Gardening: Pushing up daisies, lilies, poppies . . .: Anna Pavord visits a North Yorkshire churchyard where the dead can rest in peace beneath a herbaceous heaven on earth

Anna Pavord
Friday 25 June 1993 23:02 BST

UNUSUALLY for an English village, Bolton Percy in North Yorkshire is not on the way to anywhere. A narrow lane wriggles its way from Tadcaster, through fields of beans and barley, to the village and then wriggles back in a wide loop north. In the village there is a pub and a fine 15th-century church, All Saints, with Jacobean box pews and a churchyard, the like of which you will be unlikely to see anywhere else in Britain.

It lies on the other side of the lane from the church. Spilling around the graves on either side are alchemillas and Welsh poppies, helianthemums and orange lilies, astilbes and hostas. Tall spires of pink and purple loosestrife rise out of mounds of blue geraniums. Lamb's ear and white dead nettle canter across arid wastes of white marble chips.

These flowers are not in borders. They cover the entire churchyard, the gravestones rising out of them like monumental pieces of sculpture. The effect is artless, luxuriant, wonderfully untramelled. And happy. It has all been achieved by Roger Brook, who has spent much of his working life lecturing on horticulture at Askham Bryan college nearby.

It all happened by accident, he says. He offered to clear the churchyard of the coarse weeds that had completely taken it over. Glyphosate, applied regularly during the course of a year, gradually brought the weeds to their knees. But the churchyard looked a wasteland, covered in dead, rotting vegetation.

Without digging, or clearing away the debris, Mr Brook began to plant. There was no plan. He popped in anything that he had too much of in his own garden. They were the usual things you have too much of: lamiums, geraniums, vincas, alchemilla.

When all these began to join up, he started weedkilling small areas of the ground cover and, in the resulting spaces, began to plant less rampageous herbaceous plants. Now you find dwarf campanulas wandering over Seth Loftus's grave. Henry Houseman has sedum, cream variegated honesty and masses of self- seeded love-in-a-mist. Ruth, the widow of Henry Kirby, has mounds of Rosa glauca, underplanted with pulmonaria.

Self-seeders are positively encouraged. There are masses of foxgloves, of course, rising between the stone crosses. Verbascums are equally stately and equally enthusiastic self- seeders. Honesty puts itself about with no help from Mr Brook. The poached egg plant, Limnanthes douglasii, appears in different places each year.

This relaxed approach prevents the churchyard from seeming too self- conscious. There is nothing that needs staking. Mr Brook does not worry about colour schemes. He never digs the ground in the churchyard, just slips plants in when he sees a gap. Weeds are hoed or dabbed with glyphosate. Goosegrass is rolled into balls and lobbed into the greenery.

He avoids plants that are top heavy and need a lot of tidying up in autumn. He goes round with shears then, clipping dead stems into small pieces as they stand, leaving the detritus to lie as instant mulch. From time to time he has been tempted by the thought of statuesque onopordums standing between the gravestones. 'They would certainly look good, but there would be too much mess to clear up in autumn.'

He also avoids plants that are prone to disease. There are few Michaelmas daisies, for instance, though there is one mildew-resistant variety, Aster amellus 'Violet Queen' that is holding its own very well. 'Useful for later colour,' says Mr Brook, who likes to keep the churchyard furnished right through from early spring snowdrops to autumn cyclamen.

There are some shrubs, but nothing that gets too big or heavy. Those that he has - spiraea, philadelphus, viburnum are all heavily pruned every other year. They need to look only slightly tamed. This is why R. glauca is such a success here (and why beds of hybrid tea roses invariably look so hideous in churchyards).

There were a few mistakes. Mr Brook introduced a low, spreading rubus, which rapidly became more of a problem than the original brambles had been. That is now banished. The yellow dead nettle, Lamium galeobdolon, could also be a problem were it not carefully contained in the heavy shade of a tree. Not much else would grow in that situation.

Maintenance is two hours a week. 'The regularity is important,' says Mr Brook. 'Otherwise, weeds would quickly come back.' But that is rather less than it would take a man to mow and edge the same area if it were all grassed over. Mowing is a problem in churchyards.

Some parish churches - there about 18,000 of them in the country - have taken the radical step of uprooting their gravestones and stacking them round the boundary of the churchyard so that the mower can get round more easily. This is lunacy. You may as well chuck out all the pews so that you can more easily clean the floor. Or chop down all the trees so that you do not have to sweep up the leaves.

The point of a graveyard is its graves, not the creation of an empty mown sward, however tidy and neat. Gravestones stacked in piles have no rationale. A gravestone marks a particular spot, celebrates a particular person in a particular place. Any churchyard maintenance system needs to be in sympathy with what the place is, rather than turn it into something else - especially when the else is as arid, as tight-lipped as a close-mown sea of grass.

This is not to say that herbaceous planting in the Bolton Percy style is the universal answer. It is a difficult trick to bring off successfully. It works well here because the churchyard is quite separate from the church, which stands among the oldest gravestones on the other side of the road.

And it has been put together by a man who knows what he is doing. At the same time, he is relaxed enough not to try and make the whole place look like a garden. It is a wild landscape that is composed of domesticated plants.

You could adapt the style for wild plantings round the perimeter of a garden, or between trees that did not cast too much shade. Sheets of Geranium macrorrhizum grow under junipers in the graveyard, with the two euphorbias, E. robbiae and 'Fireglow'. That combination would work equally well in a garden.

Low-growing ground cover wanders either side of the main path in the churchyard: brilliant magenta pinks growing out of carpets of thyme and 'Prince Henry' violas. Yellow sedum and white mossy saxifrage is scattered with bright yellow alliums. Selina Ramsden, who died in 1914, is covered with variegated ground elder and soft yellow Phlomis fruticosa.

Edward Mitchell, who died in 1896 after 30 years as head gardener at nearby Bolton Lodge, has a stupendous stand of lilies at the foot of his grave, 12 of them with spotted turk's cap flowers and ginger anthers. He would be proud of Mr Brook.

There is an open day at Bolton Percy graveyard on 3 Oct (1pm-5pm), when Roger Brook's own garden will also be open. Admission pounds 1. The graveyard can, of course, be visited at any time but please put a donation in the collecting box in the church. The village needs to raise pounds 30,000 for urgent repairs to All Saints.

(Photograph omitted)

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