The Suffolk gardener who landed her dream job at just 16

Kate Elliott head gardener at Columbine Hall PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Kate Elliott, head gardener at Columbine Hall - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? If you’re a Baby Boomer or Millennial, the list might have looked something like this: nurse, doctor, fireman, policeman, chef...and so on. 

Of course, only a few of us will have clung to those childhood dreams. Would anyone really have aspired to be an accountant when they were five – I don’t think so. 

For 40-year-old Stowupland-born Kate Elliott, however, her dream was more of a calling. Rather than scrabbling through education, leaving university with a clutch of qualifications on a wing and a prayer, she knew all her life what she’d do as soon as she could shed her standard issue uniform. Gardening. 

Happily, and serendipitously, Kate fell into her vocation aged just 16. A job she says she’ll never leave. One so indelibly linked to her daily life it’s hard to see where work ends and ‘outside world Kate’ begins. 

It’s an enviable position. No stressful morning commute. No worrying about what the day will bring. Kate simply wakes up, slips out of bed and travels minutes from her home to the grounds of Columbine Hall in the village where she grew up –  and where she’s been head gardener since her late teens. 

When I think about this, it’s kind of incredible. I can’t imagine my own (nearly 16-year-old) daughter having the tenacity to take on a project of such magnitude. To be part-custodian (alongside the owners) of the transformation of the grounds at one of Suffolk’s most historic properties. 

The moat around Columbine Hall

The moat around Columbine Hall - Credit: Charlotte Bond

For those who don’t know Columbine, the pale-timbered, slightly wonky manor house, surrounded by a moat, is over 600 years old.  

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It was once called Thorney Columbers after the Norman family de Columbers, who took stay as overlords. And passed through the hands of many – including a favourite of Elizabeth I, Sir Robert Carey, who (on the death of the Queen), was part of a convoy sent to Edinburgh, to inform James I he would be King of England. 

Other inhabitants have included Sir John Poley, John Crowley, and the Potter family from 1914 (whose number included Harry (Henry) Potter!).  

In more recent history, Columbine was occupied in WW2 by landgirls, who used it for training. 

Today the country house and its grounds lay in the hands of Hew Stevenson, who bought Columbine with his late wife Leslie Geddes-Brown in 1993. 

As they set to work in the mid-90s, getting to grips with what was to be a mammoth renovation task, an eager young Kate Elliott was finishing her schooling nearby. 

You could say Kate has been training for this position almost since she was born. She has, she says, been gardening since the tender age of just three – a keenness and passion enabled and fostered by her grandparents, especially her grandmother, who first set her off planting sunflowers and marigolds. She was hooked. And tells me, “I got my first greenhouse when I was 10.” 

Kate Elliott of Columbine Hall as a child

Kate Elliott has loved gardening her whole life - Credit: Contributed

Considering, at the time, the ‘in’ birthday and Christmas presents were things like the Super Nintendo or Cabbage Patch dolls, it was quite a niche request from the youngster. And while she admits her friends found it “a bit different”, Kate wasn’t deterred from her first true love. 

“I just grew up outside. While my friends were out in town shopping, I was happy in my greenhouse. When I was a little girl I was always growing and tending vegetables. And covered in mud!” 

Kate dreaded the idea of leaving school. Being a head gardener was her dream. More than that. It was, she felt, her calling. But how on earth could she make that happen? She’d already ruled out courses at local colleges, which sought to push outdoor workers into nursery-based jobs. 

Fate was to step in and deal her the hand of her life. 

“It was the summer of 1997, and I knew a lady called Sally from the village who was the local postmistress. I used to go in and chat with her about what I wanted to do. And it just so happened Hew and Leslie were having their first open day here at the time.  

“They’d done most of the renovation of the house, but not much with the garden. Sally went on the open day, told them she knew me and that I was looking for somewhere to start, and very cheekily said to them ‘your garden is terrible, you need a gardener, and I know just the person’. I phoned them up. And I’ve been here ever since.” 

It was, Kate laughs, a complete sea of mud when she arrived. There were 29 acres to speak of. Five of them the immediate garden, and the rest farm and parkland, some grazed by Red Poll. 

Far from being overwhelmed, teenage Kate (who now has part-time assistants Gary and Nigel) saw the empty space in front of her as a playground. She was, she admits, imbued with the cockiness of youth. Nothing felt impossible. Especially with the support of Hew and Leslie, who she says took her under their wing, and helped shape her into the confident, knowledgeable gardener and plantswoman she is today. 

