Image by Katie Bird

Two Gardeners In The Beautiful Surrey Hills

by Stacey Weichert July 26, 2017

Two Gardeners In The Beautiful Surrey Hills

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Instagram is quickly becoming a source of inspiration for gardeners around the world.

When we discovered the charming accounts of Katie Bird and Lisa Firth, we poured over the images of the nearly 100 acres of the English Manor grounds and gardens that Katie and Lisa maintain.

We decided to ask them a few questions about the beautiful gardens and their work! We wanted to know more and thought our readers would also.


Tell us a bit about yourself.

Jack and Sean and I

KATE: I was born in Surrey but, instead of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth, it seems I was born with a trowel. My whole life has revolved around gardening.  My parents met at a houseplant nursery and they both loved their gardening, my dad’s Alpines, my mum’s cottage garden plants and her floristry. Dad is in his 80s now but likes to come into the Manor garden to help with the pricking out.  I now live in West Sussex with my partner Sean, who also works at the Manor, and Jack our dog. I’m quite scatty , forgetful and very hard of hearing but on the plus side, I love gardening and I’ve been working as a Head Gardener at the same garden in Surrey for 13 years. My co-gardener Lisa arrived at the garden 3 years ago and I hope she never leaves, in fact I will tie her to the wheel barrow so she doesn’t. The other team member is Gabor – he’s worked for five years in the garden, he’s also a superstar.

 

LISA: I was born in Berkshire to parents that seemed to spend their lives outdoors! My mum brought me up to know all the wild flower and tree names and we spent most of our family time on local walks logging everything we would see. I was obsessed with caterpillars and butterflies ,which closely matched my Dads obsession with birds. I live with my husband and twin teenage boys and a new puppy Dotty. We were lucky enough five years ago to move to a dilapidated old bungalow set in an acre of land. We’ve transformed the house (almost) and the garden too. I’ve worked at the manor house for three years now. My husband thinks I’m mad as I work here by day, then come home and work on our garden and if I had my way would finish the day off reading about gardening too! I think I’m obsessed.

 

Tell us about your Instagram.

Lisa and I

KATE: The Instagram blog started 2 years ago, I love taking photos, I can’t say that I’m particularly good at taking them but the enthusiasm is there! I love looking back on them and comparing one gardening year to the next.  Instagram has become a bit of an obsession – it drives Lisa slightly potty.   I think the final straw was asking her to sit on top of the stack of 130 seed trays to show how many we had used that year.

LISA: The kindness of people on Instagram is incredible.  We’ve been sent books, seeds, cards and even a raincoat.

 

 

 

How did you get your start in horticulture?

Dad working in the greenhouse

KATE: Gardening has always been in my blood. I used to go Saturday gardening with dad and entering the local horticultural shows was a big thing.  I remember making a garden on a plate and getting the cup from a very young Alan Titchmarsh.  After I left college , I saw an advertisement for apprentice gardeners at Sutton Place Stately House combined with a college placement in Amenity Horticulture. I remember my father coming to the interview with me so he could have an excuse to look at the garden and meet the Head Gardener at the time , the brilliant John Humphrey. Sutton Place was a tremendous place to learn, full of historical interest.  I would love to be able to visit again one day.

 

 

LISA: My mum was my main inspiration for gardening.  I remember she gave me a small plot in our garden at home and I planted it with stripy petunias and orange tagetes. When I bought my first house, we would go on nursery visits together and she would come over with dad to help dig everything in and tell me how to look after it. We had a family friend who worked on a country estate as a head gardener and I loved looking around the grounds and talking with him about plants. He still comes over to my garden now and works with me, especially in our orchard. He’s a mine of information and I’ve learned a lot from him. I never thought I would be a gardener.  My background is sales and recruitment and after children as a teaching assistant. But I knew I wanted ultimately to do something I loved and that inspired me. When I saw the advert for a gardener here at the manor house (only seen by luck as my husband was in the process of lighting the fire with it!) I eagerly applied. I love working here, I’ve found the best ever friend in Kate and although the work is physically challenging at times, we manage to laugh our way through it!

 

Can you tell us about the Manor and its gardens that you manage? How are the gardens divided on the grounds?

