- The Concept: the two-day Festival of the Garden was curated by leading landscape designer and 8 times Chelsea gold medallist Tom Stuart-Smith. This year’s subtitle was ‘Gardening for Curious Minds’, with themes including husbandry versus wildness, allotments and sustainability and the healing garden. I was only able to attend – as a volunteer – on the Sunday – so I missed what looked like a rich day on Saturday, including talks by garden designer Cleve West in conversation with Caroline Lucas and nurserywoman Derry Watkins. Having been fortunate enough to spend one full day there I came away wondering how often are we able to spend such a chunk of time thinking about gardening in the wider, philosophical sense?
2. The Location: I have volunteered in the garden at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex for two years and it is a very special place. Under the tender care of Head Gardener Fiona Dennis, at this time of year it is blooming with hollyhocks, globe artichokes, roses, zinnias and old-fashioned pinks which featured in the paintings of Vanessa Bell, the Bloomsbury artist who lived here with her painting partner Duncan Grant, and where they entertained their social set including Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf and the economist John Maynard Keynes. The new Threshing Barn is the perfect place to sit and listen to talks contemplating the holistic benefits of gardening, while the courtyard in front provides a great spot for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a chance to peruse local horticultural businesses such as Forage & Bloom, Pelham Plants and Sussex Succulents.
3. Tom Stuart-Smith: as well as opening up his contacts book to find top notch speakers for the festival, Stuart-Smith gave an inspirational presentation on walled gardens. He talked about how the very earliest gardens were walled enclosures in the middle of the desert (the word ‘paradise’ comes from the old Persian for walled enclosure), then moved on to talk about some of the walled gardens he has worked on, including Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech. Built on the site of a former riad, this is divided into an Islamic garden, laid out in a traditional four-part structure, with a pavilion, water rills and trees such as olive, palm, pomegranate and fig, and a Christian or exotic garden, which is a more naturalistic interpretation of paradise with plants brought from around the world.
4. Jim Buckland, Sarah Wain and Tom Brown: this trio represent the past and future of the gardens at West Dean in west Sussex, which I have yet to visit. Jim and Sarah are the famous married couple who ran the gardens for 28 years and recently handed the reins to Tom, who cut his teeth with ten years as head gardener of nearby Parham House. Buckland talked about gardens as representing our desire for a Lost Eden and a place to rest from the cares of the world, but he also made the point that “craft and graft is horticultural gold” and said that he and Wain became good at what they did by asking people who were good at what they did how they do it. Brown showed some slides of his work at Parham, which included providing copious amounts of cut flowers for the house and trialling what works (current favourites include Echinacea ‘Aloha’ and Tulipa ‘El Nino’). He described borders as “like a choir, every so often a diva will step forward and have her moment” and prefers the meadow style of planting groups of three or five throughout a border with lots of grasses. I was particularly blown away by his combination of 15 different types of blue Iris sibirica with purple alliums.
5. The healing garden: Stuart-Smith described a conversation between BBC Gardener’s World presenter Rachel de Thame and his wife Sue as “the heart of the festival”. The pair discussed how gardening helped Rachel de Thame through her recent breast cancer and Sue Stuart-Smith talked about ‘generativity’, how as we get older we need to decide how we are going to view the rest of our lives in the face of our own mortality and how gardening can help us to be more forward-looking and creative. When she was in the midst of her illness, Rachel de Thame took the advice of a friend and decided to carry on gardening as if she was going to live for many more decades. Sue Stuart-Smith, who is a GP, quoted Sigmund Freud who said that beauty compensates for suffering and explained that neuroscience has shown that beauty in nature can fire up the brain in the same way as romantic love.
6. Space and Form: Andy Sturgeon, whose Chelsea 2019 M&G Garden was voted Best in Show, gave an entertaining talk about his use of mass and void in garden design. He showed slides of an innovative private garden in London, where he created a long curvaceous stone bench for entertaining, a Thamesside garden with a meandering stream where he solved an algae problem by planting irises and a family garden where he deliberately installed large rocks for playing on, so the owners wouldn’t fill it with plastic play equipment.
7. Garden tours: In her two years since joining Charleston, head gardener Fiona Dennis has worked wonders . She is aiming to celebrate the heyday of the Bloomsbury set’s time in the garden in the 1930s, using many of the plants Vanessa Bell loved to paint including bright zinnias and heritage pinks such as ‘Alice’ and ‘Mrs Sinkins’, which she has propagated and sells from the garden. If you missed the festival, the garden is open Wednesday to Sunday throughout the year.
I don’t think anything else like the Charleston Festival of the Garden exists in the horticultural calendar. It was the perfect space for reflection and I hope it will be back next year!