By Emma Murphy, Peterborough Master Gardener
It’s really cold out. I mean REALLY cold. -25 degrees Celsius cold. With lots of snow. And wind. And ice. So it’s got me dreaming of springtime and things that are green and not white.
So indulge me while I research and share with you some of my favourite English gardens in southern England that we plan to visit later this spring. Hoping things improve to celebrate my aunt’s 95th birthday and fulfill a long held dream to visit England in late springtime. While I’m planting many more natives in my messy “English-style” garden, I’m still fascinated with the diversity, structure, and composition of more formal English gardens.
Here’s my top 5 ‘not to be missed South England gardens” – there are (of course) more on our list but these are the key ones. Some of these may be familiar to you, and some not…
Hoping that these profiles help ease the January blues. Since I’ve haven’t been there yet these are photos taken by others. If you have been lucky enough to visit these gardens please share your photos in the comments.
1. Great Dixter House and Gardens, Rye, East Sussex
Great Dixter is an historic house, a garden, a centre of education, and a place of pilgrimage for horticulturists from across the world. Certainly it’s the one garden that has the highest reputation with overseas visitors.
Surprisingly, it’s maintained this reputation for many decades, even through a change of hands. Initially famous through its owner Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) – who lived in the half-timbered fifteenth-century house all his life – Lloyd (or “Christo” as he was known) was not only a gifted and artistic gardener but a prolific and knowledgeable writer whose articles and books inspired a generation of gardeners.
Today, the gardens are managed by the Great Dixter Charitable Trust and Fergus Garrett, who became head gardener in 1992. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at a Toronto Master Gardeners’ Technical Update a few years ago.
The two gardeners had a creative working relationship, both loving plants and their combinations, and even though Lloyd is gone more than 50,000 visitors a year find Great Dixter as vibrant a garden as ever, and full of things to learn from.
This is an ‘arts and crafts’ style garden, with topiary, a long border, an orchard and a wild flower meadow. The planting is profuse, yet structured, and has featured many bold experiments of form, colour and combination.
On the grounds are three 18th-century oast houses, under a common roof, and a 15th-century barn. Find out more here.
2. Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, Sissinghurst, Kent
Located in beautiful Kent, Sissinghurst Castle Garden was created by poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat in 1930 and developed over 30 years with some notable head gardeners.
Designated Grade I on Historic England’s register of historic parks and gardens, it’s among the most famous gardens in England. They transformed a farmstead of “squalor and slovenly disorder” into one of the world’s most influential gardens.
Following her death in 1962, the estate was donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It is one of the Trust’s most popular properties, with more than 200,000 visitors each year (and I hope to be one of them!).
There are a number of specialty gardens, including the Rose Garden, the (famous) White Garden, the South Cottage Garden, the Herb Garden, the Nuttery, the Lime Walk (Spring Garden), the Delos Garden (Mediterranean garden), Moat Walk, the Orchard, and the Purple Border. Learn more here.
3. Hidcote Gardens, Hidcot Bartim, Gloucestershire
Hidcote is a world-famous garden located in the north Cotswolds (not far from [the original] Stratford-upon-Avon). Created by the talented horticulturist Major Lawrence Johnston (and inspired by the work of designers Alfred Parsons and Gertrude Jekyll), yew, holly and beech hedges define a series of outdoor garden rooms – the Circle, the Fuchsia garden , the Bathing Pool Garden, the Red Borders and the steps up to the two gazebos. The outbreak of the Great War (1914 – 1918) in which Lawrence fought, suspended progress.
You might recognize the narrow-leaved lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, and Penstemon ‘Hidcote Pink’, as developed by Johnston. Many of the plants found growing in the garden were collected from Johnston’s many plant-hunting trips to faraway places so it will be the perfect source for gardening inspiration. More history here.
4. Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, Sussex
Created in 1885 at the former home of William Robinson, who championed naturalistic planting, the site today is a prestigious hotel, but visitors can still enjoy the gardens which are curated and cared for by Tom Coward (who trained with Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter).
An oasis of calm with over 35 acres of beautiful grounds, Robinson created a landscape that celebrates nature rather than controls it. He also introduced the idea of the modern mixed border and popularized common place items such as secateurs and hose pipes. In many ways Robinson created modern gardening as we know it.
Some of his most influential books include The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden, which remains the bestselling gardening book ever printed. He also ran several gardening journals such as The Garden and Garden Illustrated.
Robinson made Gravetye “the paradigm in which house, garden, fields, and forest are united in a pastoral work of art as quintessentially English as a painting by Constable,” wrote landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Some ideas on how to create the Gravetye look here.
5. Wisley Gardens, Wisley, Surrey
Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Wisley is operated by the RHS and is a beautiful garden with romantic half-timbered Tudor-style buildings. Unlike many English gardens, the soil is mainly acid sand which is poor in nutrients and fast draining.
There is a canal designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, a rock garden, formal and walled gardens by Lanning Roper, a country garden by Penelope Hobhouse and long borders by Piet Oudolf.
Then there are long herbaceous borders, the alpine gardens, the model gardens, soft fruit garden, rose-garden, summer garden, winter garden and woodland garden, a fruit field, glasshouses and an arboretum.
This garden is home to some of the largest plant collections anywhere in the world, with constantly evolving planting schemes to inspire visitors. In June 2021, Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science opened at Wisley so I’m looking forward to exploring this impressive exhibition space and three beautiful new gardens.
Well that’s it for this blog – I hope you feel inspired to explore gardens wherever you live or travel – they are so many incredible gardens here in Canada and the U.S. alone. Even if we can’t travel much at the moment, many gardens have developed virtual visits, presentations, and videos so you can explore that way until we can move more freely. One of my favourites is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, which I hope to visit in person in the future. Check it out here.
I leave you with a photo of my messy Lakefield “English garden” from last summer, my hardworking husband and our 2021 new greenhouse and dreams of springtime.