‘I learned good gardening is all about tenacity’

Curator Paul Cook has spent six years building the plant collections at RHS Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire, but his love of gardening was sparked at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

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I was 18 and working on a commercial rose nursery when a colleague told me about the garden at Arley Hall. I cycled 20 miles from Wythenshawe and when I arrived I was amazed. I’d never seen anything like it. There were the pleached limes and the clocktower – and a magical walled garden that was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I worked there for two years before I went to study at Kew and it’s where I learned everything, really. Some of the people had been working there all of their lives and they gave me all the practical skills that I needed and it felt really natural to be part of that team. I learned to grow fruit and veg, herbaceous plants, shrubs; it was a real cramming of ideas and gardening techniques.

When I go back, I always visit the central walled garden. I like it because of the formality and order, but the borders are also packed with unusual plants to discover. It was there I first saw a clerodendrum. I smelled the leaves and thought ‘how disgusting!’ and then I smelled the flowers – it was a strange combination of sweet and foetid.

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The scent just hangs in the air and huge climbing roses cover the walls. They grow mixed in together with the trained fruit trees and there’s an indescribable atmosphere that I always associate with the place.

Arley Hall gave me the confidence to keep pushing at what can be grown. I don’t think ‘I can’t do that’ – it may be cold Cheshire clay but you can still get things established, especially if you have a suitable microclimate. The gardeners at Arley made a lot of their own decisions and they used that walled garden as a test ground.

Good gardening is all about tenacity. And what I learned at Arley Hall was the skills and experience to keep challenging myself and find ways to keep motivated to grow new plants and experiment with planting schemes. I like to go back there as every year is different and there’s always something fresh to see.

Words: Naomi Slade

■ Arley Hall and Gardens, Arley, Northwich, Cheshire CW9 6NA; www.arleyhallandgardens.com.