Tommy Tønsberg, a man of many skills, lives in Norway where long cold and snowy winters mean gardening is almost impossible for half of the year. His garden, which is open to the public at certain times of the year, covers around one acre and features silt soil.
1. Please tell us who you are, where you live and what you do for a living.
Tommy Tønsberg, gardener, nurseryman, author, journalist, photographer and broadcaster from Holter in Norway. I run a small nursery specialising in herbaceous perennials as well as a webshop selling plants, seeds, flowerbulbs and everything you need, and don’t need for your garden together with Kenneth Ingebretsen, another gardener, nurseryman and author.
2. Please give some brief details about your garden, e.g. size, aspect, general soil type.
The garden is still under development. We cultivate about one acre on a sunny slope. The soil is silt, we have low rainfall, warm summers and rather cold winters with a lot of snow.
3. Why is it important for you to create a nice garden?
Creating a nice garden is more a product of doing the things we love. Cultivating and collecting plants, grouping them in nice combinations and making garden rooms with different expressions to grow the different plants. Making a nice garden is not the main aim, but rather growing plants and gardening.
4. How many hours a week do you spend working on your garden?
Too many, or too few. Because winters are cold and snowfilled we cannot work in the garden for five or six months. So when we can, we spend as much time there as possible. In the summer months it is not uncommon for us to spend 12–14 hours each in the garden. Off course the nursery requires a fair bit of that time also, and because we open the garden to the public we can justify spending so much time in the garden. The long, light summer nights give us extra energy to carry on gardening late into the evening.
5. How much leisure time do you spend in your garden and what do you do?
Leisure? We rarely sit down, unless we have people visiting. But we do make time every evening for a walk around the garden to look at how plants are developing, to spot any signs of pest or plant disease. To make plans for what we can do the next day and sometimes photograph as well. It’s not really leisure, but the walk is always accompanied by a glass of wine.
6. What is your most prized plant and why?
In a time when plants are very easily acquired, the plants that have been received by gardening friends are the most prized. They remain as memories of old gardening friends, some of who have now passed away. If we have to choose one plant, then it would probably be our old friend Elin’s snowflakes (Leucojum vernum). Her gardens were carpeted in this white flower in spring and when she died we received many bulbs before developers took over her garden.
7. Which plant do you feel gives the best value in your garden?
Being a strong believer in the notion that foliage makes the garden. I don’t think we could do without Bergenias and Hostas. Many plants have small leaves, at least the ones we can grow in this cold climate, so to have some big leaved plants is really invaluable.
8. What is/has been your biggest challenge in this garden?
There are water restrictions in our area, so we cannot water with a hosepipe. In summer, very little rain falls in our area so the plants need to cope with the water that naturally falls. That means that we’ve had to figure out which plants will thrive in the different areas. Luckily, some areas are very wet also, so we can grow a large range of different plants.
9. What has been your biggest gardening disaster?
We’ve had few disasters. With this being my third garden, lots of the hard lessons have already been learned elsewhere, but of course one is always learning about how to do things. I don’t know if I’ll call it a disaster, but not planting densely enough, and not covering the are soil with some sort of mulch has meant that we’ve spent ages weeding some areas of the garden, and some have been so badly infected with weeds that it has been difficult to regain control. (But are we ever really in control though?)
10. What is your favourite gardening shortcut or tip, and who taught it to you?
The importance of mulch. Bare ground will allow annual weeds to develop very fast, so to cover it up with something is very important. Unless you really love weeding. This is one of those hard learned lessons that you discover during gardening. But we’ve learned the idea of mulch, which isn’t used much in Norway, from gardeners in the UK, and especially my “colleagues” in The Beth Chatto Gardens where I volunteer every winter.
11. Which plant do you wish you could grow, but cannot?
Being a leaf fanatic, but also one who loves blue flowers, it would have to be Myosotidium hortensia. I’ve seen photos, I’ve bought plants, I’ve killed them, or rather they’ve died from the wrong conditions. It’s not hardy with us, so it has to be overwintered in a frost free environment. We now have a new plant on the go, so wish us all the luck in the world.
12. What is your oldest plant, and how old is it?
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) with dark blue flowers. This is an old garden plant in Norway and Kenneth got this plant from a lady who said she could trace it back 100 years.
13. Where do you find information on which plants to grow and how to care for them?
We have a rather large horticultural library, but we also use magazines, attend talks and use the web of course – and all our wonderful horticultural friends and heroes who always share their knowledge with us.
14. Do you grow anything to eat, and what have you had the most success with?
We have about 200m2 of vegetables and 50m2 of soft fruit. But the things we’ve had most success with would be fabulous kale and cabbages. After we started netting them to keep the cabbage white butterflies out it really helped.
15. Do you admire any famous gardeners or gardens?
Beth Chatto and her ‘right plant for the right place’ as well as ‘looking at the foliage of plants and grouping them together’ have been very influential. I am also very lucky to have been able to meet her on several occasions and also volunteer at the gardens every winter.
16. What have you learned from your own garden?