The stunning borders of tulips at Trench Hill garden in Painswick

Stunning views over the Cotswold countryside are one of the garden's highlights.

Stunning views over the Cotswold countryside are one of the garden's highlights - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Trench Hill’s borders are alight with tulips in spring. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Most gardeners have tulips. Few have quite the range or skill at combining them of Celia Hargrave. The late spring display at Trench Hill is breath-taking in its beauty and far beyond the usual clump in a border, or a few pots of blooms. 

When Celia suggested I visit to see the tulips, I was expecting something good. This country garden on a hillside in Sheepscombe has long been a favourite, and one that genuinely has interest year-round. I’ve been there many times but never at tulip time so didn’t know what to expect. 

Tulips light up the spring borders at Trench Hill.

Tulips light up the spring borders at Trench Hill - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

That it’s going to be special is obvious from the moment I arrive. A long border down the side of the house is filled with shades of yellow and red. Opposite, dark plummy colours are set against fiery orange and in turn contrasted with pale amelanchier blossom. The backdrop to it all is the view over untouched countryside. 

Borders along the back of the house are given over to pinks, mauve and white. Dark purple threads through the planting both with tulips and heuchera, while an underplanting of forget-me-not provides a blue froth at their base. 

Alongside the main lawn, the colour palette is salmon pink, peach, white and pale lemon with just enough cerise to stop it being insipid. 

Tulipa 'Banja Luka' glows in the spring sunshine.
Note: Tulipa needs to be in italics

Tulipa 'Banja Luka' glows in the spring sunshine - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Move down the garden though and the borders are afire with yellow, orange and red in a display that’s guaranteed to warm even the coldest spring day. 

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The tulip show has been built up over a few years with around 800 more bulbs planted each autumn, adding to those already there, as none are lifted after flowering. 

A classic purple and orange combination adds drama to the display.

A classic purple and orange combination adds drama to the display - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

‘It’s impossible,’ says Celia. ‘I couldn’t do it because by the time the tulips are finished, the herbaceous plants are coming through. It would be a step too far.  

‘I know I lose some but I also know that some of them come back again.’ 

When it comes to choosing varieties, she has definite ideas, preferring tulips that are tall with a traditionally shaped flower and good leaves. 

‘I nearly always go for tall tulips whether for the front or the back of a border. I like the impact of them.’ 

Leaves are also an important consideration: ‘You sometimes get ones that have what are called tatty leaves right from the beginning. I’m trying to avoid those.’ 

Among her favourites are ‘Jumbo Beauty’, which is deep pink with white-tipped edges, while yellow and red ‘Olympic Flame’ and brilliant pink ‘Barcelona’ are liked because they tend to be more reliable returners than other varieties. 

While much of the three-acre garden has a loose colour theme in different areas, the tulips are more regimented. That said, each border has many shades and even many colours but these are carefully put together with each variety spread throughout the area giving an overall blended effect. 

‘I think each one is helping the other to look stunning.’ 

The emerging foliage of perennials is the perfect green foil for the tulips.

The emerging foliage of perennials is the perfect green foil for the tulips - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Planting is a mammoth task, not least finding space to put new bulbs. Finding she was often spying a suitable space only to find she had just planted in it, Celia has developed a method to keep track of things. A piece of willow now marks each newly planted clump – generally five or six bulbs – stopping her trying to use the same space twice. 

‘You only have to get distracted, or move away from a border, and you think ‘Oh there’s a nice spot’. Yes, it’s a nice spot because I’ve just put them in there already. It’s been quite a good system.’ 

Although she tries to move a variety across a border, she doesn’t worry too much about groups of the same bulb being close together: ‘I think if there’s a mixture of similar colours, the blocking doesn’t really matter.’ 

Tulipa 'Dreamland'Note: Tulipa needs to be in italics

Tulipa 'Dreamland' - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Bulbs are planted deep – around eight inches – something Celia believes helps encourage them to flower again in subsequent years. They are deadheaded after flowering with most of the stalk removed but otherwise are left to get on with it.  

The many herbaceous plants – crocosmia, rudbeckia, geraniums, hemerocallis – that share space with the tulips help to hide the dying foliage. 

Feeding is nothing more than liberal helpings of homemade compost, which is applied mainly in the autumn but with a top-up in spring. 

Bluebells are naturalised in the woodland.

Bluebells are naturalised in the woodland - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

‘I do what I’d call a spring clean. Just as things are coming through quite early in the spring. If you can scatter some good compost on, it just lifts the border a bit.’ 

It’s also helped improve the Cotswold brash soil, which while providing good drainage for tulips is stony and thin: Because we compost a lot, everything grows here that I want to grow.’ 

Celia has a similarly organised approach to her planted seasonal containers – another feature of the Trench Hill spring. 

Masses of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ are mixed with hyacinths and pansies in a blue and white display of both big and small containers. 

Pansies fill one of the many containers planted for early colour.

Pansies fill one of the many containers planted for early colour - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

All the bulbs will be lifted with those from the smaller containers put out into borders and bulbs from the larger containers carefully labelled and stored. They will be planted out into the small containers in autumn with fresh bulbs bought for the rest of the pots. It’s a method that ensures two years of use in pots before the bulbs join the garden display. 

Celia has developed the garden over the past 28 years, creating about 90 per cent of what’s there today, including two woodland areas crammed with early spring flowers, foliage borders that are an autumn delight, a wildlife pond, vegetable garden and rose beds. 

There's an informality to the garden that fits with its country setting.

There's an informality to the garden that fits with its country setting - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

‘There’s always a sense of something happening throughout the year. But I think that’s because we’re very, very lucky with the actual location of the garden,’ says Celia. 

‘We’ve got south facing ground so the big herbaceous borders and the rose borders all come into their own really from this time right through the summer. Equally, we’ve got the woodland areas.’ 

While the main garden is full of brightly coloured tulips, the woodland areas have a subtle charm.  

The top woodland walk is particularly good in late winter with snowdrops, hellebores and crocus woven together alongside a bark chipped path. The hellebores are still showing, beautiful in their faded chintz colours and wood anemones are extending the display. 

Pieces of art are found throughout the garden.

Pieces of art are found throughout the garden - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

In the lower woodland, it’s the turn of the bluebells to take the spotlight, not the brash Spanish imports but delicate English bluebells that add a shimmer of blue. 

Under the fruit trees, she’s been developing a mini meadow with snake’s head fritillaries, cowslips and the first signs or orchids. 

Threaded through the garden is artwork, some humorous, and garden structures, including a poolside summerhouse. 

The summerhouse is a peaceful spot to enjoy the garden.

The summerhouse is a peaceful spot to enjoy the garden - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

And everywhere there are spots of colour: pink blossoms on a mature cherry, and pots of camellias. 

‘Those things I think are kind of the small things of the garden but also give me a lot of pleasure.’ 

Yet, in spring it’s the tulips that dominate the stage and are the particular joy of the season. 

‘Every time you see the tulips, they lift your spirits.’ 

Trench Hill is opens regularly for the National Garden Scheme. Details are on the website: ngs.org.uk

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