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A Garden for all Seasons – Trentham

The phrase, “a garden for all seasons” is over-used and too often banded about in the gardening media. Rarely is a garden good in all seasons but it is something that we aspire to here in our garden in Plealey. We haven’t achieved it yet but feel we get closer in some borders each year. We do a lot of garden visiting and the garden we visit most often is Trentham Gardens in Stoke-on-Trent. This has to be the closest you can get to “a garden for all seasons”. We visited yesterday, 22nd December, to see how good it was at this rather dull austere time of year.

The day dawned bright with blue sky decorated only with vapour trails and a whisp of a moon, which looked like a simple delicate curve drawn with a piece of fine blackboard chalk. Over our garden and the fields beyond buzzards wheeled in this clean, clear morning atmosphere. As I fed the chucks and had my morning chat with them the buzzards were never silent, gently “mewing” in time with their soaring in search of the first thermals of the day. A perfect day to visit one of our favourite gardens but were we asking too much of it? We drive off with high expectations.

Any garden that had involved Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf in its re-design had to impress. We had visited in all seasons before but never in the winter. From our first glimpse of the vast expanse of gardens from the bridge over the River Trent, busy with mallards, we knew we were not to be disappointed.

It is truly a mix of the old and the new, as the new plantings are in the context of the original Capability Brown parkland and formal bedding gardens and Italian Garden. The garden signposts invite you to “The Italian Garden” but it is so much more than that.

First up is Piet Oudolf’s River of Grasses which in the low light of this December morning glowed. The gentle breeze imposed gentle swaying and rustlings of the biscuit tinted dried stems and seed heads. These were dotted with ginger and brown seed heads of perennials such as sedum and astilbe. The wide green cut paths we followed through the sea of grasses emphasised the clever design and simple planting.

Just before leaving the River of Grasses an avenue of birches with wonderful orange peeling bark cuts across our path. There is no way to walk through this double row of betulas so technically speaking  it probably shouldn’t be called an avenue. With the light behind the peeling bark it lit up like thin slithers of brittle toffee.

From the River of Grasses we moved into the Floral Labyrinth another Piet Oudolf creation. Here there were swathes and blocks of dried stems and seed heads of tall perennials. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes enjoyed searching for their brunch and regularly scuttled across the path. There were more grasses here and they were rimmed with the bright low sunlight.

Leaving the labyrinth meant leaving Piet Oudolf’s contribution to Trentham behind and experiencing a culture shock was on the cards as we entered features of the older more formal garden. Look out for a blog I have planned for the near future on the work of Piet Oudolf.

After passing through a long archway of trained Hornbeam we found the very formal garden with its tightly clipped swirling patterns of box hedges. In the summer this area is just too gaudy for me, being styled on Victorian bedding. Not my favourite!! I like it in the winter when instead of bright red geraniums etc the gaps between the box are the gentle green of wallflower and primula foliage. The first photo shows an area with gravel infill and tall thin cypresses.

From the raised terrace of box patterns we looked over the old Italian Garden redesigned by Tom Stuart-Smith, where the original framework of paths encloses soft but dramatic plantings of grasses and perennials. Bursts of water from pools surge upwards and are caught by the light and the wind. They look white and frothy with sprays of fine mist blowing from them. The horizontal patches of grass seed heads are rimmed with light and create strong horizontal lines contrasting with the rigid upright cypresses and the dumpy domes of golden yew.

As we appreciated the quiet of this area our attention was drawn by a pair of Grey Wagtails playful and flirting low over the grasses. High overhead loose flocks of gulls wheeled and squealed.

We wandered around the paths stunned by the beauty of T. S-S’s planting ideas, every clump of  seed heads complimented its neighbours, making each bed look good when viewed as a whole but nothing short of brilliant when studied in close-up. Marjoram, sedum, rudbeckia, lillies and phlomis. So many shades of biscuit, browns, russets and reds.

One of the beauties of a visit to Trentham is the coffee drinking opportunities provided, in the garden centre before you enter the actual garden, in the shopping village, at the garden entrance and in the beautiful rounded glass cafe just beyond the Tom S-S borders. We sat and enjoyed a latte and warm minced pie and talked about the garden so far. No we didn’t just talk about it – we raved about it! We just couldn’t believe how good it was on this day in December. Nearby music and squeals of delight emanated from a marquee that housed a skating rink. More joyful noise and children’s cries of sheer enjoyment poured from the play area. We couldn’t believe how warm we got sat in the window with the sun on our backs. We mused over this garden of contrasts, enjoyed from every visitor from 2 to 82 years of age. The Oudolf and Stuart-Smith gardens has a magical calming effect on everyone. Children don’t run in that part of the garden but they do once they move into the park areas and woodland. Calm appreciation!

Behind the cafe is a series of display gardens, the number increasing with every visit we make. There was a potager, a wildlife garden a contempoary garden, a garden of sound and many more.

The wildlife garden feature this huge insect hotel complete with bee hive and wormery built-in.

As we wandered back to the garden’s exit we took a look over the Capability Brown lake, ambled through the rose arch with a David Austin border and couldn’t resist a final gentle stroll through Piet Oudolf’s grasses. The rose garden featured some gently curving metal scrolling.

Another coffee before the return journey home when we decided to return in May when the alliums should be at their best alongside the fresh growth of the grasses and perennials. The “Undergardener ” on the way home pronounced “That must be a near perfect winter’s day!”

Tom Stuart-Smith wrote “Trentham is unique, a garden made on a grand scale which pays respect to the historic context, but is nevertheless of our time.”

For more information about Trentham see their website Look out for my planned blogs on the gardens of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith and I am tempted to look back at my photo library and seek out my summer photos of Trentham to illustrate a “Summer Memories of Trentham” blog.

By greenbenchramblings

A retired primary school head teacher, I now spend much of my time gardening in our quarter acre plot in rural Shropshire south of Shrewsbury. I share my garden with Jude my wife a newly retired teacher , eight assorted chickens and a plethora of wildlife. Jude does all the heavy work as I have a damaged spine and right leg. We also garden on an allotment nearby. We are interested in all things related to gardens, green issues and wildlife.

2 replies on “A Garden for all Seasons – Trentham”

Thank you, thank you for bringing me here to find out about Trentham! While I adore the simplicity of the Piet grasses, the Tom S-S Italian garden was ravishingly beautiful I love a garden in winter when there is this kind of subtle coloration that allows the texture and structure to shine. It does indeed sound like you two had a perfect winter day.

Stunning shots of the garden and indeed a perfect winters day you seem to have captured what Piet calls the “winter essence” of the garden which is the intention of the garden team at Trentham to leave the cutting back of the herbaceous perennials till about Jan time, but because of such a mild winter, this task may be later this year. I am so glad you enjoyed your day. Clive

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