The gardens at Summer Lodge, a wonderful blend of traditional English herbaceous borders, lush lawns, kitchen garden, rose garden and superb water feature always look wonderful – thanks to a lot of hard work from Head Gardener John Eke. We asked him to gives us some insights into how he does it all, with a little help from his wife, and Arunas, his Lithuanian assistant.
He explains that part of his secret is hidden in the dense foliage behind the pond. “We grow up to 25,000 plants a year in our poly tunnel. It is 100 ft by 16ft and heated. We grow all the bedding plants in there – all the geraniums and plants for the hanging basket we grow from cuttings made the previous year and we self-seed as many plants as possible. I harvest the flowers as they are dying, put them in a brown paper bag, hang them up in the greenhouse to dry, then my wife, Pauline, separates all the shucks from them and collect all the seeds. It’s the sort of job you do when it is pouring down with rain! It’s also a job that women do better than men – it’s very fiddly and it helps to have some fingernails to dig into the shucks…their fingers are more nimble!”
“We’re working round to a situation where we don’t have to buy in bedding plants. We always grow more than we need. You get foxes and badgers digging things up, so you always have to keep some plants in reserve. So if you are buying in you have to order more than you need, which gets expensive and wasteful. And we self-seed as many plants as possible
Fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers grown to order
“We’re not self-sufficient in terms of fruit and vegetables, because the kitchen garden is just the size of an allotment, and according to the government that’s enough space for a family of four to grow all the fruit and veg they need to support themselves, so it won’t support a whole hotel. However, we do provide the hotel with a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers by supplementing the kitchen garden using the poly tunnel – we can bring things on and get crops coming through a lot quicker. For instance, at the start of the summer we bring on the salad leaves, you can grow those in about four weeks, and they don’t even need to go outside before they are picked. We can germinate lettuce in about two weeks…sow them in there then plant them out in the garden. It’s very effective and we run it quite commercially, to keep the hotel supplied with produce and fresh flowers.”
“Obviously it’s much better when you get produce straight out of the garden, it tastes better, there’s no wilting, just cut it and eat it – so we work closely with the kitchen to see what they want in the coming weeks and months to give them as much as we can. We grow mint, chives, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, lavender, anything the kitchen particularly wants, including about 11 different gourds, pumpkins and squashes.”
“Steve, the Head Chef, recently asked us to grow some tiny radishes, about the size of a pea. You can’t buy those, as they would shrivel up if you didn’t have them totally fresh. We grow them in trays, we take them to the kitchen, and they grow them when they want them. It adds a surprise factor to dishes, a touch of finesse and novelty.”
“The other thing, we’ve got a lot of wild garlic growing here, all that greenery over there,” he explains, pointing to the far side of the lawn, “with the little white flowers, that’s wild garlic. We’re going to harvest loads of the flowers for the seeds, then put them in the fridge. We’ll give them an artificial winter so they think it’s springtime, then sow them in trays so they can get little spear shaped leaves that taste of very mild garlic, a very subtle flavour that doesn’t give you bad breath. It will be a very upmarket garnish, as nobody else will have ever done it. It’s a laborious process so gram for gram the seeds will be worth more than gold!”
“Another little thing I’ve done is the topiary sundial in the front garden. I had ten working days to do that. Mrs Tollman had some friends coming and asked me if I could do it, to add a real ‘wow’ factor. It’s about thirty five foot in diameter. It’s made out of box, and bought in as potted plants, planted, and then clipped. We were able to buy the plants direct from the Dutch auctions. I think we had to buy 800 little plants to make it up, and plant them in two lines.”
“I finished it about a week before the clocks changed in the spring, and everyone was saying “what are you going to do when the clocks go forward?” I thought I’d just ignore that little complication, but then I thought “there must be a way to solve that, I’m sure I can figure it out”. Ask a child and they’d tell you in five minutes, but I was too clever to ask a child and it took me two weeks to work it out. I had a Eureka moment at four o’clock in the morning! The bit in the middle is slanted, to take account of the axis of the earth, and it points to the north, so what you do is you put it in a great big pot, and you wait for the sun to shine and you twist the pot and because it is tilted, the shadow moves…so you can reset it day by day just by moving the pot.”
John loves talking to guests and showing them around the gardens he’s helped create with Mrs Tollman – he’s a mine of information and little stories, so be sure to seek him out next time you come and stay!