Fenton House’s garden is an outpost of heaven in Hampstead
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
No wonder Andrew Darragh, the gardener in charge at Fenton House, seems a cheerful man.
Our picture shows him on his way to work, from his flat in the yard of the house, through the orchard, on to the greenhouse and the formal parts of the garden.
It is easy to exaggerate other people’s good fortune, but to visit Andrew in late April is to get the impression of someone who lives and works in an outpost of heaven.
When I met him two years ago, he was still relatively new to the job.
He talked about making gradual changes to the garden, the subtle sorts of improvement that avoid major upheaval. An example was the replacement of the diseased box edging in the rose garden with Alchemilla mollis.
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I had heard since that he had moved on to more radical work, and was curious to see it.
So, instead of going through the orchard, Andrew led the way through the back of the house and out into South Drive, the front path leading up from the golden entrance gates.
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Apart from the snowdrops, this is not an area I had taken much notice of before.
Andrew says it was dominated by a line of gaunt and spindly Robinia pseudoacacia well past their best.
This past winter he replaced them with an avenue of 18 slim, upright flowering cherries, Prunus amanogawa.
Their delicate pinkish/white blossoms were just coming out, alongside the white flowers of four new Magnolia stellata in the border.
The removal of the robinias has let in more light, so Andrew and the gardening team have been planting up the borders with perovskias, alchemilla, sisyrinchiums, persicaria, centaureas.
He pointed out the oddity of the drive’s perspective, how the borders and grass on one side of the path are wider than on the other, saying that it would not always have been like that; land must have been sold when the neighbouring house was built.
He has tried to make this imbalance less obvious by giving the grass on the wider side a sinuous edge, to nudge us away from any unconscious expectation of Versailles-like symmetry.
Andrew comes across as a playful character, given to new enthusiasms and trying out fresh combinations of plants.
Last time we met, he was obsessed by Echium pinnata (many of which are now well established in the top border); this time the obsession is with Mina lobata, Spanish Flag, a climbing, twining half hardy annual.
It belongs to the same family as morning glory but looks nothing like it. As its common name suggests, it is bright red and yellow, so should be easy to spot in the gardens later this year.
Meanwhile, the Chelsea Flower Show is coming up, with Chelsea Fringe in its wake. From May 21 – June 12, says a Fenton House leaflet, there will be: “A fascinating collection of Bonsai displayed in a unique way in our beautiful orchard”.
What can that mean? Andrew was not letting on, beyond saying that it will involve a lot of preparation.
He also mentioned May 30, 11am – 7pm: Fenton’s Big Picnic. We are asked to turn up with a picnic and enjoy the garden.
There will be simple refreshments, acoustic music and traditional lawn games, with the bonsai collection “uniquely displayed”.
No booking needed, adults £3, children 5+, £1.50.