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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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A Cambridge College Horticultural Profile

— An unsigned story appearing in today’s Cambridge (U.K.) Evening News profiles Jo Cobb, the groundskeeper of New Hall, one of the residential colleges at Cambridge University. Cobb describes the wonderful work that has gone into the development of these beautiful college grounds, and even mentions of one of the most important principles of design in a college garden: making sure that there is flowering peak on graduation day. See the Collegiate Way’s discussion of residential college gardens and grounds (2.2) for many more ideas on collegiate horticulture.

Flower power beats tradition

AS ONE of only two female head gardeners employed by the Cambridge colleges, Jo Cobb, of New Hall, is comfortable breaking with tradition. Just like the bold, white walled 60s college building on Huntingon Road, her garden makes a modern statement.

Joining New Hall eight years ago, Jo, pictured below, had to quickly decide what to do with the gardens.

“The bursar started building a lot of accommodation so we had to start landscaping almost immediately,” she says. “That meant the site had to change rapidly and because there wasn’t a great deal of garden we had to make a lot of decisions fast. Although I could have created an opulent country house style so common throughout other Cambridge University gardens, I knew it wouldn’t suit New Hall. My team and I agreed that we didn’t want to have traditional college beds because New Hall is not a traditional college.”

Jo is a big fan of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and drew inspiration from his colourful and bold planting techniques.

“Oudolf is a very important and influential figure to me . . . although I’ve never spoken to him!” she says. “He’s designed gardens everywhere from Norfolk to Battery Park in New York and is going to do the memorial garden at the Twin Towers.

“He likes naturalistic perennials. I’ve combined his ideas and my love of plants and packed the college full of flowers. We decided not to have garden rooms so that the design flows across the site. Although we do have different plants in different courts – you can always tell it’s New Hall because of the vivid way it’s been planted up!”

After deciding upon a style, Jo and her team had to choose a selection of flowers. The most important day of the year in the college garden calendar is June 30: graduation day. As a result, Jo spent weeks going round local nurseries looking for plants that flowered at that time.

“The first place the bursar gave me to work on was the car park,” she explains, laughing. But, undeterred, she drew up designs for a 80 by eight metres border and filled it with the purples, mauves and acid greens of geranium, allium and salvia – and it is now a riot of colour for the graduates.

“After finishing that we began to look at tropical plants,” says Jo. “We put more borders in a sun trap by the old green house, using tender perennials such as bananas, salvias which grow to nine foot, paulownias, cannas and dahlias. This means we have lots of very bright colour for the beginning of the academic year in October.”

Although Jo’s focus is mainly on New Hall itself, she says that sometimes the college’s alumni have other ideas.

“Because we’re always trying new things, an old girl came up with the idea that we should take a garden to the Chelsea Flower Show this year. We thought that would be very exciting and enlisted the help of other former students, Sue Goss and Ursula Buchen, to design it for us.

“They based their idea around a rare astronomical event called the transit of Venus. In 2004, we had all watched the planet Venus passing between the Earth and the Sun, in broad daylight from the college garden, and we wanted to enshrine that special moment event in our Chelsea garden. Using that idea, the planting was designed in the form of a prism with light breaking through it – like a rainbow. It was lovely.”

The Chelsea plants – which picked up a Bronze Flora medal at the prestigious flower show – have since come back to New Hall and been re-planted, but Jo now wants to recreate the show garden permanently in the grounds. Although that’s not all she’s planning.

“We are also interested in creating a wildflower border and a wartime allotment. The allotment is a particularly favourite idea of mine. I want to allude to the time when the colleges dug up their lawns and grew potatoes. I’ve been researching it at Girton College. In the archives, you can find illustrated records about the work of garden steward Chris Proctor. She was one of the few women gardeners at that time in Cambridgeshire, and her work is wonderful.

“It’s amazing the quantities of food they needed to grow in order to be self-sufficient – and everything from potatoes and cabbages to green gages and tomatoes are all recorded beautifully. It’s fantastic for her voice to be able to speak to us across the decades.”

New Hall’s gardens on Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, are open daily 9am-5pm. For more information, call the Porters Lodge on (01223) 762 100.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014