Our interview with gardener Lady Xa Tollemache of Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, UK.
For flower lovers, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 76th annual Garden Symposium, “Digging the Garden: Horticulture, History & Archaeology,” takes place on April 27-30. The event is both in-person and online and will feature presentations by horticulturists (Daria McKelvey), historians (Mark Laird), archaeologists (Jack Gary), and designers—including English garden designer Lady Xa Tollemache.
(See the full list of speakers and buy tickets on their website: Here.)
Konstantin Rega: How did you kind of get into gardening? What inspired this passion?
Lady Xa Tollemache: Well, I married somebody who actually inherited a rather large house with a large garden. And I didn’t know anything. Actually, for the first four or five years, I was having babies and doing the house and making it a little bit happier and a family home. And so I didn’t really touch the garden. But eventually, you know, I went out and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m supposed to be responsible for all this, and I don’t know anything. Nothing. Zilch.”
We had a lovely head gardener named Roy, and he’s worked with us for 65 years or so, though now he’s retired. But, over those years, Roy taught me, and I experimented on my own. I remember being so amazed when any plant I put in the ground actually grew. It was just quite thrilling for me because it was a huge learning curve. And I slowly began to design things and sort of 20 years later—when my youngest child had gone away to boarding school—I thought, “Well, I need some money. I need to work. I needed a job.” So I started the design business.
With all the estates and gardens in England with traditional designs, what is your personal approach to English gardening?
My approach is that I like structure. And I like to take architecture from the house and put it in the garden. I don’t think the garden should look out of place in the place where it is. And so if I’m working with a historic house, then, you know, the structures and the form will be classical, but I can always play around with the planting and do modern planting. So within that framework of “correctness,” you can experiment, too.
Are there any favorite plants that you like to use, or use often?
Where do I begin? Primroses, snowdrops, followed by daffodils, followed by irises, followed by roses. I love everything. So I can’t say what my favorite plant is actually.
From where you first started to today, where have you gone with your passion for gardening?
Into the soil, I think. I’ve gone to some place where I’m happy. You know, I come in from shoveling muck all over the borders, and I’m tired, but I’m still happy. And I think that’s what horticulture and gardening do.
And yes, it was sort of scary, especially when I started working for other people. And yes, there are stresses and tensions when you run a business. But on the other hand, I think it’s a better business than any other you could have. Because it makes you happy. You could say, I went from trowels to diggers.
And when you’re working with a client, how do you approach that relationship?
I always go over and see them for a walk around, to ask, “What are your ideas.” And we begin to get a feeling inside their house, too, of whether they have strong ideas or no ideas or that they lack confidence. Most of them just lack a bit of confidence. Then you begin to get the feel of the person and begin to form a sort of relationship.
And when walking around, I don’t say very much. I let them talk and say, “What ideas did you have; what colors do you hate? Would you like water, trees, a pool, a border?” You know, get an idea of what they might actually want there. And as they talk, they also think about it a bit more. Some have very definite ideas.
On the second visit, I will look at the garden more critically, and immediately see what’s wrong with it. And I think when I’ve decided what’s wrong with the garden—like, take that hedge out, or I’m afraid that tree’s got to go, or a wall’s got to be higher—I can begin the process of designing. But it’s taking away the bad things because otherwise you’re sort of stuck with a jigsaw of things that don’t work together. And if they liked the hedge, I mean, too bad. It’s going, sorry.
So Seamus Heaney has a great poem called “Digging.” It’s about exploring yourself and your passions, essentially. Through gardening, what have you discovered about yourself?
People skills, I think, dealing with clients. I work with the RHS. So I’m dealing with these immensely eminent horticulturists the whole time, and curators and onsite managers. So, I think, I’ve grown in confidence about my work; I’m more sure of myself, which is nice. I found in myself that I can get along with everybody, more or less.
And how has your husband received you getting down and dirty in the garden all day long?
Oh, well, I think he was very pleased when I took over the garden. Previously, for about 20 years or so, I was competing in very high-level dressage, with all those expenses and such. So when I got my design job, it meant money coming in and not going out. He was delighted!
You’ve also just published a book about your experiences. What do you want readers to take from it?
I want them to start to feel that they can do it, too. And if I can do it, golly, anyone. Honestly. I just wanted to write about my first experiences and how they progressed. And I think the people who read the book may get that feeling of: Oh, gosh, well, maybe I can experiment; I could do this.
And then it gives tips and opinions, which you don’t have to take, haha. It’s also more of a love story, actually, between me and Helmingham. How it introduced me to this wonderful world of garden design where, now, I’ve designed all over the world—except Australia, New Zealand, and South America. So that has given me such a wider knowledge of plants are a start, which is lovely, and, and different people. So that’s been fantastic. I’ve been very lucky.
Will this be your first visit to Williamsburg, for the Garden Symposium?
No, I’ve been before. I came years ago, about 1988. Tim and I were doing an American trip to raise money for Bury St Edmunds Cathedral to put the spire on it. And because of the Jamestown link.
And can you give us a hint of what you’ll be talking about at the event?
Well, I’ll be talking about a lot of the jobs I’ve done. Because many are quite historical and quite interesting, I think. They reach from the very top of Scotland—when you’re almost falling off into the sea—to right down the bottom, more cliffs there, too. And, of course, I’ll be talking about Helmingham and how it’s taught me so much. So I’ll be whizzing through endless pictures of plants and what they do for me and how you can use them. Then just a little bit about the book, five minutes at the end sort of thing. Basically a journey of gardens.
How do you approach different spaces that are different sizes?
It’s all basically to do with the landscape. The architecture of the house, you know, the surrounding buildings, mountains, flat lands. What do you see when you look out? Where are your views? For me, it’s the same with any garden. If it’s a small town garden, you still ask, “What are you going to look at the end of this? Can you make it look bigger?” Sometimes just by going around a corner and discovering something, there’s always a plan to improve.
So what is your advice, then, for people who are trying to get into gardening?
For gardening, oh, just buy a plant and stick it in. So many people are so scared about that. “What happens if it dies?” Well, too bad. You know, try another plant. I think you just keep on going. There are wonderful podcasts on YouTube and wonderful articles in magazines; there’s so much that you can pick up on and say, “Oh, I could do that.”
You don’t have to have a large garden to grow your vegetables. So I’ve done it with some lovely oyster-catching tins and the lettuces have just come up. It’s just so nice to be constantly learning and constantly picking things up. So, if you’re starting at the beginning, just have confidence and do it. And then go from there.
So as a final question: besides your own wonderful garden, what’s been your favorite project so far?
Bighton House in Hampshire is a favorite of mine. I knew the previous owners and worked for the current ones. I give quite a detailed picture of it in my book. But I’ve been working with them for about 20 years. So, she will ring me up and she says, “Oh, we just bought a cottage. Will you come and look at,” or, “I want to do a terrace or with this or that.” And they are the most fantastic clients. They’re always so generous and enthusiastic and positive.
And I’ve got two very important businessmen in London. And one said: “I was an urban man; I was pavements. And, my god, having done my garden for me, I now sit through boring board meetings wondering if a peony will blossom.”
Now doesn’t that make you feel great? It’s all about giving us all a kinder, gentler world.