Orchard Visit: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire

This post is the third of a set of four, talking about the orchards that I visited on a trip to the Cotswolds in June 2021. The other orchards are those at Snowshill Manor, Hidcote and the Museum in the Park in Stroud.


Looking across the valley to the orchard and kitchen garden at Painswick Rococo Garden

Painswick Rococo Garden is somewhere I confess I hadn’t heard of until, whilst planning our trip to the Cotswolds, my wife and I searched online for gardens to visit. Painswick Rococo came highly recommended by several sources, and when we visited, on a glorious summer’s day back in early June, it was ridiculously easy to see why.

The Rococo garden – rococo, also known as ‘late baroque’, was a style of art, architecture and design popularised during the 1730s to 1760s that was exceptionally decorative, ornate and theatrical – was laid out and developed during the 1740s by Benjamin Hyett, the owner of Painswick House, who also commissioned local artist Thomas Robins (the Elder) to paint a landscape view of the garden in 1748. It was this painting that provided the inspiration for the renovation and restoration of Painswick Rococo Garden – elements of which had, in the intervening centuries been replaced to match the changing garden fashions of the day – that began in the late 1980s (see the ‘Our Story’ page of the Painswick Rococo Garden website for more information).

Painswick Rococo Garden, Thomas Robins the Elder 1748
Painswick Rococo Garden, by Thomas Robins the Elder, 1748.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Painswick Rococo Garden is perhaps best-known for its collection of architectural follies, as well as its superb seasonal planting. But of course (as you may have suspected) I was most interested in taking a look at Painswick Rococo’s orchards.

The approach to the garden is in itself a moment of pure theatre; walking past the house and a large lean-to glasshouse (which, if I remember correctly, is now a café seating space) you pass through an arch in the high garden wall to find yourself presented with the vista of the garden (see the photo at the top of his post) as it drops gracefully away into the secluded, tree-fringed valley in which it nestles. Meandering paths then lead you down towards the garden and its various follies, or, if you take a sharp left at the first junction rather than carrying on to the right, you’ll find yourself in Painswick Rococo’s main orchard.

Two main sections of fruit trees are bisected by the straight-clipped boundaries of a wide, mown-grass avenue. To the right, the lawn leads up to the folly on the hill called the Red House and to the left, down to the Swan Pond. Either side of the lawn area are mature fruit trees that have been pruned to a very precise configuration (more on that later from Painswick Rococo’s head gardener), surrounded by gently swaying meadow grasses and wildflowers, that the on-site residents of Painswick Rococo’s bee hives seem delighted to take full advantage of.

As you can see the trees are wide-spaced, leaving plenty of sward between them, which visitors are welcome to stroll through, particularly where paths have been helpfully mown:

As well as being productive, providing a wonderfully tranquil space in which to linger, and quite beautiful in their own right, the orchard trees serve another purpose. When you are walking amongst them they partially obscure your view of the various buildings and structures around the perimeter of the garden, offering glimpses to pique your interest, draw you onwards, and encourage you to explore.

As if the main orchard wasn’t reward enough for visiting, there was an exceedingly pleasant surprise waiting for me in the kitchen garden. From a distance it appears that hedges have been used to divide and delineate the sub-sections of the main area, but on closer inspection they turned out to be beautifully espaliered apple and pear trees.

Again, these are mature specimens – as you can see from the thickness of the trunks and the lichens that encrust their bark – that have been expertly pruned to provide the appropriate degree of screening, shelter and wind-break for the annual and perennial food crops and flowers grown in the ground behind. Many of them were carrying copious fruitlets and I’m sure that, after judicious thinning, they’ll produce a superb crop in the autumn, as well as providing the ordered structure that faithfully re-creates the design seen in the Robins painting of 1748.

I contacted the garden via their main inbox and head gardener Roger Standley very kindly took the time to reply to the questions that I sent in:

Me: How old are the trees in the orchards, and the espaliers in the kitchen garden? 

