The stunning, blossoming gardens of Carden Hall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 June 2020 | UPDATED: 08:31 24 June 2020

Colour and height from a ripple of floxglove throughout the length of the border (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

Colour and height from a ripple of floxglove throughout the length of the border (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

Joe Wainwright Photography All Rights Reserved

In just a few years the gardens at Carden Hall have gone from a blank canvas to something breathtakingly beautiful, as Kate Houghton learned during a fascinating, if frustrating, video-chat.

Sally, Steve and their son Hugo enjoy the garden they have created at Carden Hall (c) David Oates/Sunday TimesSally, Steve and their son Hugo enjoy the garden they have created at Carden Hall (c) David Oates/Sunday Times

The Carden estate was bought by Steve Morgan in 1995 and the first thing the Redrow plc founder did was to build Carden Park Hotel and Golf Resort, setting aside land for a family home – Carden Hall.

“The only provision he made for the hall at that stage was to plant the lime avenue,” says his wife Sally, “to ensure there was an established driveway for when he came to build the hall.

“There was no property there at all, the previous house having burnt down; just fields and a man-made lake, created in the late 19th century and seeded with oysters as a source of food for the household. Now you find huge oyster shells around the banks, left there by the resident otters.

“Steve had the hall designed by the architect Julian Bicknall, and obviously was deeply involved in the design detail and build. It’s a real masterpiece. It’s a completely new build, and the greatest compliment anyone can give Steve is when they ask how long it took to refurbish the hall – when it was actually built in 2004.”

The kitchen gardens ready to produce goodies for family and estate workers through the summer (c) Joe Wainwright PhotographyThe kitchen gardens ready to produce goodies for family and estate workers through the summer (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

Starting new gardens for such a grand building is quite a challenge. Where did they begin?

“The hard landscaping – the walls and flagged areas, walkways and paths – were all designed by the architect and Steve, and laid out when they built the house, so the planting and the gardens were very much put in around the hard landscaping. There was literally no vegetation, so planting was done with a view to it being very fast-growing, filling lots of blank spaces very quickly. It’s only really been since our head gardener Moi [Morion Jones] joined us four years ago that we have moved forward; the garden has moved on substantially. We have taken out a lot of the very quick-growing planting and we’re now planting for the medium and long-term.”

Listening as Sally and Moi talk about the garden, you can tell this is a labour of love for both parties, each bringing their skill and their vision to the table, driving forward the progress of this beautiful endeavour together.

“We all work very well as a team,” says Sally. “Neither Moi nor I are professional landscape architects, but we work collaboratively. Moi will come up with really good ideas, I will throw things into the pot as well, and between us we’re actually really proud of what we have already achieved and what we hope to continue to achieve.

Wildflower meadows have contributed to drawing wildlife back to the estate  (c) Joe Wainwright PhotographyWildflower meadows have contributed to drawing wildlife back to the estate (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

“We plough through gardening magazines, visit lots of gardens and come up with ideas. My aspiration for the herbaceous borders is to have them as wonderful as those at Arley Hall and Gardens. One of the things we have done, and that Moi is very good at, is the use of repetition. He has a great phrase, describing things as having being planted ‘like a currant bun’ – lots of individual plants popped in all over the place. What we’re doing now is stripping that out and emulating the repetition of Arley.

“We’re very fortunate to have the scale here and from a visual point of view want to ensure the eye flows. By using repetition in the planting we’ve gone a long way towards achieving that. Visually we want the planting to lead the eye through the gardens and into the parkland beyond.”

Moi interjects: “Because of the scale of everything, because you’re viewing it from quite a distance, if you did have a bit of hotch-potch of currant bun-style planting, with one of this and one of that, it wouldn’t work 
all together, it’s got to be en masse.”

Repetitive planting draws the eye the length of the border (c) Joe Wainwright PhotographyRepetitive planting draws the eye the length of the border (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

The scale is apparent even from just the collection of photos I am able to see (we’re having this conversation in the midst of lockdown, a frustration for a garden-lover like me, but needs must...).

I want to know more about almost everything I see, but first – the wildflower meadow. Having just scattered several packets of wildflower seeds in a newly dug border myself, I am dazzled by the size of Sally’s undertaking at Carden Hall.

“The wildflower meadow was something we particularly wanted to do,” says Sally. “We planted it in October 2016. Early in the year it’s a field full of bulbs – tulips and daffodils. We first trialled it in a very small area and didn’t mention anything to Steve, who was asking ‘why is this all very untidy?’ And now we’re very, very proud of it, as wildflower meadows are notoriously difficult to achieve, plus what it has done, which is an important point, is really help to bring the wildlife back.

“When the property was first built there was no vegetation and the birdlife was pretty much non-existent, apart from a few crows, and now the amount of wildlife – particularly birds and butterflies – is absolutely fabulous to see and to hear.

A cascade of Cornus Kousa lights up the border in early summer (c) Joe Wainwright PhotographyA cascade of Cornus Kousa lights up the border in early summer (c) Joe Wainwright Photography

“We have all the garden birds, green woodpeckers, lesser spotted woodpeckers and just arrived is a pair of Mandarin ducks, presumably escapees from somewhere. We are in awe of the ducks, it’s fabulous, and they’re nesting, which is very exciting. Seeing nature establish itself makes the whole experience feel as if the house has been here much longer than it has been.”

The challenge here is vast. Moi and his team have 10 acres of formal gardens and kitchen gardens to develop and care for, and there are an additional 90 acres of parkland. Just how do he and Sally decide what to do next?

“We’ve always got projects we know we’re going to attack,” Moi says. “The most vital thing I needed to learn when I started was the feel that Steve and Sally wanted for the garden.”

“What we don’t have is a long-term plan,” Sally adds, “but what Steve and I are both very keen on is to constantly evolve.

“Moi has worked on some fabulous gardens previously – he joined us from the Grosvenor Estate – and one of his key briefs when he arrived was to make these gardens good enough to appear in a magazine, and it was even one of his interview questions – ‘do you think you can achieve it?’

“They were certainly not in that state when he joined us; it’s so satisfying and I am very proud to have Moi. He’s got an amazing team and they work absolutely tirelessly and we are constantly, constantly looking to improve, to make step changes.

“Steve and I have it in our characters to be rarely satisfied, if ever, so as head gardener Moi, is constantly living up to high expectations. What is brilliant about him is he takes us beyond that and it’s really wonderful things that he’s achieving.”

Well, he’s certainly ticked the ‘get the garden in a magazine’ box, and I can’t imagine Cheshire Life will be the last to feature this glorious landscape or that this will be the only time – I just hope next time I can actually go and see it for myself. And those ducks.

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