Sutton’s Gem – A Visit by a CCBC Horticulture Club Member

Written by a Student Contributor   // October 7, 2011   // 0 Comments

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Sitting atop a hill in the center of the historic market town of Cheadle in Staffordshire, England in an area known as the Midlands, is the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Giles. Designed by the British architect, Augustus W. N. Pugin and financed by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the church, consecrated in 1846, was built in the Gothic revival style. Saint Giles, with its impressive spire visible from nearly all around the countryside and its beautifully decorated interior consisting of richly colored wall papers, and floor tiles designed by Minton, quite rightfully is referred to as “Pugin’s Gem”.

About 12 miles southeast of Cheadle, in the town of Rocester, a former Roman garrison, one can find another type of architecture, but rather than consisting of bricks, stones, mortar, glass, and timber, this architecture consists of perennials, deciduous and coniferous trees, shrubs, and annual plants. As with Pugin’s St. Giles, so too would I call it a gem, “Sutton’s Gem”.

The garden is the creation of Ken Sutton, now retired from the JCB Company, a maker of earth-moving equipment located near Rocester. Ken was for 25 years the head gardener at Wootton Lodge, a JCB property. He and his wife, Joy, live in Rocester on a property of 15 acres of which the garden is 2/3 acre.

You enter the Sutton garden by walking down a rather long driveway, on either side of which are tall hedges, the left consisting of yew, holly, and ivy and the right, hawthorn. About midway down you can turn off left and enter the garden through an archway of ivy, or you can continue down the driveway, where there are several planting beds in front of the hawthorn hedge. Growing in one were oriental poppies, the variety with petals that look to be made of expensive pink tissue paper and close by, a Physocarpus, opulifolius (Eastern Nine Bark) the dark reddish-brown leaves of which beautifully accent that same color that is found at the base of the poppy petals. There are also several David Austen roses in shades of pink, and a Portland Damask rose, bred in 1840 and called “Comte de Chambord” that has the most wonderfully cool, rain-like, fragrance.

As you come to the end of the driveway, you turn left to enter the main garden. On the right is a shady border of hostas — ‘Fire and Ice’, Halycon’, and ‘Blue Moon’ are just some of the varieties. There are also several rhododendrons, ‘Purple Splendor’, ‘Pink Pearl’, ‘Madame Masson’, and a newly planted Cercis canadensis – ‘Forest Pansy’. You could also turn off left from there and enter the garden through an iron trellis covered in wisteria , honeysuckle, clematis ‘Etoile Violette’, and Vitis coignetiae, with a Magnolia stellata growing along side of the trellis. Here too on the conservatory side of the house is a shady border that as well as having hostas, also includes hellebores, ferns, and a small patch of Corydalis lutea peeking out from near the arch. A pyracantha ‘Soleil d’Or’ growing against the wall had a robin’s nest with nearly fledged chicks. A beautiful hanging basket, in which were growing pink begonias complemented by a pink and dark red fuschias, is suspended from the house wall, and a lace cap hydrangea grows in a ceramic pot.

Still in the driveway-now-parking area in the corner of the house is an English boxwood parterre in the middle of which is growing heather, Erica carnea, and several larger boxwoods trimmed into sculptural shapes. Both the boxwood and heather suffered winter damage last year, when temperatures plunged from about 45-50 degrees F. to about 5 degrees F. in a fortnight.

Just along the edge of the paved parking area, Ken has this year put in a “Red Hot Border” as he called it, an artful combination of color and form. Here were orange, yellow, white, and red Iceland poppies, whose nodding bright green buds covered in black stiff hairs remind me of insects, red oriental poppies called ‘Allegro Viva’, Rudbeckia “Goldstrum”, marigolds, dark-leafed dahlias with flowers of rich, warm, hues. A Lysimachia pupurea whose brilliant clear yellow flowers are offset gorgeously by the nearly black foliage. There are heucheras – ‘Sweet Tea’, ‘Southern Comfort’, ‘Marmalade’, ‘Creme Brulee’, and ‘Stop Light’ a nearly eye-popping sulfur-yellow, a dwarf variety of berberis called “Admiration” with deep coral leaves, and geums in red and yellow. Growing in another bed nearby is yet another Physocarpus opulifolius, this one, ‘Darts Gold’, a golden-yellow leaf variety, and also an Acer pseudoplatanus called ‘Esk Sunset’ or ‘Eskimo Sunset’ with pink, cream, and green blotchy leaves the undersides of which are pale brick red and with a deep pink-red petiole.

