Moving forward

28 October 2016

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OF LATE, there has been much coverage of the garden, in Dublin, of the plantswoman and writer Helen Dillon. Helen and her husband, Val, have spent most of their married life in the same Georgian house, but it is time to downsize.

Helen describes her garden as a picture that she has been playing with for the past 44 years; and that picture is well chronicled. The most dramatic change was the replacement of the central block of lawn with paving surrounding a rectangular pond. Even without such an engineered adjustment, gardens evolve, and that is a source of pleasure as well as loss. They are a living lesson in impermanence. When a tree is toppled in a storm, or a shrub succumbs to disease, the gardener must grieve and move on.

This fluidity poses a challenge when restoring a historic garden. Next week, I start a new job as head gardener of the walled garden at Croxteth Hall, Liverpool, with a remit to restore it to its Victorian heyday.

The estate was home to the Earls of Sefton. The 7th Earl died in 1972 without an heir, and bequeathed it to the people of Merseyside. The surviving walled garden dates from about 1850, and in the second half of the 19th century the head gardener was assisted by about 30 trained and apprentice gardeners.

The Gardeners’ Chronicle of 1891 states that in “the kitchen garden department (ably managed by Mr Barham) there are 24 houses, including 6 vineries, a pine stove, pine pit, melon house, cucumber house, cherry and plum houses, 2 stoves and several houses filled with flowers”.

The walled garden’s purpose would have been mainly productive, but records suggest that its proximity to the Hall also demanded a strong ornamental element, akin to a French kitchen garden. It is easy to imagine the successive earls’ families and guests enjoying an evening promenade, but the focus of their admiration will have shifted considerably as horticultural fashions changed.

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The English Flower Garden, by William Robinson, was published in 1883, and, in chapter two, Robinson dismisses high-maintenance bedding-plants in favour of “flowers hardy in our clime”. The new informality he prescribed led to the classic herbaceous border, essential to Edwardian gardens, and the concept of the seemingly contradictory “wild garden”.

At Croxteth, it is futile to attempt to identify one point in time to return to. The walled garden can never be a time capsule. It has many stakeholders with different priorities, and it has to serve the local community, and Myerscough College, which is partly based there.

For all my garden-history homework, the walled garden at Croxteth, while rooted in the Victorian city of Liverpool, has a life of its own, with all the uncertainties that brings. The best we can do is animate the story of its past with plants that supplement the many important survivors with a wealth of new sap.

If you live in the north-west, and would like to volunteer in the walled garden at Croxteth Hall, please tweet @hortijamie.

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