Inspiration to natural gardening

A stone wall at Gravetye Manor with a long bed of perennial flowers at its base. Photos: Gillian...
A stone wall at Gravetye Manor with a long bed of perennial flowers at its base. Photos: Gillian Vine
William Robinson planted hundreds of trees at Gravetye and in spring daffodils bloom in the grass.
William Robinson planted hundreds of trees at Gravetye and in spring daffodils bloom in the grass.
Almost 1ha in area, the walled kitchen garden is very productive.
Almost 1ha in area, the walled kitchen garden is very productive.
The wildflower meadow in late summer with Robinson’s lake below it.
The wildflower meadow in late summer with Robinson’s lake below it.
Teamed with lavender-blue Michaelmas daisy, a golden gaillardia is a standout.
Teamed with lavender-blue Michaelmas daisy, a golden gaillardia is a standout.
The Victorian peach house has been restored and replanted.
The Victorian peach house has been restored and replanted.
Gravetye Manor's head gardener Tom Coward has worked in the Nelson area.
Gravetye Manor's head gardener Tom Coward has worked in the Nelson area.
In the area behind the manor, late summer colour includes dahlias.
In the area behind the manor, late summer colour includes dahlias.

Gillian Vine continues her occasional series on garden history with a look at a man credited with changing English gardening.

In one of fate's odd quirks, one of the most influential men in English gardening history was Irish.

Born in 1838, William Robinson went as a youngster to work at a grand garden in Waterford, then at the estate of an Irish peer, before moving to London in 1861.

There, employment at Regent's Park looking after hardy plants, including wildflowers, must have had a long-term influence.

He was to turn his back on the rigidity of flower-gardening at the time which had, he noted, "many thousands of plants set out ... in formal and geometrical array, the result a bad carpet''.

His ideas about growing hardy perennials in mixed borders to create a more natural look ran up against the Victorian practices of planting numerous annuals or raising tropical plants in greenhouses for bedding displays.

Robinson was not the first to argue for a more natural approach but his success was largely because of his talent as a writer.

At 29, he began working for the influential magazine, The Gardener's Chronicle, then in 1871, he launched his own magazine, The Garden, pulling in friends like Gertrude Jekyll to contribute.

He wrote 18 books, of which The Wild Garden (1871) and The English Flower Garden were the most successful. First published in 1883, The English Flower Garden became one of the top-selling gardening books of all time with 15 editions printed, the last in 1933. However, The Wild Garden is now considered the more influential.

Income from the magazine and his books, plus a series of shrewd property deals in London enabled Robinson, in 1884, to buy an Elizabethan house and farmland at East Grinstead in Sussex.

The property was Gravetye Manor and Robinson was to live there until his death in 1935, experimenting, planting, writing and buying more land so he eventually owned more than 400ha.

When he commuted to his London office, Robinson used the Bluebell Railway, a branch line that ran through the estate and connected to the main London service.

He is credited with scattering the bluebell seed which grew and gave the railway its name. The line is now a popular tourist attraction, especially in May when the bluebells are in bloom.

Robinson extended the house in 1890, an extension in keeping with its 1597 Elizabethan core. He added stone walls, perfect backing for perennial beds, a formal garden and below the house a wildflower meadow.

Cut annually in October, this is not one of the highly coloured creations full of non-English flowers that are grown elsewhere, but the real thing, where endemic orchids pop up among the grasses, hawkweeds and other less flamboyant British natives.

Among the many notable trees at Gravetye is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), the oldest and one of the largest in Britain.

Under the trees and by the lake, thousands of daffodils bloom in spring, again a Robinson legacy, as he was lavish with bulbs: for instance, in 1897, he planted 100,000 narcissi.

One of his projects was the creation of a walled vegetable garden.

Covering an area of almost 1ha, it is an unusual oval shape and was built to Robinson's design in his chosen spot. Facing south towards the sun and on a slope to ensure good drainage, it is noted for excellent soil.

Walled gardens are invariably warmer than the ground outside and at Gravetye, the difference is 3-4degC.

Robinson kept records of what he grew and wrote extensively about what worked and what didn't, culminating in his 1911 book, Gravetye Manor, or Twenty Years of the Work Around an old Manor House, a copy of which is displayed at his former home, now a boutique hotel.

After Robinson's death, the garden was neglected until the 1950s, when it was opened as a hotel by Peter Herbert, who worked on renovating the garden until his retirement in 2004.

Subsequently, the garden suffered but now, thanks to the backing of new owners, major restoration is under way.

Robinson's enthusiasm for trees is reflected in the names chosen for the hotel's 17 bedrooms, so guests sleep in the likes of Holly or Beech.

Head gardener Tom Coward is committed to presenting the gardens in a way Robinson would have loved, ensuring colour in the formal and informal flower beds from late March until the end of October, and overseeing restoration projects.

The latest has been working on the Victorian peach house, where an African hardwood, iroka, was used to replace rotted frames and young trees planted in the Victorian manner, arching under the glass as espaliers.

As a boutique hotel featuring a renowned restaurant, produce gluts are preserved whenever possible.

"We have some wonderful strawberry jam now,'' says marketing manager Sam Woolmore, explaining that it is the result of a bumper crop in early summer.

When I visited in mid-August, the gooseberries were in full swing (the gooseberry fool at lunch was sheer delight), the first apples were due to be picked that week and there were so many vegetables, the chef must have found it a challenge deciding which to offer diners.

Appealing to many guests is hearing that the eggs in the restaurant are from Gravetye's flock of 60 chooks, while other visitors appreciate knowing that gardening is based on organic principles.

As Woolmore, who lives on the estate says: "It's a beautiful place to work and live. It's a way of life.''

Those words could have been William Robinson's.

 


Gardener has link to NZ

Head gardener Tom Coward began working at Gravetye Manor in 2010 after three years at Great Dixter.

Before that, he had worked in France and spent time in New Zealand, working at a lodge close to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

"I worked in a kitchen garden for the Peppers Awaroa Lodge on the Abel Tasman coast [where] the hotel had a large kitchen garden,'' Tom said.

At Gravetye, he is responsible for 14ha of gardens, from formal beds to the wildflower meadow, with eight full-time staff.

His commitment is not only to conserving and re-creating Robinson's work but also moving the garden forward in homage to its creator.

And in a parallel of William Robinson's journalistic endeavours, Tom contributes to the quintessentially English magazine Country Life.

 


See it

Gravetye Manor (www.gravetyemanor.co.uk) usually has two or three open days a year but hotel guests and visitors who book in for lunch (£30 - about $NZ70 - for a three-course meal) are welcome to walk around the gardens.


 

 

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