“They were always encouraging me,” Kate recalls. “I had no training whatsoever. I do now, but for the first 10 years I had nothing. I read a lot of books. I visited a lot of gardens. And I worked with other head gardeners in Suffolk, like over at Wyken. I think it’s the kind of job where you really can learn as you go along. There’s nothing like getting stuck in – I think you learn more doing it that way.” 

At the beginning of Kate’s career, work to start the garden had already been put in place immediately around the hall by designer George Carter, who created the parterre. 

She sat down and made plans for the next few phases with Hew and Leslie, who had their own ideas, but also let the teenager have a free hand with many of the key decisions. “We used to work really closely together. We were such a good team. It was just wonderful,” the gardener remembers. 

First up was planting the woodland in the winter of 1997, and as we walk through, the first brushstrokes of autumn colouring the leaves of the nearly 25-year-old trees, Kate’s pride is clear to see. “It’s amazing to say you planted a woodland isn’t it? 

“We put in native British trees. Ash, birch, oak, field maples. It's wonderful to see them all mature now. And with the bluebells and snowdrops when they come up. It’s fabulous to go around and see the difference from early days to now. When the lime trees on our lime tree walk bowed over at the top to create an arch I couldn’t have been more delighted. The dappled light you get coming through there is stunning.” 

Columbine Hall's bog garden 'before'

Columbine Hall's bog garden 'before' - Credit: Contributed

Columbine Hall's bog garden 'after'

Columbine Hall's bog garden 'after' - Credit: Contributed

Next was the bog garden. A low-level, wild space, with a trickle of stream running through. Almost jungle-like in appearance. “We put in things like gunneras and hostas. Plants that like a really damp and wet soil. It’s kind of like a lost world really. When we first started that it needed shaping, and lots of weeding, it was absolutely full of weeds. But those large leaf ground cover plants help us to keep control of them now.” 

Just around the corner from the bog garden, Kate shows me the parterre. A series of low beds and pleached lime trees, laid out and designed to complement the pale exterior of the house, and to allow far-stretching views across to the parkland, and the “stunning sunsets” the plot enjoys. 

“It’s all planted here in greys and purples. We have to do that in setting with the house. We don’t have bright, brash colours. It has to be sympathetic. To blend in.” 

Kate says she was jumping for joy last year when, amongst the tulips beneath the trees, she managed to grow snake head fritillaries for the first time ever. A bittersweet moment. They were Leslie’s favourite – and she got the chance to see them before she passed away. 

“I honestly tried to grow them for what felt like forever! Then I found a trick. I’d been planting dry bulbs in autumn, which didn’t work at all. But I read an article which said to grow them in pots first, get them high, until they are about to flower, and then to plant them out. Which I did. And they all came up. 

“I just leave them in the ground now and add to them with the same method. They love the damp grass under the trees. I am just delighted. And I was so thrilled Leslie had a chance to see them. She was such a huge inspiration to me and I miss her terribly, so to be able to do this for her is amazing.” 

The pleached limes area at Columbine Hall 'before'

The pleached limes area at Columbine Hall 'before' - Credit: Contributed

The pleached limes and spring blooms at Columbine Hall 'after'

The pleached limes and spring blooms at Columbine Hall 'after' - Credit: Contributed

All these things are great. But what really puts fire in Kate’s belly is talking about her ‘baby’. The walled garden. The gardener’s eyes dance when she speaks about the project, folded into a barn conversion at the front entrance of the Columbine estate – where the offices, self-catering accommodation and wedding venue can be found.  

“We did start growing our vegetables on the parterre to begin with, but there was so much trouble with ducks and moorhens eating everything, we had to think of what we could do differently. 

“And that meant a walled garden. I have a huge passion for growing vegetables. But walled gardens are my absolute love. I adore the atmosphere of them. The fact they’re so much more sheltered and warm. 

“We took an old barn, removed the asbestos roof, and kept the walls to form the garden. It was about 3-4ft thick with concrete. That all came out and we put in four large beds edged in granite. It’s colour themed. So we’ve got a red bed with tomatoes and chard and radishes. And a green bed with Tuscan kale and globe artichokes. I tend to go for the more decorative vegetables.” 

The walled garden at Columbine Hall

The walled garden at Columbine Hall - Credit: Contributed

One of the secrets to the walled garden’s success? Silt. Lots of silt. 

