Inside Lord Rothschild’s private garden

Image of Robin Lane Fox

In Lord Rothschild’s private walled garden, 1,000 hand-planted cabbages stretched before me, sheltered from wildlife by the thick netting otherwise used by gamekeepers. I had come to celebrate the 20th birthday of his Buckinghamshire garden’s rebirth and I put to him the question: “Jacob, have you gone vegetarian?”

The great carnivore of financial markets looked puzzled. “No,” he retorted, looking out over rows of next autumn’s celeriac and five types of neatly staked broad beans. “What the family does not eat is sold.” Three times a week, loads of exquisitely grown vegetables are distributed by trucks round family kitchens and the restaurants attached to Rothschild enterprises. A special greenhouse is reserved for aubergines and a fruit-house shelters big cherry trees in pots. Others protect peaches and melons, each of whose swelling fruits rests on a homemade pad so that it does not become scratched on the gravel of the greenhouse-staging.

I found myself revisiting my belief that great gardens depend on a duet between two people. Earlier in the afternoon, I had spent time with Lord Rothschild’s head gardener, Susan Dickinson, as I thought we were celebrating 20 years of her work. With typical modesty, she brushed aside my congratulations. “The credit goes entirely to Jacob,” she told me firmly. “It is all due to him.” Has he been out there with a spade?

“I have no part in it,” he reassured me. “I just pay and admire.” In the 1880s the then Lord Rothschild used to have 41,000 annual plants bedded out in his garden, because 40,000 was the number of bedding plants said to be used by the English dukes. There is more, though, to this vegetable garden than a Rothschild obsession with total collections. Its underlying duet is between the head gardener and Lord Rothschild’s awareness that he is employing, potentially, the best and will realise it if he backs the gardener with whatever she needs. The results prove that this rare approach to patronage is still the right one.

When the garden needed a new head gardener back in 1990, I was one of those who told Lord Rothschild that there was one unsurpassable candidate for the job. Susan Dickinson had grown up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a military father. She had an unrepeatable range of experience. She had trained as a gardener at the legendary Waterperry Horticultural School for Girls and had worked at Sissinghurst under its two great Waterperry-trained lady gardeners. She had also worked in Ireland, at Malahide near Dublin, helping to look after Lord Talbot’s superb trees and shrubs. Above all, she had blossomed in a duet with Esther Merton and her entrancing garden at The Old Rectory, Burghfield, a favourite of FT readers in the 1970s and 1980s. The lavish planting, the sense of colour and mood, were enhanced by her skill as a grower. In the Rothschild garden she still grows a speciality, the non-bolting form of sorrel with the best flavoured leaves which Merton discovered in France.

Dickinson is the number-one seed among professional gardeners and here is why. She took me into the greenhouses in the heat of mid-afternoon and treated me to a masterclass of clear instructions, delivered crisply after a moment’s pause. There are no weeds to be seen and the crops are grown in elegant, black whalehide pots. Each section smells delicious, even in the middle of a blistering drought, and there is not a whitefly to be seen. “We damp down the houses three times a day,” she told me, “because the reason other people are so troubled with whitefly is that their houses are left to become too hot.” Every plant is watered by hand and, as there are now eight supporting gardeners, there is no artificial watering-system. While we looked at the big potted trees of a cherry called Gloire de Heidelfinken, Susan picked up a wooden hammer and hit the sides of each pot. “If they ring out like a bell they are too dry and need watering,” she explained. None of them did, of course. “But the hammer must be made of boxwood if it is to give the pots a proper test.”

“How are your aubergines this year?” she asked as we walked through a section lined with fruiting aubergines, aphid-free and already 3ft high in each pot. I told a purple-tinted lie about their failure to set proper fruit. “Pollination by hand is essential,” she advised. “But the older books say it should be done by using a rabbit’s tail. They are wrong. We only had good results when we changed to a more delicate instrument. We use sable paintbrushes instead.” The Rothschilds will be eating a lot of aubergines next month.

We walked through a vault of tomatoes, trained on canes at an angle like the tomatoes in a painting by Eric Ravilious which Lady Rothschild had seen in London. “Tomatoes grow best at an angle,” she explained. Among the old, endangered varieties, which she is constantly concerned to rescue, she particularly likes tomatoes with names like Herald and Black Russian.

Before she came to the Rothschilds, vegetable and cut-flower gardening had been only a part of her Waterperry past. She was confronted with a big walled garden of heavy clay and no planning, so she went back to old books from Edwardian England to find advice. She then tested and refined it by her own practical observation. Like me, she has found particular pleasure in growing blocks of flowers for use in the house. Unlike me she has true blue cornflowers, 4ft high and smothered in flowers (“the secret is to sow them early”) and great clumps of white-flowered Ammi majus, the fashionable cut-flower of up-market florists. Mine have two stalks and are not flowering at all. Her alstroemerias stand upright on long stems, supported through wide netting which is stretched over them when they are still small. Her sweet peas are from heaven, unpuckered in a year when mine have scorched.

It is a joy to see the highest practical standards applied to every crop. No designer would have a clue how to do it, but the results have an orderly beauty, the one I most admire. After a few years of triumph the Rothschilds asked her what else she might like. She replied: “A double herbaceous border straight down the central axis of the garden.” Did she, a great cultivator, have the so-called taste to lay out such a demanding array of shapes and colours? Of course she did and when I saw it in its first mature autumn it was a bewitching haze of mauves, pinks and blues, shades which lesser gardeners hesitate to introduce but which she had grown and placed triumphantly – down to the loveliest China Asters, flowers which designers despise as “common”.

Patronage has given genius her head. There was a time when I thought wistfully that I might have lured Dickinson to work with me. But I sense that the way to make her thrive is to trust her, obey her and give her a free rein.

The Rothschild method works with the gardener who knows and grows like nobody else.

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