If you want to know what really makes the Prince of Wales tick, look no further than his gloriously unique Gloucestershire garden. Highgrove’s head gardener Debs Goodenough gives you a delightful guided tour.
An Englishman’s home is his castle, but what about his garden? In the case of the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne and any number of stately piles and palaces, the gloriously lush grounds at Highgrove are his own kingdom where he is master of all he surveys. The creation of this world-class garden that chimes with his green vision is a labour of love by his head gardener, Debs Goodenough. The Kew-trained Canadian is behind the success of these stunning grounds where His Royal Highness can indulge his passion for plants and nature.
‘Highgrove is unique,’ says Debs, 59. ‘Everywhere you look there is beauty and harmony. Gardens bring out the best in us; that’s why they matter.’
It was here, in the heart of Gloucestershire, that the Prince and Diana, Princess of Wales raised their boys Princes William and Harry, who spent many happy hours in their magnificent treehouse. Now Highgrove is the private residence he shares with the Duchess of Cornwall, where his grandchildren come to play. Judging from the gung-ho joy of Prince George and Princess Charlotte at their mother’s Chelsea Flower Show garden, their antics at Highgrove can be guessed at. This is a garden full of surprise and pockets of carefully constructed wilderness where ferns grow as tall as a child and games of hide and seek might never end.
But their grandfather, now 70, knows every nook and cranny of his extraordinary horticultural enclave. Make no mistake, this is not just a rural retreat but a hands-on haven where you are as likely to find the Prince of Wales weeding as reading, or hacking back undergrowth as pausing to smell the blousy, perfumed roses. ‘His Royal Highness has often given me the fright of my life when I’ve unexpectedly come across him brandishing his secateurs or sawing down branches,’ smiles Debs.
Rangy and charismatic, her role as head gardener at Highgrove places her among the elite of her profession. Yet she is free from airs and graces; when we meet and walk through the grounds she scans the borders for nettles, which she immediately yanks up. With a team of a dozen gardeners, the work never stops. ‘Highgrove is a very special place and it’s a privilege to be entrusted with its care,’ says Debs.
From the whimsical yew topiary in the shape of crowns to the perfectly judged sight lines and symmetries of gates and doorways, or the vivid purple orchids and alliums in the cottage garden to the golden acres of wildflowers, the garden comprises a series of carefully curated spaces that together represent the surprisingly accessible vision of our most green-fingered royal. Versailles it is not. Frankly it would take a die-hard republican with a heart of concrete not to feel a rosy glow of royalism after a life-affirming stroll among the dappled foxgloves and the snowy profusion of staphylea.
‘Visitors arrive expecting something terribly grand and formal,’ says Debs. ‘You can see their expressions of astonishment and watch how they gradually relax and really engage with their surroundings as they learn how much thought, effort and love goes into them.’
This is a garden steeped in personality and poignancy, humour and thoughtfulness; the planting is generous and relaxed rather than regimented. ‘This garden has a deliberately soft feel,’ says Debs. ‘You’ll find weeds if you look for them but we don’t get uptight about this; we’re not trying to impose absolute order on nature but to achieve harmony. That’s why we let plants self-seed, then, if they go a bit crazy and start to invade other areas, we pull them up.’
The Stumpery is just such a lush corner of profusion. This is a tremendously atmospheric garden, where old tree stumps have been planted with ferns and ammonites set into the pathway. Two classical temples have been made from wood carved to resemble stone. Eagle-eyed visitors can spot a smart ceramic gnome – a gift to the Prince some time ago – which resides in a hollow tree stump. The overall effect is primeval, fairytale and, dare Isay it, Hobbity. Nearby is the treehouse built for Princes Harry and William, accessible via a rope ladder through a trapdoor; a new generation of high-spirited royals will doubtless soon be clambering up in their wake while their mothers look on in trepidation, as Diana once did.
‘For His Royal Highness, the gardens are akin to a canvas, where he paints with colour, contour, light and shade,’ says Debs. In summer there are flowers and foliage. Architectural shapes give interest in the winter. There are intimate corners such as a memorial to his Jack Russell, Tigga, and a bench in two of the Queen Mother’s favourite colours. The sundial, a wedding gift to Charles and Diana from the Duke of Beaufort, remains a highlight. Royal watchers might also recognise the huge earthenware jars that William and Harry clambered inside to pose for their father’s 1995 Christmas card.
A Wall of Worthies comprises busts of the great and the good who have influenced the Prince of Wales, including composer and musician Sir John Tavener, and Debo Cavendish, the late dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Where ordinary chaps might retire to their garden shed, the Prince has a private retreat known as The Sanctuary, built in 2000, in which to read, write and generally do whatever heirs to the throne do in their downtime. Entrance is strictly by invitation.
By any standards, the Prince of Wales is a born gardener. Debs points out that he chooses what is grown in the walled kitchen garden – a south-facing suntrap where fruit trees are fanned and espaliered against the ancient brick and vegetables are destined for the Highgrove table. ‘His Royal Highness comes here with a knife to pick asparagus for supper,’ she says. ‘He likes to eat seasonally and see what’s ripe and looks good. It was his idea to plant the rows of leeks successionally, so they don’t have to be harvested at once.’
