It’s been a strange few months for all of us, whether we have been working from home, shielding alone, or going to our normal place of work – it’s all been very different.
A lot of us have had to come to terms with speaking to colleagues, family and friend on Skype, Zoom or the good old phone, or socially distanced in the office. I’ve Zoomed, Skyped, emailed and even posted letters to keep people connected in our Cumbria’s Living Heritage community and have enjoyed keeping in touch with old friends during this period – and I feel that I have made a new one. I don’t know what she looks like! I don’t know very much about her at all! But I have been receiving photographs and notes from Bethan Pettitt as she goes about her work as Head Gardener at Brantwood. So when I mentioned this fact, Bethan said – ‘ask away, what do you want to know?’. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse, as I confess I have been curious!
Q – Bethan, have you always been a gardener?
No actually, but I grew up on a small-holding so I’ve always thought life is best lived outside. I oscillated between arts and environment for quite a long time before a defining moment changed the course of my life. I was living in a city, working in the arts, when we lost a good friend. In the process of grieving him I re-evaluated what I am really passionate about & want to spend my life doing & it was clearly working with plants. I signed up for the Royal Horticultural Society qualifications at my local Botanic Garden, where I volunteered too, I absolutely loved learning about plants in that detail and aspired to work in a Botanic Garden. I later did a traineeship with English Heritage, on the Heritage and Botanic Garden Placement Scheme, which was also incredible. Putting that work in early in my career is what has allowed me to get this dream job. That Ruskin was a naturalist and also an artist means Brantwood has a really diverse and wonderful plant pallet and is really creative too – it’s a perfect meeting of my two interests!
Q – What is unique to Brantwood?
There is a lot that is unique to Brantwood, it’s such a diverse garden, we have really different planting styles and habitats, some intimate, some grand. We have the Italianate allegorical formality of the Zig-zaggy paired with glorious moss gardens, richly planted flower borders, an alpine garden, a garden dedicated to native herbs amongst others. It has been described as “a series of exquisite jewel-like garden islands set in a wider sea of ancient woodland…” by a previous Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh (David Ingram) and I don’t think you can get higher praise or a more poetic description than that!
In terms of working here, the freedom we have is quite fantastic, previous gardeners have been able to develop and explore Ruskinian principles within the garden in their own original styles. The Hortus Inclusus, a garden of native herbs, is one example, as is the Fern Garden. Ruskin was always experimenting with new techniques and crops with the aim of helping improve the lives of the people living around him and as we have the freedom to explore these things I’d love to develop some experiments of my own that are useful for our neighbours now. I also really enjoy the mix of exotic and native plantings, plus open and wooded habitats. Often there is a clear separation between ‘gardens’ and ‘estates’ but there isn’t such a clear separation here, which is great as I love trees.
Q – What do you remember about your interview with Howard. (Howard Hull, Director at Brantwood)
Starting at Brantwood in January was the best Christmas present I could have had, I was delighted to have been offered the job. I got a really warm, friendly feeling from the team when they interviewed me and I had been lucky to have a long look around the garden with two of the team before that, as well as having visited previously. I hadn’t been a Head Gardener before but they say you should always apply for your dream job, even if you think it’s out of your reach – so I did and was incredibly lucky to get it! Ironically I remember saying to Howard that I wouldn’t want to make any big decisions about Brantwood until I’d at least seen it through a whole year but then Covid-19 happened and we had to make some fairly big decisions straight away!
Q – Does the heritage and the work of previous gardeners (Ruskin himself?) influence your approach to the garden?
There are layers of influence throughout the garden. If you do ‘The Ruskin Trail’ through the gardens it begins with the Zig-zaggy, through purgatory and up into the graces, onwards to the Precipice Walk and down to Ruskin’s Pond. This is a wild walk taking in subtle and dramatic spaces, many of which are gardened using native and exotic planting in naturalised settings. Walking around Joan’s gardens on the other hand, such as The High Walk and Harbour Walk the gardens are less natural looking, whilst they are not necessarily ‘formal’ the designed aspect is more obvious. More recently, Sally Beamish, late Head Gardener, was an enormous influence on the gardens and it would be almost impossible not to be influenced by her – she created the Fern garden inspired by WJ Linton who lived at Brantwood and wrote one of the first books about native ferns, she also rescued the Zig-zaggy and High Walk from their overgrown states. In the present day, Ruth Charles has been a strong influence, she has grown a wide range of unusual plants from seed so you might see plants here that you haven’t seen elsewhere in the Lake District.
Another direct influence from Ruskin is that we try to garden as sustainably as possible, welcoming wildlife in whilst trying to protect our wide range of native and exotic planting. Sometimes it creates ongoing dilemmas, for example, we have the Netted Carpet Moth, one of the rarest moths native to the UK breeding here. It feeds on ‘Touch-me-not Balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere) which is the UK’s only native balsam. Unfortunately, although it’s native, Touch-me-not Balsam spreads in a similar explosive way to the invasive Himalayan Balsam & so we are constantly treading a delicate dance between keeping as much of it as possible for the moths but not letting it take over all our flower borders!
Q – What have you enjoyed at Brantwood most this year so far?
Oh, well, it was amazing to start in January and so see the garden waking up – there were so many surprises! I knew it was botanically diverse but I’m still astounded by how great it is. For the first few months Ruth was showing me new plants almost daily. I now have hundreds of photos of Brantwood plants on my phone, I’ve been sharing them on social media as I go along, so people can actually follow some of my discoveries as they happen if they’re interested. (details below)
And then came lockdown!