Roger: All the trees were replanted in the 1990s as part of the restoration of the garden. They are all heritage varieties, with some local heritage varieties as well. In recent years we have started grafting our own apple trees, focusing specifically on heritage Gloucestershire varieties, with most being sold to visitors and some planted in the garden to expand our collection.

Me: How closely does the current layout match the original planting scheme? And would the original scheme have included the kitchen garden element, or has this replaced an earlier parterre or other form of decorative garden?

Roger: The current layout of the orchards and kitchen garden very accurately matches the layout of the 18th century garden, and it’s not thought that this replaced any earlier garden.

Me: Does the tree management involve any particular pruning, thinning and/or feeding plan?

Roger: The standard trees in the orchard are pruned in the winter to a fairly contrived shape that is clearly shown on the Thomas Robins painting of the garden from 1748. This isn’t how you would necessarily prune an apple tree in any other setting for maximum productivity, but the trees have both an aesthetic role and a productive role to play in the garden.[1] The espaliers are pruned fairly hard in winter, and then have a light prune in summer to give space and light for the fruit to ripen.

Me: Is the fruit used by any local food or drink producers, or sold to visitors? 

Roger: We use all our apples and pears to make juice which we then sell to visitors. We currently have them pressed for us at Clive’s Fruit Farm.

Many thanks to Roger for taking time out of what must be an incredibly busy summer schedule to respond to my email, it really was much appreciated.

Once again, I neglected to note the particulars of the fruit varieties in either the orchard or kitchen garden[2] and in his email Roger said that whilst they do have a plan of the trees it’s rather antiquated and unintelligible, and in need of updating. Hopefully if Roger does find the time to update it one day he might send me a copy, in which case I’ll add the particulars here.

If you are visiting Gloucestershire, or the wider Cotswolds area, then you really must include a visit to Painswick Rococo Garden in your itinerary. If you have any interest in fruit trees then like me you’ll find your time spent exploring the orchard and kitchen garden to be very well invested indeed.

The rest of the gardens are absolutely lovely as well, form the formal flower planting at the head of the slope, down to the wilder woodland areas beyond the swan pond, with that superbly productive kitchen garden (which also boasts two massive, multi-stranded hop-growing structures, I also noted) in the middle, and the collection of follies, of course.

At the time of writing, entry to Painswick Rococo Garden is free for RHS members, but do double-check www.rococogarden.org.uk for full details in case this changes.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 I found it particularly interesting that the trees in the main orchard are pruned today to match the style shown in the 1748 painting, which seems like quite a major decision to take. This does raise a few questions, such as: are the trees in the painting accurate representations of the trees in the orchard at the time, or just ‘symbolic’ apple trees added in by the artist to indicate an orchard without any real intention to provide an exact image? And if the former, at what stage of the tree’s development are they represented? If they are shown not too long after planting, then could the restricted framework of branches be a natural stage of their early development rather than an intended permanent shape? Without subsequent representations to compare with, it’s difficult to know whether they would have been allowed to grow to their more natural extent in the fullness of time.

Having said that though, today’s pruning regime clearly works, because it definitely fulfils that dual aesthetic and productive role that Roger mentioned. As I noted myself, the tree canopies are just extensive enough to allow glimpses of the buildings and vistas beyond without completely obscuring them, and in a pleasure garden that was designed to enchant and entice its original, eighteenth century guests to explore, play and be entertained, then this sort of tree shape would have added to the overall effect.

It’s an excellent example of what Pierre-Eric Lauri calls the ‘Artificial Paradigm’ of fruit tree management (‘Concepts in fruit tree training and pruning, is there old versus new paradigms? Viewpoint of a biologist‘, conference paper, August 2016). Originally developed and codified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this pruning paradigm emphasised strict and rigid control of the structure and shape of the tree, primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than to enhance productivity (the underlying mechanisms and causes of which were at best only partially understood at the time), and came to dominate the thinking of gardeners and orchardists over the decades to come. As we can see at Painswick Rococo, the concepts inherent in the artificial paradigm of tree pruning have persisted to the current day, and whilst they aren’t always suitable for every orchard situation, here I think they have been used to excellent effect.

2 Memo to self: notebook! take a notebook!

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