Stourhead Head Gardener Reveals ‘Dream Garden’ Ahead Of Shaftesbury Talk

Alan Power has been Garden and Estate Manager at Stourhead since 2004. During his career he’s worked in many of Britain’s most prestigious gardens. Alan will be sharing his experiences during Shaftesbury Abbey Museum’s spring lecture, My Journey Through Great Gardens, at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Wednesday 13th March.

Alan tells ThisIsAlfred how his interest in gardening began, he shares his vision of his ‘dream garden’ and he explains why Stourhead is so special.

Alan Power was born to be a gardener. His mother is a world-class flower arranger and inspired him from his early years growing up in Cork. “I’ve always been interested in the outdoors. I always wanted to be outside,” Alan said.

Alan was 12 years of age and on a school trip to Garnish Island, off Ireland’s southwest coast, when he was first bitten by the gardening bug. “The island is hugely influenced by the Gulf Stream and it felt like a tropical or Mediterranean garden,” he said. “There was a plant there called gunnera, which looks like a giant rhubarb. You do see it in Cornwall. We have a little bit of it here in Stourhead. I went home to my mum and I couldn’t stop going on about this plant. She remembers it to this day. She had never seen me so alive when talking about something.”

Alan Power

Alan has made it his mission to enthuse people about his passion. “That’s why I first started doing bits on the radio and television. I wanted people to see that this is a wonderful world – not just the world we live in but the world I work in. It would be very selfish of me to keep this a secret,” he said.

Alan has studied many different types and styles of garden and he’s fascinated by the history of Britain’s great gardens. If he was to design and develop his own plot of land he’d borrow from different gardening styles. “At the heart of it I would have an ‘arts and crafts’ garden,” he said. Alan says it would be like Hidcote in Gloucestershire or Sissinghurst in Kent.

“In the early 20th century, hedges went back up and people wanted beautiful escapes. So when I walk out of my house, I would have this lovely series of compartments with different experiences in each. They would have to lead me to a wonderful, wide view over a rolling countryside. That’s the 18th-century landscape gardener in me, calling in the countryside,” said Alan. “And then, I’d want to smell the sea. All of this would need to be close to the coast. My garden would have features in it – some statues and some formality. It would be an early 18th-century garden rather than the later Capability Brown or Humphrey Repton garden. It would be a Stourhead-style, 18th-century garden but with an arts and crafts garden at its heart.”

Although the world-famous Stourhead gardens are grade one listed on the register of historic parks and gardens, Alan says he is able to change and adapt their appearance. “It is a historic garden but it is far from finished. I’m sitting at my desk in my office and looking at two engravings of Stourhead, made in the 1770s by Mr Banfield who owned Hestercombe in Somerset. I’m looking for hints and clues all the time, so when you visit Stourhead you will see Henry the Magnificent’s garden or his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare’s garden,” Alan explained.

“I am revealing the views and sense of space and scale that they were happy with. I’m reintroducing trees that were lost and I enjoy going into the records to find out what was there at a particular time,” he added.

The garden hasn’t always been as carefully curated and managed as it is today. “Stourhead went through a period of neglect in the 1730s and 1740s. The garden was completely overgrown. I’m still unpicking some elements of that and discovering new views that we can open up. That’s what keeps it fascinating,” Alan said.

And he says he maintains his interest because Stourhead still isn’t finished. “If you plant something then you have an idea of the scale that plant will get to. You will enjoy two or three years where the plant fills that space and frames your view,” said Alan. “Then you need to start pruning it and looking after it because it takes over. It’s all those balances that I need to achieve at Stourhead, so that you see just enough of the bridge or enough of the Pantheon.”

Alan has looked at introducing some of the trees and plants that the gardens’ original designers would have intended to plant. But that was a long time ago and he’s had to face the challenges of climate change and disease. “It’s a very current issue. We have ash dieback and sudden oak death, which can affect many species of tree and rhododendrons. I do worry a lot as an arborist myself,” said Alan.

“The landowners of the 19th century were quite playful with plant collections, so new plants were coming in from different countries all over the world. Some worked, some did not work. I am going back to the records and I’m trying to reintroduce the ones that did work. We’re looking at the records for the North American, South American and Asian trees that we can bring in and use or which we can propagate from,” said Alan, adding that Stourhead has a ‘wonderful’ propagation programme.

So which part of the garden is Alan’s favourite? He says it is hard to choose. “You can come around a corner at Stourhead and it can knock you off your feet. It’s not what we have done. It’s what nature has done,” he said. “It’s how the landscape works with what nature provides. It can be the angle of the sun. It can be the reflection of the snow or the way in which the wind rattles through the trees. Or it can be the way that rainfall is disturbing the peace on the lake. I’ve had the luxury of working here on and off for 23 years. I have seen it in every mood.”

Alan has fewer choices when asked which season is the best time to visit Stourhead. He’s still slightly undecided. Spring and autumn are the most wonderful times at Stourhead,” he said, adding that there are many arguments between the seasons. “I think the optimum time to come would be towards the end of April into the middle of May. Come and enjoy the rhododendrons and particularly the copper beech trees coming into leaf.”

During his Shaftesbury Arts Centre talk, Alan will share his impressions of some of the incredible gardens he has visited, either as Stourhead’s Head Gardener or through his additional work as a TV and radio gardening expert. “I’m also lucky enough to do a podcast and I have visited gardens from North Wales right down into Cornwall,” he said. “But I anchor the talk with my time spent in my first historic garden in Essex.”

Alan Power’s illustrated lecture ‘My Journey Through Great Gardens’ is being held on Wednesday 13th March at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £12 (£10 for Friends of Shaftesbury Abbey). The SAC box office is on 01747 854321.