Now and Then: December

When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…

“A spell of frosty days at the end of December puts a stop to all planting and ground work. Now we go into the copse and cut the trees that have been provisionally marked, judged, and condemned, with the object of leaving the remainder standing in graceful groups.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Trees are indispensible in the landscape. Without them, a garden will be left bereft of age and character. They provide a backdrop for our beds and borders and fill the skyline with a constant source of transitory detail. The most important assume a mascot-like status – beloved by visitors as much as the garden itself.

Little wonder then, that any instruction to ‘mark, judge, or condemn’ an established garden tree will make hesitant even the most decisive and well-intentioned gardener. But difficult decisions must sometimes be taken for the benefit of the garden as a whole.

Weymouth pine, Now and Then: December, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Chris Jones and Ben Crook, Acorn Environmental Management Group, remove a Weymouth pine in the Rhododendron Walk

This year, Winterbourne has bid farewell to several trees in close succession. The first, a Weymouth pine in the Rhododendron Walk, whose huge canopy and extensive root system was preventing light and rain from penetrating the border below; a more serious concern than its value as an ornamental tree.

Now the pine has been removed, the Garden Team believe the surrounding rhododendrons, which thrive in rich, moist soil, will flower better and grow larger than before. Plans are already afoot to plant other woodland species, such as the winter flowering witch hazel, to add variety and extend the season of interest.

Edgbaston Wood, Now and Then: December, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Edgbaston Wood

Furthermore, views of neighbouring Edgbaston Wood can now be seen unobstructed by the pine. A borrowed view like this should never be wasted. Removing visual barriers obscuring desirable views will create the illusion of a garden without bounds – especially important for Arts and Crafts gardens built in the suburbs, where physical boundaries are all too real.

“It is good to watch a clever woodman and see how much he can do with his simple tools, and how easily one man alone can deal with heavy pieces of timber. An oak trunk, two feet or more thick, and weighing perhaps a ton, lies on the ground, the branches being already cut off.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Each tree is judged on individual merit accounting for its ornamental, botanical and environmental value within the context of the wider plant collection and garden itself. Often extraordinary measures will be taken to save a tree that meets these criteria but cannot survive alone.

English oak, Now and Then: December, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

The English oak before pollarding

Such was the case with a nearby English oak that developed a large crack several feet long in the upper section of its trunk. At 180 years old, this particular tree predates Winterbourne by several decades; a remnant of Edgbaston’s semi-rural past.

A climbing inspection showed the tree to be hollow and in serious danger of shedding large limbs. Whilst other less significant trees might have been felled and replaced, the Garden Team felt that such a strong living-link to Winterbourne’s otherwise inaccessible past should be given every chance to survive.

The pollarded English oak, Now and Then: December, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

The pollarded English oak

Subsequently, the tree was pollarded, not with simple tools but complex climbing ropes and powerful chainsaws, making light work of aged boughs. Each major branch was pruned to the trunk. From here the branches will be allowed to re-grow, before being pruned again every 7 years, ensuring that the compromised trunk never has to support more growth than it can tolerate.

An English oak can support nearly 400 other species of plant and animal and the decline of a single tree can have serious implications for the local ecological system. In this instance, there are horticultural consequences to consider as well. The surrounding border, planted with shade loving perennials, may now suffer as light floods in, absent an overhanging canopy.

“No doubt the planting of a large space with a limited number of kinds of trees cannot be trusted to all hands, for in those of a person without taste or the more finely-trained perceptions the result would be very likely dull or even absurd. It is not the paint that make the picture, but the brain and heart and hand of the man who uses it.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

In April, Winterbourne was visited by Owen Johnson on behalf of the Tree Register. Owen is tasked with measuring and recording the largest trees in Britain and Ireland. The Tree Register maintains a record of over 150,000 trees assisted by a team of roughly 50 volunteers in the field.

To qualify, a trees girth is measured at 1.5m above ground level and its height is measured using a Hypsometer or Clinometer. The recorded trees are then declared Champions of Britain and Ireland, Country Champions, or County Champions, if no larger example of the same species has been recorded in those respective localities.

Owen Johnson, Now and Then: December, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Owen Johnson measures a blue Colorado fir on the edge of the Arboretum Lawn – the largest of its kind in Britain and Ireland

2 Champions of Britain and Ireland can be found growing in the garden at Winterbourne, including a mammoth 22m tall blue Colorado fir growing on the edge of the Arboretum Lawn. In addition, 23 trees in our collection are Champions of Warwickshire being the biggest in the county by either girth or height.

Ensuring that this arboreal structure remains constant is a challenge. Bold decisions must be taken by professionals to remove inappropriately planted trees in order to allow others to shine. Failure to do so will leave no room for the future champion trees of tomorrow to emerge, and the garden will choke in maturity, unable to breathe beneath an overburdened canopy.

Instead, the Garden Team works hard to fine tune the treescape, consulting arboricultural experts and the local Tree Officer, before making significant alterations. Certain setbacks are inevitable, but Winterbourne remains home to a remarkable range of trees. For this, we must thank the skill and foresight of the professionals who went before us, and to those who come after, we attempt to extend the same courtesy.

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