Creation beyond constraints

Eltham Palace's garden reaches high standards despite limited resources.

Herbaceous border: frequently replanted, it provides a long season of interest. Credit: Gavin McEwan
Herbaceous border: frequently replanted, it provides a long season of interest. Credit: Gavin McEwan

Jane Cordingley's eight years working in the gardens of Eltham Palace in the London Borough of Greenwich - six as its head gardener - have been an object-lesson in re-establishing and maintaining a historic garden with limited means.

"It's a huge job, and I've not had time to relax since I came," she says. "It's been a full-time job and a hobby - it's had to be."

She describes the 8ha site at Eltham as "essentially an Arts and Crafts garden, which would have been stylish in the 1930s, and not necessarily pristine".

Unfortunately, no plans of the original planting remain, so Cordingley has aimed to "re-create rather than restore".

"I can only take my cue from the few remaining plants and what can be seen on some cine film from the era," she says. "But I do read a lot, including 1930s gardening magazines. I've used plants of the era like Viburnum x burkwoodii - in the 1930s it would have been hot off the press."

The problem with putting much of this into practice is what she describes as "a low staff-to-features ratio" at the English Heritage-run site. "There were 15 members of staff working in the grounds when the Courtaulds were here, and now there are three," she says. "You can't use old patterns of work - you have to improvise. We concentrate our resources on the historically important bits. Those which have a subsidiary role are lower maintenance."

Cordingley's lot is eased somewhat by regular grounds work carried out by contractor Coblands Landscapes for more than nine years. "They're not a mobile team, so there's some degree of continuity," she says. "What they're doing is definitely gardening rather than landscape maintenance."

She can also call on volunteers, currently numbering eight, whom she believes can get a great start in horticulture at a site like Eltham. "We've taken on volunteers with no qualifications or experience, and then run formal training here to RHS level."

However, she says lack of accommodation at the site limits its appeal for those looking for a garden to commit to.

Cordingley has also overseen on-site training of staff, who are generally "less pay-dependent", she says. "In 2005 they all got As and Bs as a result of training here."

As well as the gardens, training in the glasshouse has also served as an invaluable classroom, she adds.

The palace and grounds are open to the public four days a week, and currently attract about 50,000 visitors a year. "We want to bring it up to 60,000 or 70,000, and I see the gardens as a big part of that," says Cordingley.

"We're trying to encourage people into the parkland to have picnics. Right now it's treated just as somewhere to walk and exercise. We need to create more interesting features - ultimately it should be planted up with more ornamental species, but that's a long way in the future."

Meanwhile, the palace and gardens are a popular wedding venue, which eases its finances.

However, Eltham is a little way off London's tourist trail and is close to what Cordingley describes as a "notoriously delinquent" estate, leading to such hazards as used hypodermic needles among the laurels. And while a greater degree of care lavished on the garden has reduced the amount of vandalism, "it's impossible to secure the site completely", she says.

Horticulturally, the biggest challenge stems from the soil, which she describes as "impoverished clay, with a high silt fraction, weak and easily damaged" - though parts were improved during its period under Royal Parks control. However, this, and a high water table, mean that even after dry periods the lawns are still lush - as they were even at the height of summer 2006, while many central London parks looked parched.

But Cordingley is not content. "The turf needs to be as good-looking as the roses," she says. "What we have is a compromise, but it deserves more effort over the next few years."

In the beds the use of drought-tolerant plants such as Myrtus allows staff to keep watering to minimum, and may prove to be forward-sighted. "Here in the South East we will suffer from climate change first, so finding plants that will cope with that and are also appropriate historically will be a big challenge," she says.

But horticultural standards only allow for so much economy, she says. "Our work over the past seven years has been primarily to support traditional garden planting of the 1930s - rose beds, shrubs, the rock garden. That's meant replacing some of the 'municipal', low-maintenance planting around the car park like laurels and Berberis."