 

The New Cut Flower Area

KATE: The original part of Woodhill was built in 1710 with the main part being added 1820.  The present owners have been here for over 30 years. The garden is south facing and set in a valley, the house being at the bottom. It has its own little micro climate. Whenever I interview someone for the garden, I always ask if they mind working in the heat.  Most people think I’m exaggerating until they start working here. So to give you a little tour: the Buxus parterres are at the bottom of the garden on the flat at the front of the house, so too is West Side, which contains meadow style planting, an area of topiary , the west banks and the white stem birch area that edges the event lawn. The house looks onto the two large wildlife ponds, then the ground starts rising into fields beyond. To the side of the house is the courtyard of David Austen roses mixed with annual meadow style planting, an area of white rose and lavender planting which leads to the perennial meadow parkland. Finally, behind the house, the the ground rises steeply and the herbaceous area begins. This is quite a large area that eventually leads the way to the much used greenhouse, cut flower beds, orchard and the new building called The Gardeners Retreat. There is also the farm and two hundred South Down sheep. The garden and grounds are maintained by the four of us.

 

What is a typical day in the peak season of Summer?

Lisa and I in herbaceous

KATE: The most crazy months are March, April , May and June, although the rest of the year is pretty bonkers too. A typical day would start in the greenhouse where Lisa will water and check things over while I do a quick walk around. In seed sowing time, we allow ourselves about an hour in the morning or last thing in the day to do greenhouse work, then it’s outside no matter what the weather to get into the beds. The weeding and bed maintenance are done all week and edging is done towards the end of the week.  Watering, which takes about an hour and a half, is done on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – weather depending. The garden and grounds are just under 100 acres and it’s important to keep on top of things. I don’t like to have days of regimented tasks.  We do the occasional jobs lists to remind ourselves of things but we usually take each day as it comes. Lisa and I work so well together we work and laugh all day, it drives everyone mad! We have tea at 11 and lunchtime at 1ish when the four of us meet up. Apart from the regular jobs such as weeding , each day is so different, one minute we are digging or tying up Dahlias.  The next we could herding sheep down the local lanes to new fields or in our waders trimming up the sides of the pond banks.

 

What are some of your favorite plants and or plant combinations?

West Banks

KATE: This ones hard! We are very fortunate to be able to be able to design and look after the garden on the trust of the owners. We love all colors and we try to incorporate all styles here. Through the year, Lisa and I are redesigning and adding areas in our minds, we talk constantly of plants and planting. Come the late Autumn, Winter and early Spring we are all doing the ‘ major work’ of digging out new beds or filling in old ones! Then comes the planting.  Over the years we have redesigned large areas of the garden and most areas have different planting from when I first started. So many things inspire me and my tastes have definitely changed over the years. Two years ago, we pulled out the planting in an area we call the office beds and replaced with Prairie planting, 80 percent of which we grew in the greenhouse, and yet six years ago I couldn’t stand grasses! We have recently planted an area with Achillea salmon beauty, Carex testacea, Perovskia silver spire, Iris festive skirt and Lupin towering inferno.  We are so pleased with it.  Its soft, bronze and smoky and sits behind the 18 white stemmed birch. We have discovered Pren Plants , a brilliant herbaceous nursery in West Sussex – it’s great for inspiration . After a recent trip we came back with Scabious pink mist, old favourite Salvia Caradonna, Centauria amethyst and amethyst in snow and Salvia purple rain. These will go in a bed with Panicum heavy metal and white Veronicastrum, (the white to link with another area close by). In this bed are standard Ligustrums and when the Panicum is in full flower, the ball heads of the Ligustrums seem to float, this carries on until late winter , when the grasses get cut back and the Tulips and purple leaf Violets come through to form a carpet. These combinations are made up of soft tones but we also love the brights colors, plants such as Aquilegia mellow yellow , grown solely for its leaves, will lift the garden in spring. It works with purple Hionesty and vibrant orange Tulips. Our West Banks are borders of good summer , color clashes: Calendula Indian prince, Cosmos Dazzler , Nicotiana llangsdorfii, Clary blue denim , Malope Vulcan are amongst a few plants we grow and plant out through May to create an area of such high color you can’t help but smile. Another reason I love Instagram is for the feed back, I remember putting on a photo of these banks and the feed back was amazing. I welcome all opinions , if someone doesn’t like a planting scheme, I love hearing what they like instead.

