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Imogen's winter in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 09:00 05 January 2012

Winter wonderland: Imogen Checketts, head gardener at Pensthorpe, finds winter an inspiring time to develop the gardens. Photo: Ian Burt.

Winter wonderland: Imogen Checketts, head gardener at Pensthorpe, finds winter an inspiring time to develop the gardens. Photo: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2011

Winter is a time when most of us neglect our gardens for the warmth of the indoors, but as Emma Harrowing finds out, one woman finds the winter wonderland inspirational.

Imogen Checketts finds winter one of the most inspiring times to develop the garden. As head gardener at Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens she is partly responsible for the cultivation of 250 acres of grounds, gardens and wetland habitats.

The reserve is home to four major garden spaces – the millennium garden designed by world-famous Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, the wave garden, the wildlife habitat garden and the wildflower meadows in the floodplain of the River Wensum.

Imogen’s job is not an easy one, but she relishes the challenge in an ever-changing environment.

“The gardens are working all year round and they look completely different in winter,” says 42-year-old Imogen. “It’s the perfect time of year to see the beauty in the structure of the gardens. There is something sophisticated about them – they’re less brash and everything is subtle.”

Imogen has worked on the gardens at Pensthorpe for four years. In that time she has seen the gardens develop and grow, but it is a job that is never finished.

“As the gardens develop you have to dig and break up the plants and flowers so that they do not dominate over other areas.

“An important part of my job is to segregate the wildlife and plants. You will see when you visit Pensthorpe that there are many gates along the pathways leading to each garden. It is important that these are closed so that the natural balance of the park is not upset.”

One of the biggest problems are the geese. Beautiful to look at along the riverbank, they can ruin the delicate plants and flowers in the landscaped gardens.

“I often spend my time waving my arms above my head to scare the geese out of the gardens,” she says laughing. “They can be a nuisance when they are not in their designated areas, but you cannot control wildlife all of the time.

“Another challenge is trying to get on top of the weeding. Pulling out weeds takes up about 80pc of my job, the main challenge being managing the willow herb weed which can spread quite quickly. The trick is to cut the floaty seed heads before they go to seed as the seeds can spread far and wide.

“I find it therapeutic and quite stress-relieving, especially as my work is carried out in the open air.”

Weeding can be back-breaking work, but Imogen finds every aspect of her work inspiring. As everything in her workplace is constantly changing and growing, everyday she is faced with a different challenge.

One of the more inspirational challenges was when she planted the many plants in the millennium garden designed by Piet Oudolf.

“Piet Oudolf designed an amazing garden layout and every plant, shrub and flower was meticulously positioned. It was my job to plant the flowers and shrubs to Piet Ouldolf’s design. There was lots of digging involved but seeing the finished result is one of my proudest moments.”

Most of Imogen’s work is solitary and she loves immersing herself in the colours, textures, fragrances and sounds of the gardens.

“It is a lonely job at times but I become so involved with what I am doing time can pass and I don’t even realise it,” she says.

“One of the best parts of my job is seeing people enjoy the gardens – the smile on their faces as they look at the floral displays or take in the different coloured grasses makes my day.”

At the moment Imogen’s gardens are going through a transitional period. The early winter clear-up and cutting plants back has finished and now she is looking at ways to add more structure and introduce new borders.

“Landscaping is incredibly creative and winter is the time to start preparing to encourage new growth. I’ll quite often reflect on my work from the previous year and make changes to constantly improve it,” she explains.

One of the changes to the landscape at Pensthorpe is expected to happen this summer. The park already has a few metal sculptures and there are plans to buy more and develop another element to the garden scheme.

“We are always looking to develop the space and a circular garden with metal sculptures and a seating area is one of the many ideas we have for this summer.

“Most of the ideas come by how the gardens grow. Every season nature makes the gardens look remarkably different, so every time you visit you will always see something new,” she adds.

How to turn your garden into a winter wonderland

Imogen Checketts tells how to make the most of your garden in winter.

Getting started: The hardest job is braving the cold and getting outdoors! Grab your wellies and your coat and take a walk round your garden making a note of patches of colour, texture and shape. Also identify areas which could do with a bit of encouragement and growth.

Head for something hardy: Visit a garden centre and start looking for evergreen shrubs which are hardy in winter and can offer some colour or texture. Look out for daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill which has stunning pale pink flowers or viburnum dawn which grows delicate little flowers before the leaves come out. Cornus midwinter fire is a beautiful midwinter plant with little clusters of yellow/orange stems in winter.

Be bold: Berries add a splash of colour at this time of year so consider introducing a plant like pyracantha as this will help draw the eye to certain areas of the garden.

Think fragrance: Winter honeysuckle is wonderfully fragrant. Consider planting shrubs which have a sweet aroma next to windows and doors so that when you are outside you are faced with a wonderful smell along with a crisp, winterscape.

Prepare for visitors: During winter birds, insects and animals are looking for places to hide and things to eat. Always think to provide food, shelter and water. Hazel trees are fantastic as they provide a source of food. Put fresh water out for birds or even keep seed heads on plants so mice or insects can find shelter. Bees also start emerging in February so try planting varieties like dwarf iris or hellebore which are good at generating pollen.

Big on borders: In winter, focus on developing only the front of your borders. This will enable the garden to maintain its overall structure while still looking presentable. Turning the soil helps overall garden conditioning, then aim to lift and divide plants so you can propagate particular species.

Look closely: All too often people assume that there’s less colour in their gardens in winter. However, look closely and you will notice interesting textures such as bark or waxy leaves and metallic colours of silver and gold. Clematis Bill Mackenzie is definitely one to look out for as it has beautiful seed heads.

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