Stephen Gore Interview - NGS Winner of Nation's Favourite Garden '21

Stretton Old Hall  boasts a 5 acre Cheshire countryside garden with a planting style best described as controlled exuberance with a definite emphasis upon perennials, colour, form and scale. Divided into several discrete and individual gardens including stunning herbaceous borders, scree garden, walled kitchen garden and glasshouse, there are wildflower meadows and a wildlife walk around the lake with breathtaking vistas in every direction. We caught up with Head Gardener, Stephen Gore, following their success in the NGS Nation's Favourite Garden competition.

NGS garden interview

Were you an enthusiastic gardener before you moved to Stretton Old Hall?  

 I’ve worked as Head Gardener at Stretton Old Hall for the last 5 years, having set up and run my own garden design and garden maintenance business 10 years before, following a course in Landscape Architecture at Manchester. There were no plans to come away from that business, but someone recommended I look at the vacancy at Stretton Old Hall and I simply couldn’t resist! The owners of Stretton Old Hall, Ken and David, see their garden to be as much mine as their own, and we have very similar vision and tastes.   

NGS garden interview

Did you inherit a love of gardening?   

I did, yes. Grandad was passionate about growing dahlias, and would enter the Best Dahlia competition in Kirby. Pretty sure he would have won at least once! And Mum would always encourage me to be in the garden, and I fondly remember helping her create a pond.

Does your family share your passion? 

Some more than others! Edie, my 3 year old little girl, and Ezra, my 6 year old son both happily get stuck in, digging in the garden, finding worms. What more could you want?

NGS garden interview

Which are your favourite and least favourite parts of the garden at Stretton Old Hall?  

Ken and David share a love for controlled exuberance in the garden, and all of us tend to dislike anything variegated. There is also an on-going discussion about when/whether to take out the Choisya, which is probably the least liked plant in the garden.

As for favourite areas, the spot in the kitchen garden near the 2 big, ancient olive trees, each under-planted with Thyme, can’t be beaten. They are at least 300 – 400 years old, and sitting near them in the sunshine is heaven; as though you’re in the Mediterranean. A close second would be the 8 olive trees in terracotta pots along the path in the top garden. 

Are there any particularly challenging parts of the garden?   

The most stressful areas to plan and manage are the meadows, which are a nightmare! People think it’s just about spreading seed about, but preparation and planning are needed so far in advance, you need to look out for perfect conditions for sowing, and patches of meadow always seem to need work. You can do all the prep in the world, and then you’re at the whim of the weather. Ken is an interior designer so has a keen eye. He put together a pastel colour pallet with interesting textures for the annual meadows near the lakes last year, which we are hoping to repeat for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this year.

NGS garden interview

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change?  

If I could wave a magic wand I would do something about the rainfall, and where all the water collects. The bottom section of the garden, the woodland area around the lake, gets very wet. I adapt the planting down there with willows and cornus, but if I could stop so much water draining into that area, I would. 

Which gardens and gardeners do you admire? 

I love the garden at Wollerton Old Hall and admire Phil Smith who used to be the Head Gardener there. He has subsequently set up his own garden design and advice company. To name a second, I must mention Jan Lomas, who recently retired from being Head Gardener at the beautiful Eaton Hall just outside Chester. I enjoy bouncing ideas around with both of them, and I value their friendship and advice. 

NGS garden interview

Is there a gardening tip you would like us to pass on? 

Be bold with your planting! It can initially feel too much, and you may be unsure it will work, but when you get it right it is very effective. Avoid bitty planting. For example, plant groups of Stipa, either in a big drift, or in blocks.. .. Very much in the style of Piet Oudolf.  

When did you become aware of the NGS?   

One of the little gardens in Chester where I worked half a day a week when I had my own business opened for the NGS, so it was already pretty familiar to me. Then, half way through my first year here at Stretton Old Hall, they suggested we open. We decided to give it a year, and then chatted with John Hinde, the County Organiser back then, and was signed up to open. The rest is history.

What structures do you rely on in the garden?

The large terracotta pots, the yew hedging and various sculptures are all vital garden structures at Stretton Old Hall. The globe shapes are, too, particularly the ones made of lattice which Verbena officionalis Bampton grow through throughout the summer.  For supporting plants, though, it is the obelisks that are most critical, even adding structural interest in the top garden over the winter when the planting has died back.     

What will you use the £100.00 Agriframes voucher for? 

Elegance obelisks will undoubtedly fit very well in this garden.