7 Reasons to love the Charleston Festival of the Garden

  1. 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!

Forget-me-nots, sweet peas and a surprise: this week at Charleston

IMG_5868“The forget-me-nots are holding the garden together at this time of year,” said Head Gardener Fiona, when I joined her in the walled garden at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex yesterday, where I volunteer one day a week.

After two weeks off for the Easter holidays, it seemed to me that an awful lot is starting to happen in the garden now. Not least the tulips which have popped up everywhere – sometimes in unintended colour combinations such as hot pink and red.

But it is true that the Myosotis are the star of the garden at the moment, seen above with a beautiful, but unexpected peachy, coral tulip, and below in the vegetable garden.


I started the day with a mistake. Fiona asked me to weed out the pesky annuals hairy bittercress and sticky willow. I decided to get rid of some of the ground elder at the same time, and then my automatic brain took over and I started digging up Japanese anemones as well as the ground elder. In our old garden this was an enemy and I spent many hours digging it out, although now I rather like it – the white variety at least. When Fiona spotted what I was doing I had to hastily replant it. Fortunately there is plenty of anemone to go round at Charleston, but I felt an idiot.

So I moved on instead to planting out sweet pea seedlings. Fiona has sown varieties that would have been around in the 1930s and 40s, including ‘Blue Ensign’ and the evocatively named ‘Air Warden’. I have not seen these clever seed capsules before, that come apart easily, allowing you to transplant seedlings without disturbing the roots.

In the afternoon we stopped for a real treat: Richard and Hazel Ramsey had come over from their West Sussex dahlia farm Withypitts to advise Fiona on growing heritage dahlias, and I was allowed to listen in. They told us that the key to storing tubers over winter is to make sure they are fully dried out – it is a good idea to turn them upside down for a few days first – then pack them in a dry material and store them somewhere not too warm, but not too cold: 4-6C is ideal. If they get close to freezing they will turn to mush and if they get too warm, they will shrivel up. Apparently in a wine cellar underneath a couple of oriental carpets is ideal, if you have such things.

We sat in the sunshine (and breeze!) on the piazza, with the little fountain trickling in the background. Here it is for anyone in need of a moment of calm:

They  talked us through some of the varieties that might have been grown at the time when the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were creating their garden at Charleston. Many of these varieties are no longer available, but there are more modern cultivars which might be able to stand in for them. One or two can still be found with individual growers or the National Collection. I particularly like the sound of Arabian Night, which Richard remembers growing in the nursery when he was a child. Withypitts supply some of the top florists in London and Edinburgh and they specialise in growing slightly larger than life blooms.

While we were talking, a female duck who had laid her eggs in the walled garden flapped past us noisily. It turned out that her ducklings had hatched and were swimming in the little pond on the lawn. You can see them in the top right hand corner of the pond, with mother duck standing guard over them.


Spring is in the air at Charleston

Officially, Spring begins at the vernal equinox on the 21 March, but according to some it starts on the first day of the month. I think all of us in the UK can agree that there was absolutely nothing springlike about St David’s Day this year. But by yesterday, Spring was definitely in the air at Charleston.

I have not been able to volunteer in the garden for a whole month thanks to half term and other commitments, so it was wonderful to be back, especially as the sun came out to greet me.

The most exciting development is the new kitchen garden, which has been finished to an incredibly high standard by one of the other volunteers, who has put in many hours of labour to create this wonderful potager. I think Vanessa Bell would have loved it!


Head gardener Fiona put me to work helping to prune an overgrown rose. Rosa Felicité Perpetue is a rambler, so we were taking out old wood and shaping it, ready to be rewired, rather than cutting it back hard. Here is the before picture and I forgot to take an after shot – next time.


The sun shone at lunchtime, as we sat on the bench in the piazza, feeling almost warm for the first time in weeks.


Then after lunch, it was time for some clearing in one of the beds outside the studio. I dug out lots of Japanese anemone to give breathing room to an old rose, cleared alliums and celandine and moved a couple of foxgloves away from the santolina hedge to give both more room.


All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the garden for another week. It may still be wearing its winter coat, but it won’t be long now until Spring arrives properly.