“When I first got here you couldn’t see the moat. We had to have it dredged, and it was almost 14ft deep, so there was lots of silt to get out. It was a huge job. But most of the silt ended up in the kitchen garden. The soil is fantastic now. I can’t tell you how much I love it.” 

While much of the summer crop has now ‘gone over’, there’s no stopping in the walled garden, where multicoloured, frilly dahlias frame the brickwork. Winter growing vegetables are also going in. 

Colourful dahlias at Columbine Hall

Colourful dahlias at Columbine Hall - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Kate Elliot head gardener at Columbine Hall PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Kate Elliott tending flowers in the greenhouse - Credit: Charlotte Bond

And if you’re lucky enough to be allowed inside Kate’s tropically-heated greenhouse, you’ll discover a rainbow of scented pelargoniums (mostly from Woottens of Wenhaston) - something else she has a passion for. These plants will end up in the main house, to cheer the space on a dull day. Or, more likely stay in the heat of the greenhouse– pots of sunshine to gaze at when it’s blustery outside. 

Next up for Kate is a project to plant a wildflower meadow in the three quarters of an acre plot to the far side of the parterre, already brimming with crab apple, apple, pear, hazelnut and plum trees. More than 1,000 seedlings have been grown on site in preparation. 

“I went out and got a perennial wildflower mix with things like Yellow Rattle, which is very important. It’s a parasitic plant that works to thin out the grass. If you’re going to make a wildflower meadow, you must have it. 

“Then there’s oxeye daisies, knapweed and wild columbine (which will be lovely), poppies, cornflowers. It will be a perennial meadow. And fantastic for beneficial insects. We’ve lost so many meadows in recent years. If we can do our little part it will be great.” 

Working at Columbine hasn’t been without its challenges. Kate remembers being flustered when it took three attempts to plant the yew hedges due to drainage issues. 

But she’s pragmatic about problems. “It all works out in the end.” 

The one-time finalist in Horticulture Week’s Gardener of the Year competition, says nothing will put her off gardening. Or should I say, this particular garden? 

“There’s never a day when I don’t want to come here. They can’t get rid of me! Even at weekends I’ll come and have a potter. I’ll say I’m popping down for half an hour, and end up being here for three or four hours. It’s my life. I adore being part of nature. It’s good for your soul.” 

In fact, Kate reveals she never wears gloves for gardening, except when handling thistles or stinging weeds. “There’s something magical,” she says, “about having that connection with the soil. 

“I’ve been so lucky to have grown up with the garden. This is it for me. This is my life now. I hope I’ll be here forever.” 

Kate’s tips for planting spring bulbs 

At Columbine Kate plants between seven and 10,000 bulbs every year, mostly tulips. 

“We treat tulips as annuals and plant them every year. Some varieties come back, like Ballerina, and you could probably get two or three years out of them if you let them naturalise, but they do get smaller over time. Because we have open days, we want that ‘wow’ factor. 

Kate says while daffodils and alliums can be planted anytime in autumn, you should never plant out tulips early. At least not until November. “I’ve planted as late as January. But November or December are fine. Any earlier and you risk tulip fire disease. Leaving it until the soil is colder should prevent that. It looks exactly as it sounds. The flowers look scorched.” 

Her favourite tulip varieties? 

“We love Queen of the Night. It’s a really sumptuous black tulip. And another of my absolute favourites is Exotic Emperor which is fabulous. It lasts up to five or six weeks, which is unusual for a tulip. It looks lovely when it’s in bud right away, but it doesn’t drop. It just opens, and opens, and opens. That’s white with a green touch to it. Stunning. 

“Spring Green is another tulip we use. And we love cow parsley here at Columbine. It grows amongst the bulbs and gives a light, ethereal, frothy look. You can buy that as plug plants to grow at home.” 

Opening times 

Kate is a member of Plant Heritage, and a National Collection holder of Englehart daffodils. “Englehart was a reverend who decided to breed these daffodils, but they are so diverse. So they can been from pheasant’s eye – which is white with a little orange centre, to elegant, tiny yellow daffodils. They’re all so delicate. 

“We’ve had great fun researching them. At the end of March we will have an Englehart Daffodil Day, which we will put the date for on the Columbine Hall website. 

“Then we will have an open day on May 1 for St Elizabeth Hospice. And we are always open by appointment, and via Invitation to View.” 

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