Gardening: The early show

PUBLISHED: 12:02 07 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:02 07 April 2015

Trees and shurbs add interest all year at Norton Way South, Letchworth

Trees and shurbs add interest all year at Norton Way South, Letchworth

Chris Roper

With longer days and spring finally here, April is a generous time in the garden. Philippa Pearson visits two gardens open to the public this month that are brimming with bulbs and inspiration. Photos by Chris Roper

Spring bulbs by one of the ponds at Alswick HallSpring bulbs by one of the ponds at Alswick Hall

Riot of colour at Tudor hall

‘Early spring is a favourite time of the year in the garden,’ says Annie Johnson of Alswick Hall near Buntingford. Spread over five acres and set against the backdrop of a Tudor hall, the gardens here are inspirational for their range of planting schemes, including traditional herbaceous borders mixed with shrubs for year-round interest, a wildflower meadow, woodland walk, large kitchen garden, rockery and two natural ponds. April sees masses of late daffodils, camassia and early tulips in flower, mixed with spring blossom from the orchards and specimen trees.

‘When we moved here 10 years ago, the bones of the garden were here but we’ve gradually changed things and added new features and planting,’ explains Johnson, whose husband Michael inherited the hall. And the process of change continues with one of two big projects each year. A couple of years ago, the wildflower meadow was created and a woodland walk added. Head gardener David Austrin works with Johnson and researched many shade-loving flowering plants for the walk.

Tulips are added each autumn to four large parterre beds. ‘We plant thousands,’ says Johnson. ‘They do much better when planted as fresh new bulbs each year.’ The finished effect is colourful and cheery. She also plants tulips as well as other bulbs in many containers in the garden, choosing early-flowering varieties mixed with late-flowering daffodils to give a good display for April when the garden is open to the public for the National Garden Scheme.

A secluded pathway at 324 Norton Way SouthA secluded pathway at 324 Norton Way South

Known as the Jubilee Border, as it was planted in Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary year, a deep area by the tithe barn has a magnificent display of herbaceous perennials from spring to autumn, including a good mix of dahlias late in the year. Tulips are also taken out from the parterre borders in early summer and hundreds of dahlias planted. ‘I particularly like lots of bright clashing colours,’ Johnson says with a smile.

Surprises in a garden city

In Letchworth, Jill Thomson and husband Roger used to open their garden for the National Garden Scheme in the height of summer. Last year, with many events planned over the summer to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they opened in April for the first time and it proved a huge success. ‘I became aware of the many attractions and how good the garden looked in spring, and I really enjoyed showing the garden off a bit earlier in the year,’ Thomson says. So much so, that the couple are doing it again this month. Visitors will also find lots of plants for sale at the April opening as both the Thomsons are keen plants people and enjoy propagating plants from seed and cuttings. The couple promise lots of herbaceous plants including cannas, hellebores and heucheras, all propagated in the garden.

The quarter-acre organic garden at this Edwardian garden city house, where the couple have lived for 38 years, features a stunning bespoke armillary sphere – a type of sundial – as a focal point in the lawn, which is surrounded by mature borders filled with shrubs, perennials and trees forming an architectural backdrop to the many spring bulbs that will be flowering in late April.

The unusual front garden at 324 Norton Way South, LetchworthThe unusual front garden at 324 Norton Way South, Letchworth

The Thomsons particularly like alpines and the garden has a rockery and scree garden. Together with the many alpine troughs around the garden – ‘Roger added more for our 50th anniversary celebrations,’ Thomson laughs – these tiny but bountiful plants provide lots of spring colour and interest.

Another distinctive feature of the garden can be found at the front. The road is lined with traditional, very mature chestnut trees, including one outside the front of the house. ‘It’s very lovely to have the tree there,’ says Thomson, ‘But the shade makes it a difficult growing area.’

The couple’s solution was to remove the lawn, which was struggling to grow, and create an informal interlocking box hedge knot garden, which has unusual planting including phormium and pampas grass. ‘It’s not difficult to find us,’ laughs Thomson. ‘Our front garden certainly stands out in the road!’

The armillary sphere at LetchworthThe armillary sphere at Letchworth


Alswick Hall

Sunday April 19

Hare Street Road

A prettty arrangement of tulips in containers at Alswick HallA prettty arrangement of tulips in containers at Alswick Hall

Buntingford SG9 0AA

Open midday-4pm. Homemade teas, hog roast, plants for sale (propagated in the greenhouses), and trade stands. Wheelchair accessible and dogs are welcome.

Also open September 13 from 2.30-5pm, with a plant fair for the Red Cross.

325 Norton Way South

Sunday, April 26

Letchworth SG6 1TA

Open from 2-5pm. Teas and plants for sale. Wheelchair accesible.

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life