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Gold for Horses, Green for Gardening

PUBLISHED: 16:54 11 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013

Denman taking a nibble from a basket

Denman taking a nibble from a basket

With £4 million in winnings last year, National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls certainly has the magic touch. But it's not only horses that seem to blossom under his care - plants do too. From a young age Paul has had green fingers. Following a s...

When I realised, at a dinner party recently, that I was to sit beside the revered champion jump trainer from Somerset, Paul Nicholls, it was with mixed feelings that I approached the evening. Whilst being delighted at the prospect of meeting Mr Nicholls, I was also filled with a certain dread that I might show myself up on account of my scant knowledge of anything to do with horses.

Armed with a few winning names hastily thrown at me by my husband, we took up our positions (not unlike being at the starting line). Taking the reins, Paul politely began to make small talk and to my surprise, the going soon began to come good, for we quickly discovered that, in fact, we both shared a common interest, and it was not of an equine nature. It was gardening! Phew, what a relief! This is the wonderful thing about gardening, it is a great leveller.

"I deadhead every day if I can - every time I walk past a hanging basket I pull off a few heads; and I water morning and night. Every week I feed the baskets with a liquid feed too"

"When I first started here, I only had 20 horses and I did all the hanging baskets myself," Paul tells me. "In my younger days I always had a nice garden, even as a jockey. When I had a house in Devon I had a wonderful garden, full of bedding plants. When there was no jump racing in the summer I concentrated on the garden. I don't have a lot of time now but I oversee it all and nothing is done without my decision."

The burgeoning hanging baskets, bright bedding schemes and rose beds around the two yards are as important to the image of the business as are the spick-and-span stables for the 120 horses now trained there, and on a visit shortly after our meeting I was lucky enough to see this for myself. "First appearances count, so I think it's really important to have the place looking good," says Paul. "A lot of the owners we only see on owners' day and I think they do notice how smart it looks, and the 50 hanging baskets and the rose gardens play a big part in that."

Champion jump trainer for the third year running, Paul had an incredible 155 winners last season. Amongst a string of outstanding horses, Paul can list three recent Cheltenham Gold Cup Winners: See More Business, Kauto Star and Denman. To see the heads of these great beasts lolling over their stable doors is akin to wandering through a hall of fame. Even the best behaved of them, however, is not averse to grabbing an additional tasty delicacy should it present itself, and I notice that the huge hanging baskets, frothing with trailing lobelia, begonias, petunias and geraniums are artfully positioned just beyond the reach of those long necks.

"They like eating them, so we have to make sure the baskets are just far enough away so the horses can't get to them!" grins Paul, as he gently leads the sleek, glossy chestnut Denman around the yard. This horse is a legend, having won all his races in the last season, culminating in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Not all the hanging baskets are placed quite out of reach, however, and, as I ask Paul to smile for the camera, Denman takes advantage of the moment to tear off a luscious mouthful of bedding plants from the hanging basket beside him. Paul hasn't noticed yet and I don't let on.

To aid water retention and to cut down on watering, the hanging baskets are, appropriately, lined with hay

With so many stables to adorn with hanging baskets, getting all the plants to tiptop condition is a big operation. Whilst Paul is involved in the choice of plants, Head Lad, Clifford Baker, is in charge of their day-to-day care.

"I deadhead every day if I can - every time I walk past a hanging basket I pull off a few heads; and I water morning and night," says Clifford. "Every week I feed the baskets with a liquid feed too. We go for really bright colours, and plants include begonias, deep pink petunias, fuchsias, busy lizzies, lobelias and lots of trailing plants."

As well as keeping the baskets looking spectacular throughout the summer, they make sure flowering is prolonged well into September to provide a glorious splash of colour for owners' day, which takes precise manipulation on Clifford's part. To aid water retention and to cut down on watering, the baskets are, appropriately, lined with hay. Some inventive containers are also used, including old hayracks, which look totally in keeping filled with vibrant bedding plants. Here and there Paul has a bit of fun with his planting schemes too, creating beds featuring plants in his racing colours of red, white and blue.

A Passion for Roses

Aside from the horses, Paul's other real passion is roses and at Highbridge yard he shows off his dazzling display.

"They are a great flower, dead easy," says Paul. "They just look good, don't they? Bright colours - red, yellow, orange - they're smart." The names trip off his tongue as easily as his horses' names: the coppery-red Remember Me, the repeat-flowering, dark-red Ingrid Bergman, Tequila Sunrise and the blousy amber bloom with a lovely perfume, Whisky Mac. With childlike enthusiasm Paul points out his favourite blooms and imparts some of the secrets of his success, not on the racetrack, but in the rose bed.

"The beds are very deep and filled with really good topsoil from one of my owners, mixed with loads of well-rotted horse manure and then topped with more topsoil and a thick mulch on top of that, which we add to each year. The horse-manure-based mulch on the top helps to keep down the weeds and keep the moisture in."

Roses are a family affair here, with Paul calling in his retired father, Brian, to help with the endless hoeing, deadheading, feeding and watering required to keep up the immaculate standards.

Whilst there are copious supplies of horse manure on hand, because it is mixed with the voluminous quantities of wood shavings used as bedding in the stables it is not immediately usable as a garden fertiliser even after being left to rot. However, if it is mixed with generous quantities of green garden and kitchen waste to build up the humus, it will eventually break down to become a useful compost. To speed matters up Paul adds to his own supply by bringing in much pure, well-rotted horse manure from elsewhere to add to his own supply.

After spending some time ambling around this beautiful setting with the owner, I venture to ask Paul what he regards as the keys to his phenomenal success as a trainer. "Good horses, good owners, fitness and good health - these are the keys to it all, and a good team around me and good facilities."

Not unlike what it takes to achieve a good garden, I interject: good plants, good gardeners, healthy stock and well-cared-for and nurtured beds. "That's about right," agrees Paul, this time glancing around to catch sight of Denman still devouring the prize hanging basket beside him. Given the success the horse has brought, Paul hasn't the heart to chide him and gently leads him back to his stable. BY REBECCA POW. PHOTOS BY LYNN KEDDIE

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