Head Gardener at Summer Lodge Country House Hotel & Restaurant, Michael Francis is responsible ensuring that the hotel’s stunning gardens remain in tip-top condition all year round. Including an elegant water feature, a manicured vegetable garden and tennis courts, as well as some eye-catching bronze sculptures, the gardens are a highlight for many of Summer Lodge’s guests. Here, experienced gardener Michael Francis shares his first impressions of Summer Lodge, what he’s planting now and his best advice for novice gardeners.
How did you first get into gardening?
“I’ve always had an interest in gardening. From helping my grandparents out in their garden, I then went to Horticultural College and gained a City and Guilds in Horticulture from Capel Manor Horticultural College.”
What were your first impressions of the Summer Lodge gardens?
“My first visit to Summer Lodge was over the Christmas and New Year period in 2017. The garden at the time was very green and almost park-like, which I certainly wasn’t expecting given that it was the middle of winter.”
If you had to pick a favourite feature in the gardens, what would it be?
My favourite area would have to be around the pond and fountain with its amazing array of colours from the Acers, Sweet Chestnut, Rhododendrons and Azaleas. The sound of the water is so relaxing too!”
What are you working on in the gardens at the moment?
At the moment everyone is working on different projects within the garden, Arunas has been working on Mrs Tollman’s garden and has done a great job in making it colourful and introduced some more hydrangeas that are a favourite of Mrs Tollman. Janine has been working hard in the vegetable garden and producing micro herbs and salad leaves for the kitchen, whilst Pauline has been up to her elbows in the poly tunnel, preparing the hotel’s hanging baskets and taking cuttings of plants. Our florist, Iona, has continued to wow guests and associates with her displays in the hotel, and I’ve been working on introducing more colour and increasing our herbaceous boarders with more common plants like Fox Gloves, Lupines and Poppies.”
Can you tell us about any exciting future plans you have for the gardens?
We’ve been germinating sunflower seeds in the poly tunnel to introduce some bright sunflowers into the garden, and we’ve also organised for the local primary school to come and visit. We’re going to give them some cardboard pots for them to decorate, which they will then plant the sunflower seedlings into and either take them home or plant them at school. We’ve also started using the sunflowers as our ‘Tiny Noticeable Touches’ for children that have visited the hotel too.
What are your top tips for those who are new to gardening and want to make the most of their gardens at home?
My main tip is not to be frightened; have the confidence to try because it really isn’t difficult. The rewards far out way the negatives, and while you might not get it right and something might not grow, the feeling of fulfilment and the sense of achievement when you see something you’ve planted grow is amazing. It’s so easy to find tips, short videos and groups for inspiration online.”
What, in your opinion, are the essential items that all home gardeners should own?
I feel that most of the time it comes down to people’s budgets when looking for tools and equipment. You do get what you pay for and I feel it’s better to pay that little bit more because you do get better quality tools. If I had to choose one piece of gardening equipment as an essential tool then that would be a good quality pair of secateurs. I only buy Felco secateurs, because in my opinion they are the best. The basic design and principal behind them is that you can replace everything on them, from the blade, the spring between the handles, the red cover on the handle and the tiny pins that hold the blade in place. They are expensive but they do come in a variety of different designs for a variety of different pruning jobs. I wouldn’t be without mine. I recently sourced a pair for a guest who inquired about them!
On days off, what are your favourite local places to visit?
Locally to the Summer Lodge it would have to Mapperton House and its beautiful gardens. Going further afield it would be Montacute House, Stour Head, Dartmoor National Park and the New Forest.
Image Credits: All images courtesy of Red Carnation Hotels.