Digging Royal Dirt: A Morning with David Howard

     Yesterday David Howard, the former Highgrove Head Gardener for H.R.H. Prince Charles, delighted the local garden club ladies and others who filled the Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  In a fundraiser program entitled Visionary By Nature, a Morning with David Howard, he engaged his audience for about 2 1/2 hours in two slide-filled talks on “My Life in Gardens” and “Philosophy of Organic Gardening”.  Focused mainly around his 10 1/2 years spent as the Head Gardener at Highgrove, the Cotswald estate that Prince Charles purchased in 1980, Mr. Howard shared numerous nuggets of gardening information gleaned from cultivating that royal dirt. 

Highgrove's Famed Wildflower Meadow

      While he imparted no gossip on H.R.H. whom he clearly holds in the deepest regard, he provided an anecdotal glimpse of his working relationship with the Prince who has been the driving force behind the creation of these magnificent gardens.  Mr. Howard’s job was to execute the Prince’s vision in an organic, sustainable, reasonable and practical manner and with no mistakes.  Mr. Howard made it clear that there was no room for error when executing a royal landscape, even when that included devising the five Platonic solids (4-, 6-, 8-, 12- and 20-sided geometric forms) out of topiary yew. 

     Throughout his talks, Mr. Howard continually made note of how he and the other nine gardeners at Highgrove would use the resources on the property for the vast majority of their needs.  For example, willow and hazel grown on the property would be used to create beautiful natural staking, which would be chipped up when it was no longer needed.  All plant materials are recycled in huge compost piles that sustain the soil at Highgrove with the most minimal of supplements.

       The grounds of Highgrove feature stunning topiary.  Once established, Mr. Howard realized that he needed to only put resources into trimming the topiary once a year.  If they are trimmed right before the end of the growing season, then they will look perfect throughout the winter and spring months when they are most noticeable.  They can get a little shaggy during the summer and early fall when other elements of the garden stand out.  What commonsense English practicality!

Highgrove house garden: view from house along topairy walk Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY

     Once ridiculed as a tree hugger who was out of touch with the rest of the world, Prince Charles is now considered a visionary as he promotes organic farming and is preserving genetic material for future generations.  He has orchards filled with heirloom fruit trees.  While they may not provide the best tasting fruit for our modern sensibilities, one day these trees may help us adapt to global warming changes.  He employs heirloom chickens to keep the bugs at bay.  In fact, animal power is a driving force at Highgrove.

      Another theme throughout Mr. Howards’ morning was that a garden is always and should be changing.  Obviously Prince Charles agrees with that philosophy, and the two men worked together to constantly enhance and revise the various garden rooms at Highgrove, including the planting of a most unique black and white garden.  In the process, they were able to utilize the many gifts of stone and statuary that the Prince is constantly receiving as gifts.

Highgrove Wall of Gifts

     Mr. Howard came to his organic sensibilities quite by accident.  After having worked for the Queen in the Windsor Castle gardens in his first real horticulture job, he enrolled at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.  While there, he happened upon a part-time gardening job with octogenarian Elizabeth Murray, an early British proponent of organic gardening.  She changed his life and set him on course to partner with Prince Charles to create some breathtaking settings like this

Morrocan garden room

and this remarkable Victorian throw-back,

the Stumpery,

consisting of old tree stumps set into a garden design that has been filled with a portion of Britain’s national collection of hosta, as well as a great assortment of ferns.

Prince Charles's Sanctuary at Highgrove

     Working with Prince Charles, Mr. Howard brought to life a remarkable example of many organic gardening principles.  These include planting roses in mixed borders rather than just rose beds to avoid the spread of pests and disease, using natural starch to suffocate aphids and other skin-breathing pests, and adapting the garden design to include plants that work with the microclimate of the location.  Mostly, though, their Highgrove example proves that organic gardening can produce results as stunning as any other gardens in the world.

photo by Andrew Butler

     Mr. Howard graciously described his life’s passion to an appreciative audience as he inspired us all with many beautiful photos.  Apparently picture-taking at Highgrove is extremely limited, and his many copyrighted slides of Highgrove cannot be viewed beyond the lecture hall.  I found the pictures in this post through Google and hope that I have credited them all properly.  If you want to view more of Highgrove, like me you will just have to add Elements of Organic Gardening to your book wish list.

     Despite Mr. Howard’s connections to the British royal family, he truly is a man of earthy substance.  Having lived what he preaches, he was able to present a legitimate and inspiring picture of organic landscaping.  He has achieved notable success by observing the successful landscape examples of Mother Nature and employing her same basic commonsense principles.  As Mr. Howard so generously shared his knowledge in Richmond, the proceeds from his visit will help enable the Capital Trees project to create a new landscape in the heart of the city.  Now that’s useful royal dirt! 

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One Comment on “Digging Royal Dirt: A Morning with David Howard”

  1. jennifer b says:

    Thanks for this – I love the way he works to sustain different plant species and to use organic methods. What beautiful gardens!


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