Gardening at Aldworth House is poetry in motion
With every horticulturist exhibiting an innate passion for plants, it's no surprise to learn that John Bray, estates manager and head gardener at Aldworth House, regards the historic estate laid down by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1869 as 'his garden'. Few, however, can claim such an impressive working environment: a 16-acre estate containing a myriad of lawns, flower beds, shrubs, bushes and trees, walkways, carp-filled ponds, conservatories and greenhouses, as well as an abundance of wild birds.
Set high in the Blackdown Forest, Sussex, with stunning views over the South Downs and to the coast, Aldworth creates an incessant workload for John Bray and his team of two gardeners. Their attention is obviously focused depending on the seasons, and is at its height during the Spring and on the occasions that the estate plays 'open house' to Tennyson's Society meetings when, in particular, he says, "everything has to be just so".
But it is obvious to any visitor that the Aldworth team work hard all year round, which explains the 'my garden' sentiment.
"Our visitors only get a snapshot, as it were, of the estate," he says. "But it is imperative they see it at its best, whatever the season. We continually strive to make everything perfect every day of the year, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a weed at anytime.
"With the flowering of the azaleas and rhododendrons coinciding with the main planting season, late spring and early summer is our most hectic time, and it's probably the time of the year when the garden is fairly described as being at its best."
With four years as estate manager, John Bray has established a seasonal routine and he regularly confronts the same problems.
"While the acidic soil means azaleas and rhododendrons thrive, it also presents quite a battle to produce a good show of alkaline-loving plants and shrubs; for example, by completely changing the soil in one area, we have created conditions that are ideal for roses. Also, being so high up 'in the clouds' means that we can often be constantly 'wet' for days on end, and as a result spend a lot of time combating moss and algae."
These are on-going challenges, but with teamwork and effective communication, it is clear that they do succeed.
"I'm in no doubt that teamwork is at the heart of the estate's success," he confirms, "with everyone not only being encouraged to seek out and identify possible problems but also empowered to rectify situations. If people feel involved, and receive due credit, the garden benefits - their feel-good factor is reflected in the way they work."
This ethic transcends every activity at Aldworth, even the selection of the necessary tools and equipment, and the quest to keep up-to-date with technologies.
"All three of us went to IOG Saltex at Windsor last year," he continues, "because not only do I feel it is important that we keep abreast of techniques that will enable us to be more effective and efficient, but also because the show gives us the opportunity to see our suppliers first hand and to discuss any particular problems.
"For example, we purposely went to the show to identify and select a new tractor and, after seeing several possible alternatives in action in the Demonstration Zone, we chose a John Deere front loader. We couldn't have created such a shortlist and made our selection all in one day anywhere else other than at IOG SALTEX."
While such one-off equipment purchases have to be individually justified, the estate's day-to-day gardening requirements fall within an annual budget "that enables us to do the best possible job," confirms John Bray, and it includes a monthly wild bird food bill that surpasses the average household's grocery spend!
It is obvious that the estate is in the hands of professionals, led by a person who pays as much attention to man-management as he does to horticulture. Clearly, gardening at Aldworth is poetry in motion!