Gardening can be an intimidating pastime for anyone starting out, but when Lady Xa Tollemache began her horticultural odyssey almost 50 years ago, as the newly installed young chatelaine of the moated manor house Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, she was facing a challenge of epic proportions.
Over two decades she transformed the gardens with wildly romantic borders, dreamy walks and formal parterres that responded in spectacular style to their surroundings. And then used all of her experience to launch herself as a garden designer. Now she has written a book – a lockdown project – about it all. A Garden Well Placed describes how she created her own gardens and many of her other projects too – Dunbeath Castle in Caithness, Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire, Castle Hill in Devon, Wilton House in Wiltshire, and Bighton House in Hampshire. In some cases she has spent 20 years closely collaborating with the garden owners.
When she arrived at Helmingham with very young children to look after, it took years for her to get round to the task outside. “I didn’t know anything and I didn’t know what to do because it was pretty soulless garden,” says Xa (it’s short for Alexandra – she pronounces it Za) of her arrival in 1975. “But I went out and thought, ‘God, I’ve got to look after this.’ It was a sort of menacing beast behind the walls.”
Despite its beautiful bones, the garden was filled with “masses of vegetables, nothing flowering until May – it didn’t look anything like it looks now”. But slowly, as her children went off to school, Xa became a gardener. She was helped considerably by her head gardener Roy Balaam, who had started working there aged 14 and stayed for 65 years. “Roy was there, always patient and with a beaming smile. We didn’t have a cross word for 45 years.”
She consulted Russell Page – his book The Education of a Gardener was her bible – and toured houses around the country that were similar in age to Helmingham with Page’s words that “the garden must curtsey to the house” ringing in her ears.
“[The garden] had to be sympathetic to the house. I was creating a very intensive garden – it wasn’t Capability Brown lakes and Palladian bridges and things.”
Wherever there had been dull bedding she instead planted a succession of plants – a spring border in between the moat and walled garden was filled with tulips, peonies and irises. The vast walled garden was transformed with abundant frothy herbaceous borders and then criss-crossed with vast tunnels which have been used to grow sweet peas, gourds or runner beans alternately. To the east of the house, where there had been no garden at all, she enlisted Lady Salisbury of Hatfield House to help create a series of parterres with a knot garden, herb garden and rose garden.
In complete contrast to all of this, a woodland garden was added on the edge of the gardens looking out to the ancient parkland with sculptural landforms. Long grass softens the long walks and vistas around the walled garden and down the apple walk – this wilding has been further ramped up by the current head gardener, Brendan Arundel, who came from Hyde Hall (earning Xa the nickname “Poacher Tollemache” – they’d met there while she was working on the RHS Global Growth Vegetable Garden).
Over two decades she created a spectacular garden. A fact echoed by Fergus Garrett’s foreword for her book in which he drew on the similarities between Helmingham and Great Dixter and heaped praise on the former. “I was so touched by Fergus’s foreward I cried,” says Xa. “He was such an inspiration – I used to go to Dixter a lot.” Last summer Garrett visited Helmingham for the Garden Museum’s Literary Festival. “I said ‘Dixter is way up there’ and he said ‘so is yours’. I was just so humbled I couldn’t believe it.”
In 1996, aged 43, she gave up her dressage horses – her other great passion – and decided she would start designing. The landscape architect Martin Lane Fox put her in touch with Jill Fenwick who taught her how to do surveys as well as scale and axonometric drawings from scratch. But her real school had been her own experience: “It taught me so much. When I got to designing gardens I would think, how did those steps work at Helmingham? Are those paths wide enough? Are the borders deep enough – Helmingham had been like a course at design school of planting combinations, scale, proportion, so when I started designing I drew back to that, to everything I’d learnt and observed there.”
She started to get jobs but then her great break came that year when Max Hastings, then editor of the Evening Standard, asked her to design a show garden for the paper at the 1997 Chelsea Flower Show. Eleven months of sleepless nights later, she created a formal walled garden with climbing roses, clematis and Exochorda x macrantha swathing the walls, a central formal lawn and deep borders filled with roses, geraniums, campanulas, irises and alliums.
She won gold and the show provided a springboard for her nascent career. “It put me on a more professional platform. I wouldn’t have got the jobs I did,” she admits. “Now because I am quite confident, I don’t need Chelsea to put me on the tabletop, I am working just under it which suits me fine. I’m just as happy with a cottage garden as I am with a stately home.”
