“There’s never a dull moment”
Head gardener Simon Thompson shares his love of Wallington’s gardens
Simon has been Head Gardner at Wallington for just over two years but has worked here for more than 19 years. He manages a team of six full-time gardeners, a project gardener and occasional students as well as about 40 volunteers.
How did you come to be at Wallington? I was working in a private garden in Cheshire and fancied a change when I saw an advert for a job here at Wallington. The original plan was to come here for two years then move on. I get bored very easily, but the garden here is so interesting and exciting, I haven’t got bored yet!
Which projects are you working on this winter? We’re regenerating various different areas because it’s quite an old garden and we need to rejuvenate the planting in some places. We’re cutting down some old trees that have been untouched for 50-100 years to let in light and to open up planting opportunities. Winter’s a good time to do this work because birds aren’t nesting and the garden’s less busy. The plan is to introduce a lower shrub layer underneath the tree canopy, which we’re sadly missing at the moment because it’s too dark. Once these plants are in, we can look to add a ground cover layer as well.
What’s looking good in the garden in winter? The conservatory was built in 1908 and the family used to call it ‘the winter garden’. It’s a glasshouse heated formerly by coal, but we now burn woodchip in a biomass boiler. This means we can grow a huge range of plants, many of which flower in winter. We have a good collection of cyclamen in bloom and the pelargoniums tend to continue flowering all year round.
Why is the walled garden so special? It was built in a sheltered valley in 1760 and the microclimate means we can grow plants that might not survive elsewhere in the north-east. Outside the conservatory is a small southfacing border with ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) growing in the ground and a pineapple broom tree (Argyrocytisus battandieri), which needs a degree of shelter. We’ve also got a couple of abutilons. While plants in other parts of the garden died in last year’s harsh winter, plants in the walled garden survived. It’s also unusual that, even though it was designed to produce fruit and vegetables, it was also created to be a picturesque place with ornamental plants and features like the Owl House, a bothy bearing the family’s owl crest.
Any future plans for the garden? The Winter Garden in the walled area is a relatively recent addition, marking the centenary of the National Trust’s ownership. It was planted for winter interest, but it’s quite a small site and a lot of the shrubs have become too big. The plan is to take everything out and replant the woodland shrubs in East Wood where they can mature. Then we’ll create a storytelling area, because it’s a quiet corner of the garden. We’re planning to make a circular space in the middle with planting around the edge, consisting of lowgrowing plants at the front and taller plants behind, banking up steeply to create a more private, intimate space.