A number of years ago I was guiding a small group of ladies, members of a visiting garden club, around our own garden. All was going along pleasantly, I thought, until there was a loud “But!” followed by a pause when I looked at the lady’s face, her mouth open and an expression which said, “liar, cheat, charlatan” before she continued, “this is a woman’s garden!”. When she saw the look of confusion on my face she continued, “this isn’t your garden; you didn’t make this; this is a woman’s garden.” I knew better than to disagree and told her that, indeed, the credit for the garden went entirely to my wife and that I merely filled the Undergardener’s role. She didn’t need any assurance that she was correct for that she knew already but she gave an authoritative nod that indicated that there was now an alignment between her perception and the reality of the garden– and how it was being presented by the guide.
This experience allowed me to be bold when we visited two famous gardens in England some years afterwards – Hidcote and Kiftsgate Court. In these days of political correctness, we generally tread with care when making statements about the work of men and women. We must nowadays not say the work of one is better than the work of another but I feel it not unreasonable to comment that the results may differ, not better nor worse, but different and long may this difference last.
Hidcote is the stereotypically male garden – all those strong and emphatic lines, those rigid and formal hedges; and that central grassy vista with its muscular boundary yew hedges grunts “TESTOSTERONE” … in capital letters. Nearby Kiftsgate Court has no such rigidity – apart from the relatively recently constructed pond garden though, it must be acknowledged, that the shape and layout of this project was determined by the defunct tennis court rather than by any hormones. Kiftsgate is full, luscious and colourful with planting in soft lines throughout and a feeling of plants being allow to breathe, to spread out as nature would intend them; all romantic and gentle and womanly!
Hidcote is in the hands of the National Trust and is run by a large band of gardeners, administrators, assistants and volunteers who maintain it to the very highest standards. All is disciplined, methodical and systematic – excellent, beautiful, enjoyable also – but the interpretation of the soul of the creator rather a garden with soul.
Kiftsgate has been, and remains, a personal and a family run garden. It is the garden of three generations of women of the one family, daughter following on mother for a century, and it simply oozes love, soul, enthusiasm, diligence, hard work and a gifted amateurism. It is one of those gardens where one enters and feels enveloped in beauty and an atmosphere of homeliness. It is a garden where one wishes to linger, to wander and enjoy, and to be delighted with the exceptional range of plants which is grown so perfectly well there.
You must visit and, before you go, you must read “Kiftsgate Court Gardens – Three Generations of Women Gardeners” by Vanessa Berridge, published this year to celebrate the centenary of Kiftsgate Court. It is a book of two parts, the first a family/garden history – the creation of the garden in 1919 by Heather Muir who developed the layout of the garden, the Rose Border and the Banks and who also introduced the famous rose, Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’. The garden passed to her daughter, Diany Binny, in 1954 who extended the garden and its planting and developed the White Sunk Garden. Anne Chambers, the third generation of wonderful gardeners, who took on the gardens in the late 1980s, continues to develop the gardens, to modernise them and to open them more frequently to the public.
The second part of the book, the larger part, describes the various areas of the garden, outlining their development, their plants and their changes over the seasons of the year. The Kiftsgate gardeners lead the way in the planting of mixed borders with trees, shrubs, roses and herbaceous perennial plants all together. There is presently a return to using shrubs more extensively in the garden and Kiftsgate is an excellent garden in which to see this style used perfectly, especially in the Wide Border, The Four Squares, The White Sunk Garden, The Banks and The Lower Garden – just some of the areas described in the book. No garden stands still and, while the older and fondly loved parts of the garden continue to develop and improve, newer areas have been added in a more modern style – The Orchard, Mount, Tulip Tree Avenue and the Water Garden – so that the garden’s appeal is now even broader than previously, difficult though this is to imagine. It may also indicate that the gardener’s husband is taking a more active part in the work of the garden!
The descriptions of the garden are wonderfully written and illustrated and are an excellent record of Kiftsgate and an introduction to those who have yet to visit. Thank goodness for sexist, womanly gardens – the world is richer for them!
[Kiftsgate Court Gardens – Three Generations of Women Gardeners, Vanessa Berridge, with photography by Sabine Ruber, Merrell Publishers, London, 2019, Hardback, 192 pages, £40, ISBN: 978-1-8589-4669-6]