Elly West heads north of the city to chat to former royal gardener Robert Dunster
Looking around other people’s gardens is something I love to do. Whatever the size or style, there are always ideas and sources of inspiration to be found, even if it’s just a single plant, a combination of plants, or a well-placed ornament. So when I was invited for a gander around the grounds of luxury country house Berwick Lodge, there was a confident “Yes, please” from me.
It’s not the only venue to call itself ‘Bristol’s best-kept secret’, but tucked away as it is on the north side of the city out near Cribbs Causeway, with views over the Severn estuary, it’s not a place everyone is acquainted with. But they should be: extending to 18 acres – about 12 of which are woodland – the grounds truly offer a pocket of peace and tranquillity.
Robert Dunster is the head gardener there, and the first in the post – brought in to make some changes and give the already attractive grounds a wow factor. Though he’s not about to create formal parterres, exhibition gardens and bowling-green lawns; Robert’s ethos is all about working with nature, rather than against it, and he is running the gardens at Berwick Lodge almost entirely organically. “I want to promote the importance of organic growing, and the conservation of bats, bees and birds,” he says.
Robert has the knowledge and experience to back up his intentions, having formerly spent eight years at Highgrove, working as deputy head gardener for HRH the Prince of Wales – a renowned pioneer of organic gardening long before it became popular. Prior to that, Robert was an apprentice at the Queen’s gardens at Windsor Castle, studied organic principles on the west coast of America, and worked at the Henry Doubleday Research Association, now known as Garden Organic.
Berwick’s Hattusa restaurant already uses fresh, organically grown produce from the small kitchen garden at the hotel, and Robert intends to extend the area, so even more food can be home-grown. “Organic gardening is about thinking long-term,” he says. “Pests and diseases are part of the cycle of gardening. If you spray, you’re killing wildlife and beneficial insects that eat aphids, such as hoverflies and ladybirds. Tackling diseases is about hygiene in the garden and not planting things too closely together. If your plants have botrytis, remove the diseased sections and burn them.
“Don’t expect your garden to be perfect and immaculate, and don’t mind the occasional daisy popping up in the grass – it makes the lawn more interesting. At Highgrove the lawns are full of clover and that’s great for bees.”
Wise words for any gardener, and spoken with a passion that’s infectious. Robert is also interested in bees, and is learning about tree beekeeping – an ancient European method of keeping bees, but one that’s new to the UK, introducing colonies to hollow logs and holes in trees, rather than man-made hives.
His vision is long-term for the gardens at Berwick Lodge, but he’s already making changes to the entrance and the area at the front of the building – the first section that guests see when they drive in – by taking out some large yew trees and making the area lighter and brighter. “Gardens are always evolving and changing, and I need time to settle here and see how things develop, but I want to make it quirky and enchanting,” Robert explains. He plans to introduce more colour and interest to the borders near the lawn where afternoon teas are served, with lupins, delphiniums, hydrangeas, hellebores, clematis, foxgloves, peonies, passion flower, helianthus and agapanthus among the plants on his wishlist. He also hopes to make new pathways to the existing lake (currently overgrown), create a new herb garden, and a large herbaceous border with Piet Oudolf-style prairie planting and lots of ornamental grasses. All grown organically, of course…
Throw away the spray
Create a balanced ecosystem in your garden, and the pests and diseases will take care of themselves. Here are some top tips for a healthier garden:
Encourage lacewings and ladybirds and they’ll help reduce the greenfly population. Plants that attract these beneficial insects include marigolds, sweet alyssum, cornflowers, borage, catmint, sunflowers, cosmos and achillea.
Improve your soil with well-rotted manure, mushroom compost or homemade compost, so your plants are healthier and less susceptible to diseases.
Control weeds by pulling them out or mulching the soil to suppress their growth, rather than using weedkillers.
Patrol the garden regularly so you can spot problems before they get out of hand. Squish greenfly, look out for slugs and snails, and prune out diseased foliage.
Try companion planting if you’re growing crops. Nasturtiums planted near cabbages will attract butterflies, keeping their caterpillars off the brassicas.
Last, but not least, learn to live with imperfection. Don’t let a few daisies in the lawn, and perhaps the odd weed in the border, detract from your enjoyment of your garden!