I have visited many gardens in my time; some lovely, some quirky, some interesting, some disappointing and some truly great. But what really makes a great garden? No doubt everyone will have their own criteria and whole books have been written about the subject but for me, no matter what style or design, there has to be a charm and romance in the garden and an intangible quality that brings a sense of satisfaction and completeness when walking around. I love to feel an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity and see the layers of history that tell us a garden has been loved and cherished. But just as importantly, to me a garden must have a house at its centre giving it a heart and a reason to exist. Without a home to belong to, a garden starts to feel like a park; a space to be used and enjoyed but lacking the intimacy that a proper garden should have. For all these reasons, one of my favourite gardens is Gravetye Manor.
Although now a luxury country hotel, in its past, it was the home of the great 19th century gardener and writer, William Robinson. He bought the Elizabethan manor house in 1884 having made his fortune through horticultural writing, most notably ‘The Wild Garden’ in 1870 and ‘The English Flower Garden’ in 1883. At Gravetye, Robinson was able put his ideas of naturalistic planting into practice. Although considered a revolutionary at a time when carpet bedding was king, his ideas rapidly gained a devoted following with both Daisy Lloyd at Great Dixter and Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst becoming the most ardent of followers.
I first saw the garden in 2010 when I, and fellow students from the garden history course at Hadlow College, went with our tutor to visit. At that point in time, the hotel was in transition having recently been sold to new owners. It was clear too that the garden had also fallen upon ‘hard times’ but never the less, it was still full of charm and promise. Neglected gardens that have been loved in a previous life seem to retain a shadow of that love. Instead of becoming sad and forlorn, they become sleepy, mysterious and atmospheric. Gravetye was a garden I immediately loved. It was also clear that perhaps this garden was starting to wake up and there were signs that an assault on the bindweed was being launched. We learnt later that the owners had appointed a new Head Gardener to bring the garden back to its former glory. Tom Coward was appointed in 2010 and in five short years he has re-awakened the garden and re-established its reputation as a great garden of historic importance. I knew Tom when he was Assistant Head Gardener at Great Dixter and I was a volunteer retraining as a gardener, so when Troy encouraged us to work in other gardens, Gravetye Manor was on the top of my list.
Tom kindly agreed for me to work in the garden for a week and so it was that I found myself driving to Gravetye in April with a strange mix of excitement and anxiety. I needn’t have worried. Tom and his team were friendly, fun and welcoming as well as having a formidable amount of horticultural knowledge between them. I spent my first day working in the walled garden with Helena, one of the Assistant Head Gardeners, who works exclusively in the walled garden growing produce and cut flowers for the hotel.
Oval in shape and sitting on a south facing slope, the walled garden provides the perfect growing conditions. Tom is passionate about growing veg and later on in the week when I was able to join a tour that Tom was giving, he explained that due to its location at the top of the sloping garden, veg could be as much as three weeks ahead. The reason for its oval shape is to avoid the dark corners of a traditional rectangular walled garden. Baby vegetables are grown on the south facing side whilst on the north facing side parsnips, brussel sprouts and cut flowers are grown. The walled garden follows three main principles. Firstly it is a traditional Victorian walled garden, secondly, it is a productive garden and thirdly it is a decorative garden. Everything grown is used by the hotel kitchen and all the cultivars and varieties are chosen because of their flavour. Tom doesn’t copy what Robinson might have grown or only choose heritage varieties; the criteria is always what tastes best and with this in mind he meets the chef regularly on the plot and in the kitchen to discuss and taste the vegetables. Tom wants to grow flavours that can’t be bought; fresh asparagus, perfectly ripe fruit and the intense flavour of baby veg and micro leaves. During my day with Helena I am introduced to the delights of baby vegetables. Not being much of a veg grower myself, this is all new territory to me. We weed and thin radish ‘Apache’ before sowing some carrots; ‘Solar Yellow’, ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Cosmic purple’ followed by parsnips, turnips and beetroot.
I find this a fascinating new subject and Helena is a knowledgeable teacher. Later on Steve another of the gardeners shows me the micro leaves that he is growing in one of the traditional old glasshouses. Trays of purple mustard, radish, sorrel, perilla, parsley, cress and amaranth are examined on a daily basis to find that moment of perfection when the micro leaves are at their peak.
The following day I work with Stuart, the other Assistant Head Gardener who works predominantly in the flower garden. Situated at the back of the hotel, the flower garden acts as the centre point of the whole garden and is a link between the hotel and the rest of the garden.
This was my favourite part of the garden; intimate, highly floriferous and completely charming. The flower garden has a beauty that is both joyful and restorative. In April it was a riot of colour from the many hundreds of tulips that had been planted the previous autumn.
We plant Ridolfia segetum, a yellow umbel that was recommended by Anna Pavord. Tom wants to assess its size in the flower garden this year. Once more I’m on unfamiliar territory and I write the name in my notebook to look up later. Then we move onto the pergola area and the slope that sits on the other side of the pergola. We plant Echium ‘Blue Bedder’ and Diascia personata on the slope in between the main planting of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and alliums, weaving them through the plants. I make a note to come back later in the summer to look at the results but alas, now writing this in December, I have to report that this was a goal I didn’t achieve. Stuart also teaches me how to stake ‘Gravetye’ style using hazel pea sticks that are pushed in both around and through the plant and then snapped over to form a loose cage-like structure. Since I have a love of building structures in the garden, I thoroughly enjoy having a go at this style which creates a more sculptural effect compared to the Sissinghurst method (https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/lingerie-for-the-garden/). Not even the driving rain can deter me from trying to please Stuart with my staking efforts.
During the week Stuart and I weed part of the flower garden and I realise at this point just what herculean efforts it has taken to bring the garden back from the brink of extinction. There is still a daily battle with the most tenacious weeds and my horticultural life at Sissinghurst seems very sheltered, far away from the battlefront at Gravetye where weeds such as horsetail, bindweed, Japanese knotweed and thistles wage guerrilla warfare on the gardeners. Hand to hand combat on a daily basis with these foes is the norm here. I had never even seen horsetail before I worked at Gravetye and I make a mental note never to complain about the weeds at Sissinghurst again!
My week at Gravetye flies by and on my final day I work with Steve in the nursery area, clearing away weeds in the polytunnel in preparation for a new covering to go on.
This is a great opportunity for me to quiz the gardeners about their favourite tulips so that I can add their choices to my blog. I ask Tom to name his top five but unable to contain his enthusiasm for these flowers he fires off five and then returns five minutes later to add another five. (https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/my-top-five-tulips/)
And perhaps that sums up the gardeners at Gravetye; they are passionate about plants and they love working at Gravetye, relishing in the challenges and seizing every opportunity to create beauty around them. Perhaps most inspiring of all is the way in which they welcome the guests into the garden, always willing to chat or inform and that is lovely to see. Gardens are meant for sharing and I’m so pleased that Gravetye has been saved and is being shared again just as William Robinson intended.