Behind the scenes at Arley Hall gardens

Arley Hall Gardens

Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

Arley Hall’s head gardener, Gordon Baillie, reveals how they prepare the magnificent gardens for spring. Words by Rebekka O’Grady

Head Gardener, Gordon Baillie

Head Gardener, Gordon Baillie - Credit: Archant

For the majority of us, prepping our gardens for the spring and summer months isn’t a mammoth task. A bit of pruning here, planting some new bulbs over there and maybe repairing some damage to the trusty garden shed. But how do you even attempt to prep if you have over eight acres of formal gardens and among other things, a six acre grove and woodland area?

‘You just have to roll with the punches,’ laughed Gordon Baillie who is the head gardener at Arley Hall, near Northwich. ‘You can never predict what the weather is going to throw at you, so my plan for preparing the gardens for spring can sometimes go out of the window.’

Gordon has worked at Arley Hall, home of Lord and Lady Ashbrook, for six years. Originally from Glasgow, he has spent time at a number of nurseries and estates before tending to the gardens at this beautiful estate, which have been created over the past 250 years by successive generations of the same family.

‘I see Arley as a very large back garden, because essentially that’s what it is to the Ashbrook family,’ said Gordon, who lives on the estate with his wife, Bridgette. ‘As they are keen gardeners, I meet with them weekly to discuss the gardens. There is no layout or a design that we stick to. This doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it’s less awkward than sticking to a plan and then it not working.’

Gordon says that he and Lord and Lady Ashbrook, who arrived at Arley Hall in 1977, purchase whatever plants they like and then go out into the garden to see where they fit: ‘Lord Ashbrook likes rhododendrons and specialist trees and Lady Ashbrook enjoys herbaceous plants and smaller trees. My favourites are herbaceous and bedding plants.’

Although there may not be a strict design plan, there is an element of organisation to maintaining the gardens at Arley Hall. Gordon creates a list of various tasks and jobs that need to be completed, and then depending on the weather, he and the team can refer to the notes to see what can be done that day.

‘There are five of us that work full time and weekly we also have a volunteer gardener,’ explained Gordon. ‘Once I have sat down with Lord and Lady Ashbrook and sorted a priority list of what they would like to be done, I can then spread the work between the staff. We can be area specific, task specific and sometimes team specific.’

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For Gordon, work carried out during the winter months is crucial in making sure that the gardens are beautiful in the spring and summer. ‘Winter and the period working up to spring is in many ways the busiest for us. Timing is key and if you don’t do certain things now, then no amount of work later on will rectify things.’

‘We begin ordering the bedding for the summer in February and our main pruning phase for fruit, wisterias and roses is from February to March,’ he said. ‘Fruit can come into bloom earlier so I always like to have them done by end of February. Come mid-April to May we will then go into planting season.’

Any maintenance jobs such as repairing pathways or blocked drains are also carried out during this period as Gordon says that he and the team just don’t have time for big jobs when they’re busy pruning or mowing lawns in the summer.

‘August can sometimes be the quietest working month as we are just maintaining the garden, but obviously the summer months are very busy with visitors – especially during the Arley Garden Festival in June,’ said Gordon. ‘Before coming to Arley, I had never worked in a garden that was open to the public. I find it a really enjoyable experience as they can see the work we are doing. We don’t hide away and wait until no-one is there!’

There is very much an interactive side to Gordon’s work as day-to-day the public can ask questions about what he is working on. During the annual Arley Garden Festival, which Gordon says is the highlight of the estate’s year, he and Lord Ashbrook also lead tours around the grounds.

‘The thing I enjoy more than anything else is telling visitors where we get the plants from,’ said Gordon. ‘It’s not a secret. If they see a plant they like growing and they want the same one at home, I tell them where they can purchase it from. I think it’s great as you get to inspire and educate the public on elements of the garden.’