I have noticed that even those that don’t show the slightest interest in things horticultural love exploring walled gardens, especially if they are overgrown and forgotten. Perhaps it stirs memories of the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911 in which she shows that when something unloved is cherished and cared for it can become beautiful and healthy, be it a plant or the human spirit.
Photo Credit: AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University
I have been fortunate over the years in caring for a number of walled gardens in different stages of development yet, regardless of their state, there is something magical in placing the key in the lock and pushing open the door – as nasty, little Mary Lennox discovered in the novel. As she returned the garden to its former glory so, she too, grew into a loving and loveable child.
Perhaps even more so than the plants and trees within, the beauty of a walled garden comes from the walls themselves. The brickwork over time has mellowed and seems to release the warmth of a hundred or more summers, even on the greyest of days. Search the walls and they reveal secrets – a date scratched into a stone, old lead labels revealing the varieties of long-disappeared fruit trees or, occasionally, the name of a much-loved pet buried at its feet.
The walls in this deserted garden date back to the late 17th/early 18th centuries
Recorded for posterity: the trees may have disappeared but the record of the varieties remain
One of the most rewarding to explore yet emptiest of walled gardens has to be that of Dunmore Park. The house no longer stands but the garden walls remain crowned by that most eccentric of British garden room follies, the Pineapple. Here the walls are hollow, fires were lit at its feet and the walls warmed to promote early growth. Sliding stone blocks could be opened to release the smoke which, filling the garden at night helped to keep frosts at bay. Clever, those early gardeners.
Walled gardens when not open to visitors are more often a place of silence, the only sound to accompany the gardener is that of birdsong and the hum of insects. It can be a place where your mind can be free from the everyday cares of the outside world. It can also be a place where your design ideas can run riot either in your head or, if lucky enough, in reality. The images below show before and after photos of a border I created many years ago, the idea for the colour palette coming from an Imari plate belonging to the owner of the garden. The border is living proof of an imagination run riot!