Q – How has that been for you?
Well, I had only been here for a few months so I was still very much getting used to being here and getting to know the gardens. There is always a lot to learn when you start a new job and I was just getting know the teams, both estate and the house, when suddenly it all changed. So, very strange, uncomfortable times for sure but there have definitely been positives we’ve managed to take from the situation.
The birdsong was absolutely incredible all spring, we wouldn’t normally get to hear it quite so clearly, lockdown was definitely very good for nature. We managed to do some smaller tasks that are difficult when there are visitors around like repainting all the railings. Also some much bigger, messy jobs that would have been really difficult at any other time like taking a large Ash tree down. It had succumbed to Ash Dieback, a sadly very common fatal fungal disease. Even this can be seen as an opportunity in disguise though as now I’m planning the new planting – I’ve chosen some really special plants and will be developing it over the next few years. It’s my first re-design project at Brantwood so that is pretty exciting for me.
I’m guessing that no day is the same for a Head Gardener!
Q – How have you planned your time during lockdown?
You are right there but I can only think about what is happening now! We are firing on all cylinders getting ready for opening. I start most days with a super quick walk around a few key areas of the garden, checking the state of things so I can prioritise quickly. Ideally, after a quick discussion my team meet the house staff and volunteers who are helping in the gardens in the run up to opening. We try to offer them a choice of tasks they could help with for the day according to peoples interests and abilities but also according to how many tools we have – they bring in their own hand tools and I sanitise any other tools we’ll be using. Tasks can range from weeding and deadheading, to helping put up marquees and knock in posts for new ‘one-way’ signs. Whilst obviously we have been affected by lockdown and staff furloughs, we have been really lucky compared to a lot of the public gardens my friends work in so Brantwood’s gardens are in great shape considering.
Q – What’s your favourite part of the garden to relax in at this time of year?
It has to be either Ruskin’s Pond or the Orchard as I love being in dappled shade on a bright day as the hot sun can make me wilt a bit! We have cut paths in the long grass with ‘socially distanced picnic spots’ in both areas and it’s a great opportunity to spend time in the orchard as it’s normally only open for blossom days and apple days.
Q – What’s looking great at Brantwood right now?
There really is always so much to choose from! If you are after colour then now is the moment for the Trellis Walk, the Professor’s Garden and the Corn Field to shine. Summer colours are coming into their own with Veronicastrum, Helenium and Hosta in full flower right now. We are setting up the Marquee up next to the Cornfield which I’m really pleased about as it means this area will be getting a lot more of the attention it deserves from visitors. The High Walk has had a luxury deep mulching this year too so that’s still looking really smart. Next on my to-do list is giving the Professors Garden a good pampering so that should be looking tip-top when we open too.
It was National Meadows Day a few days ago and our Hay Meadow is gloriously rich in native species with eye-bright, orchids, hay rattle and oxeye daisy amongst all the different grasses. It creates an idyllic scene. It’s also the easiest thing to keep looking great – you leaving it doing it’s thing all year and then mow it in autumn. Gather up the grass and take it away and you are pretty much done for another year. You can view the meadow from the Herb Garden and I thoroughly recommend looking up Plantlife’s No Mow May campaign for how to care for a small meadow in your own garden.
Q – What can visitors look forward to seeing – or what would you recommend that they seek out?
Brantwood is probably a lot bigger than most people imagine, when I give people tours – surprisingly I have done a few distanced tours for new staff and volunteers recently – I don’t have time to take them up to the Precipice Walk, the Moorland Garden or Crag Head, and often don’t even have time to go to Ruskin’s Pond which is fairly close to the more ornamental gardens. So I’d say, leave enough time to explore beyond the immediate surroundings of the house. Bring or buy a picnic from us or have a meal at The Terrace and take your time exploring.
Q – In true Gardeners’ World fashion, should we end with – ‘jobs for the weekend’ – what would be your jobs for the weekend for a Cumbrian gardener?
I think the best task right now is eating the wild strawberries! I love blackcurrants as well, they remind me of my childhood den amongst the fruit bushes in my mum’s garden. It’s important to remember to enjoy the garden you are working in. Other task include feeding, weeding and watering at the moment. Potted plants like tomatoes and dahlias get a weekly liquid seaweed feed – I see no reason to use a chemical feeds when the organic ones are so good. Weeding here is a bit like the proverbial painting of the Forth Bridge, I try to get to each area before the weeds go to seed, to reduce the amount of weeds that will come up next year. While weeding you might want to do some editing too, if plants are growing through each other and looking too crowded I try to give them a bit of room to breath.
We’ve started deadheading some roses, depending on whether we want hips or not and with geraniums we might get a fresh flush of flowers or a nice neat mound of fresh foliage if they’re cut back completely. It’s also the season for softwood cuttings, I’ve taken some from our Teucrium fruticans and time will soon tell whether they’ve rooted or not! I do recommend trying cuttings, when it works out it feels like alchemy – let me know how it goes if you try it!
So there’s still lots to do – if any one would like to help out at Brantwood then please get in touch about volunteering here: firstname.lastname@example.org and if you’d like to follow us on social media then Brantwood is @RuskinsFriends on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and I am Bethan (@Imogen4) on Twitter and HG Bethan (Bethan_at_Brantwood) on Instagram.”
Thanks Bethan, I’m really looking forward to meeting you – its only a couple of weeks to wait now.
Jeanette Edgar, Cumbria’s Living Heritage