A Touch of Wildness
The erstwhile home of William Robinson, grand Gravetye Manor, overlooks gardens that stay true to the pioneering writer's ethos, drawing inspiration from Nature herself.
The English Garden Magazine, April 2023
William Robinson – pioneering garden writer and creator of the magnificent gardens at Gravetye Manor in rural Sussex – believed that spring should come with a touch of wildness about it.
‘In our islands, fanned by the winds of iceless seas, spring wakes early in the year...’ he tells us in his seminal 1893 book The English Flower Garden. He then lets loose, with signature vigour, on all the ways in which spring should be liberated from the stranglehold of ‘unnatural’ formality.
His remedy is simple yet radical. We should look to the sublime artistry of Nature herself for our inspiration: to the ‘woods, copses, heaths and meadows’, which ‘have no little loveliness in spring’. For Robinson, our opportunity – indeed our obligation – should be to take these ‘wild and half-wild spots’ as a springboard (excuse the pun) from which to ‘produce beautiful pictures’.
For head gardener Tom Coward, spring at Gravetye is not short of such scenes. ‘It really is the most incredible garden at this time of year. And it all starts from out there…’ he gestures across the wide sweep of meadow, which falls away from the foot of Robinson’s grand manor house (now an even grander hotel) out and down to the lake and fringes of deciduous woodland beyond.
In all, there are six acres of wildflower meadow at Gravetye. In a bold experiment, Robinson planted thousands of spring bulbs ‘in prettily fringed colonies growing to and fro’ across these gently falling slopes. His vision was for every flower to be ‘relieved by grass blades … the whole devoid of any trace of man … where everything should be varied, indefinite, and changeful.’ One hundred and fifty years on and Tom and his team are keeping Robinson's colourful experiment alive.
First to break cover are the snowdrops and crocuses, which dust the dewy meadow-grass with a frosting of opal and amethyst. Lilac-throated goblets of Crocus tommasinianus and the slightly later Crocus vernus hybrids make perfect bedfellows for the ‘fair maids of February’, the species snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, G. elwesii and G. plicatus), which pepper the sward till well into March when the wild daffodils take their cue.
Drifts of our native Lent lily, Narcissus pseudonarcissus lobularis now step up, ably aided by a supporting cast of their diminutive cousins, the petite N. cyclamenius and the dwarf hoop-petticoat N. bulbocodium. ‘Yellow and blue is an important combination here in spring,’ Tom explains. ‘There’s all this lemon yellow of the daffodils offset by swathes of sky-blue Scilla bifolia. Then, as that goes over, out come the wild tulips – mainly T. sylvestris – which will flower alongside our native bluebells, so this time it’s all buttercup yellows and electric blues.’
In recent years Tom and his team have grown many bulbs from seed. ‘We are really trying to bulk up numbers in this way,’ he tells me. ‘It is much more cost and time effective.’ For Tom, this is all part of a ‘perennial mindset’, a way of keeping a long-term legacy alive: ‘Robinson would have planted the forebears of a lot of the bulbs we've got now, and we are making selections that will hopefully be here for generations to come.’
If the wildflower meadows are the spring showstoppers, then the Spring Garden (or Azalea Bank) comes in a close second. For Tom there are essentially two forms of wild garden: first there’s pre-existing habitat that we add to as gardeners (daffodils in a meadow, rhododendrons in an oak woodland); then there’s the ‘artificial’ wild garden where we try to establish an entirely new community of plants. ‘Our Spring Garden falls into the second camp,’ he explains. Here, poised on a steep bank above the formal flower garden, Robinson added lots of woody material and carpets of perennials; azaleas and winter heathers, underplanted with naturalised narcissi and camassias, which flower their pretty socks off from March till May. For Tom, though it’s the heathers that really make the spring sing here. ‘They have become really unfashionable,’ he admits, ‘but I love them. They are so undemanding and so evocative whether it’s of seventies suburban gardens or the Ashdown Forest. I think they’re going to make a resurgence, although in a way I hope they don’t, because I like them being so unfashionable!’
While the flower meadows and Azalea Bank do much of the heavy lifting in the spring, the woodland garden tells a quieter, but equally evocative tale. ‘In many ways Robinson was the patron saint of woodland gardens,’ Tom explains and Gravetye’s own wooded glades don’t disappoint, particularly in spring with the blue anemones [A. Robinsoniana] and white leucojums [L. vernus and L. aestevium ‘Gravetye Giant’] that congregate beneath the rhododenrons.
For Tom, spring in Sussex simply wouldn’t be spring without the ‘rhodies’. ‘We’ve got some of the most impressive R. ‘Christmas Cheer’ I’ve ever seen,’ he enthuses, ‘and the richly scented loderi hybrids, which I wouldn’t be without. For me one of the highlights of spring is to sit under a R. loderi on a warm evening and enjoy the glorious sfragrance.’
The magnificent handkerchief trees (Davidia involucrata) – including a champion specimen – are reason enough in themselves for a visit in early May, Tom insists. And then, of course, there are the magnolias: from the resplendent M. soulangeanas and M. campbelliis to the smaller but perfectly formed M. Sieboldii (Oyama magnolia) with its lightly spiced early summer scent. ‘One of the big regrets of my life is not planting more magnolias ten years ago,’ sighs Tom, although he is certainly making up for lost time now. New plantings of Magnolia obavata, M. Macrophylla and M. daphne are all part of his future-proofing.
For Tom, each of these distinct areas is a cog in the larger wheel. There are connections everywhere; you just have to get your eye in: The magnolias in the woodland nod to the heathers in the Spring Garden, which in turn link to the apple trees in the orchard. The orchard is another wild garden locale, which peaks in spring with naturalised camassias beneath the blowsy blossom.
Then there’s the borrowed landscape to which Tom is always looking for garden echoes, whether it’s the autumn colour of the acers mirroring the beech trees beyond or the spring blossom in the orchard which chimes with the blackthorn and wild cherry in the distant woods. Even the annual display of hybrid tulips in the formal flower borders are buddied up with the spring-flowering azaleas above them. Tom seems somewhat ambivalent about the tulip displays, at least compared with Gravetye’s ‘wilder’ spring highlights, but he acknowledges that they do provide much-needed impact when ‘we’re all a bit hungry for colour’. ‘It cheers everyone up as soon as they walk into the garden,’ he admits, ‘I think it’s about sticking two fingers up to the winter!’
For Tom, as for many of us, anything feels possible in the spring. The long hard winter is over. There’s a taste in the air of all that’s to come. The early onset of summer brings wonderful things too. ‘The weather is often the best, and there’s the longer days and your favourite plants are flowering,’ says Tom, ‘but it also feels like standing at the bottom of a massive mountain-full of work. It can be very overwhelming, but in early spring you’ve got it all before you. You’ve got time to breathe.’
A lungful of spring air at Gravetye sounds like the perfect tonic. I for one shall be booking myself a spot beneath those ambrosial loderis and drinking it all in as soon as the first cuckoo calls.