In restoring traditional low box-hedging, Cordingley has been spared box blight. "We propagate our own rather than bringing it in from elsewhere," she says. Similarly, virus-free Canna has a known source - English Heritage's collection at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Cordingley prefers to follow a chemical-free policy, though she says glyphosate has been the only solution to the "terrible" bindweed problem, and she describes Viburnum beetle as "one of our major pests, and getting worse".

Her biggest headache has been the rock garden on the banks of the moat, which was replanted with alpines in 2000. "It didn't meet our standards," she says. "It's a poorly draining site, there weren't enough skilled staff and the soil wasn't improved enough. It's been re-dug twice since with a lot of grit and organic matter, and will be replanted in the near future. But this will depend on having a ready supply of volunteer labour."

She finds this exasperating. "It's the one challenge in the garden that we've not met," she says. "There's a conflict between what I want and what I can afford."

By contrast, she takes evident pride in a series of garden "rooms" to the north of the palace, each planted in a different style. "It's a year-round area - English Heritage wants people to visit at times when they normally wouldn't," she explains. "But it's difficult - it's a frost pocket, dry, hot in summer and poorly drained."

Cordingley has kept the internal boundaries and also increased the amount of shade, with arching shrubs and small trees. "The challenge is then to find shade-tolerant plants to cover the ground and so reduce maintenance," she says.

These include Hydrangea, ferns, Leucojum, Corydalis and Dicentra propagated in the palace glasshouse, with plants such as Helleborus and Saxifraga fortunei Award of Garden Merit for out-of-season interest.

"I plant one or two around to see where they do best, then create a low-maintenance drift," she says. "It's about getting the plants to do what I don't have the gardeners to do."

The strategy appears to be working so far, she says. "I'm very proud of it, or at least I will be in 20 years' time."

Back to their best

Herbaceous border:

Created in 2000 under English Heritage's Contemporary Heritage Garden Scheme, the 120m-long border by the palace's southern wall aims to provide a long season of interest using colours typical of the styles of the 1930s. "We try to make it interesting from May to October, which means sacrificing the 'wow' factor in mid-summer," says Cordingley. "It's a huge challenge to achieve both."

The aim is to replant each section every four years, following a traditional double-dig and soil improvement to aid water retention. As a result, she says, "the quality of the plants has improved immeasurably".

Moat:

This was overstocked and becoming eutrophic. Better water circulation and removal of waterweed has improved conditions for the mirror carp. "Carp would have been here since monastery times, when they were kept for food," says Cordingley.

The weeping willow (Salix babylonica) over the moat is also periodically thinned to reduce wind resistance.

Strips for visitors to walk on are mown shorter in the middle of the surrounding turf, which has then been planted up with bulbs, to encourage visitors away from the edge.

Rose garden:

Keeping this area in an original style has been key to the site's authenticity. However, soil-borne diseases afflicted the early hybrid tea and hybrid musk varieties, which has meant that several replantings have been required. "This time I've selected varieties that are more disease-resistant," explains Cordingley. "They're old varieties - tea roses, from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which are unfortunately less remontant."

History

The future Henry VIII was brought up at Eltham Palace and later held court in the Great Hall, which still stands. However, the palace suffered during the English Civil War and only bare remains of the royal apartments now dot the lawns, bringing "lots of health and safety considerations".

The Courtauld family took on the property in the early 1930s, restoring the Great Hall and building a large and highly innovative art deco house adjacent to it.

"It allowed them to live the country-house lifestyle, yet was close enough to visit the theatres of central London," says head gardener Jane Cordingley.

Architects Seeley and Pagett designed the garden using a concept prepared by Thomas Mawson and previewed at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1935.

During World War Two, the ornamental gardens at Eltham Palace were given over to vegetable growing.

In 1944, the Courtaulds decamped to Scotland, taking shrubs, trees and even soil with them. The ownership of the building passed to the Royal Army Educational Corps, which retained it until 1992. During this time the Royal Parks was responsible for the maintenance of the garden.

English Heritage began restoration of the site in 1998. It remains part of the Crown Estate.


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