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Required Reading: Three Generations of Women Gardeners in the Cotswolds

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Required Reading: Three Generations of Women Gardeners in the Cotswolds

April 11, 2019

Some gardens are nurtured over a lifetime but Kiftsgate Court Gardens, on the northern edge of the Cotswolds Hills, has been carefully created over three lifetimes, and by three generations of formidable female gardeners.

In 1919 Heather Muir, along with her husband Jack, bought the Victorian house, which perches on the top of a hillside with incredible sweeping views over the Malverns. She created a framework and established a garden during the Twenties and Thirties before handing it over in 1954 to her second daughter Diany Binny, a formidable plantswoman, who in turn handed the reins to her daughter and current owner Anne Chambers in the late Eighties. To celebrate its centenary, Vanessa Berridge has written a new book. Kiftsgate Court Gardens: Three Generations of Women Gardeners chronicles the intriguing story of this family home.

Photography by Sabina Rüber, from Kiftsgate Court Gardens: Three Generations of Women Gardeners courtesy of Merrell Publishers.

 “An aerial view shows the strong structure and shapes of the planting in the Four Squares. Encircling the lawn to one side of the house is the brilliant hedge of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Rose Glow’,” writes Berridge.
Above: “An aerial view shows the strong structure and shapes of the planting in the Four Squares. Encircling the lawn to one side of the house is the brilliant hedge of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Rose Glow’,” writes Berridge.

Kiftsgate was built in the 1870s by Sidney Graves Hamilton, who had inherited nearby Mickleton Manor. He removed a classical portico and a library wing from the manor house and had a railway constructed so that he could move them up the hill to become part of his new home.

The elevated situation is one of Kiftsgate’s most distinctive features and the garden is protected by towering Scots pines, planted in the mid-18th century, on the west-facing steep banks to the side of the property.

After the Muirs moved in 50 years later, they would spend winters on the Italian coast and they treated the steep banks exactly as the Italians would, cutting paths and terracing into the banks and then planting drought-tolerant shrubs including cistus, rosemary, abutilons, agaves, and ceanothus. They also brought in Italian gardeners. Berridge writes that Heather Muir “effectively created an Italianate garden on a Gloucestershire hillside, and produced a crescendo of interest in contrast to the ebullient rose and perennial garden above.”

On a plateau around the house Heather created formal gardens and she began with the Four Squares–an arrangement of four large beds edged with low box hedging and with paved paths in between. The planting here is typical of the overall style of the garden with a highly romantic palette of pinks and lilac.

 Pictured is the pink Rosa ‘Rita’, Salvia candelabrum, Geranium robustum, and one of the garden’s signature shrubs: Deutzia setchuenensis var. corymbiflora, introduced to the garden by Diany.
Above: Pictured is the pink Rosa ‘Rita’, Salvia candelabrum, Geranium robustum, and one of the garden’s signature shrubs: Deutzia setchuenensis var. corymbiflora, introduced to the garden by Diany.

The wide border sweeps along the front of the house with serpentine curves and differing depths and personifies the Kiftsgate style with its pretty and ebullient mix of flowering shrubs, climbers, and perennials in lilacs, purples and pinks including the old rose ‘Fantin-Latour’ and the cerise pink single Rosa ‘Vanity’ which is trained through a Magnolia loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’.

Beyond the rose garden, a shady area was the perfect location for Diany to plant a fern border using five varieties including maidenhair fern, evergreen hart’s tongue fern, and the Japanese painted lady fern, which are interspersed with grasses including Molinia, Calamagrostis, and Miscanthus and, pictured, shuttlecock ferns. A gate leads to a small wildflower garden with the orchard beyond.
Above: Beyond the rose garden, a shady area was the perfect location for Diany to plant a fern border using five varieties including maidenhair fern, evergreen hart’s tongue fern, and the Japanese painted lady fern, which are interspersed with grasses including Molinia, Calamagrostis, and Miscanthus and, pictured, shuttlecock ferns. A gate leads to a small wildflower garden with the orchard beyond.
 At the end of the Wide Border lies the Sunk Garden which was originally planted by Heather Muir as a white garden– years before Vita Sackville-West (who was a visitor at Kiftsgate) did the same at Sissinghurst.
Above: At the end of the Wide Border lies the Sunk Garden which was originally planted by Heather Muir as a white garden–20 years before Vita Sackville-West (who was a visitor at Kiftsgate) did the same at Sissinghurst.

Heather chose white-flowered roses and shrubs including Osmanthus armatus, Hamamelis mollis and Viburnum carlesii ‘Aurora’. The garden is still framed by shrubs including Staphylea colchica, abutilons, deutzias, philadelphus, and eucryphia.

 Over time the planting has evolved to include soft pinks and lilacs too.
Above: Over time the planting has evolved to include soft pinks and lilacs too.

In the 1970s Diany altered the layout, lowering the garden and replacing the original lawn with the octagonal pool and fountain that she had bought at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The cool black Water Garden was created by Anne Chambers on what was once a clay tennis court built by her grandmother Heather Muir. The design was inspired by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s black lily pond at Sutton Place. The centerpiece is a swath of  bronze philodendrons made by sculptor Simon Allison.
Above: The cool black Water Garden was created by Anne Chambers on what was once a clay tennis court built by her grandmother Heather Muir. The design was inspired by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s black lily pond at Sutton Place. The centerpiece is a swath of 24 bronze philodendrons made by sculptor Simon Allison.

Kiftsgate is less well known than its very close neighbor, Hidcote, but Heather Muir befriended its owner, the American Lawrence Johnston and, says Berridge, her “sights and skills were raised by her brilliant neighbor.” Heather and Johnston put in joint orders for peonies that would take six months to arrive from Japan by ship. Some of these still flourish at Kiftsgate today.

And she was also ahead of her time. The yellow border, originally laid out by Heather in the 1920s was, writes Vanessa Berridge, quite revolutionary for its time. “[It was] created as much by contrasts in foliage as by color. In a period when reds and pinks were mostly in favor, Heather selected here dazzling shades of bronze mixed with sulphurous to pale-lemon yellow, and occasional splashes of azure blue. She chose two acers for height, one with gold foliage (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’) and one mahogany (A. palmatum ‘Dissectum Atropurpureum’); both remain in the border today.” Other color comes from two smoke bush specimens–‘Royal Purple’ and ‘Golden Spirit’–as well as berberis, corylus, golden hops, and the silvery Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’.

Kiftsgate Court Gardens: Three Generations of Women Gardeners, which goes on sale today, is £40 from Amazon UK. For US readers, it will be available for $43.37 on April 30 from Amazon.
Above: Kiftsgate Court Gardens: Three Generations of Women Gardeners, which goes on sale today, is £40 from Amazon UK. For US readers, it will be available for $43.37 on April 30 from Amazon.

The garden is famed for its monster ‘Kiftsgate’ rose, a vigorous plant that is notorious for clambering up into trees and smothering anything in its path. But alongside it, in the rose garden, are more than 40 other varieties of rose, including many single-flowered old roses, many of which are trained on metal supports introduced by Diany. The central path is bordered by a hedge of Rosa gallica Versicolour.

See more inspiration in 10 Ideas to Steal from the Romantic Gardens at Kiftsgate Court.

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