Move over Monty Don! Danny Burlingham, Head Gardener at Forde Abbey House & Gardens, has become a bit of a gardening hero for us and there’s a whole host of reasons why… 30,000 of them to start with, as that’s how many tulips Danny, and his wingman Olly, have planted for the Forde Abbey tulip festival. The festival takes place from late-April to mid-May and Danny had us at “we hand-troweled the lot” ;). That’s 30,000. Planted BY HAND. Mind officially blown!
Anyway, the festival’s set to be an amazing showcase for the later flowering varieties, but after spending a couple of hours getting to know Danny - and talking about what it’s like to look after these beautiful gardens - we get the feeling tulips are just the tip of the iceberg!
Danny’s got exciting plans and a relaxed confidence about him - a twinkle in his eye, a warm smile and a huge gardening brain! At one point, we joked that we need to pinch it, or clone him, to help out in our own garden (OK, so we might've been deadly serious!! :)).
His kind of gardening know-how is what you get from the diverse experience of RHS studies, being a Garden Centre volunteer, being a student at the Cambridge Botanic Garden, having had the challenge of taking care of a honey farm garden and being a gardener at Hestercombe. Danny’s definitely come a long way since he ditched a career in printing 10 years ago and now, he’s at the heart of some of the greatest gardens we’ve discovered since moving to Somerset.
If you haven’t been to Forde Abbey House & Gardens yet, Danny and his tiny team of two (Olly and Maurice - plus some great volunteers who help out) have the very cool challenge of looking after and innovating in 30 acres of stunning space. The gardens are informal, awesome to wander around and they’re divided in to several different areas so there’s always something fresh to see, whatever time of year you go. This also means there’s always something different for Danny to get stuck in to as well!
“I love coming here every day. There’s always something new to learn, so as a gardener you’re never bored,” Danny tells us as we walk around the HUGE kitchen garden. “Whatever level you’re at with gardening, you can never know it all. That’s what makes it exciting”.
As Danny tells us about the different fruits and vegetables they’ll be growing at Forde Abbey this year (for use by the Kennard family who live there, as well as in the visitor café), his passion for learning makes me want to sprint to the nearest seed shop and have a go at growing even more in our (currently) wild looking veg patch!
It’s not just in the kitchen garden where exciting things are happening either. From 8th-23rd July, Sweet Pea Fortnight comes to Forde Abbey and if you go, you’ll see up to 100 varieties in bloom around the gardens… and Danny’s been preparing!
The seeds were sewn in February, put in heat beds at 20 degrees and once germinated, they’ll be kept in the glass house and planted out in April. The wigwams, for the pretty flowers to curl themselves around, have already been made and we can only imagine how amazing the scent will be. We’ll definitely be back in July to find out. Even Kew Gardens are getting in on the act and taking Sweet Pea samples from Forde Abbey to help create varieties that are more resistant to a disease spread by rain splash.
For Danny, Sweet Pea Fortnight is one of the times he loves he most.
“Welcoming people to see the Sweet Peas is one of my favourite times in the gardens”, he tells us. “We get visitors of all ages, we sell the different varieties in the shop and it gets a new generation of people growing them, which is brilliant to see”.
It’s obvious that trying new things out means a lot to Danny and there’ll definitely be some of that for us all to see soon…
“Alice (Kennard) wants to change some things and develop new designs in the garden here, which is great”
he says, as he shows us a border near the café that was previously home to a rose display.
It’s now been hand-dug and mulched (with his favourite mushroom compost) in preparation for “big swathes of herbaceous flowers” and those styles, colours and textures wlll become Danny’s living painting. He’s been inspired by one of his own favourite gardens, Great Dixter, where iconic gardener Christopher Lloyd developed a hub of ideas that bucked many a gardening trend - and were seen by some as a little controversial. Oooh! We like the sound of that, surprisingly!
Anyway, there’ll be lots of flowering plants of different heights and clashing colours – purples, pinks and oranges - to create something truly magical and although it won’t be looking its best until year two or three, we can’t wait to see the design breathe new life into the border. I also suspect alliums might be the star of the show and I flipping love an allium! :)
Another new area Danny and his team are creating will be all about bees! In a corner, just behind the new herbaceous border project, there’s soon to be a beautiful bee haven crammed full of flowers and plants to keep those pollen seekers busy… and to inspire people to create bee friendly gardens themselves.
“If I was to choose any plant to attract bees", Danny tells us, "I’d go for Echium vulgare (Viper’s bugloss). It’s an annual you can grow yourself and bees love it. Any type of Cosmos is also great as a late flowerer”.
So, there’s another tip and another reason to go back and visit – to see how Danny’s bee corner shapes up - but that’s still not all! Danny takes us to The Park Garden because there’s something very cool happening there too… and it’s spiral shaped!
Alice wanted to do something special to mark the Toby Buckland Garden & Harvest Festival, being held at Forde Abbey in September. She came up with a monastic spiral design, John (a volunteer and ex-engineer) worked out how to translate it to make it work on the land and Danny and Olly are bringing it to life. Sounds like a real challenge but it’s well underway and when complete, you’ll be able to walk through spheres of late flowering willow – wow!
It’s not all about new projects though and that’ll be comforting to gardeners like you and me! Keeping these stunning areas looking tip top, and raising the standards for visitors to the gardens, is all about the simple things – the mulching, the weeding, the mowing, the raking! Things we all do in our own gardens as much as we possibly can, whether we’ve got a little or a very large plot! We’re currently spending every available gardening hour pulling up nettles (I know!) so it was good to hear that like us, Danny starts with a plan. Sometimes it changes depending on the weather and he prunes, he mulches, he hand weeds – just like the rest of us! Hooray! :)
We were also keen to find out where, in gardens this big and beautiful, Danny would go to admire the view if he had a quiet five minutes to himself! We thought he might head to The Mount Garden for a stunning aerial view of the house and the Centenary Fountain... England's highest powered one, no less!
We were wrong, though! Danny's favourite spot is... drum roll please... The Bog Garden.
Overlooking The Great Pond, The Bog Garden is a tranquil, calming place that Danny says looks its best at the beginning of May.
" I love the newts, frogs and toads that inhabit this part of the garden and for me, every garden, no matter how big or small, should definitely have some water in it", he tells us.
On leaving The Bog Garden, our final question for Danny is whether there's anything he isn't that keen on doing at Forde Abbey! The answer's a definite no, but he does say that sometimes you can miss something blooming if you don't visit that area of the garden for a short while - if he's working on a specific project in another part of the garden, for instance. Imagine that!
Anyway, if you'd like to ask the man himself a question, or get some practical tips and advice from this very Somerset cool expert, Danny's running monthly garden workshops at Forde Abbey and they're free with entrance to the gardens. Happy days all round... and who wouldn't want to learn from this dude? :)
Danny's next workshop is this Friday, 31st March, at 10am in the Potting Shed at Forde Abbey. Places are limited and you can book a space in advance by phoning 01460 220231 or emailing email@example.com. You can find out more about his monthly garden workshops right here.
If you'd like to volunteer to help in the gardens, just use the same telephone and email details to get in touch with Forde Abbey - the team would love to hear from you.
And finally, dates for your diary...
The Forde Abbey Tulip Festival runs from 29th April to 14th May, 2017
The Sweet Pea Fortnight takes place from 8th to 23rd July, 2017
The Toby Buckland Festival is on September 16th &17th, 2017.
Happy visiting... and thanks to Danny for being awesome, chatting to us about all things gardening and showing us some of the great things he's getting up to!