Yesterday, as it was raining at home, I went out for the day to Gloucestershire, where the weather was much better - well, to start with, at least.
I wanted to go and visit Kiftsgate Court Gardens, having read about their Water Garden: during August they don't open until 2pm so I went to nearby Hidcote first, to make a day of it.
Well, I'd been to Hidcote a couple of years ago, but I have to say that this time it was a real disappointment.
You know how often you read about gardens being very "tired" in August? I hadn't experienced that myself, as the gardens in which I work just keep on going throughout the season. However, I have to say that now I have seen this phenomenon for myself.
Hidcote was Tired.
Everything was dusty-looking and scraggy: there was a lot of evidence of dead-heading with not much second flush to be seen: there was a lot of bare soil and quite a lot of weeds, which I fully allow in private gardens, but don't expect to see in National Trust properties where they have large paid teams of professional gardeners, and vast numbers of volunteers.
Worse, they were cutting the hedges, so whole areas of the garden were fenced off, and we were subjected to the never-ending whine and clatter of power tools.
Why can't they do that after hours? It's a bit much for visitors, who have travelled a substantial distance to see the famous White Garden, to find bits of plastic tape tied across the entrance. Not to mention the teeth-gritting annoyance of the constant noise. There was no getting away from it, as they were also power-cutting the yews in the Kitchen Garden section. Oh, and did I mention the steamroller and other heavy equipment which were re-surfacing the tennis court?
Yes, I appreciate that work of this kind has to be done, but hedge-trimming could be done after hours, and heavy construction could, you would have thought, be done much earlier in the day. Construction workers generally start at 8am or earlier, and for something as prestigious as a NT property, you'd think they'd insist that the heavy work was done over a couple of early mornings.
Strangest of all was to see a worker using electric hedgetrimmers - with a power cable, an extension lead, a wheelbarrow etc all trailed across the paths - to trim an Irish Yew - you know, the upright ones, Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata', the ones that are traditionally not ever trimmed, as they have a nice neat upright habit and don't need it. But this one was getting the fine tooth-comb treatment, with foliage being taken off in microscopic amounts. Over and over the same area she went, clatter clatter clatter with the hedgetrimmer, and a tiny rain of tiny bits of yew floated down around her feet. Why? Why? It was only about 12' tall, not exactly out-growing it's location, and although yes, the result was un-naturally neat, it was un-natural!
The only good thing about it was finding one elderly gardener finishing off some box hedges with proper shears. I stopped for a chat, and he told me that when he first started there, 37 years earlier, it was all done with hand-tools. We had a lovely chat about cutting box hedges by eye, rather than by using strings or wooden frames: he told me that the only hedges for which they used any sort of formal measure were the beech hedges in the Long Walk.
This, we agreed (we were getting on like a house on fire by this time) was because with a long hedge, it's easy to lose your line and end up with bulges, which then get worse every year. So they would station one chap with a whistle at the end, and he would give directions to keep them in a straight line as they cut it. As this chap was a former sailor, I wondered if he shouted "Starboard a bit!" or "Put your helm to Port!" . We laughed.
Otherwise, all hedges are done "by eye" which, we agreed, gave a more natural line.
Personally, I find that power tools are not particularly quicker than hand shears, and there is always the horrifying moment when your wrist slips and an unexpected large hole appears. I suppose the exception has to be if you are doing very long sweeps of tall, dead plain hedging. Which I avoid.
Anyway, the noise quite took the edge off my enjoyment, and I ended up leaving Hidcote early, and sitting outside Kiftsgate, waiting for it to open. I met a delightful elderly couple who were doing the same, and we had a very nice chat while we were waiting.
Kiftsgate - ah, that was nice, that was! I'd never been there before, and it was quite lovely. The entry ticket had a map on the back, which was economical and simple: they also have the usual lavishly illustrated book, but I don't usually bother with those, as you can't read them whilst walking round the garden. You really need to have read them before arriving. I suppose the idea is that you take them home and study them later, but then what if you see something in the book that you missed? Oh, of course, you have to go back, silly me.
