PGG Visit to Houghton Lodge and Longstock Park Water Garden

Houghton Lodge

In May I attended a PGG (Professional Gardeners’ Guild) meeting in Hampshire, where we visited two gardens in one day. The first place we saw was Houghton Lodge, we were provided with tea and cake on arrival – always a good welcome! The owner of Houghton, Sophie Busk, gave us a brief introduction about the history of the house and garden:

The Lodge

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The house was designed in 1793 and was probably intended to be used as a fishing lodge – a very grand one! It is Grade II listed, one of the classic Rural Retreats of its time. At the end of the 18th century there was a gradual move away from the formal layout and plantings of English parks and gardens to the desire for ‘natural’ landscapes.

The Peacock Garden

Houghton - Peacock Garden with house in the background

Cercis canadensis (Judas tree)

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Architects and garden designers set about softening the boundaries between house and garden with delightful contrivances such as conservatories, French windows, terraces and verandas with vases of flowers and plant containers in profusion both inside and out. The idea was for both house and garden to harmonise with each other and seamlessly blend with one another.

Sophie has a team of 4 who help maintain the garden once a week. 18 volunteers also help plus one person who is in charge of grass cutting. Students from Sparsholt College look after the fruit pruning in the walled kitchen garden.

View of the lakes

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Vast lawn

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After the introduction we were allowed to wander round the 15 acre garden at our own leisure. The setting of the place is stunning, it overlooks the River Test and has epic views. It’s easy to see why it has been used in film and TV productions over the years like “Murder at the Vicarage” and “David Copperfield”.

I particularly enjoyed the walled kitchen garden with its chalk cob walls, it included a rose arbour, herb garden and a small glasshouse full of orchids. It was also home to a rather impressive espalier pear tree ‘Uvedale’s St. Germain’. It has a span of over 40 feet, Houghton are trying to get it into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest espaliered pear in the country. Some of the produce is used in the tea rooms, hence why our cakes tasted so good!

Espalier pear tree

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Orchids in the glasshouse

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The long herbaceous border outside the walled kitchen garden was at its peak. The curvaceous line of the border was a pleasing contrast against the straight lines of the wall. The different colours of purple worked well from alliums and irises especially when planted close to both the white and pink foxgloves (Digitalis).

Herbaceous border

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Alliums

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Whilst wandering through the park and water meadow we stumbled across the 3 alpacas, Tom, Dick and Harry – they were very cute! The water meadows are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), home to rare wildlife.

As well as meeting alpacas we also saw a dragon! It was in the form of topiary and instead of breathing fire it puffed out clouds of smoke whenever someone came too close. I need one of them in my own garden!

Topiary dragon

Houghton - The dragon!

The unusual topiary didn’t stop at dragons – we then found peacocks! An area was full of these birds clipped out of yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens). A Judas tree, (Cercis canadensis) was in full flower and looked gorgeous half-hanging over one of the hedges.

The woodland walk gave more views over the river, the various trees and shrubs were underplanted with wild garlic (Allium ursinum), bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum).

Longstock Park Water Garden

After a great morning we stopped off for a pub lunch before going onto the next garden of the day – Longstock Park Water Garden. We were greeted by the head gardener, Robert Ballard, who gave us a brief history of the garden and then showed us round.

Longstock was created in 1870 when the then owners of Longstock House dredged gravel from the banks of the River Test in order to build a private road to the property, creating the lake in the process.

The Water Garden

Longstock - The water garden

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The water garden which is there now was created after John Spedan Lewis acquired the estate in 1946. With the help of a botanist Lewis began an ambitious plan of redevelopment, trebling the garden in size and adding a wealth of detail to the main lake with promontories, islands and bridges. The water-logged soil meant all the work had to be done by hand, it was 10 years before the project was completed.

