Why would a department store take an interest in horticulture? The John Lewis Partnership believes that gardens are worth cultivating - for no other profit than the pleasure of its staff. Hester Lacey visits two of its green properties
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The Independent Online
THE MISSION of most department stores and supermarkets is confined to flogging as many duvet covers, ironing boards, Pot Noodles and tins of beans as they can. The John Lewis Partnership has a rather more diverse sphere of activity - including horticulture. The pretty roof garden perched on top of its flagship Oxford Street store, where staff can lounge in their lunch hours, is just the tip of quite a substantial iceberg. The company owns over 4,000 acres of rural land in Dorset, Hampshire, the Lake District and Berkshire; tracts of some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain.

Some of this greenery has a practical application. The Leckford Estate in Hampshire, the company's principal country seat, includes a profit- making farm, which supplies Waitrose with mushrooms and apples. But among the estate's other assets are a virtually priceless 550 acres of water- meadows along a prime fishing stretch of the River Test, two large golf courses - and 150 acres of ornamental gardens, all smack in the middle of some of Britain's most expensive and exclusive commuter country.

Such holdings have hard-nosed business types scratching their heads. Why waste precious profit maintaining rose beds and lily ponds, herbaceous borders and shrubberies? "If Lewis were to float tomorrow it would almost certainly be taken over the day after by an asset stripper," wrote one perplexed City analyst recently. "This priceless property defies received business logic."

The explanation lies in the unusual business set-up at John Lewis. Because the company is a partnership, controlled and administered by the staff, with no profit-hungry shareholders to answer to, it can deploy its assets as they damn well pleases. And that happens to include country estates where partners can go to spend their holidays in beautifully cultivated surroundings - at rates that would make local hoteliers gnash their teeth with rage.

The jewel in John Lewis's gardening crown is the 10-acre water garden at Leckford. Leckford was formerly the private estate of John Spedan Lewis, reverently known as "The Founder", and he personally supervised the lay- out of the network of ponds, streams and bridges (his wooden summerhouse is preserved at the heart of the garden). The clear water that supplies the magnificent main lily pond, which blooms well into the autumn, and trickles under the many little bridges, flows from the nearby River Test, through a series of sluices, then back into the river at the other end of the garden.

Mike Stone is the head gardener, tall and bearded, with a solid-looking pair of Wellington boots appropriate to the damp nature of his job. He has worked at Leckford for 14 years, and he particularly loves the garden at this time of year, when summer's flowers have fallen to reveal the starker beauty of leaves and stems, reflected in the waters around them. "The garden is spectacular in autumn," he says. "The light is so special, the way it falls on the plants and water. It's my favourite time."

While the garden in summer is bright with lilies, primulas and irises, Mike has also planted groves of slender bamboo, solid gunnera, feathery ferns and elegant hostas, none of which rely on flowers for their visual appeal. "It's so important to get a contrast of leaf texture in the garden," he says. "People tend to ignore them, but leaves have got so much going for them."

One of the major maintenance tasks is keeping the lily pond silt- and weed-free, and also keeping the lilies under control. "We hire a pump for two or three weeks in the autumn to pump out the silt that the river water brings in," explains Mike Stone. "It's very arduous and very cold," he adds with a visible shudder. But worth the effort; even late in the year, the Nymphaea carnea and N gloriosa are looking spectacular.

Ironically, drought is a problem even in this garden where the sound of trickling water is constantly in the background; Mike is introducing an irrigation system to develop the beds further away from the streams. The garden lies in a frost pocket; some of the hosta leaves are spotted with brown frost damage and plants such as hydrangeas that flower on second- year wood are out of the question, the shoots are frosted off before the flowers can develop.

"But my Pittosporum, which is not reliably hardy, has survived the winter, so my philosophy is if you want it badly enough, try it," says Mike. The soil is chalk, with a mysterious vein of peat which means he can grow acid-lovers like rhododendrons and azaleas. These, with thickets of mature trees, make a dense backdrop that preserves the peace of the garden. And peaceful it certainly is; silence reigns, apart from occasional squabbles among the resident ducks, or a swish as one of the enormous mirror carp breaks the surface on the pond.