LISA: Thankfully, Kate and I have very similar tastes when it comes to planting schemes and colors.  We’re both happy to take risks and just see what happens, knowing we can always change things around. I love floaty grasses, sangiusorbas, achilleas, etc., but my main love at home is roses. My favorite color combinations are dark smokey purples, mixed with orange and deep pinks.

 

What wouldn’t you garden without? 

KATE: My hat.  I have mad curly hair that gets stuffed under a hat every day of the year. Gloves – my hands are a wreck. My claw hand tool from Wolf, any pair of secateurs , I’ve yet to find the perfect pair, Jack my dog , my tub bucket and lipstick?

LISA: My long handled hoe, sunscreen for my nose and tissues and, in the winter, a warm woolly hat.

 

What is your gardening pet peeve?

KATE:  Clay, clay, blue clay, it’s a challenge!   But what drives Lisa and I potty in the garden, are hose pipes that kink and tools that mysteriously disappear from our tool stash (boys!). Seeds or bulbs that come up the wrong color in the middle of a planting scheme.  Grrr!

 

You also tend your own garden!  What do you grow?

KATE:  We moved to our house three years ago.  The elderly lady who sold it to us didn’t want to move and I felt so sad for her. She loved her garden , her and her husband worked together at Kew Gardens, he was a plant collector and had written books on ferns, you can read about him on Wikipedia, his name was Peter Taylor . After he retired, he made orchestral Harpsichords and our garden is full of sheds he used to make them. The couple were tiny and I still find shortened tools and little wooden steps. The garden is wide and long and we have recently brought an extra piece of agricultural land. I really want a donkey. When we moved in, the garden was full of Hellebores – such a treat. We removed the old dilapidated fruit cages and 70s style rock walls.  We now have a small area of lawn outside the window, then a long avenue of mixed planting herbaceous beds which open onto the larger section that we are yet to get to.  It’s a slow work in progress. Unlike the work garden, which has true defined areas of planting which are kept tip top and neat, my own garden is like an unruly teenager, it seems to just want to do it’s own thing . The whole garden has huge Oak trees hanging over it so it lives in dappled shade until about four o’clock when the plants can finally bathe in sunshine. I do love it so much though, I’m very lucky my lovely man does the cooking so I can spend hours pottering!

LISA: We’ve lived in our house for just over 5 years now with a garden of about an acre. The old man who owned it before us used it as a smallholding all his life, but although there were some mature apple trees most of it had gone to rack and ruin. Slowly we’ve reclaimed the land from the brambles and nettles and old electric fencing and whilst I’ve always had a rough plan in terms of design it’s been done bit by bit as we’ve had time, money and energy! Lots of it is very ramshackle and we’ve kept a lot of the old outbuildings. The part nearest the house is a formal gravel garden full of bright clashing colors but this makes way for a small circular lawn surrounded by cool pinks, mauves and creams. Beyond this, we have an orchard and a larger lawn which leads to meadow land and an informal area where I keep the chickens and have bonfires. I’m lucky enough to have a small kitchen garden and fruit area too. It produces quite a bit of food but most of the fruit gets eaten off the bushes by my boys! Apart from the area closest to the house it’s a challenging garden, half of it is low lying and under water in winter, but is as hard as a rock in summer. I’ve definitely had to alter some of my earlier planting ideas. It’s a lovely spot though, surrounded by fields.

What are your plans for the future?

KATE: I want to write a book called ‘Credit To The Gardener’ which will do as the title says and gives credit to the gardeners who work behind the scenes in estate gardens, NGS gardens, National Trust etc. Not just the Head Gardener but all gardeners, I think it’s interesting to know how they feel about the garden, how they got into gardening and why, even down to things like favorite tools, advice and tips.

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2 person already talking about this.
    Stacey Weichert
    Certified GKH Gardening Expert
    Answered on July 27, 2017Reply

    Beautiful gardens and two wonderful gardeners!

    Crispin Swayne
    Answered on July 30, 2017Reply

    Partnerships are everything, and with nature as a platform you cant go wrong.Love hearing about the risk taking schemes and cant wait to visit one day. Great article

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