Elegant topiary and ordered formality underpin the aesthetic in the garden of Georgian Fittleworth House in West Sussex. But also at play is a wilder, looser flavour, encouraged by head gardener Mark Saunders in a bid to boost the land’s rich biodiversity
The English Garden Magazine, Dec 2023
At first glance, Fittleworth House might seem quite a traditional garden, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s been quietly shrugging off convention under the care of its head gardener, Mark Saunders, for the last quarter of a century.
The grand Georgian manor house – home to the Braham family for the last sixty years – is set in three acres of West Sussex downland. Built in the 1720s from local quarried stone, it gazes through a curtain of wisteria across a tightly clipped croquet lawn, out and down over a gentle eastward sloping sward to the distant walled gardens below. The house and lawns are overlooked on the outer fringes by two towering sentinels – a glorious hundred-foot-tall Cedar of Lebanon on the southern slope, and an equally statuesque Holm Oak on the opposite bank. These stately specimens were planted in the 1740s when the house and gardens were in the first flush of youth. Today they remain an integral part of the garden’s signature aesthetic, an artful blend of ordered formality and a wilder, looser English romanticism.
For Mark, there is a constant negotiation taking place between these two polarities, between what he sees as the ‘needs of man’ and the ‘needs of nature’. ‘It’s a balancing act,’ he tells me, ‘…we have formal and wild areas, and we are always having to re-evaluate how we garden along those lines.’
The garden’s most emphatic formal statement is the circular ‘fountain garden’, which sits at the base of a short flight of stone steps flanked by matching stoneware urns and conical yew forms. Here, symmetrical beds of mixed herbaceous planting and nascent taxus and buxus topiary (the pittosporums and euonymus were sadly lost in last year’s harsh winter) encircle a brick-edged pond. Above the water stands a striking Corten-steel globe, originally designed as a fire pit but repurposed here as a decorative centrepiece.
At the lowermost fall, beneath the fountain garden, is a razor-sharp yew hedge with a narrow, arched entrance leading through to the walled vegetable garden beyond. Step through the archway and the precision-tooled lines give way to a gnarly, lichen-covered tunnel of criss-crossing apple boughs, like two weather-worn hands gripped in a gesture of supplication.
Not that we are completely done with formality yet. Beyond the apple tunnel, the half-acre walled vegetable garden reveals itself as a neat geometry of linear pathways, well-behaved fruit posts and mirror image borders. Echoes of the fountain garden are felt in the repeated use of topiary, which punctuate the 150-foot-long central pathway in matching pairs. In summer, Mark tells me, this path is bordered on either side by a colourful matrix of half-hardy annuals and an impressive roster of dahlias. Now, in the heart of winter, the eye is drawn to structural form and architectural detail. The sloping yew buttresses – lozenges of emerald-green against the sandstone walls. The frost-kissed seed-heads of hylotelephium, miscanthus and Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii). A wooden lattice catching the low, hibernal light. The skeletal frames of fruit trees.
Another neat ingress leads to a second, smaller walled garden complete with glasshouse, cold frames and the cosiest of potting-sheds-cum-mess-rooms, where father-and-son team Mark and Peter plan the smooth running of the garden.
Beyond the walls, the southern reaches become wilder. Large, freeform island beds and loose stands of shrubbery (hydrangeas, camelias, azaleas, spireas) hug the gentle gradient. At this time of year, Fittleworth boasts some true winter stalwarts. Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’, with its clusters of richly scented, candy-floss-pink flowers. The evergreen periwinkle Vinca ‘Jenny Pym’, which flowers its pretty pink socks off for ten months of the year. Lonicera x purpussii ‘Winter Beauty’, a semi-evergreen honeysuckle with the headiest of winter fragrance. The ever-reliable winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, whose canary-yellow blooms hang on dark, denuded stems. And the Algerian Iris unguicularis, a sweet confection of honey-scented, lavender-mauve petals that bloom from December to March.
In summer, Mark tells me, swathes of grass are left long here, and self-seeders – poppies, cornflowers, cow parsley – are encouraged to wander freely. As are a number of species that many gardeners might simply dismiss as ‘weeds’ but remain for Mark perfectly valid garden plants. The willow herbs, for instance, which are ‘so excellent for insects, and pretty too’. Then there’s the common figwort, selfheal, the little spreading wild euphorbias and good old-fashioned Herb Robert, which make perfect groundcover, a subject upon which Mark positively proselytises:
‘One of the most important things you can do as a gardener is look after your soil,’ he enthuses, ‘everything comes from that.’ Consequently, if your soil is bare, he tells me, and the sun hits it, it tends to bake it and all that life – all the mycorrhizal fungi, the earthworms, the bacteria, the microorganisms – either disappear downwards out of the reach of many plants or are killed off. ‘The act of gardening in itself is not a natural process,’ he admits, ‘bringing in plants from all over the world, creating straight edges, tidying everything up. None of this occurs in the natural world. Nature would just say, “Don’t worry, just leave it there, mate!”.’
Between a magnificent oak and a canopy of crown-lifted camelia and rhododendron, a small stream snakes its way down the slope. With its moss-strewn rocks and pockets of fern and sedge, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had forged its path through the bedrock over the ages. But in truth, this is a relatively new construction, created during Covid at the owner’s request. Once stepped, dug and lined, it was landscaped by Mark and Peter with seven tons of topsoil (all from the garden) and bedded in with a layer of ‘Fittleworth fill’, crushed sandstone from the local quarry. The rocks were found on site, too. Even the planks for the little bridge that spans the stream were recovered from the village bonfire.
Mark is rightfully proud of this project, and particularly its green credentials: ‘I’m very keen on the idea of reusing and recycling materials and sourcing locally,’ he says, ‘and what’s really wonderful is how it has already attracted so much wildlife. It makes me very happy to see goldfinches and greenfinches bathing in the stream now.’
It is here in the ‘wild garden’ that Mark gets to truly indulge this passion for wildlife and encourage as wide a biodiversity as possible. Back in the summer Mark spotted a white-tailed eagle being chased off by three buzzards in an adjacent field. Other regular raptor visitors include kestrels, red kites, hobbies, peregrine falcons, sparrowhawks and tawny owls. ‘If you have this high level of apex predator, then you must be doing something right,’ says Mark; ‘it means the whole ecology must be functioning well and I’m so proud of that.’
It must be tough for wildlife in the winter, though, I suggest. Mark agrees. Hence, the grasses and herbaceous perennials are left standing right through till early spring for shelter and food. ‘Minimal disturbance is key. We don’t put the garden to bed for winter here. Not at all,’ says Mark.
This embracing of wild habitats, tolerance of ‘weeds’, focus on biodiversity and dedication to recycling and re-purposing are all bang on trend, I suggest, and should be applauded. But Mark really doesn’t see it this way. For him, it’s perfectly simple: he does these things instinctively because he feels that’s how it should be. And luckily for him, his employers are completely on board with his ethos. ‘And if they are happy with the way the garden is evolving,’ he smiles, ‘then it’s certainly good enough for me.’