Parham House, near Pulborough in West Sussex, has a four-acre walled garden that was restored in the Twenties and has been maintained at a high level ever since. It is divided into four areas, one of which is filled by the cut-flower borders and a box-enclosed parterre.
The Barnard family still lives in the house and this area of garden is used to supply cut flowers for the family and the main part of the house, which is open to the public four days a week from April until October. Thanks to its long tradition of cut flowers, the house is a magnet for flower arrangers and was visited by Rachel de Thame for a BBC television programme last year.
Every Tuesday the gardeners deliver 25 buckets of cut flowers to the house, replenishing anything with a shorter vase life, such as sweet peas, again on Friday. The volume of veg needed is smaller, but it is still an important role for the garden.
Six gardeners and a team of volunteers take care of the whole place, including the magnificent ornamental greenhouse. According to Tom Brown, the head gardener, it is important to maintain a balance between efficiency and beauty.
The parterre’s planting has evolved with this in mind. Vegetables and flowers are no longer put in long, straight, traditional rows, but are mixed together in more ornamental blocks.
Brown says that ideally they would like to plant out a bedding scheme that is both edible and ornamental in May and be able to pick and graze from it until October without replanting. Seeing it now – in late summer – I would say that this is what they have achieved.
At each corner of the parterre there is a huge box pyramid, 10ft wide and 15ft tall. These were planted in the mid-Nineties to replicate the pitch of the roof on the dovecote. Either side of them are box-enclosed dahlia beds, with varieties for picking such as 'Urchin’, 'Chat Noir’ and 'Karma Choc’.
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Then, on the outermost line, are four open beds, which hold a mix of veg, sweet peas and other cut flowers, such as spectacular antirrhinums (Antirrhinum opus 'Plum Blossom’, 'Red Beauty’ and 'Ivory’) planted around a climbing frame of runner bean 'White Lady’, with a halo of the silvery foliage spears of leeks.
The climbing frames are made of silver birch from the Parham estate. It is harvested in January, bundled up, then used to make vertical supports to break up the flatness of the garden. Every frame is taken down in winter, put through a shredder and added to the compost that feeds the garden.
There are rich-coloured annuals and summer-flowering bulbs, too, chosen to go with the house’s interior colour schemes. I fell upon Gladiolus 'Flevo Flash’, which is much easier to use in a vase than the whopper grandifloras.
Then there was the pink-crimson Phlox paniculata 'Othello’; the opium poppy 'Lauren’s Grape’; and the classiest of all marigolds, Tagetes 'Cinnabar’, the latter inspired by a visit to Great Dixter last summer.
The real sock-it-to-you beds are 9ft box squares. The first has an intense Venetian palette, orange, mixed with crimson and purple.
The centre is filled with a birch structure, with the purple morning glory Ipomoea 'Grandpa Ott’ clambering over the frame. There is the odd splash of golden yellow to contrast with the purple saucer flowers from the climbing squash 'Harlequin’.
In the bed around it, providing the main substance, is an amaranth called 'Red Fox’ and the marvellous kale 'Redbor’. Brown brought the seeds of the amaranth with him from Wisley, where he trained and then worked for eight years.
There are courgettes in here too, the compact variety 'Green Bush’ providing a lower storey and food for the house, and there is the red-stemmed chard, which – when backlit – gives vertical beams of scarlet right through the bed.
Continuing the theme are the velvet orange flowers of Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch’ and crimson annual Rudbeckia hirta 'Cherry Brandy’. Around those substantial bones are smatterings of lighter Cosmos bipinnatus 'Double Click Cranberries’ as a filler.
The next bed had some of the same plants and central silver birch structure, with the courgette, ruby chard and rudbeckia , but here zinnias 'Envy’ and 'Blackcurrant Cordial’ are used in contrast to a mass of curly-leaf parsley and basil 'Sweet Genovese’ instead of the kale and amaranth.
In another bed, the everlasting statice looks good alongside the silvery, crinkled leaves of sea kale. Yellow-stemmed chard fills another corner, pierced through by gladioli foliage.
It is traditional in a parterre to mix flowers and veg, but this relaxed jungle of productive plants, packed in tight together, is lusher and more beautiful than the more usual Villandry style, where single or pairs of plants are used . Every year, at Parham, they try something different, with much fun to be had.
Whether you have a small or large plot, this recipe is worth trying in any sunny back garden. I am returning home with plans for new design and plant combinations.