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Interview: Ursula Cholmeley

Interview: Ursula Cholmeley

Photo: Fred Cholmeley

The rescuer of Easton Walled Gardens in Lincolnshire talks about her gardening life and loves

My earliest gardening memory is of winning the gardening prize at school, when I was nine years old. The prize was a tiny torch key ring but, unfortunately, when I showed it to my pony he ate it!

My horticultural heroes are Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto. Christo’s writing has been such an inspiration to so many young gardeners, and Beth’s garden continues to astonish me with its exquisite layers of planting – it just gets better and better with maturity.

The book I would most like to pass on to others is Christopher Lloyd’s Meadows. It is a lovely mix of inspiration and really sound practical advice. I’m looking forward to reading the revised edition, with Fergus Garrett’s input.

My most valuable training has been my history degree – even, surprisingly, the Latin module, which I absolutely hated at the time. As a gardener, the Latin is useful every day, and knowing how to research properly proved invaluable when we were piecing together the history of Easton.

One unexpected source of inspiration is Henry Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon’s Mines), who wrote a fascinating account of his gardening year at the start of the last century. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but I love the way he faces so many of the problems we do – like being hit by a sudden cold spell in June, or the occasional difficulties of running a garden on a large scale. There’s also a certain pioneer spirit about his exploits. That was a time when technology was coming on, but wasn’t so advanced that you had to farm it out. With a few resources and a lot of ingenuity you could tackle almost anything.

My proudest achievement has been taking the ‘lost’ gardens here at Easton, which were on the highest level of the at-risk register, and turning them back into something of nationally recognised importance.

The guiding principle that shapes my attitude to gardening is that, in any long-term project, you must be careful to listen to the small voices. The bees, tiny seedlings and birdsong will all become integral to the creation of a space filled with life as well as colour.

If I could only grow one group of plants it would have to be trees, particularly the giant redwoods (assuming I had unlimited acreage). Easton is in gently rolling countryside, and without trees we would be much the poorer. I have a particular fondness for the sequoias because I raised them myself from seed, about 10 years ago. They are already 12ft tall and it gives me real joy to imagine what they will be like long after I am gone.

I am at my happiest when I am gardening on a perfect day, neither too hot nor too cold. I love to do anything with a rhythm, like gentle weeding. It’s a form of meditation – I lose myself in the moment. Getting cuttings to establish is another great joy – I’ve been doing it for years, but it still seems extraordinary that plants have this ability to clone themselves.

My guiltiest secret is that many of our best planting combinations are self sown. We only need to curate and take all the glory. Recently we had a lot of self-sown Smyrnium perfoliatum that flowered for several months, in amongst our aquilegias and under all the emerging shrubs that had yet to come into their own. It looked wonderful. 

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