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Historic grounds for learning

Philip Clinch
Philip Clinch

GARDENING is a bug that’s impossible to shake off and it’s certainly got Philip Clinch in its grip. The new head gardener at Penshurst Place talked to of his addiction on a guided tour of the magnificent gardens.

"Gardening grips you. The more you find out, the more you want to know and the more you realise there’s so much to know."

Although these are words which could come from any gardener, it was a statement from Philip Clinch, the new head gardener at Penshurst Place, a font of horticultural knowledge, who trained at Hadlow College and the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh.

But even he admits that he will go on learning for as long as he gardens.

He has the luxury of a five-strong team at the ancestral home of the De L’Isle family but with 11 acres to tend they have their work cut out.

The gardens at Penshurst, near Tonbridge, are believed to be the largest in private ownership so it is no mean feat to keep them packed with interest for the thousands of visitors.

Many are attracted from far and wide to the peony border, the longest in Britain. At 100 metres, it is a striking sight when the plants are in full bloom in June, an opulent cloud of blowsy pink and red flowers.

Philip, originally from Sittingbourne, explains that the peonies have been here for 40 to 60 years – they hate to be disturbed. They all have to be staked to prevent rain knocking them down and then they are cut down in late autumn.

Philip falters when it comes to naming his favourite plant and part of the garden. "Oh gosh, I have so many interests," he replies.

"It depends on the time of the year. Herbaceous plants have always been a big interest of mine but at the beginning of the year it is the snowdrops and hellebores – and then peonies..." His voice trails away.

He is spoilt for choice in the immaculately manicured garden bursting with fantastic plants but he also admits a fondness for the giant thistle-like cardoon.

"It’s main advantage is that it’s drought-loving,” he says. “It’s so striking its leaves provide interest at the end of the season when the flowers are over."

Drought is a major problem for gardeners in the south east and Penshurst is no exception. The lovely fountain in Diana’s Bath has to remain switched off until the afternoon to conserve water.

Philip also ruefully points out the dank, stagnant water. This is a result of having to be pumped up from the lake as the levels are no longer high enough for a natural flow.

Philip adds: "There’s an incredible water shortage here. The lake hasn’t been full for two years."

The shortage has affected his redesign of the Grey and White Garden for which he has chosen drought-resistant white lilies, irises and shasta daisies.

He has been kept busy over the winter renovating the famous Flag Garden, planted in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, which will be ready in 2007. "We had to change all the soil to re-plant the roses to avoid rose re-plant disease. That was done by digger.

"'We also had to double dig and use weedkiller on the lavender to get rid of the bindweed."

There are 1,000 roses in this garden alone and a staggering 3,000 or more in total. That puts most people’s pruning into perspective!

Another highlight is the marvellous Italian Garden with its statue of Hercules.

Philip explains: "It has changed very little since the 16th century. 'Other gardens were still medieval and so it was well ahead of its time when it was laid out."

One of many historic attractions is the ancient gingko biloba tree, which has grown so tall it is perilously near to a wing of the house.

Philip believes that because it was so rare when it was introduced, whoever planted it did not realise how big it would become.

The illustrious history of the garden is reflected in the decorative touches of an avenue of colourful heraldic beasts on posts which were used in Elizabethan times and which represent the De L’Isle family.

More modern is the striking statue of a porcupine – part of the family shield – made from scrap metal by Viscount De L’Isle’s nephew Robert Rattray.

A major task is cutting what seems like miles of yew hedges every August and collecting the clippings to help make the cancer drug taxenol.

Philip’s favourite time of the day is after the visitors have left: "It’s amazing the way the atmosphere of the garden changes in the evening. When it closes it’s so peaceful."

Visitors who are not lucky enough to experience this magical time can get away from it all with a walk to the lake and arboretum.

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