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Gravetye Manor: A week in the wild garden

By Caroline Cathcart, Horticultural Trainee

As part of the Horticultural Traineeship at the Garden Museum, Caroline has the opportunity to work with experienced gardeners across the UK. This traineeship has been generously funded by The National Gardens Scheme and the Museum’s Friends Group in Leicestershire and Rutland. Her first placement recently took her to Gravetye Manor in Sussex, the former home of William Robinson:

Dahlia porcelain at Gravetye Manor, all photos by Caroline Cathcart

The reputation of the place precedes itself, but nothing could have prepared me for the beauty that assaulted my senses when I stepped out of Gravetye Manor into the garden. I found myself flanked on all sides by flowers, spilling out of the mixed borders onto the paths in a voluptuous swell, their vigour unchecked by the lingering drought.

Burgeoning with more flowers than I could count, the borders give a stunning impact, but their most precious treasures were not discoverable at first glance. It was only upon close inspection, while I waited nervously to meet Tom Coward, the head gardener, that they offered themselves up to me. First, the dahlias; the most beautiful was Dahlia merckii, a delicate little thing with tiny lilac flowers held on tall, wiry stems. This diminutive species found its opposite in the giant ‘Emory Paul’, with its ruffled deep pink flowers as big as my head. I was lucky to arrive just as it had unfurled to its most perfect bloom – the following day it had begun to wither.

Dahlia merckii
Dahlia ‘Emory Paul’

Creeping into the blue of the sky were the pink tufts of Persicaria orientalis, more affectionately known as kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate. At over 6ft, it was the tallest Persicaria I’ve ever seen – its flowers seemed almost to float in mid-air. Another favourite was Verbena macdougalii ‘Lavender Spires’, which soared beautifully above the dark, almost black foliage of the electric pink dahlia, ‘Magenta Star’. At the back of the garden in great drifts of a quite indescribable colour, not quite purple, not quite pink, but a luminescent purplish-pink in the sunlight, was the gorgeous Phlox maculata ‘Princess Sturdza’.

Persicaria orientalis
Phlox maculata ‘Princess Sturdza’

The garden seemed never to end. The further from the Manor, the wilder it got, meandering into meadows, orchards and woodlands. Nestled at the heart of 1000 acres of farmland and forestry, it looked out over a rolling panorama, a borrowed view of boundless green as far as the eye could see. As I made my way back to the garden from the meadow, I bumped into Tom, who had come to find me. His genuine kindness and warmth quickly settled my nerves. As we walked around the manor, he regaled me with many stories, his encyclopaedic knowledge and contagious passion for plants evident in every word. I wish I’d had a tape recorder, but as things stood I had to frantically write down as much as I could. He spoke of the best gardens to visit in Ireland, his love of spring-blooming handkerchief trees, the rhododendrons at High Beeches, his favourite wild rose, Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’, beloved for its elongated hips, and, of course, William Robinson, the visionary who created the garden in 1885.

Robinson began his life as a garden boy in County Waterford in Ireland, but would go on to become one of the most successful garden writers of the Victorian era. His books The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden put forth a revolutionary approach to gardening and changed the definition of beauty in the garden. Put simply, his ethos was to ‘place plants of other countries, as hardy as our hardiest wild flowers, in places where they will flourish without further care or cost.’ He goes on to explain that it has nothing to do with the idea of the ‘Wilderness,’ but is ‘best explained by the winter Aconite flowering under a grove of naked trees in February; by the Snowflake, tall and numerous in meadows by the Thames side; by the blue lupine dyeing an islet with its purple in a Scotch river; and by the blue Apennine anemone staining an English wood blue before the coming of our bluebells.’

Long border

‘Right plant, right place’ and the importance of biodiversity may seem obvious to us now, but in Robinson’s day it was a radical notion. His was the era of the bedding plant boom, which he abhorred, protesting that flowerbeds be devoted instead to ‘precious and enduring plants’. In the Robinsonian style, Nature is king, the gardener’s hand is gentle, letting the plants go wild, but being there to tame them when they become too unruly. It’s this very style that gives Gravetye its magic. You feel as though you have stumbled into a wild place. With Tom at the reigns and Robinson’s soul still in the soil, the garden masquerades as an unbridled thing, a little riotous and rambling, its feral charm captivating the heart of anyone who steps foot in it. And yet there is coherence, containment, control, but done with the nimblest of touches. As with all great art, the artist is invisible.

I spent the morning deadheading in the flower garden, a job that must be done daily to keep the garden looking its most beautiful. I made my way through the borders, filling a wheelbarrow with the flower-heads of Helenium, Cosmos, Tagetes and Dahlia. In the afternoon, Tom showed me his prized collection of hepaticas and taught me how to tie a clove hitch knot, which he said would change my life. I used it to stake chillies in the greenhouse, and have used it ever since to stake anything and everything. My last job of the day was to prick out lovage seedlings. Eventually they would find their final spot in the walled kitchen garden, which sits on a south-facing slope above the manor. Its unusual oval shape forms a perfect ellipse enclosing one and a half acres of ground where all the produce for the manor’s Michelin star kitchen is grown.

The following day was spent working in the ancient meadows. It was tiring work in the blistering heat, raking hay from the hillside and collecting it all up in huge sacks, which then had to be dragged to the top of the hill and loaded onto a tractor. Robinson naturalized thousands of bulbs in the meadows at Gravetye and wrote about it extensively in The Wild Garden, bemoaning the blandness of a shaven carpet of grass, manicured at the expense of ‘a world of lovely flowers.’ I was sad not to have been there at the right time to see the spring bulbs or wildflowers, but it was lovely to have played a part in the preparation for next year’s display.

As I came to the end of my time at Gravetye, I began to feel a slight panic at the thought of leaving. In a kind of desperate frenzy, I tried to soak it all in for the last time, in the hope that the image of it might live on unwithering in my memory. It was the panic that all ephemeral things instil in me: flowers, full moons and, of course moonflowers, which bloom for only one night. I grew them last year, and in my panic not to miss a second of their short and beautiful life, fell asleep on the kitchen floor staring at their white flowers. It was this panic I felt now. But as my desperation gave way to a quiet resignation, I realised that gardens that touch your heart like this one aren’t meant to linger in the memory, pressed like petals between pages, but to enliven the senses in the moment, to touch us, to take us out of ourselves. It’s in those moments coloured by the forethought of loss that we really live. That’s the magic of a great garden: it makes us live.

I drove home with the passenger seat full of gifts from Tom, a little hepatica for Matt, our head gardener at the museum, and a Phlox maculata ‘Princess Sturdza’ for me.  My pockets were full of Persicaria orientalis seeds, with instruction to sow them this autumn. I lost my gloves somewhere in the flower garden, and a little piece of my heart.

Follow Caroline on Instagram: @tendrils_lilee

Follow Gravetye Manor: @gravetyemanor