An Interview with Philippa Burrough – Winner of NGS Nation's Favourite Garden 2021, East.

Philippa Burrough at Ulting WickPhoto Credit: Nicola Stocken

We met Phillipa in her stunning Essex garden, which is famous for spectacular displays of tulips during April and asked her about how she became involved in gardening and she has learned during her decades of opening to the public - find out more about how to visit Ulting Wick on the NGS website.

Were you already an enthusiastic gardener when you moved to Ulting Wick?

With a father who was in the army, I moved around a lot as a child; if you don’t live somewhere long, there’s no real chance, or enthusiasm, to develop a garden. Then, whilst working in London, the garden of a tiny London terrace wasn’t particularly inspiring. The gardening bug didn’t truly bite until my husband Bryan and I moved to Ulting Wick, with its large plot of land, 25 years ago.

Although there was a lot I wanted to change – dated island beds which simply weren’t me, rhododendrons, and other overgrown shrubs – it may seem naïve in retrospect, but I was completely undaunted.

The island beds were ripped out, and we set about creating the gorgeous garden that now thrives at Ulting Wick, and that thousands of visitors (many arriving by coach from overseas) book to visit each year - All raising funds for the great causes supported by National Garden Scheme.

Winner NGS Nation's Favourite Garden 2021, East Region

Do your family share your passion?

The short answer to this is  no! At least, for now. My sons are 24 and 22 are very much into other things, as you might imagine, and my husband Bryan hasn’t yet caught the gardening bug - But, you never know!

When did you become aware of the NGS?

At age 8, or maybe 10?... my mother had several friends who had gardens which they opened for the NGS, so there would have been several times during childhood when my mother took me along to visit a friend at an NGS open garden - I remember really enjoying it possibly encouraged by the promise of cake!

I think it's really sad that we seem to be seeing fewer  children at open gardens now - they are always welcome and I absolutely love seeing them at Ulting Wick! They may simply want to play and eat cake, of course, but if they can be engaged in conversation about a plant or two, especially if we can show them something surprising or fun, the visit feels doubly worthwhile. There might even be an opportunity to go away with a plant to nurture when they get home.

A few years after transforming the garden at Ulting Wick, someone suggested I open for the National Garden Scheme. Before I knew it, there had been a chat with Gill Cowley, the County Organiser for the Essex NGS team at the time, and now I, along with my  brilliant garden team, find the calender of public openings at Ulting Wick keeps us busy and focused - we've now consistently opened for the NGS for over 20 years.

Ulting WickPhoto Credit: National Garden Scheme

Do you have a favourite(or least favourite) part of your garden?

The part of the garden that I have least love for is the spinney at the bottom of the garden, where there is what might be described as a hard to manage, hard to access wild patch, somewhat ‘left to nature’, and overtaken by Blackthorn.

Add the fact that Muntac are tempted to browse here and you find a multi-dimensional challenge, as a hungry Muntac will have no qualms about wandering into the main garden to graze on anything tasty and tender, including bulbs (devastating for a tulip-heavy garden!) and any newly-planted tree saplings. A recent sad victim being the newly-planted Prunus ‘Okame’ that had every one of its tender new shoots nibbled. At the moment it feels quite a relief that deer don’t like snowdrops!

But my favourite area at Ulting Wick is, without question, the beds in The Old Farmyard, where there is a two-stage planting plan each year. Ulting Wick’s legendary, vibrantly colourful tulip display appears first, with 5000 tulips planted in autumn each preceding year. When the bulbs are all spent, they are dug out and replaced by a high-summer planting to fix a whole other dramatic colour scheme to the same beds, with mature banana palms and dahlias, which have been parked indoors over the cooler months, playing a large part, along with other luscious late summer and early autumn plants.

What structures do you rely on in your garden?

With so much going on at Ulting Wick, we need plenty of support structures, which are invaluable for florals or veg alongside coppiced hazel as home-grown peasticks. 

What would you change about your garden if you had a magic wand?

This is an easy question to answer -  I would much prefer to have a garden on a hill, so that I could get some views. As much as I love the garden, Essex is rather flat and some undulation would make a big difference - Those of you in hillier areas maybe don’t realise how fortunate you are!

Photo Credit: National Garden Scheme - Ulting WickPhoto Credit: National Garden Scheme

Which other gardeners and gardens do you admire?

I'm not a fan of gardens stuck in aspic, which unfortunately seems to be the case with a number of public gardens. I much prefers gardens with dynamism, that push boundaries, are forward-looking, and show imagination.

I think that most often that dynamism is to be found in the good private gardens, although the magnificent gardens at Great Dixter are an exception to that rule - they combine history with innovation wonderfully. A garden that recently truly blew me away,  is Kate Stuart-Smith's Hertfordshire garden, Serge Hill - It sums up what a good personal garden can be and is well worth a visit Serge Hill NGS open day information can be found at NGS.org.uk.

Is there a garden tip you would pass on, or a piece of advice you are grateful for having been given?

There are so many possible bits of advice I could give but I think they key is that if you really want an interesting garden, you need interesting plants. Don’t be afraid to buy from specialist growers, and don’t be at all nervous to buy online. Well before the pandemic, I found my busy life meant visits to garden centres simply weren’t happening, so I developed a habit of buying plants online - they often have a bigger range  the vast majority come sensitively packaged to ensure everything arrives in good shape so saves both time and money - get to know specialist growers, and ask them questions if you’re unsure. Embrace it!

Photo Credit: Clive Nichols - Ulting Wick

Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

We have given you £100 to spend with Agriframes as an expression of our admiration at your success in the competition - what are you planning to buy?

After a great deal of thought I've decided to plump for a mini-cold-frame. At Ulting Wick we always need more cold-frames

Ulting Wick's opening information for National Garden Scheme, Essex can be found at NGS.org.uk