One of her current projects is her own garden – a new one. Almost a decade ago, Tim (Lord Tollemache) and Xa agreed that their eldest son Edward and his wife Sophie would move into Helmingham and take over the running of the estate and busy events calendar. They set a departure date of 2017. This allowed Xa to move back to Framsden Hall, a moated Suffolk farmhouse, where she and Tim had lived after their marriage in 1970 and before they moved to Helmingham.
“I knew it was going to be quite emotional leaving and I think the only way I could get Tim out of Helmingham was by coming back here because he was so happy here and he has never looked back – he absolutely adores it.”
By the time they returned, the Framsden garden was “a complete wilderness”. She spent two years restoring the house – “We’d lived in a cold house for 40 years and we wanted to be warm” – while planning how to create gardens that would be as low maintenance as possible.
Today, the new gardens around the house at Framsden echo the spirit of their former home. The lavender garden takes its herringbone design from the brickwork on the end of the house.An abundant herbaceous border that runs along the front of the house was widened and filled with tulips and alliums followed by perennials in a palette of cream, white, silver-blue, purple and dark red that works with the Suffolk pink render of the house. The climbing rose ‘Mermaid’, with beautiful single creamy yellow flowers, clambers up the walls.
Another enclosed garden to the side of the house is dominated by a chestnut tree and planted as a spring garden with a succession of hellebores, lamium, foxgloves, hostas, pulmonaria, euphorbia, brunnera and epimediums followed by roses, daphnes and hydrangeas.
The orchard is given some definition with mown paths and flows into a new woodland garden with Malus transitoria and two established cherry trees as well as the remnants of shrubs planted when the couple first lived in the house. This leads into an open glade for picnics and den making – where the space has allowed the planting of more trees, including Heptacodium miconoides, Malus ‘John Downie’, Carpinus fangiana, Sorbus wardii and liquidambars.
“They are baby gardens,” asserts Xa. “What I’m missing now is the linkage between them – that’s my next mission. And trying not to make it bigger!”
When they handed over Helmingham, Xa had originally agreed to continue overseeing the gardens while her daughter-in-law Sophie would oversee events. But she quickly realised that the two were completely intertwined. At the same time, she was trying to work out how to reduce labour at Helmingham – now that she could no longer be in the garden at 5am or watering plants at 10pm.
For a year Xa worked with head gardener Brendan Arundel, then in March last year she realised that he “got” the garden. Recently she walked away entirely. “It’s a relief,” she says. “I went round this morning with just joy seeing it all look marvellous.”
There’s absolutely no sense that she might slow down and take it easy anytime soon. Despite the distant memory of the sleepless nights doing her first Chelsea garden (“everyone has a certain amount of terror, even Sarah Eberle”) she admits she’d still like to do another one, “but just for the fun of it and not to prove anything”. Creating a garden for Horatio’s Garden or for a hospice is also on her wish list of commissions.
She still gets the same thrill creating other people’s gardens, the buzz of a blank canvas and the possibilities of creation and transformation. “Every garden I’ve worked on I have enjoyed – every single one,” she adds. “I’m going to see a new client on Friday and there will be that same sense of excitement.”
The gardens at Helmingham Hall (but not the house) are open to visitors: helmingham.com.
A Garden Well Placed: The Story of Helmingham and Other Gardens by Xa Tollemache is available from books.telegraph.co.uk.
Low maintenance ideas from Lady Xa
Use trees and tough perennials
The grasses and aster border punctuated with silver birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii). The Crouching Man sculpture is by Laurence Edwards. This area only needs attention once a year for a cut back in late winter.
Use structure to create visual interest
The lavender garden takes its herringbone pattern from brickwork on the house. Wavy hedges of Osmanthus burkwoodii are interspersed with different varieties of lavender that flower from June until October – both are cut just once a year.
Focus and simplify high maintenance areas
For Xa, the herbaceous border that stretches along the front of the house is relatively low maintenance because it’s the only herbaceous border in the Framsden garden. The scale means it makes a good visual impact but it’s easily manageable by Xa alone now that it’s established.
Four favourite peonies from Helmingham
Early flowering peony growing to 90cm with lush green foliage and deep red crinkle petals that open to a flat cup
Large single white flowers with gold stamens on 80cm stems. Will tolerate some shade but prefers full sun
‘Bowl of Beauty’
Mid-season and hugely popular variety with bright bubblegum pink petals and pale lemon ribboned petaloids
Early flowering and heavily scented peony growing to 80cm with papery pure white petals and large clusters of golden stamens.