The Last Gardener

The Nicolsons and the Garden

The advent of Family History Month prompted me to take a look through the archives for old family photos taken here in the garden.

There aren’t too many of Winterbourne’s first family – the Nettlefolds – but plenty from John Nicolson’s era in the 1920s and 30s.

Regular visitors will know that John was Winterbourne’s final private owner (he bequeathed Winterbourne to the University of Birmingham in 1944) and a really passionate gardener whose influence can still be found in evidence in the garden today.

The first photograph I found was this one of Joan Outlaw overlooking the Terrace and pleached Lime-Walk. Joan was the sister of John’s daughter in-law, Edna.

Joan Outlaw in white outfit overlooking the Terrace at Winterbourne House and Garden

Joan Outlaw overlooking the Terrace at Winterbourne

It’s fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t. The stone water bowl and cherub has been replaced (thankfully!) by a more stylish sundial but much else remains the same; the old pleached Lime-Walk is there (since restored in 2011), John’s ‘crazy paved’ Terrace, and the majestic beech trees in Edgbaston Wood which still provide such a dramatic backdrop to Winterbourne today.

You can even see a very well pruned Vitis coignetiae (the crimson glory vine) over Joan’s right hand shoulder, climbing up the brick balustrade alongside the Terrace steps. I’m pleased to say the very same plant is still going strong!

This photograph of John beside his beloved Gunnera mannicata, often known as giant rhubarb, has become something of an iconic image at Winterbourne over the years, but less often seen is the photograph of his son, Colin, staged beneath the same plants.

John Nicholson standing under the Gunnera

John Nicholson under the Gunnera at Winterbourne

Colin Nicolson in the Gunnera

Colin Nicolson in the Gunnera at Winterbourne

A native of Brazil John must have been really proud of these giant exotic herbaceous perennials when he planted them alongside Winterbourne’s various waterways in the lower half of the garden. We’ll be putting them to bed for winter soon, chopping down the giant leaves and stalks, and turning them upside down over the crown to protect them from really cold weather.

Not everything John planted was a success! Alongside the Gunnera he planted the similarly giant skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, which is terribly invasive (although beautiful in flower) and really not to be recommended!

The last photo I found was this one of John’s granddaughter, Jennifer Selby, taken in 1937. This area was actually designed by John himself with five beds radiating outwards from a central point like the petals of a flower. The pathways are ‘crazy paved’ of course. He really liked crazy paving!

Jennifer Selby in the sunken garden at Winterbourne, taken in 1937

Jennifer Selby in the sunken garden at Winterbourne , taken in 1937

In John’s time, this area (we call it the sunken garden) was used mainly as a rose garden but coincidentally, it is now home to our plant family borders. Yes, plants have families too!

Today, each bed represents a different, major, plant family. We have; the buttercup family (Rannunculaceae), the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), the pea family (Fabaceae), the daisy family (Asteraceae), and the rose family (Rosaceae).

Plant families are really important, allowing us to group different plants together that share similar characteristics. This can be a useful identification tool, particularly when presented with a plant you’ve never seen before. Identifying the broad characteristics that may place a particular plant in a certain family will soon set you off on the right track towards a more definitive positive identification.

I hope you’ve enjoyed looking through these old Nicolson family photos as much as I have, and observing how the garden has changed, at the same time as retaining so much of the influence of the different families who have lived and gardened here over many years.

One comment on “The Last Gardener

  1. Janet Tennant


    I really enjoy the articles and information that come from Winterbourne. One of the few emails that I open enthusiastically.
    The history of the garden is particularly interesting

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