spot - can't think why they were planted

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - looks much better when in bud with lovely red colouring

Chaenomeles - list says 'Pink Lady' but I'm not sure this is right - could it be?
Cherry glade near the School of Architecture

Finally I stopped by the rock garden which was sporting a few more patches of colour. I realise that most of you readers will not know the sleeping beauty story of the rock garden, so  I'll tell you the full saga next time! 

Lenton Firs rock garden

Erythronium 'Pagoda'

Bergenia - rather a drab one - is it dirty white or washed out pink?

Anemone blanda 'White Splendour'

Caltha palustris 'Flore Plena' the double form of our native kingcup

Euphorbia mysinites

Pity these heathers were mixed when planting - they look much better in single colour drifts

Vinca minor 'Atropurpurea.
There were undoubtedly more species in flower but as University Park extends to over 300 acres, there wasn't time or energy to check it all. If any of you readers are local to Nottingham, remember the whole site is open to the public so you can visit and check it out for yourselves. Ask at the gatehouse for a Gardens Guide - it's well written and yes,  I wrote it!