My name is Bethan Pettitt and I've been the head gardener at the Brantwood Estate in Coniston for just over a year. Welcome to my new regular column which, as you might expect, is all about gardening.

I’ve been gardening all my life as a hobby and have been obsessed with plants since about the age of three. I was also fascinated by creative practices and alternated between environmental work and the performing arts for some time before training and settling into gardening more seriously.

Growing up in rural West Wales, it’s no surprise that plants were my first love and I cannot imagine doing anything else now. The years I spent in the arts - working with crafts, community arts and performing with circuses – have given me a lot of useful skills for being the Head Gardener of an estate, though you might not think it. We use our creative and aesthetic decision making in both roles, as well as project management and working with people from many different disciplines as well as the public.

In historic estates such as this one, an interest in history – whether it is social history or the history of design is also useful. For me, the creative and gardening worlds are inextricably bound together. Having my hobby as my job is a dream come true but it does mean I rarely switch off - I spend all day physically gardening and my evenings looking up plants and techniques!

Brantwood, Coniston

The Brantwood estate near Coniston is a very special place. It was the home of the famous artist, writer and social reformer John Ruskin and is now owned and operated by the Brantwood Trust. The grounds were described as a ‘series of exquisite jewel-like garden islands set in a wider sea of ancient woodland’ by David Ingram, the ex-Regius Keeper of Edinburgh Botanic Garden. Our gardens range from fruit and veg gardens to ornamental borders, an orchard and ‘wild’ gardens of naturalised plantings, whilst our estate reaches from the shores of Coniston Water to our very own fell, Crag Head. Several of the gardens were designed by Ruskin himself, others by his cousin Joan and a few were created more recently to explore Ruskin’s ideas in a more modern context. You’ll find a mix of formal and informal planting in the gardens and of course the semi-ancient woodland is always a joy to behold too – especially in May, as the bluebells carpet the forest floor.

Bluebells at Brantwood

Spring is certainly in the air now, we have lots of plants awakening and colour returning to the garden. We have Camellias, flowering currants, bright blue stars of Omphalodes, otherwise known as navelwort, all amongst the spring bulbs of daffodil, snowdrops, crocus and the bolder splashes of blue from Iris reticulata and Iris unguicularis. The hellebores are a real star of this season too and they are great for bees, as is willow which is also adorable when it comes into flower. Willow is great for bees as it flowers as they are coming out of hibernation and need food, quick! Soon the Azaleas in the Harbour Walk will be flowering and the whole estate will be awash with colour. It is a great time to get out into your garden and take stock. There are a few tasks that will really help get your garden in the best shape for the coming season.

Flowers at Brantwood

We have a lot of trees and shrubs at Brantwood, so we’ve been busy with them all winter as you have to prune most of them while they are dormant. The apples in particular had an extensive, detailed prune this winter as this improves the quality of our fruit. If an apple tree is getting too dense, and the fruit too shaded, it invites problems like blotch, fly speck, bitter pit and canker. There is also little point letting fruit develop where it is out of reach! Counterintuitively, pruning can help prolong the life of a tree, this is especially noticeable with hazel coppices, where it can extend the life of a tree by hundreds of years. Mulching around the base of your orchard trees can improve the health of the trees too (but don’t pile mulch against the trunk).

Woodland at Brantwood

We finished pruning evergreen shrubs at the end of February, as the bird nesting season officially starts in March, but there is still time to prune any deciduous shrubs that have not come into leaf yet – so long as you are absolutely sure there are no birds nesting in them, you must check carefully! You might want to take a few of the oldest stems out of your hydrangeas and consider pruning the taller stems back to a nice plump pair of buds lower down the stem. Any yellow azaleas that are getting out of hand could have wayward stems taken out right to the base. Generally speaking, the oldest wood is the least productive, so it is worth bearing that in mind whichever shrub you are pruning.

It is worth getting to know your plants though, take a close look at your Japanese flowering quince (Chaenomeles), ours are in flower now, you will notice that the flowers are not on the tips of the branches, they are slightly further back, on branches that grew last year, so if you are ‘giving them a haircut’ do be sure not to cut off all the new growth or you might have no flowers next year!

Brantwood garden

A major spring job for us is chopping back our herbaceous perennials – and we have a lot of them too! We leave them standing over winter as it is excellent habitat for invertebrates, it also protects the plants over winter and we find they come through better in spring if they’ve been left standing. A final bonus is that the stems keep a lot of height and structure in the garden, as well as a range of different tones, it makes it a much more interesting space. It’s best to do this before the young foliage gets too big, so you don’t risk damaging it.

Once we’ve cleared the stems it is the perfect time to lift and divide any plants that are outgrowing their space, it’s the turn of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ this year as it’s getting too big and threatening to flop over the path. It’s an excellent plant though, it flowered wonderfully last year, for ages, as did our Astrantia ‘Million Stars’. We will then weed and apply the annual mulch. As well as being the only food our borders need, it supresses weeds and really lifts the presentation.

We have a whole bank of compost bins behind scenes and mulch using our home-made compost but any peat-free compost will do. Any perennials that get a bit floppy, like our Thalictrum flavum, have plant supports made for them now. We use hazel and birch from our estate for border supports and use the colouful stems from dogwoods to support pot displays like daffodils that are threatening to flop over. The supports normally only need to give them a bit of help low down so an interwoven web of twigs that the young stems can grow through can be an attractive addition to the border, but not distract too much when it gets to bloom time. We prune and tie in our roses in early winter and now it’s great to see the young growth coming through. If you need to prune or tie yours in to supports now, do be careful as the young growth is very fragile.

It is ever so hard to wait for seed sowing time but now the days are lengthening enough for the seedlings to get enough light when they germinate. Sweetpeas have been sown and have pushed their way up through the compost already – some autumn sown sweetpeas have survived and are a little ahead but we lost quite a few so I won’t bother with that this year. There are quite a few hardy veg that can be sown too. It can be hard to remember which ones so I simplify it to ‘BBBB’ - broad beans, brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower), beetroot and bulbs (leek, onion). There are a lot which really don’t want to be sown until April or May though, so try to hold off!

One of my favourite sites at this time of year is the fern croziers which are visible but have not quite started unfurling, you can see them rolled tightly, waiting, and that is a wonderfully hopeful sight.

There is always plenty to see and do at the gardens here in Brantwood. Hopefully you will be able to visit soon and see for yourself.

Flowers at Brantwood




  1. Lynda
    What a fabulous start to your illustrious career as a columnist! Your usual fascinating mix of expertinformation, history and practical advice 😀
  2. Sue
    Bethan, I so enjoyed your first column and look forward to more reports from the estate. I write this from Brantwood Road in a town next to Boston, Massachusetts, so think I come by my attraction to all things Ruskin honestly, including your incredible gardens. Thank you for your marvelous springtime report!

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