Creating a growing legacy

For the past 80 years, Winterbourne’s garden has been in the hands of University of Birmingham. Before then, it was lovingly tended to by Winterbourne’s last private owner, John Nicolson. Head Gardener Dan reflects on how Nicolson’s impact has shaped the garden into the one so beloved by all who tread its paths today.

I often think of the garden today as being closer to the one John Nicolson left in 1944 than the one Margaret Nettlefold left behind in 1919, when she sold Winterbourne to the Wheelock family. This assumption is based largely on speculation on my part, but not entirely without reason.

Documentary photographs of the two different eras at Winterbourne are scant. John Nicolson left behind a small stash, but we have almost nothing from the Edwardian period in terms of photographs of the garden, save for a few which appeared in Lawrence Weaver’s ‘Country Life Magazine’ article in 1911. Having said that, there is plenty of other evidence besides, not least of all Margaret’s diaries and early plans of the garden.

We know that Margaet created the garden from scratch and moved on only 15 years or so later. John, on the other hand, must have inherited a garden beginning to mature and many of his additions to the design not only remain, but are fundamental to the way the garden looks and feels today: the pergola, the Japanese bridge, and the long lines of Irish yew trees that stand guard over the herbaceous borders, to name but a few.

I take great pains to point this out and give John at least equal credit when I’m talking to people about the garden, especially when I’m giving guided tours, so I can try to communicate the ‘true’ story of the garden in depth.

However, I don’t just point out the good stuff. I point out one or two of John’s ‘mistakes’ as well (we all make them), mainly as a means of making people chuckle. My favourite is John’s Japanese tea house which, although an important focal point within the garden, looks more like a bus stop than somewhere you might perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Japanese Tea House
Japanese Tea House

The other is our famous skunk cabbage, believed to have been planted by John in the 1920s, which is now an incredibly invasive, non-native plant, officially included on the ‘banned’ list. Don’t worry though, existing populations of the plant are allowed to remain in the UK so long as they are not sold or allowed to escape any further into the wild. We control our population by snipping out the seeds before they ripen to stop them spreading further.

Skunk cabbage

And now it seems – at least according to recent media coverage – that we have another plant bully to contend with: Gunnera manicata, otherwise known as Brazilian giant rhubarb.

It was John who planted the giant rhubarb all around our little pond and the Japanese bridge bordering the woodland. It would have been quite the exotic when he planted it all those years ago, with its huge umbrella like leaves that can grow up to two meters across in just one season, and it has continued to wow visitors to Winterbourne ever since. Little did he know that he was inviting an imposter into the garden.

The RHS recently led some important research, testing populations of the plant all over the country, and discovered that, in almost all cases, what we previously thought to be Gunnera manicata is in fact a hybrid species of its near relative Gunnera tinctoria. Since Gunnera tinctoria and all its hybrids are on the ‘banned’ list, so now are all the plants formerly masquerading as Gunnera manicata.

Yet, as with our yellow skunk cabbage, we won’t be rushing to remove the plants altogether. Control is key to stop its spread; for the time being this is deemed sufficient, and meets the standards set by the various pieces of legislation governing the growing of invasive species.

Nicolson with his gunnera at Winterbourne, 1937
Nicolson with his gunnera at Winterbourne, 1937

We’ve got some fabulous photographs of John proudly standing beneath the Gunnera he planted. I wonder whether he be surprised that we’re still enjoying them nearly one hundred years later, just as fascinated by them today as he was then? I also wonder if he’d have planted them if he knew what we now know about their propensity to spread into the wild and potentially harm native flora?

I suspect he wouldn’t. John, like most gardeners, cared about the natural world, and we are looking back now with hindsight of course, a luxury John never could have had. Perhaps a better thought would be to wonder what mistakes we’re making today that the next generation of gardeners will inherit just the same.

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