His Majesty King Charles III cares passionately about his garden at Highgrove, and is the closest to a green-fingered monarch we’ve ever had. Here Liz Potter takes a look at his gardening ethos and green credentials
The horticultural leanings of His Majesty King Charles III are no secret. In a 2010 BBC TV documentary, Alan Titchmarsh described him as ‘the best royal gardener in history’, but in fact the King’s passion is not without precedent. In the 18th century, his great-great-great-great grandfather, King George III, took an active interest in the nation’s agricultural improvement, earning himself the epithet ‘Farmer George’.
King Charles also takes an interest in how the land is managed, adopting organic practices on his own 353-acre Highgrove Estate in 1990. But the King’s love of nurturing plants goes far deeper than the somewhat prosaic raising of crops, as evidenced by the atmospheric, well-considered garden he has created at Highgrove.
“My interest in gardening was always there,” he told Alan Titchmarsh in 2010. “As a child we were given a little plot at Buckingham Palace at the back of the border for growing vegetables, my sister and I. But it’s not until you have somewhere of your own that it becomes more possible… The thing about [Highgrove] was that it was a blank canvas; I had to start from scratch.”
This world-famous Gloucestershire garden extends to 15-acres and now attracts some 40,000 visitors a year. The layout comprises interlinked rooms and vistas, topiary and temples, fountains and sunny terraces flanked by yew hedges planted 43 years ago, when the then-Prince of Wales had a young family to protect from the paparazzi.
Head of Gardens Brian Corr now leads the 11-strong gardening team, who affectionately refer to the King as ‘The Boss’. But Charles himself is no stranger to the secateurs: just as his mother would pick up a shovel and plant a tree, so King Charles will tour the garden with a pruning saw in hand. “What I love is evening patrol at the weekend,” he says. “I potter about and that’s when I notice things and weed or prune bits off with a saw. I love all that – getting involved and doing it is what I enjoy. I’m sure most people come here and think I just don’t do anything. But I do.” The King also enjoys a spot of hedge-laying. “It keeps you relatively sane, I think. And it’s very good exercise.”
The garden was first laid out in the early 1980s, with help from horticultural friends including the naturalist Miriam Rothschild, garden designer Rosemary Verey, and the former owner of Hatfield House, the Marchioness of Salisbury, herself a champion of organic gardening since 1948. Today the garden has a romance and an intimacy that reveals the King’s own planting passions and his penchant for whimsical design. It showcases all manner of treasures and gifts from friends at home and abroad – including 60 tree ferns from the Australian Monarchist League (AML). He has also accumulated Plant Heritage National Collections of large-leaved hostas and beech trees.
“The fun is to try things that aren’t normally done,” he says. “That’s what I’ve tried to do here. There are things that amuse me, which other people may think are eccentric. But then the fun I think is hearing people’s reactions. The different moods tell different stories as you go round. Features help – little building and things that catch the eye. That’s the joy. Little views – come round a corner and something draws you on.”
The King has an artist’s appreciation of light, colour and composition. “I see [my gardening] rather like painting a watercolour,” he says. “You want to lay on the colour; don’t be careful about it! I used to be frightfully careful when I started, but now the great thing is to slap it on.”
While the King loves the regimental majesty of delphiniums and the elegant sufficiency of clipped topiary, he prefers a naturalistic look. “I hate all that over-manicured style of gardening – I like working with nature,” he says. “I’m always intrigued what people think it’s going to be like before they come. They all think it’s going to be manicured and formal. So when they come, they’re amazed.”
In particular he loves the colourful abandon of his wildflower meadow, and has created a spectacular example at Highgrove that’s dotted with oak, chestnut, poplar and beech trees. Developed by Miriam Rothschild in 1982, using a 32-species ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’ seed mix, more seed-rich green hay is added each year to introduce new species, including yellow rattle to keep the grass in check. It is brush-harvested to collect seed before cutting by horse-drawn mower in midsummer, then grazed by sheep into autumn. “One of the great joys is going round counting the wild orchids,” says the King. “It’s a huge excitement because it was completely dead, this field, when I first came. You have to have real patience [with a meadow] because it requires constant management.”
