Category: Garden Visits

Garden Inspiration: Dunham Massey, February 2019

20190215 Dunham Massey lake wall

For Jo’s birthday the other week we both took the day off work and made a tram-and-bus trip down to the National Trust’s Dunham Massey to see their winter garden and maybe pick up a few tips and ideas for enhancing our own patch at this time of year.

It was a glorious day, sun-drenched but with enough of a chill still in the air to remind you that it’s not Spring just yet, not quite. The car park was packed and the gardens likewise – it was the last Friday of half term for one of the Manchester local authorities and maybe Cheshire as well – but somehow I managed to shoot forty-odd pics without too many surplus bodies wandering into frame.

The winter garden at Dunham is a woodland glade writ large: huge mature trees surround an area of planted smaller specimens – more of those later – and the ground, at this time of year, is a stardust-scatter of snowdrop, aconite and crocus, with larger clumps of hellebore and iris clustering beneath the shrubs and winter-interest trees.

Here’s a run-through of the sights we saw. I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine the scents and the sounds of the early foraging bees buzzing in the Spring flowers for yourself. (Likewise the ice cream we enjoyed on the way back to the bus…)

Hamamelis (witch hazel)

Jo and I both love a witch hazel. We have a specimen in our back garden – Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, young but developing nicely – and seeing the trees at Dunham in their prime, allowed to grow low and wide and festooned with flowers, was a real treat.

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis orange

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis soft focus

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis yellow

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis glade

Floral Delights

Late winter and early spring flowers are always such a wonderfully uplifting and encouraging sight, especially the more subtle, paler species – Galanthophiles are in for a real treat at Dunham at the moment – that grab their chance to shine at the centre of attention for a while before the larger, showier Naricssi and friends rock up and hog the limelight.

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus en masse(y)

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey crocus

20190215 Dunham Massey viola group

20190215 Dunham Massey viola

20190215 Dunham Massey Viola


There’s a superb mix of trees at Dunham Massey, from massively mature woodland species to the smaller, more delicately apportioned Magonlias, Cornus and Hamamelis that dwell happily in the dappled shade of their much larger cousins. Plus a feature Sorbus with bright white fruits and red-pink stems that stands beside the house and is well worth seeing.

20190215 Dunham Massey lakeside

20190215 Dunham Massey ancient oak

20190215 Dunham Massey Dogwood and Bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus avellana 'Cotorta' I presume?

20190215 Dunham Massey Birch on Blue

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus and sky

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus fruit

Single-Stem Silver Birches

One of the feature-planting sections in the winter garden is this stand of Betula pendula. There’s another section just over the path of trees that have been allowed to grow multi-stemmed, but they don’t have quite the same visual impact as these ones do:

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

Form, Texture and Contrast

As a gardener and a (very) amateur photographer, I’m always interested in form, shape, shadow and especially contrast, particularly between the man-made and the natural. I love to see a wall or canal bank that was clearly laid out straight, true and pristine, but over the years has gradually been reclaimed, re-greened and softened by encroaching plant life.

20190215 Dunham Massey canal bank

20190215 Dunham Massey Magnolia buds

20190215 Dunham Massey bark light and shade

20190215 Dunham Massey copper bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula utilis?

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Citrus

There you go, a few picto-memories of our hugely enjoyable visit to one of the finest winter gardens in the North West. It’s not too late to go see the same seasonal delights for yourself. See the Dunham Massey website for details of opening times.

If you’ve enjoyed a trip to Dunham recently, or can recommend any excellent winter gardens, please feel free to share your thoughts, via the comments.

Road Trip! Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library

New in from the Heritage Seed Library

Last week, my colleagues on the gardening team at Ordsall Hall and Gardens and I hopped on trams and trains down to Ryton, on the outskirts of Coventry, to visit the headquarters of the UK’s organic gardening movement, Garden Organic.

We were there to meet the team who do the incredibly important work of managing and running the Heritage Seed Library; a repository of heritage, heirloom and orphaned seed varieties that are no longer grown commercially and therefore at risk of disappearing from circulation.

The HSL’s manager, Katrina, very kindly spent a couple of hours showing us around their seed collection and processing facilities, storage areas and growing spaces and it was all rather fascinating. I’ve been an HSL member for a couple of years, including a stint this year as a Variety Champion for French Bean ‘Black Valentine’, and we grow and save seed on the HSL’s behalf at Ordsall Hall and Gardens. So it was a real treat to see how the operation is run, and get a taste of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Huge thanks to Katrina for taking the time out of her busy day to show us around.