If you've never been there, I do recommend it, but be warned, there are some staggeringly steep steps!
I think that this photo - not one of mine - was taken from part-way down the terraces.
Talking of terraces, I'm always interested to see how other people tackle the difficult problem of steep slopes.
The only real answer is terracing, and it's always good to see how other people have managed it. Mechanically, the best, cheapest and simplest way is to use planks going across the slope as the soil retainers, with posts of some kind to pin them in place.
This is not a bad idea, as it would delay the time it takes for the wood to start rotting.
This appears to be laid out like steps, but has planting on each step, which seems a bit contrary, unless you never intend to go up and down them.
This was to be used for growing vegetables, and was built quite roughly to see if it would work.
The idea was that taller plants would be grown on the top levels, with shorter ones below, so that they would not shade each other.
The owner quickly found that once the planting grew, it wasn't possible to climb up on it for weeding etc, so he put a planking "lid" on one of the terraces, for access, and was planning to change it's position each year as part of a rotation system.
The main drawback with this style of terracing is that you can only do straight lines...
While looking for illustrations of this point, I found this site: Terraforce, a company who make hollow core (how can anything other than the core be hollow, I wonder?) terracing blocks.
The big plus point is that it can make curves, which are sadly lacking in the usual plank-and-pin arrangements.
What do you think of this?
My first thought was "ugh" and it took me a while to work out why - it's the open tops, they look so much like breeze-blocks. Not pretty! And yet, they provide a whole row of individual planting cells, and would be perfect for aubretia or any of the "softening" tumbling planting.
And they make wonderful curves possible! Perhaps if they had arranged a photo that had the tops of the cells filled with tumbling planting, I might have liked it more.
Where was I going with this? Oh yes, the Kiftsgate terracing.
They went in for massively chunky terracing, using angle iron and what appeared to be whole tree trunks cut in half.
Most of them were set with the flat side outwards, against the pinning, which made them look like planks. But one or two were the other way round, with the curved, bark side of the trunk against the pinning, and that was a great deal more attractive, not least because it made the angle irons much less visible. Sorry, I didn't think to take a photo of it.
On my way out, I stopped to buy a plant - I know, I just can't resist - and fell into conversation with the lady taking the money, who turned out to be the owner. I asked her about the terracing, and she said that she wished they had set it all with the bark side out. "It was a mistake" she said, but after 15 years they had learned to accept it. 15 years! It looked so fresh, I had assumed that it had been recently updated: apparently not.
Back to the beginning of my visit - I'd wanted to see their Water Garden, and it was well worth the trip - you know how often you see artful photos of lovely gardens, but when you get there, you realise that they must have set up special lighting and used complicated cameras to get just that lovely effect, and it's all a bit disappointing?
Not in this case.
And it looks exactly like this!
It's situated in the old tennis court, way down at the far end of the garden, surrounded by yew hedges and accessed through a sort of three-sided barn, or rural bus stop, which makes it fully enclosed and very private in feel.
It's wonderfully minimalistic, not to everyone's taste, but is so clean and fresh-looking that it is quite irresistible.
The central lawn is accessed by large stepping slabs - I did wonder if any of them would tilt and tip me into the water, but luckily they didn't - and the entire colour scheme is just the black of the water, the white slabs, and the green of the grass.
I was really impressed by the novel idea of making the water black: the shape of the pool makes you think that it's a swimming pool, so you expect it to be bright blue. But instead it is lined in black, and the effect is wonderful. OK, I admit it, I did wonder if they had coloured the water, and I also wondered how deep it was, as it was quite impossible to see into it. It could have been two inches, or bottomless. So I knelt down and dipped my hand in, and I can tell you that I got as far as the elbow before chickening out. And the water was, indeed, perfectly clear, not tinted!
About ten minutes after I arrived, the water feature suddenly sprang to life - which made me look around guiltily in case I'd been seen dipping my arm into the water.
And this was lovely again - the sculptures each had their own trickle of water, and they swayed and bobbed gently as the water started to flow.
So there you go, Kiftsgate goes right up there with Cerney House as being top of my list for gardens to visit in the Cotswolds area, so far.