Monday, 3 September 2007

Highgrove: organic is beautiful

When I heard that I could visit the garden at Highgrove, the country home of His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, I was over the moon. Demand is so high that the waiting list can be up to five years and only one visit per person is allowed, so for me to get 'in' was fantastic.

The garden is a delight: Charles planned it to be not only an organic landscape but a beautiful one too and he's achieved his goal spectacularly. I walked around it with a smile as wide as a frog: from a design point of view vistas radiating from the house are achieved with paths and clipped hedges whilst wild natural areas (woods and wild flower meadows) juxtapose well with more formal planting.

The walled kitchen garden combines beauty and practicality: old varieties of apple tree are pleached or espaliered whilst other fruits are fan trained on the high brick walls. The geometric planting beds have neat rows of vegetables enclosed by low clipped box hedging – a natural form of pest control.

Scented perennials, flowering shrubs and old fashioned roses spill over the gravel paths, a good foil for the uniformity of the vegetables. Everything is grown organically using compost and natural liquid manures and with no need for sprays: as good an advert for this method of growing as anyone could find.

Throughout the park there are new structures – a dovecote, beef shed, rustic oak temples, brick paths, dry stone walls – that are all designed with the vernacular in mind. The quality of these is quite obvious and the concept perfectly in keeping with the whole ethos.

One fun aspect of walking around it – which one can only do under the guidance of a knowledgeable volunteer - is picking up the clues to inspiration. A laburnum walk is pure Rosemary Verey (Barnsley House), a pair of wrought iron gates leading into a yew hedged garden is definitely Lady Salisbury (Cranbourne Chase) and the wild flower meadow could be a Miriam Rothschild blue-print.

Sadly the giant cedar of Lebanon at the back of the house is dying if not already dead. But nothing lasts forever and although The Prince regrets the loss it's a chance to plant something else in its place for posterity.

The garden pushes every ecological button: planting suits its site and is sustainable; species and methods encourage bio-diversity; endangered native species are thriving; the estate is self-sufficient in vegetables and fruits; there is an ongoing tree planting programme for the benefit of future generations which is also a healthy carbon offset.

And most of the ideas are excellent: a reed-bed waste sewage system may not be suitable for your average Joe but re-cycling rainwater is a measure that can be copied by nearly everyone. Rainwater is free and can be used to irrigate gardens: a win-win situation if ever there was one.

Composting is also big at Highgrove and even owners of the smallest gardens can recycle kitchen vegetable waste using enclosed compost bins. These hardly ever need emptying as an organic liquid is produced that simply seeps into the soil: no sweat.

But I do hope The Prince gives up his idea to produce bio-fuel from rapeseed and other vegetable fats as this is not an efficient – or desirable - use of land. It's also a poor example to set third world countries: if they make over large tracts of arable land to produce fuel(much of it for the West), they will not be able to produce a wide choice of affordable crops for their own population.

Transport can be fuelled by electricity which is produced from timber: the production of a sustainable timber supply not only uses less land than oil seed crops but it leaves arable land free for food crop production. There is often a backlash to alternative methods: think again, Charlie.

But, apart from this one small point, the garden at Highgrove and the message Prince Charles conveys with his ideas and his methods is exemplary. For hundreds of years landscapes were made by men of wealth and power but few did so throughout the 20th century: Prince Charles is an exception. His house and garden combine to make a most beautiful landscape – a real inspiration - certainly the highlight of my gardening year so far.


Book Note: HRH The Prince of Wales' book, The Garden at Highgrove (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson), is still in print and available now in paperback. Even if you have not been to the garden it is a very attractive book with plenty of ideas to inspire....tho' better still if you have been!

This year another handsome book, The Elements Of Organic Gardening, is available. It's a practical guide to organic gardening as practiced at Highgrove and other properties owned by The Prince. All proceeds from these books – and everything sold in the shop at Highgrove – goes towards The Prince's Trust for the worthy causes it supports.


Shafee Jones-Wilson said...

We are in the process of designing a Koranic garden for the Education City and Qatar. It was suggested that Highgrove might be a good example. To whom should inqueries about tours be directed? Also can you think of any other good examples of gardens that have Koranic influences?

Lucy said...

Shafee, I don't think that a visit to Highgrove will be the answer. There is a small enclosed garden there but individuals are not invited to visit. You will need to look at Paradise Gardens more along the lines of the Alhambra in Seville, Spain. I will email you with any other ideas I have or mail me on It all sounds a fascinating and exciting project. Lucy