Chatsworth House in Derbyshire has just under 300 rooms. At least 10 and often up to 25 of these are decorated with flowers all year. On a weekly basis, the two flower arrangers, Lucy Wharton and Mick Brown, make up to 40 arrangements between them.
Chatsworth buys in very little, with almost all flowers picked from the perennial cut flower beds right at the top of the kitchen garden, where they have space for magnificent 30-feet runs of just one plant.
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Debo Mitford, created the kitchen garden and the cutting beds from horse paddocks around 20 years ago. Her son Peregrine and his wife Amanda, the new Duke and Duchess, continue to add to it. They are both keen on the garden – Amanda in particular is very involved in what’s grown and picked for the house. They’re endlessly emailing Steve Porter, the head gardener, with suggestions and photographs of flowers and arrangements they’ve seen while travelling.
The Devonshires don’t like orange, or arrangements that are too formal and complicated. They particularly like seeing a lot of the same flower in season: for example a series of vases of delphiniums only in a room, or lots of different rose buds in small vases all over the dining room table. They love to have peonies in the painted hall or camellias, just single stems, each in its own vase but massed together.
The Duchess’s favourite flower is the pale yellow Caucasian peony, P. mlokosewitschii or Molly the witch. The Duke likes Rhododendron luteum. It smells delicious,” he says “signifies spring is on its way, and reminds me of Chatsworth.”
They are both fond of Rosa gallica 'Versicolor’ (the old Rosa mundi) and are putting in a hedge of it in the kitchen garden. The dark red and blue-purple sweet pea, 'Matucana’ is, as the Duke says: “the colour of a Brigade of Guards tie” and is another old favourite.
In the garden
The kitchen garden is dominated by spectacular beds of peonies. Many of the best picking varieties are here, such as the pure white single, 'White Wings’, 'Monsieur Jules Elie’ which smells of roses, as well as the dark crimson single with huge sea anemone centre, 'Crimson Glory’ and the straight crimson single, 'Lord Kitchener’. But if you’d die for these flowers, just wait till you see the delphiniums.
There are four lines, each 30-feet long, grown in stout frames, with an internal structure of silver birch pea sticks. Two colours dominate – the bright sea blue, Summer Skies Group and the deep indigo-navy Black Knight Group.
They’re also just starting to harvest from rows of achilleas, the brilliant yellow 'Gold Plate’, as well as the paler yellow, silver-leaved 'Moonshine’. Less widely grown and more delicate are the pretty and early flowering, soft red-orange, 'Terracotta’ and 'Walther Funcke’ in rich carmine red.
Cut flower favourites
The low maintenance perennial beds are looked after by Stefan Homerski and Glenn Facer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have their own favourites among the cut flowers.
Stefan likes the peony 'Bowl of Beauty’, which he says reminds him of raspberry ripple ice cream, and the aquilegia 'Nora Barlow’, because it “has a good flower shape and lovely colour and flowers longer than other aquilegias with more compact growth. It doesn’t spread itself everywhere either.” Glenn rates the mid-pink astrantia 'Roma’, used in the house dried as well as fresh, and he is mad about the pink peony, 'Sarah Bernhardt’.
There are only a few roses in the kitchen garden; most are in the formal rose beds off the main lawn. Favourite varieties include the white 'Winchester Cathedral’ and 'Sir Joseph Paxton’. 'Winchester Cathedral’ has excellent disease resistance, a lovely shape, although not much scent, and it lasts well. 'Sir Joseph Paxton’ is named after Chatsworth’s mid-19th-century head gardener who designed Crystal Palace. This brilliant pink, very full-flowered variety can get black spot, but flowers for ages and smells incredible.
Lucy and Mick also pick candelabra primulas from beside the rill, which runs down through the kitchen garden. Varieties in oranges, pinks and yellows are mixed up with a self-sown eragrostis grass. This makes an instant, simple arrangement, exactly what the Duke and Duchess love – flowers in season, picked in abundance and arranged en masse, as they would grow naturally.
Chatsworth in your garden
The Chatsworth cutting beds are on the enormously expensive and ducal scale that the place demands. Nothing less than this lusciousness and grandeur would look right in such a house, but what can it teach the rest of us? I’m a devotee of the annual cut flower because of its high productivity from a small space, but after my Chatsworth visit, I’m considering introducing more perennials to my cut flower patch. Once they’re in, all they need is to be divided every two to three years in autumn or spring, given a regular feed but, as established perennials, little water. It’s a good idea to mulch with leaf mould in the winter and most will need staking at some point, but that’s it.
Even if the rest of us can only fit in a fraction of these summer-flowering perennials for one large bunch a week, whatever the size of our house, our lives will be the better for it.