Roddy Llewellyn Joins Cotswold Life
PUBLISHED: 12:38 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013
This month, gardening expert Roddy Llewellyn joins Cotswold Life as a regular columnist. He promises delicious anecdotes and tantalising namedropping - as one might expect from a man who has moved in the best of circles - as well as top advice and...
Roddy Llewellyn shudders dramatically. "We seem to have moved houses far too often and now we've come to a grinding halt. The only way I'm going to be leaving this house is in a body bag. It used to be a box; these days it's a body bag with that awful noise of the zzziiipppp," he says, illustratively.
'This house' is a red-brick cottage, cosseted in deep-village privacy, on the Warwickshire edge of the Cotswolds. There are signs of builders, electricians, and plumbers possibly, but it has a homely feel already. In the kitchen, Roddy's wife Tania, and youngest daughter Rosie and boyfriend are making brunch. "I'm going to have to tell them to be quieter," Roddy confides. "The doors in this place are paper thin."
The merriment obligingly retires unabated to the garden where, for once, the sun is almost shining. It was the garden that helped persuade them to buy here. That and the fact that there are no immediate neighbours.
"Next door is what I call a proper farm - wonderfully run down: broken windows, broken pipes, piles of tyres, old drainpipes, a rusty plough, which is absolutely as it should be. Proper fourth generation brambles.
"I have wonderful supplies of farmyard manure from my lovely neighbour John Peebles. Do mention his name; the nicest man I've ever met.
"Do you want some chocolate?" he asks, reaching for a half-eaten packet. "I haven't had breakfast."
If reading about Roddy Llewellyn is entertaining, interviewing him is even more so. He's welcoming, warm, friendly and enthrallingly anecdotal - name dropping isn't a weakness; in this case, it's a cultivated character trait. (He knows it amuses.) As Cotswold Life's new gardening columnist, he'll eschew the Latin names of plants and plump for juicy alternatives. People I Have Known, for example.
"What I will try to do in my column is to tell the everyday story of a country gardener but, at the same time, making it informative. Stories of whom I've met in the past and what they've said. Such as Percy Thrower - dreadful gardening joke..."
The reason why it all works like a charm is because he's a remarkably clever and well informed gardener. And it will be fascinating to see what he makes of his virgin plot over the coming seasons. The cottage has a third of an acre, which was always well looked after in the past. But as the previous occupants felt the years advancing, it all became a bit too much for them. When the Llewellyns arrived, there was, says Roddy, a rather wonderful and romantic feeling of neglect.
"The first thing I did was to take out 20 huge Leyland Cypress. I also removed a very large birch from the very centre of the garden. It had grown so enormous, it was blocking out the very pretty view that we've got of Brailes Hill, which is where ley lines are supposed to cross. The garden then turned into a mud bath full of builders and bonfires and heavy machines - but that's just the way it is. You have to bite the bullet and clean sweep with a new broom."
He set about transforming this 'mud bath' in the way he always begins - with paper and pencil - drawing his plans from a bird's eye view as well as keeping in mind the horizontal plane. "You've also got to have some idea of how the garden is going to eventually look when it matures."
And how long into the future should you look?
"Oh, 100 years."
The first decision he makes is on style - a factor often dictated by the house itself. "If you live in Blenheim Palace, you're going to have vistas ending a mile away in a column with ancestors sitting on the top. My garden really is almost the other end of the scale because this is not a palace; it's a cottage. Therefore, the likes of crinkle-crankle hedges and patte d'oie are not possible... You've probably seen a patte d'oie - that is a goose's foot. It's quite a grand thing; you walk in and suddenly there are vistas going out like the webs of the feet.
"Oh," he sighs. "I'm going out on to a tangent; I do tend to do that." (It is, though, always a rather delightful tangent.)
He will include one vista, showing the full extent of the garden ("That's something you should always do"), stretching from the centre of the house and lining up with a horse chestnut. There will be semi-formal hedging as well - quite high hedges of hornbeam because of the heavy clay soil - but with 'windows', each pointing out something of interest in another part of the garden.
"The drive was too small so I've put in a larger one because the first rule for the garden is to hide from view all motor cars. They are not objects of beauty, unless they are a pre-war Alvis, which I don't happen to own."
Although Roddy doesn't not draw on any particular influences, he does admit to liking the cottage garden Vita Sackville-West created at Sissinghurst. Her vision was one where "the plants grow in a jumble, flowering shrubs mingled with roses, herbaceous plants with bulbous subjects, climbers scrambling over hedges, seedlings coming up wherever they have chosen to sow themselves". Roddy will be planting sweet Williams and pinks, peonies, hollyhocks and foxgloves, with roses chosen for their scent. But before all that, the first thing he intends is to put in a vegetable plot - and all of it organic. He also practises biodynamics, a practice which includes working with the phases of the moon.
"We in England pay no attention to astrology. The French do. The older generation, anyway, do practically everything according to phases of the moon - nail cutting, hair washing, sowing of seed. As you know, when the full moon is out, that is because it is closest to us and that is the wettest time. The French explain these last wet two years as owing to the fact that there were 13 full moons in 2007. I'm far more likely to believe that than I am climate change."
His own love of gardening began at the tender age of three when his nanny gave him a packet of seeds. (She's now 99-and-a-half and as amazing as ever.) Her little charge was fascinated, and began gardening in the old manor house near Abergavenny in which the family lived. Cacti were one of his first loves - and, indeed, still are - and he began a collection which regularly took first prize at the Abergavenny and Borders County Show. "I remember my poor mother having to drive me there. I would sit in the front, holding these tall, prickly cacti, with just a bit of foam rubber to protect us from them."
He went on to study horticulture at Merrist Wood Agricultural College in Surrey, before establishing himself as a leading garden designer, lecturer and journalist. He's been in demand in the West Indies and all over Europe, as well as throughout this country. Working in Germany and Austria, as he has latterly, has reawakened his appreciation of Britain: "a unique island with this temperate climate". The only gardening dream he has never fulfilled, he says, is to live in an area of acid soil where he could grow things he's had to avoid in the past: camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons, fothergilla.
But don't for a minute think that means he'll be moving - especially after the backbreaking work he'll have undertaken here. "When you do up a house, the time and the money initially are taken up with boring things that lurk under floorboards, like new pipes and wires. And it's just the same with the garden - you've got to get the bones right. That involves putting conduits underground for lighting and water, getting all the mess out and bringing in new soil. Starting to plant is like painting the walls and putting down the carpets."
How long before he thinks the garden will be finished?
"Three years," he says. "But you know, a garden is never complete. There's always something that needs changing or doing. And very often, the plants will decide that for you."