Transforming Borde Hill's Round Dell
The English Garden Magazine, August 2021
In July 2018, as part of the garden’s 125th anniversary celebrations, Borde Hill in West Sussex officially unveiled an exciting new development, a complete transformation of the Round Dell, a former quarry, once used to excavate stone to build the walls around the Elizabethan manor house.
The task was undertaken by young, award-winning garden designer Sophie Walker and conceived as a response to the garden’s rich horticultural history. Like many similar country estates here on the Sussex High Weald, Borde Hill Garden was born out of a late Victorian zeal for collecting plants from the widest outposts of the British Empire. Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke – a keen naturalist and collector – purchased the 200-acre estate in 1893 and set about commissioning professional plant hunters like Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward to find and send back new plant species from the Himalayas, China, the Americas and beyond. So began a process by which Borde Hill estate grew into an unrivalled repository of rare and remarkable trees and shrubs. Four generations on and this reputation hasn’t dimmed: today, Borde Hill’s collection (listed by Kew Gardens as being of National Importance) boasts one of the greatest concentrations of champion trees and shrubs in any private UK garden.
Borde Hill chairman, Jim Gardiner (Director of Horticulture for the RHS and former curator of RHS Garden Wisley) had seen Sophie Walker’s medal-winning show garden at the 2013 Hampton Court Flower Show. 'A Valley Garden' was a striking conceptual design in which a concrete-edged rill cut sharply through layered foliage planting to a black, mirrored water pool. He wondered whether it might be possible to replicate this design, or something similar, for the Round Dell at Borde Hill. For Sophie, this was an interesting challenge: to create a space that would resonate for 21st-century visitors, while referencing the legacy of those early plant pioneers.
© 2019 Diana Jazwinksi
Sophie and the team at Borde Hill have met this challenge head on. A narrow concrete-edged path – modern, almost brutalist in conception – pierces the entrance to the dell like an arrow let loose from a bow. Where the path recedes to a sharp vanishing point, a small pool is fed from above by a stainless-steel chute perched atop a concrete plinth. Surrounding this on all sides is lush, verdant, dramatic planting. So far, so contemporary. But for all its cool linearity – ‘what I find really interesting,’ says Sophie, ‘is that the only thing nature can’t do is a straight line’ – the fullness of her design is sensuous and tactile and has a firm handle on the historical context of its surroundings. This is reflected most emphatically in the planting itself, which draws not only on the garden’s history, but also on the work of modern-day plant hunters like Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones of Crug Farm Plants, from whom Sophie sourced many of her more esoteric choices.
Before work could begin in earnest, the original pond had to be infilled, drainage improved, and much of the existing subtropical planting – which had become quite dense and overgrown – removed, leaving only the truly mature specimens, the lofty bananas (Musa basjoo), the towering trachycarpus, the taxodiums. These provided an impressive backdrop for the new planting scheme.
When it came to plant selection, Sophie knew exactly what she wanted, and exactly what she wanted to leave out. Foliage, rather than flower, was her mantra. ‘I believe that the subtle can be more beautiful than the overt. Green is a remarkable colour, it is restful and luminous and extraordinary, you simply can’t replicate the green that chlorophyll produces in nature.’ Sophie believes that a garden created predominantly with layers of green foliage can be very animated. ‘It’s almost humanistic,’ she insists, ‘the shapes the leaves make, like hands and limbs, the sounds they create in the canopy.’
The ambition with this kind of planting is to knit everything together from the ground upwards. First, a groundcover that smothers the bare soil. Here, this means shade-loving ferns (Dryopteris affinis ‘Polydactyla Dadds’; Matteuccia struthiopteris); broad-leaved Ligularia dentata and L. japonica ‘Rising Sun’); the May Apple, Podophyllum peltatum; and the ligularia-esque Farfugium japonicum from the mountains of southern Japan. Together with hostas, euphorbias and angelicas (planted to fill space while the new selections bulk up) they form a dense understorey.
Then there’s the mid-layer. By constructing a matrix of contrasting habits and hues, textures and leaf shapes it is possible to create the illusion of depth. Key plants here – many of them Crug Farm selections – do just that. Darmera peltata (umbrella plant), a rhizomatous perennial with large glossy round leaves. Herbaceous Aralia apioides, with small, doubly pinnate leaves carried above striking glossy black stems. Rodgersia pinnata ‘Crug Cardinal’, with its plume-like pink pannicles and deep-bronze foliage. Fatsia polycarpa, a relatively new introduction and great alternative to the ubiquitous F. japonica, and Woodwardia unigemmata, a hardier selection of the Himalayan jewelled chain fern, also make a strong impression, the former for its large, lobed, palmate leaves, the latter for its huge arching fronds
Finally, the canopy layer. To create drama, you need to think big: big foliage, big leaves, big impact. (This same adage is equally applicable in a small domestic garden). Here the whole scheme is anchored by some botanical heavyweights. The imperious architecture of Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ and Trachycarpus fortunei. The primordial tree fern, Dicksonia ‘Antarctica’. The beautiful, multi-fingered scheffleras, here represented by the relatively hardy S. delavayi, S. rhododendrifolia and the giant S. macrophylla. Head gardener Andy Stevens has big hopes (literally) for a coppiced Magnolia macrophylla (the ‘bigleaf magnolia’, rare even in its native South Carolina): ‘Early days yet but should be some impressive foliage – watch this space!’ he enthuses.
To achieve this subtropical look here in the UK it is essential to choose plants not only for their exotic appearance but also for their hardiness and adaptability to the local conditions. This site has a tendency to hold the frost in winter and consequently some of the more tender choices (the scheffleras, the neolitsea, the aralias) have struggled and some have needed winter protection. Andy uses fleece for the scheffleras and straw or large pots for the bananas. This has prompted the team to focus on planting suited to the Dell’s distinct microclimate. ‘The area needed two different types of planting,’ Andy explains, ‘plants for the main foliage area, which is sheltered and well protected on three sides, and then the south-facing entrance, which is hot and dry in summer.’ It was difficult to come up with dramatic foliage for the latter, he admits, ‘because these particular conditions really suit smaller-leaved plants best. So, we had to experiment: we tried various larger foliage selections – Eriobotrya japonica (the large-leaved Japanese loquat), Broussonetia papyrifera (the east Asian paper mulberry), melianthus – and interplanted these with euphorbias and the hardy bromeliads, fasicularia and puya. And fingers crossed, so far so good.’
What Sophie, Andy and the team have created here is a space that on one level plays with contradictory ideas and concepts – about past and present, authenticity and artifice. At the same time, they have made a magical ‘garden-within-a-garden’, an immersive green Eden that provokes in visitors an intuitive desire to explore and discover, just as the plant pioneers who helped shape Borde Hill once did over a century ago. ‘The Round Dell is a sunken, excavated realm that you enter,’ says Sophie. ‘The Secret Garden was my favourite book as a child. I love that idea of journey and discovery.’ And she’s right: this is a garden that slowly reveals itself the deeper you delve, a garden to be ‘experienced’ in the truest sense of the word rather than simply admired from the side-lines.
Photographs © Dianna Jazwinski 2021