Oakley Loudon, Jenny Rose Carey Head Gardener at LMH, reports:
This summer and early Autumn have been delightfully wet and lush – with some good heat occasionally too. Whilst hearing a lot of grumbling about British weather, I have been deeply glad as the conditions have given the garden, and our land in general, some much needed balm after last year’s heat.
The robo-mowers have been a success since they arrived earlier this year – the lawns they look after are better than ever. Most importantly, their arrival has freed up a couple of hours of Garden Team labour per week, as well as reducing our diesel use, emissions and noise pollution. They seem to be much-admired for their stoic and steady nature, their peaceful pace of work, which is very meditative to watch, and they add some gentle humour to life in the gardens. We have only received a few fearful comments about robot replacement doom. Following the success of the first machines, we are now looking to extend their range; they are capable of covering a larger area, with only a simple extension of their underground boundaries. If future plans allow, it would be fabulous to purchase more mowers and have one looking after each of the lawns in the main part of the garden, as well as the hockey pitch, saving around 6 hours per week in labour which could be used on other tasks.
With less mowing on the agenda, and set against general growth during a lush year, I have been able to move our focus onto other important work in the garden, such as attending to the immense colonies of bindweed and Oxford aster roving through our borders, as well the removal of some self-seeded plants and shrubs that have matured in strange places.
Since taking on the role of Head Gardener in the summer, I have been focused on planning out what needs to be done to recover and refine the vibrant charm of the LMH gardens. The various areas of the garden are certainly alive and kicking, but have begun, over the years, to drift into a situation whereby dominant species (such as the Oxford aster) are overcrowding and need to be taken in hand. Fortunately, the Oxford aster is actually quite pretty, with its late hazy blue flower. Staff and students are very polite about it, but some visitors seem to recognise it as an invasive species and often ask me what I plan to do about it!
As has been the case around the country, and very unfortunately, most of the Buxus has been consumed by hordes of Box moth caterpillars, with only one or two regenerating; the majority have died. This has had a particular impact on the Fellows’ Garden, as some of the Yew hedging has also totally failed, most likely caused by phytophthora and the heat of 2022. Before she left, Kate had the failed Yew cut and ground out, so now we are moving on, like many Gardens in the UK, and are removing a great deal of Buxus topiary. With one of the cherry trees also failing, we will be focusing our attention in the coming months and years on restoring the Fellows’ Garden to its former glory.
The meadows continue to thrive and are noticeably more diverse each season; we have seen a small increase in Pyramidal Orchids and, in a new lawn set to meadow, even our first Bee orchid (photo on the right). This meadow is on the north lawn next to the Library, which we will be managing now in typical hay crop fashion. This is part of our effort to reduce the heavy ecological and emissions impact of lawn management around the gardens, as well as increasing multi-species biodiversity. The soil is incredibly poor here, so will soon become more diverse.
We are eagerly awaiting the results of a site-wide wildlife survey undertaken by local charity Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust to find out more about the diversity of the LMH grounds. The riverside meadows are also thriving – this season I have decided to not cut them at all, as our native Angelica sylvestris have arrived and we want to make sure this year’s seedlings can make a home here without struggle. The native Heracleum is also on the increase. The Fritillaries have moved up to higher ground, leaving the damp lower meadow to the Filipendula and other damp-loving cohorts.
This autumn, we have begun to lay the ground work for the renovation of many of our major borders, including tackling some of our bigger weed problems. We have short seasonal windows in which to act, and we are pressing on with this work now in preparation for re-planting next year, so you may notice as you walk around that there is a lot of bare earth on show – an unfortunate necessity that we must live with for now.
With future work in mind, I recently commissioned a report by plantsman and landscape architect Paul Barney, who also runs his own specialist and rare plant nursery. I invited him to walk around the gardens with me, to have his input on the aesthetic overview and give a steer on what I’ve identified as our priority areas – we are looking to remedy issues, and ensure the Gardens look exceptional for LMH’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2028/9. Paul is quietly famous for his global botanical collections of hardy plants, contributions to horticulture, and for his selection and breeding of plants. He has won awards at RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court. I have also put together a ‘plant palette’ with a small number of plant photos to illustrate Paul’s report and aesthetic. With this information, the report from Colvin and Moggridge, and my own notes, plans and ideas, it is my hope that we can decide on a direction for immediate action in the gardens. Some of the work will need to be completed with some urgency, as it will take time to mature, to look good for events in 2028. It is going to be a busy but exciting time for me and the Garden Team as momentum around this work continues to build.
Other events of note: I had the pleasure of meeting three alumnae for discussion and contributions to the garden development – Gillian Mawrey, Jenny Rose Carey and Frances Carey. Their ideas have been thoughtful and relevant, and have been noted. I am very grateful for their input.
*Photo of garden team at top of page shows (left to right): Ngaio, Kevin and Oakley.