How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire Greenslade

by Claire Greenslade, Hestercombe’s Head Gardener

How do you manage a large garden with a furloughed team and locked down volunteers?!

Who knew that this would ever be a question I would have to ask myself. This virus is something that none of us had been able to prepare for.

Since March 23rd 2020 Hestercombe has had to close its gates. Really big decisions had to be made, really quickly, and it was decided that nearly all of the staff at Hestercombe would be furloughed. The few remaining were the Chief Executive and General Manager (on reduced wages), the Finance Manager (we still had bills to pay and we needed him to work on a financial plan), the part-time Membership Secretary (we knew members would need help and advice), and the Art Gallery Director (part-funded by the Arts Council).

Additionally, we needed our Wedding Coordinator (we had a lot of weddings booked for the spring which would need rescheduling); and Ben and myself from the gardens team were challenged to try and keep some of the garden alive!

How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire GreensladeAdapting to the first few weeks

My team of seven full-time gardeners was slashed to only two, and our 30-ish garden volunteer team were grounded.

I have to admit the first two weeks were completely overwhelming and disorientating. Ben and I have worked together for over 12 years, so we know each other well enough to keep each other buoyant and recognised when we needed each others emotional support.

The first step was figuring out how we could work safely, and we had to change some of our normal practises for simple practical reasons. Having to keep 2m apart meant that we couldn’t lift anything together – work had to be achievable as individuals instead of as a team. We had separate tools and machinery so that we could avoid the possibility of transferring the virus via touch. We ate lunch outside to avoid being in a building together.

Then came the question, what do we do first!

Our main priority had to be the protection of the historic gardens. This meant that other areas of the estate were mothballed. Woodlands, meadows, car parks, anything that it wasn’t completely necessary to deal with now, was put on hold. We left any grass areas that we thought we could get away without mowing, as we thought we could sort those out later. Some of the annual seeds we had sown were just thrown away because there was no way we’d have time to prick them all out. We also ditched the idea of doing any softwood cutting thinking we could put it off until August and do semi ripe cuttings instead. The barley straw that Ben normally dons waders for and carefully submerges in the ponds to help slow down algae build up was this year literally just chucked in.

How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire GreensladeHaving ups and downs

One of my toughest days was seeing all the pots of tulips that we had planted out in full flower. I couldn’t bare the idea that no one would be able to enjoy them so Ben and I filled our cars and dropped the pots off at a couple of local nursing homes and then to any friends, volunteers or staff houses that were on our journeys home.

We also knew that we wouldn’t have time to keep watering all the plants in the plant centre. We planted anything relevant in the gardens at Hestercombe, and our General Manager took the rest to the hospice for them to use in their gardens or for the staff to take home. The Easter eggs that we had bought in ready for the Easter egg trail were delivered to the food bank. The idea of sharing all of this made us feel so much better and that it wasn’t a waste.

A few decisions were made for our own well-being. Ben wanted to leaf blow the paths, even though no one would see, but so that he felt better himself. He didn’t like it looking untidy and didn’t want to feel that he’d let standards slip. I took the decision to stake the peonies with woven hazel even though it was time consuming and I was pretty sure no one would see them bloom. But I compromised on the delphiniums and used a quicker technique of canes and string to just get it done. I decided that with no one to see the garden the aim of staking was to keep the plant healthy and so the aesthetic didn’t matter as much.

How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire GreensladeA new way of life

Slowly we got into a rhythm. Some jobs had to be done. We’d had over 1,000 gladioli corms delivered before the lockdown so they had to go in the ground; we presumed that we might be open by late summer so that helped us to decide to plant the Cannas. But with just two of us we also had to find ways to speed up. We made the most of the hot weather and carried out speed weeding with the hoe, allowing the sun to kill off the weeds as they lay on the surface. With no visitors around we just chucked any larger weeds on the path and left them there to clear up at the end of the week.

Then the bedding plants arrived for the Victorian terrace – all 3,500 of them – in baking hot conditions. This is normally quite a big job that we carry out with the entire Gardens team and lots of volunteers. This year was due to be a big celebration year for us as it was Coplestone Bampfylde’s 300th birthday (Bampfylde was a previous Hestercombe owner and designer of the landscape garden). In recognition of this, we had used his family’s coat of arms as the inspiration of the design for the planting. But now that the team was down to just two, we decided it would be too time consuming to lay out a complicated pattern, so we sidelined the design and went with a random pattern. It actually looks ok, and we got it done in record time.

The dry weather has made our jobs a 7 day a week affair just to make sure all the new planting can stay alive. We’re lucky that we both love our jobs and that there is nothing else going on anyway!

How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire GreensladeSeeing the positives

There have been lots of positives along the way. The wildlife is definitely being braver. We’ve seen deer rutting in the car park, a black kite flying over head, weasels playing in the orchard, a pair of ducks join us for a cuppa every day and we have a robin that sits with us too. The longer grass areas have meant extra pollinators and insect life. With no one else on site we have been totally absorbed in our work and had a chance to really observe what is going on around us. I’m sure all of us lucky enough to have gardens have found solace in them during these odd times.

Of course life at Hestercombe wont be back to normal for some time and social distancing could be the norm for a while. However, we’re now reopening both to members and non-members through pre booked tickets only (so you won’t be able to visit the garden without pre booking). This will just help us to keep everyone safe by limiting numbers, and staffing will remain at an absolute minimum to help keep costs down. The shop, house, gallery, Column Room restaurant, Stables cafe and play area will all remain closed but you can pre-order takeaway picnic lunches and cream teas. Garden paths will be open but one way systems will be in place to enable visitors the space for distancing.

The gardens are looking great, perhaps a bit shabby round the edges, but nothing that can’t be put right over time. Let’s not forget that this garden has suffered much, much worse neglect than this over the years!

We look forward to being able to welcome you all back, albeit in a slightly different way!

Can you help us keep Hestercombe’s gardens open?

Hestercombe’s closure due to the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Hestercombe Gardens Trust’s finances.

We’re an independent charity, without the safety net of larger organisations, and there is a very real possibility that we may not survive beyond 2020 unless we can raise substantial funds.

Over the last 30 years Hestercombe’s historic landscape and its unique, world famous gardens have been lovingly restored.

Please donate now to ensure Hestercombe continues to thrive and to help secure its magnificent heritage for future generations. Thank you.

How to manage a large garden during furlough? An account from Hestercombe's Head Gardener Claire Greenslade