PUBLISHED: 11:43 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013
Wildlife and beauty can go hand-in-hand as Ragley Hall demonstrates. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw
For some, gardening for wildlife is more akin to wilderness gardening, leading to unkempt plots full of nettles and overgrown areas. Ragley Hall is different. A determination to support nature has not meant the sacrifice of appearance and the gardens are as beautiful as they are wildlife friendly.
Ragley, near Alcester, is the family home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Hertford. Capability Brown laid out the 400 acres of parkland in the 18th century and in 1873, Robert Marnock designed a formal flower garden, the bones of which can still be seen today.
Yet the gardens have had their wilderness years: the family abandoned Ragley in 1912 and it lay empty until the late 1950s. When they returned, the magnificent Palladian Hall was the priority and little was done to the gardens, beyond turning the formal Victorian flower beds into a rose garden.
Today, this area remains the focal point from the terrace but it has again been reworked. Shrubs, such as berberis, cotoneaster and cotinus, fastigiate trees, including hawthorn, rowan and malus, and perennials now occupy the reshaped beds. The central circular border starts with tulips and is then planted out with exotics, including cannas, the caster oil plant and annuals. There are some roses - 'Brave Heart', 'Alan Titchmarsh' and 'Geoff Hamilton' - but the emphasis is now on mixed planting, avoiding the monoculture of the previous design.
"It was tired," admits head gardener Ross Barbour, who has overseen many changes at Ragley since he started there nine years ago.
As well as encouraging wildlife in the 27 acres, he is also keen to ensure that Ragley has something of interest in every season and many of the changes have had this in mind.
The year begins with snowdrops - double and single Galanthus nivalis - allowed to naturalise under ancient yews near the hall. When Mr Barbour arrived the yews, like much at Ragley, were overgrown and dominated the area.
"One of the first things I did was cut them down," he says, "but instead of getting rid of them completely they were given the chance to regenerate."
Now they are cut into a series of eccentric shapes - spirals, layers and cones - adding important year-round structure. The land falls away quite steeply at this point and the grass has been planted with bulbs, including 150,000 blue and yellow crocus that spill downhill like a waterfall. Later there are daffodils, primroses and violas.
Another early season delight is the stumpery, which perfectly combines ecological and aesthetic aims. Old tree roots are used as the backdrop to ferns, hellebores, named varieties of snowdrops, erythroniums and trilliums.
"I didn't have much budget and it was a matter of making things out of nothing."
As well as being the perfect setting for these spring favourites, the stumpery also provides important habitat for wildlife. In the summer, the area is home to streptocarpus and spider plants.
One of the main attractions early in the year is the winter garden, now in its third season. Designed by local nurseryman Dale Goll, it is the perfect riposte to those who say winter gardens are dull. Careful use of colour - both in stems and foliage - creates a memorable spectacle. Planting is in large blocks that move seamlessly from one concept to another and the log edging again supports the garden's wildlife aims.
In one area, snowdrops are stark against the black leaves of phormium and red-stemmed Cornus alba 'Westonbirt'. Stachys byzantina adds a silver tone, while golden-leaved acorus softens the mix. All are set off by dark mulch.
Another section sees primroses, rhamnus, pale pink prunus, arbutus and Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green', underpinned by the dark purple of heuchera.
Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' is teamed with more primulas, osmanthus combines with the white stems of rubus and limey euphorbia, the purple berries of callicarpa stand out against Garrya elliptica and scent comes from sarcococca and Lonicera x purpusii.
Meanwhile, one of the most striking partnerships is a circular grove of 130 jacquemontii silver birch, underplanted with purple euphorbia.
Although still in its infancy, this part of Ragley is already hinting at its future importance.
"I am looking forward to watching it mature and thicken up."
Another recent addition is the prairie border, which looks good throughout the year. Here, grasses, including Stipa gigantea, miscanthus and carex, are interplanted with rudbeckia, kniphofia, helenium, sedums, hemerocallis and echinacea. The light catches the movement of the grasses and they are the perfect buffer between the more formal garden and the parkland beyond.
Nearby, the meadow has been transformed from a closely mown area of grass to a mix of mown paths and wild flowers. Cowslips, fritillaries, field scabious, lady's bedstraw and bird's foot trefoil are among those that now flourish there.
More traditional planting is found in the long mixed borders, created from what was once a tangled mass of laurel. Shrubs and small trees, such as parrotia, rhododendrons, acer, deutzia and philadelphus, are combined with herbaceous, including sedums, asters and ligularia, while hyacinths, aconites and cyclamen give added colour.
Late colour is the theme of a long border near the hall and the garden is carried into autumn by salvias, cerinthe, choisya, eucomis, aeoniums and cobaea.
One of the most important ways of attracting wildlife to a garden is to introduce water and the creation of three small wildlife ponds has paid off handsomely. Dragonflies, newts and water scorpions are among those that have been seen.
A wall of soil and old tree roots are carefully sited at the back, grass is left long around the pools and fallen leaves are left.
"The simple things are probably more beneficial than some things that cost a bit of money," comments Mr Barbour.
"It is absolutely brimming with life."
The pools are one of the features of The Scott Garden, named after a friend of the family, Douglas Scott. It also includes the Fountain Garden, whose circular quadrant beds are seasonally planted, and magnolias, which put on a fine late spring show.
Around the pools are sculptures of the family's four children reading and playing. Indeed, art is an important part of Ragley and it is home to the Jerwood Sculpture Park. Pieces are found throughout the garden, adding another layer of interest.
The garden is also used in educating future generations about wildlife. An outdoor classroom, complete with canopy, log seats and fire pit, is used by the local primary school for weekly lessons and the garden is heavily involved in school visits.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the estate, a woodland walk of just over a mile long takes visitors through grassland, established woodland and young plantation. The woodland is at once an area of commercial timber production and a carefully managed wildlife habitat.
When Mr Barbour arrived at Ragley the garden was largely overgrown, with huge laurels and self-sown sycamore. He and his team of four have gradually transformed it.
"The garden changes every year," he says. "As soon as it closes we start taking things out and redoing it.
"I think our regular visitors are quite intrigued to see what we've done."
Ragley Hall Gardens are open for the National Gardens Scheme on February 10 and October 12 from 11am to 3pm. Garden only admission is 3, children free.
The garden's season runs from March 15 to September 2, weekends and school holidays only, 10am to 6pm. Admission is adults 8.50, children 5, senior 7, family (two adults and three children) 27. For more information, call 07917 425664 or visit www.ragleyhall.com