If taking care of your outdoor space sometimes seems like hard work, think of Chatsworth and the challenges and rewards of looking after a really, really big garden…
For most people returning from holiday is a letdown, but the reverse is true for gardener Alan Froggatt. But then he does live and work on one of the country’s most spectacular estates – Chatsworth in Derbyshire.
“Nowhere compares to the fabulous beauty of the garden here,” he enthuses. “I still marvel at the inventiveness of its creators. I know I’m a very lucky man.”
Many of the half a million yearly visitors will see only part of the glory Froggatt talks about, given the garden is spread across 105 acres. But whether they take in its sweeping parkland views, avenues of trees and art and water features, or browse the glasshouses or pockets of interest, few are disappointed.
The garden has been shaped by the tastes of its owners, the Devonshires, as well as fashions of the day. The 17th-century first garden was a vast, symmetrical affair modelled on Hampton Court’s. Almost all of it, although not the Cascade, was later razed to make way for a more natural, romantic look created by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
However, the greatest influence comes from the sixth duke, who appointed Joseph Paxton head gardener in 1826. Paxton assembled the gritstone rock garden using a steam-powered machine he invented himself. He also added the Strid – an imitation of a narrow part of the river at the Devonshires’ Bolton Abbey estate in the Yorkshire Dales.
During this time, hundreds of species of plants and trees from all over the world were brought to Chatsworth. Among them were its tropical horticultural jewels, the Dwarf Cavendish banana and the Victoria amazonica water lily.
The aim is to make Chatsworth’s garden welcoming and encourage exploration – there are no “keep off the grass” signs and dogs on leads are allowed
Remnants of Paxton’s Great Conservatory – a precursor to his Crystal Palace – form the foundation of a maze built of 1,200 yew plants in 1962. Rose, cottage and sensory gardens, and a three-acre kitchen garden, which supplies vegetables, salad, flowers and fruit to the house, are just a few of the other places of interest.
The garden is cared for by 17 gardeners, as well as volunteers. The aim is to make it welcoming and encourage exploration – there are no “keep off the grass” signs and dogs on leads are allowed.
The team works closely with the 12th duke, Peregrine, and his wife Amanda to preserve its history, but also develop new features. “The greatest gardens evolve all the time. I don’t think you can stand still,” says Froggatt, who has been at Chatsworth for 12 years and a gardener for 40.
He is overseeing the upgrade of a ravine feature on a rugged far side of the garden to create mirror-like ponds which he hopes will become a focal point. Other changes this year include cultivating bigger and more diverse displays of tulips (a total of 24,000 blooms) and, later, dahlias.
Coping with changeable elements is always a challenge for Chatsworth’s gardeners. The water features are gravity-fed with water from man-made lakes, and the system also powers turbines which have supplied electricity to the house since 1893. Ongoing dry conditions affected supplies last summer, so work is being done to improve flow by opening up streams draining into the lakes.
Perhaps surprisingly, Chatsworth’s challenges are not dissimilar from those of the average householder, according to head gardener Steve Porter. As such, weeding and mulching to suppress weeds and feed plants are on the list for April, as is further sowing to ensure a good spread of flowers and fruits across the months ahead. The Chatsworth team will also be checking that their many shrubs and trees are stable and well-rooted.
“We face the same issues as every other garden but on a larger scale,” Porter says. “We’re doing various things to conserve water, like adapting what we plant and when we plant it.”
The emphasis is on sustainability. The estate continues to produce its own potting compost and a biomass system is being installed to heat the glasshouses with wood from the park.
“Estates like Chatsworth have always been very self-sufficient,” Porter adds. “We might have modern machinery but we try to maintain traditional systems as much as we can.”
An exhibition of sculptures by Sir Anthony Caro is on show in Chatsworth’s garden until July. Events are planned to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.