Longstock’s head water gardener, Jim Saunders – originally Lewis’s butler – organised the digging and the garden remained under his stewardship until his retirement in 1983. There are now 3 full time gardeners, most of the work is done by hand. In summer the main jobs are mowing and edging – there’s 3 quarters of a mile of edging to be done!

The water garden is set in Longstock Park, it forms part of the 3,750 acre Leckford Estate, owned and managed by the John Lewis Partnership. The estate includes agricultural land, a fruit farm and natural woodlands as well as a 5 mile stretch of water meadow alongside the River Test. The garden itself is 7 acres which includes around 2 and a half acres of lake, which is fed by the Test so that the water remains very clear.

Persicaria bistorta

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Primula japonica

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It opens 12 times a year during the spring and summer to raise money for charity. The 3rd Sunday in June is usually reserved for the National Garden Scheme (NGS), while the other open days benefit local charities and good causes.

Longstock has 80 different types of water lilies and as such has earned a universal reputation amongst horticulturists – the International Water Lily Society has voted it “the finest water garden in the world.”

As soon as we stepped into the garden I was in paradise. It was a mass of lush greenery, vibrant colours and broad vistas. Even though the sights were exciting and dramatic the whole place had a sense of calm about it, like time was standing still. When our tour lapsed into companionable silence the only sounds to be heard were that of distant birdsong and the gentle lap of water against the bank.

PGG group photo

PGG group shot taken at Longstock

Woodland area

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There are 13 island beds in total, the central beds are left to naturalise with long uncut grass, to encourage wildlife. I was surprised to hear how shallow the water is, about a metre deep in most places. The lakes reflected the colours of the surrounding flowers and foliage like a perfect mirror.

I noticed several unusual purple cultivars of Sambucus, Corylus and Cercidiphyllum. Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Rotfuchs’ was particularly eye-catching. A snowdrop tree, Halesia monticola, was looking sensational in full flower. It was a fantastically tall specimen, towering over the rest of the trees adorned in white blooms.

Close up of Halesia monticola (Snowdrop tree)

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Ginkgo biloba 

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The soil in the garden is mostly chalk, however there is a woodland area of peat with high acidity that rhododendrons and camellias prefer. This was apparent when we walked through as plant after plant was displaying a selection of vivid showy blooms. It gave rich drifts of colour between the other trees.

I saw lots of old favourites in the different beds and borders like Gunnera manicata, Primula japonica and various species of Iris and Hosta, among others.

Another awesome tree specimen was Taxodium distichum, which had its roots growing in the water. I’d never seen it growing like that before, it had the characteristic “knees”, aka pneumatophores, extending upwards from its submerged roots.

Close up of Taxodium distichum roots

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Close up of one of the island beds

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The water garden was a truly enchanting place, a hidden oasis which I would visit again without hesitation. After going round the garden we then had a short stroll through the arboretum, which led us to the nursery. The 70 acre arboretum was mainly planted in 1807, I noticed several interesting specimens on our brief walk through.

Zanthoxylum americanum, the toothache tree, caught my eye. It was used medicinally by Native American tribes, they used to chew on the bark to create a paste that was then rubbed on the gums as a remedy for toothaches, giving it its common name.

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’

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I had never heard of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ before, a weeping conifer. It forms a medium-sized tree with a narrow crown, with spreading main branches and long trailing curtains of dark green foliage, becoming more gaunt and open with age. A very striking, unusual habit.

Avenue of Malus hupehensis

Longstock - Avenue of Malus hupehensis

An avenue of 50 Malus hupehensis (Chinese crab apple) were the real stars of the show however. They were specially planted to celebrate a 50th anniversary, it was a beautiful display of intense white blossom.

The nurserys’ walled garden

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After marvelling at the trees we arrived at the nursery. It is set in and around a brick and flint walled garden, it had a large collection of unusual wall plants. It also has National Collections of Buddleja and Clematis viticella. A 100 yard long arch was twined with roses and clematis, both looking and smelling divine – a fine lasting impression of Longstock.

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