Here are a couple of shots of some of the HSL’s seed-winnowing gear. I seem to remember that this vicious-looking contraption, with a sliding panel on top to move those spikes back and forth, is for threshing and breaking open tough seed pods:

November 2017 HSL seed thresher
You do not want to get your hands trapped in here…

A little more towards the technical end of the scale, here’s an auto-winnower, which works by dropping seed into one chamber, and blowing the separated chaff into another:

November 2017 Garden Organic auto-winnower
A serious bit of kit for the serious job of separating the seed from the chaff.

But most of the HSL’s work is done by hand – either by the staff or their legion of loyal volunteers – such as the measuring of finer seed into packets for distribution to members, using this rack of short lengths of pipe of assorted guages:

November 2017 Garden Organic seed measures
A clever and cost-effective way of kitting yourself out with a seed measure for every occasion.

And here’s what it’s all about: packets of seeds ready to distribute to the Heritage Seed Library members, for growing, saving and of course, eating the resulting crops:

November 2017 Garden Organic HSL seed stocks
Seeds! So many lovely seeds ready to go out to the membership. (Need, got, got, need, need, need…)

We also enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the organic show gardens. Perhaps a chilly November day, with the sun dipping rapidly towards the horizon, wasn’t the best time to see the gardens at their glorious best, but there was still plenty of interest in the low-maintenance and therapeutic gardens, the veg growing area, and my favourite area, the heritage orchard:

November 2017 Garden Organic low maintenance border
Various ornamental grasses add height and structure to the low-maintenance border and look great at this time of year.
November 2017 Garden Organic therapy garden
GO’s accessible and peaceful space for therapeutic gardening.
November 2017 Garden Organic fruit tree walk
I snapped this shot on the way back to the office, so I’m not sure if they’re crab apples or Cornus mas, but it’s a lovely splash of colour either way.
November 2017 Garden Organic brassicas
This kale (‘Sutherland’?) is doing wonderfully well inside its bubble-wrap greenhouse.
November 2017 Garden Organic pear tree
I forgot to check, but I think this gnarly old specimen is a heritage pear variety.
November 2017 Garden Organic cordon orchard
These lovely old apple trees look superb, even without their leaves or fruit.
November 2017 Garden Organic apple mulching
This younger apple tree has been well-mulched with grass-cuttings.

All in all, it was a fascinating visit to an incredibly important project. Without the work of the Heritage Seed Library, a great many varieties of seed would have been permanently lost. True, not every heritage seed variety automatically deserves to be grown. Some varieties have fallen out of favour because they’ve gradually lost vigour, or have just been superseded or supplanted by better, stronger cultivars – often off-shoots of the originals – which seed companies will naturally prefer.

But in an age of increasing agricultural monoculture, vanishing wildlife and dwindling variety in the shops, it’s supremely important to keep our options open, and our genetic seed stocks as diverse as possible. Katrina told us of a couple of cultivars that the HSL no longer makes available because they became so popular they were re-stocked by commercial seed breeders and are now available in all the major seed catalogues. That, of course, is a major win for the HSL, although they’ll always keep a small batch of seed in reserve – frozen, if necessary – just in case the situation changes back again.

How to Join Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library

Now is the perfect time of year to join Garden Organic and take part in the Heritage Seed Library project as a grower, or even a Variety Champion. The new seed catalogue has just been sent out to members (I put my 2018 order in this morning) and it contains a gloriously wide range of heritage and heirloom veggies to choose from. The price of HSL membership is £51 per year, for which you get a full membership of Garden Organic – including their bi-annual newsletter and discounts at their online shop – and a chance to request up to six varieties of seed from the HSL list, plus a lucky dip variety (which has a quite high chance of being Calalloo…) if you’re so inclined.

I’ve been a member for two years now and am looking forward to my third; I’ve grown some fascinating cultivars – runner bean ‘Blackpod’ and pea ‘Kent Blue’ being particular favourites so far – and have enjoyed adding a wider range of vegetables to the harvests from Plot #59. I highly recommend taking out a membership, or buying one for a friend or family member, and doing your bit to help preserve vital heritage seed stocks for future generations.