Other planet-friendly initiatives include making compost and leafmould at scale, and the use of beneficial predators to deal with insect pests. Fountains and water features are equipped with willow ramps for easy wildlife access and free-range hens roam the orchards. Rainwater is harvested for irrigation and visitor toilets, and a bespoke reed-bed sewage system, much-loved by dragonflies, is used for all Highgrove’s waste (even the Royal Flush is sustainable). The King’s own Aston Martin DB6 has reportedly been converted to run on bioethanol made from cheese and wine.
The King’s green credentials are clearly second to none, having delivered his first speech on environmental issues in 1970 at age 21. “Even in the 1960s when I was a teenager I hated what was going on – destroying and pulling up and tearing down all the wild places,” he says. “So many of these things have taken hundreds of years to grow. It takes forever to recreate lost habitat. We have to rediscover the absolute central importance – critical now – of working in harmony with nature.”
The King has stood firm in the face of criticism and mockery. “I had a lot of flack – but I knew what I was doing,” he says. “It was ‘potty this’ and ‘loony that’. I’m afraid I love the countryside and I like being in touch with things. I happily talk to the plants, the trees, and listen to them. I think it’s absolutely crucial.”
As the King and Queen Camilla move to Buckingham Palace for their formal royal duties in London, his heart will remain at Highgrove. It has become an important model for sustainable gardening that will continue to inspire its thousands of visitors for decades to come. “Some may not like it, others may scoff that it is not in the ‘real world’ or it is merely an expensive indulgence,” the King wrote in 2014. “Whatever the case, my enduring hope is that those who visit the garden may find something to inspire, excite, fascinate or soothe them.”
1796-98. Highgrove House built in the neo-classical style for John Paul Paul, in Tetbury, Gloucestershire
1956. House bought by Maurice Macmillan, son of former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan
1980 August. House bought by The Duchy of Cornwall for the Prince of Wales
1981-2. The Sundial Garden is finished – its centre piece a sundial sculpted by Walter Crang (a wedding present from the Duke of Beaufort). Initially planted with roses, it’s now full of herbaceous planting surrounded by established yew hedges and busts
1982. Wildflower Meadow developed by Miriam Rothschild. Yews hedges are planted around the Sundial Garden for privacy, protected by willow hurdles to create a screen
1984. Terrace Garden is built for sitting out in warmer months
1985. Highgrove secures Grade II Listed Building status; organic farming is introduced on three blocks of land at Home Farm
1988. Tree house begun as a birthday gift for Prince William’s seventh birthday; Cottage Garden is begun with help from Rosemary Verey
1990. Arboretum begun, featuring large topiary yews (boar’s head, frog and squirrel), Acer and Prunus trees. Thyme Walk is developed with new paving and advice from thyme experts Kevin and Susie White
1992. Stumpery garden is begun, with assistance from Julian and Isabel Bannerman
1994. Estate gains full organic status; Lime Avenue is planted
1995. Southern Hemisphere Garden created
1996. Gardens open to the public; green oak temples are built in the Stumpery
1998. The Orchard Room is built for visitor refreshments, designed by architect Charles Morris
1999. Sanctuary built using natural cob – Highgrove clay and barley straw – to mark the Millennium. It is designed by Charles Morris and created by Prof Keith Critchlow of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts
2002. Carpet Garden, inspired by two Turkish rugs inside the house, is relocated to Highgrove after winning Silver-gift medal at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2001. Emma Clark, an expert in Islamic garden design, followed an original sketch by the then-Prince of Wales
2003. One hundred chickens introduced to The Orchard. Collection now around 200-strong and includes Burford Browns, Marans, Light Sussex and Welsummers. Around 4,000 eggs are collected every year for use in the Orchard Tea Room and Estate Shop
2006. Two classical temples made from green oak are added to The Stumpery
2007. Diseased 200-year old cedar of Lebanon cut down to west of the house. A new oak pavilion with church-like spire is constructed over the base of the tree
2008. Head Gardener David Howard retires and is replaced by Canadian Debs Goodenough; 60 tree ferns are given to Prince Charles for his 60th birthday by the Australian Monarchists League
2009. Wall of Worthies is created in the Cottage Garden comprising busts of notable people inset into a yew hedge, including the Duchess of Devonshire, composer John Taverner, activist Vandana Shiva, horticulturist Sir Roy Strong, and architect Leon Krier who created Poundbury, Dorset
2012. The Winterbourne garden is created, formerly the Southern Hemisphere garden – a change brought about by harsh winters of 2010-2011. Green oak summerhouse is built in the cottage garden