John Lewis partners can visit at any time; in summer, the public are allowed in on the first and third Sundays of the month (entrance charges go to local charities); and interested groups of gardening enthusiasts can book a visit. But for much of the time, particularly off-season, the water garden is the kingdom of Mike and his team.

"It might seem a terrible waste that it is so little used, but I think those people who see it are seeing as it should be seen," he says. "It was created as a garden for one man, and the way to see it is in ones and twos, not crowded with people. Perhaps the garden isn't as well-used as a National Trust garden, but our raison d'etre is a facility for the partners. In a way I would like more people to see it, but not to be inundated with visitors. We gardeners are lucky to have it all to ourselves."

A few hours' drive away, the atmosphere is very different. Brownsea Island in Poole Bay is owned by the National Trust, which has leased the only substantial building on the island, Brownsea Castle, with its grounds, to John Lewis. Outside the castle grounds, a constant stream of visitors disembarks from the mainland; day-trippers staying in Poole or Bournemouth. Behind the high walls of the castle gardens, however, things are rather more exclusive. The castle is lively with John Lewis employees enjoying the tail end of summer - especially the private beach at the foot of the castle grounds. The 17-acre garden is the domain of Steve Teuber, head gardener at Brownsea for 13 years, who lives with his family in a cottage attached to the estate.

Although the distance in miles between Leckford and Brownsea is not so very great, the gardens are worlds apart. Here on the south coast, says Steve, the climate is almost too mild. Standing in the walled garden that sweeps down from the castle's impressive frontage, he casually plucks a fig from a tree groaning with fruit. "There is no frost almost till Christmas, most years. I would prefer it harder, to kill off insects and diseases over the winter. Things grow which wouldn't grow elsewhere, because of the temperature - the problem is wind damage."

The soil is sandy, acid and well-drained, but Steve has a secret weapon to cope with drought: a well on the island, the water from which has been condemned as unfit for human consumption, but is still perfectly all right for the garden. Other problems are less easy to cope with. Everything has to come by boat to the island," says Steve. "So it's expensive. I compost all my leaves and grass cuttings, but I still have to use spent mushroom compost as a mulch and soil conditioner - I could use 15 tons a year, but I can only get about four across the bay."

He has tried to avoid a garish, municipal-border effect. "I've chosen soft colours - it's meant to a peaceful garden, we don't want bright, parkland colours." Along the mellow stone walls, he has mixed a happy combination of sedums, chrysanthemums, pale pink fuchsia Alba, golden- rod and abelia, all in muted pinks, golds and beiges. Virginia creeper, wisteria, Russian vine and ivy climb above, protected from the salty sea- winds by the sturdy walls.

To the back of the castle, it's a different story. Steve has concentrated on tough shrubs and trees, because of hordes of unwelcome visitors: rabbits, (the front garden is protected by unobtrusive anti-rabbit fencing) deer, mice. Brownsea has no resident dogs, cats or foxes and small mammals thrive, including red squirrels, semi-tame in winter, which do no damage. Steve had high hopes of a hay meadow, cut only by hand with a scythe, to encourage wild flowers, but the rabbits nibbled the lot down to ground level. "You have to be pretty philosophical," he says.

A series of hedges leads away from the building, into secluded dells and then into woods with mature trees; beech and horse chestnut. "Most visitors tend to stick close to the castle and the croquet lawn," says Steve. "It's a deliberate ploy not to make everything too obvious, so people who want to can wander in and discover it for themselves."

Wandering around the beach and woods and gardens at Brownsea Castle, however, is a privilege reserved for John Lewis's 35,000 partners, who draw lots to stay there when the accommodation is over-subscribed (as often happens). The only way to get to see this secret garden is to join the company.

Why not? "In the Partnership we believe that there's more to life than just work, and we like to encourage happiness," says a spokesman for John Lewis. Slushy perhaps but apart from anything else, John Lewis is preserving and maintaining a small part of the British countryside. And in cut-throat, profit-driven Nineties Britain, perks are few and far between for most employees, particularly those who haven't yet made it into the boardroom. Even that cynical City analyst was finally forced to conclude that perhaps John Lewis should continue to "defy logic and pursue its quaintly dated but utterly delightful primrose-strewn path." !