As you follow along a paved path that takes you by one end of the house, you’ll pass on your right a fish pond, one of two in the garden. This one is more formal being rectangular in shape and above ground with sides constructed of red brick. It contains some massive koi and is surrounded by plantings of hosta and fern, and shaded by a living canopy of ivy, clematis, and Actinidia kolomikta, a woody vine native to Asia whose leaves have lipstick pink tips.

If you turn to your left, you’ll enter what I would call the main part of the garden, a large, roughly circular turf area surrounded on the one side by perennial beds and on the other by the house. There is a larch, L. kaempferi ‘Wolterdingen’, growing in an old stone water trough, and the pond here is located in front of the perennial beds and is nestled and surrounded on three sides by it. This perennial bed, just beginning to flower when I was there, contains campanula, Achillea millefolium ‘Fire King’ astilbe ‘Bressingham Beauty’ mondarda, Mischantus sinensis, Hakonechloa macra, helenium ‘Morheim Beauty’ and a number of other different species. The pond has a sandstone edge followed by a shallow gravel area where English birds can bathe or have a drink. As you make your way either clockwise or counterclockwise around this part of the garden, you’ll return to the archway of ivy and passing underneath you’ll be back on the main driveway.

Besides the loveliness of its layout — distinctive areas, though not quite “rooms”, and the amazing variety of the plants, you are absolutely astounded by the color, size, and sheer floriferousness of the garden’s perennials and annuals. The “Six Hills Giant” cultivar of Nepeta x faasenii in my garden attains a height of approximately 2-1/2 ft.; the same plant in the Sutton garden is nearly 4 ft. tall and with the most intense color. The same was true of all the flowering plants, a fact that led me to quip that the garden appeared as if it were on steroids. The plants are all so vigorous and robust that they seem to be jostling and elbowing each other for space, and not a weed was seen by this writer (Ken says he weeds once in the early spring).

Other than composting all the grass and plant clippings (something Ken has done for the last 20 years) and burning all the plant material from the perennial beds when they are cut down at the end of the season, there are no fertilizers applied to Ken’s garden. What is happening here then? The reality is that the foundation of a garden, as with a building, is extremely important. “Sutton’s Gem” has one splendid foundation.

Ken’s garden is situated between two rivers, the Dove and the Churnet, just above a flood plain , and the soil has undoubtedly been deposited over many years of flooding. Approximately twelve inches or so below this alluvial soil lies a gravel bed, a product of the last ice age, Ken told me. Perhaps very slowly as the rocks below grind away against one another they are releasing their mineral contents into the soil above, and the plants in garden are provided a rich source of important nutrients. It also means the drainage is fantastic. The Sutton garden is a truly beautiful example of how important is the foundation.

The garden not only has flowers, though. Near the back part and along the pasture land that surrounds two sides of the garden, Ken grows fruits and vegetables. There are black, white, and red currants, the red ones looking like jewels in the sunlight. Raspberries, gooseberries, and a variety of strawberry, ‘Roman’ that is peach-colored and was absolutely delicious. Several varieties of lettuce, onions, radishes, and beets. All are grown in raised beds and the compost produced by Ken. As with everything else growing in his garden, the fruits and vegetables were gorgeous.

Ken and Joy’s garden is one I’ve visited several times and hope to visit many times more. If you find yourself in Staffordshire county, you too should not miss a trip to “Sutton’s Gem”.

The Sutton garden, called “The Beeches”, is part of the National Garden Scheme (NGS) in the UK. It is open on Sundays, 15th May, 19th June, 31st July, and 4th September (for 2011) from 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm. Additional information can be found at selecting “Staffordshire” in the box entitled Garden Search/Town.

by Theresa Schiano

The mission of the CCBC-Dundalk Horticulture Club is to enrich its members and the community by providing a forum for members to gather and share their knowledge of horticulture and to promote sustainable horticulture practices. We research and support educational opportunities that empower students and the community to make informed horticultural decisions.


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