Interview: Phylip Statner, Head Gardener, Cottesbrooke Hall

A newly-published biography of the grande dame of flower arranging, Constance Spry, recalls how before her single-handed popularisation of the skill to the masses, cut flowers were often the privilege of the wealthy and middle-class families with large gardens.

Phylip Statner, Head Gardener, Cottesbrooke Hall - image: James Corbett
Phylip Statner, Head Gardener, Cottesbrooke Hall - image: James Corbett

When Phylip Statner was hired as the third member of the gardening team at Winfield House - the largest private garden in central London after Buckingham Palace - he found himself working under a head gardener whose job description when he arrived some two decades previously had been to "look after the garden and arrange the house flowers".

At first surprised by the house flowers role, Statner was soon so enthused and inspired by his boss, Stephen Crisp, that he went on to add to his own CV a course in flower arranging, at the renowned Jane Packer school of floristry in London.

"I did it for personal development," says Statner, 32, who in autumn 2007 took over the role of head gardener at Cottesbrooke Hall near Northampton. The hall is hosting the Plantfinders Fair for the third year later this month (25-27 June).

"It's all part of being well-rounded," he explains. "One of the best skills for a gardener is to be observant. The floristry side gets your eye in at a very detailed level. No matter how big the garden, you need that detail - for a one-acre or a 50-acre garden."

He maintains that in a time of recession, if you are a professional with a wide variety of skills, you are better equipped to cope.

Cottesbrooke Hall, said to be a near-perfect example of a Queen Anne house, is reputed to have been the inspiration for Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and is set in parkland with views over the Northamptonshire countryside.

In the same single-minded way that he embraced floristry, Statner also completed a postgraduate diploma course at Oxford College of Garden Design, giving him a formal design background. "I had learned lots about plants and had been very lucky under Steve Crisp, and felt the only way to progress was to strengthen my design side."

He refers again and again to the need to be professional - his ambition above all is "to be recognised as a professional"

- and the motivation to improve his design skills is very much tied in with this. "It all goes back to being as professional as you can about it. A good head gardener will pretty much have strength in most fields. For example, use design skills in a sympathetic way to go with surroundings. I felt weak on that and needed a bit of help, I suppose."

He went to see the school's founder and head, Duncan Heather, before going ahead. "I already had planting skills so didn't want to go back to college and study what plant is good with what. I liked that the course was heavy on hard landscaping and architecture. It was very good - very tough."

The timing also chimed nicely to help him implement the big changes planned at Cottesbrooke. As Statner's tenure has lengthened, so the changes to the more formal structure of the gardens have increasingly taken shape. The forecourt, for example, originally laid out by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in Italian renaissance style, is now softened with herbaceous planting.

The garden team is Statner and two full-time staff as well as a trainee for two days a week. They are putting in a whole new planting scheme for the Statue Walk and Lime Walk border, created by designer Arne Maynard, commissioned to oversee the main planting. A departure from the usual low-to-high, front-to-back border, this will have some taller plants at the front, "creating more of a 3D effect".

The formal framework/soft planting scenario could also perhaps be said to epitomise Statner's own design and planting style, which he has been increasingly implementing at Cottesbrooke, where the award-winning gardens have profited from the artistic eyes of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Dame Sylvia Crowe, Arne Maynard, Angela Collins and James Alexander Sinclair.

"I like a formal design but frothy, informal planting," says Statner. "I gravitate to grasses and native plants will always be the first stop for any type of planting for me. I have fallen on my feet with a boss with similar taste who commissions designers with a similar taste. It's all about confidence, really."

Since the current owner Alastair Macdonald-Buchanan moved into Cottesbrooke in 2002, the house and gardens have been open to the public on a limited basis from May to the end of September. It is the first garden where Statner has worked that has been open to the public at all. "But that makes little difference," he says. "We don't garden any differently. We try a little harder, but not really much harder. It's all part of being professional."

1995-99: National diploma in horticulture, Askham Bryan College
1999: Placement, Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, Cape Town
2000-03: Gardener, Hallcroft Hall, Addingham
2003-05: Gardener, Winfield House, London
2005-06: Oxford College of Garden Design
2006-07: Gardener, floral displays and glasshouses, Daylesford House,
2007 to date: Head gardener, Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire

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