A carefully calibrated irrigation system reduces water wastage. Plants are trained upright using canes recycled from wood pruned from the trees. Everything is grown organically, which seems pretty standard these days. That’s the thing about the Prince of Wales – ideas of his that seemed faddish 30 years ago have gained currency: organic food, sustainable farming, the importance of bee-friendly blossoms to our ecology and agriculture. ‘It is wonderful to work for someone who really cares about his garden,’ says Debs. ‘My role – and that of my brilliant team – is to realise His Royal Highness’s vision, and that involves problem-solving and meticulous forward planning, which I enjoy.’
Debs, who has two grown-up sons, was raised on a subsistence farm in the Canadian province of Alberta, where the minus-40-degree winters were long and the 40-degree summers were parched. Of necessity the family planted and picked their own food. ‘My earliest memories are dropping seed potatoes into the ground after my mother had dug the holes, and being put down in front of the TV with peas to shell.’
The family still used horses for ploughing but Debs’s mother grew flowers too, cultivating peonies, gardenias and lilacs for the sheer love of them. Debs herself keenly felt the call of the outdoors, but being highly academic, she was steered towards a degree in engineering. However, within a year she grew restless. ‘I am too physical a person to sit still so I tried lots of other things, including a job in forestry where I was a fire lookout with a plane at my disposal to spot, assess and give orders to fight wildfires, which in Canada are often caused by lightning.’
During this time Debs would plant fruit, vegetables and flowers in her garden. She went on to study horticulture at college then was accepted to study further at Kew Gardens in London where she met her British husband, Simon, who was a researcher there. They moved to the Isle of Wight where he worked at the Ventnor Botanic Garden and she became head gardener at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s former residence.
‘We had our sons in the Isle of Wight and they had an idyllic childhood,’ recalls Debs. ‘We would spend evenings on the beach or go on night walks through the gardens. The British have a unique empathy with their gardens. They are recognised as spaces that are good for the psyche, which really chimes with me.’
Then in 2008 Highgrove approached her – and Debs was immediately inspired. The Prince had bought the farm estate in 1980, just before his marriage to Diana. It was here that they brought up Princes William and Harry, far from prying paparazzi lenses.
To begin with the grounds were flat and rocky. The Prince started drawing up plans for what he wanted, but he needed an expert’s help. When Debs got the call she was inspired: here was a project that would challenge both her horticultural skills and the mathematical side of her brain.
‘He wanted Highgrove to work with, rather than against, nature as much as any garden can. But he also had ideas about creating compartments around the house, which would contrast with and complement each other. There would also be threads of continuity in the form of scent – there is always fragrance at Highgrove, even if visitors are only subliminally aware of it.’ Just as topiary and acers are recurrent leitmotifs, golden philadelphus and scented daphnes link one garden to the next.
In terms of its emphasis on conserving water and preserving varieties of hardy, heritage fruit and vegetables, the garden may offer a glimpse of the future, but there is more than just a nod to the past. The Prince was close to his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002. As a tribute to her there are many of her favourite scented azaleas and a wealth of delphiniums – her favourite flowers – in every hue. There is also a bronze frieze depicting the Queen Mother in her gardening hat and pearls.
But gardens are constantly changing, which is why Debs works closely with the Prince; 51 weeks of the year she sends him a report on Friday detailing the goings-on in his garden and asking for his opinions. They meet to discuss long- and short-term projects, but she always addresses him formally. The soul of discretion, she declines to be drawn on domestic detail. The gardeners are told in advance when Charles and Camilla are in residence and which part of the grounds they are likely to be using. But there are always surprises.
‘We might find His Royal Highness arranging pots and urns or tying little hessian ribbons round particular trees he wants moved,’ says Debs. ‘Ican’t tell you the pleasure we get from the fact he cares so very deeply.’ Those who know the Prince well often gift him trees or rare shrubs on special occasions. Near the Indian Gate is a topiary frame from Camilla; currently filling up with box hedge, in a few seasons it will be a magnificent elephant with a little calf close by its side. Elsewhere there are a pair of impressive celadon-glazed urns she also gifted her husband; the way to this particular man’s heart is obviously through his horticulture.
As we wander through the garden, Debs occasionally pauses to chat to visitors who experience a certain giddy frisson at meeting the Prince of Wales’s head gardener. ‘How does one cook chard?’ enquires one woman as she surveys the kitchen garden. Quick as a flash, Debs channels her inner Mary Berry and shares a recipe. ‘This must feel like heaven to Charles when he leaves all those official engagements behind,’ murmurs another. Quite so.
‘Whenever his Royal Highness goes off on an engagement he is always given a Highgrove carnation for his buttonhole,’ smiles Debs. ‘That way his garden is always close by.’ Athoughtful gesture that would give a glow to any gardener, even a royal one.
For more information about Highgrove, please visit highgrovegardens.com
Interview by Judith Woods