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!

This Week At Charleston: Allium attack

The walled garden in winter

The walled garden looked quite stunning after the first frost of the year yesterday: artichoke leaves dusted white, snowdrops peeking through here and there and pale green hellebores like winter ghosts.

Snowdrops and hellebores in the walled garden

My task for the day was to remove all of the alliums which have spread throughout the bed at the end of the lawn. The original allium bulbs had reproduced, but their babies would not have flowered for a few years, and so were detracting from the high impact this bed is supposed to have. They are also anachronistic: although ornamental alliums are very popular with today’s gardeners, they would not have been widely used in the 1930s and 40s when onions were strictly for eating!

Bed before the alliums have been removed

Using a border fork, I removed the alliums, trying to pull them up in clumps to make sure I got all of the bulblets. I also took out the celandine which is spreading like wildfire through this bed. This inevitably meant disturbing some of the wallflowers which have been planted here for Spring, but I did my best to firm them back in. This bed is also meant to be full of colourful tulips in Spring, but a naughty rat has been hard at work eating all of the bulbs. It was quite devastating to find all the nibbled shoots lying around. Fiona, the head gardener, has had to send off to Holland for the last of the tulip bulbs as you cannot buy them in the UK now until the autumn. In the process I uncovered this pretty little primrose and the violets are also coming into flower.

Alliums and celandine removed, I levelled the ground and took out any weeds I had missed with a little hand rake. It had warmed up nicely and almost felt like Spring. It was time to stop for a cup of tea by the pond in the late winter sunshine, stopping to admire the snowdrops in the orchard on the way.

Snowdrops by the pond

Snowdrops in the orchard

Looking through the gate to the walled garden

Looking across the pond

In other news, work on the Kitchen Garden is well under way. With only four weeks to go until Charleston is open to the public, Fiona is creating new raised beds with a brick edging and gravel paths which will be wide enough for a wheelbarrow or two. One of the other volunteers is working incredibly hard to put in proper foundations and make sure the bricks are level. I can’t wait to see the finished beds.

The Kitchen Garden: a work in progress

Winter pruning: this week in the garden at Charleston

IMG_4726The garden at Charleston is like a supermodel: it always photographs well. And what a joy it was to be back in the garden this week after a winter break for us volunteers. I returned to the garden on a perfect winter’s day – bright and cold – the downs behind creating a chiaroscuro effect of light and shade.

IMG_4720I always love the first view of the walled garden as you walk through the little gate in the wall near the gardener’s shed and greenhouse. The vegetable patch is still a work in progress but that did not detract from the quiet beauty of the garden at this time of year when it is still closed to the public.

Before we set to work I wandered around and took a few pictures. It is difficult to remember now what the garden looked like in the height of summer. The sculptures have all been wrapped up to protect them against the cold weather and most of the perennials have been cut back to ground level. The tree surgeons had been the day before and trimmed the hedge on the other side of the pond, opening up new views.

The first snowdrops are out in the orchard, although they have not yet fully unfurled. On the eastern wall running alongside the pond, one of the other volunteers has put in new wires for the roses and other climbers with careful precision.

IMG_4736Our task for the day was pruning a few of the garden’s many apple trees, a task I have always shied away from as I have never quite understood the science of pruning fruit trees. Once we got going though, I soon got the hang of it.

We chose trees that were in the sunshine as the air was bitterly cold in the shade. Then we cut back last season’s growth to two or three buds, selecting outward facing buds and making sure the sharp blade of our secateurs was closest to the part of the branch that is remaining.

We cleaned our secateurs thoroughly before we started and we also carried anti-bacterial wipes around with us to clean as we went, as some of the trees are suffering from bacterial canker. We also took out any branches that were crossing or too crowded. Apparently you should be able to throw your hat through a well-pruned apple tree!

Winter pruning is carried out to promote growth, then in the summer when the tree has put out new spurs, these will need thinning out to one or two per branch to ensure best fruiting.

IMG_4739After pruning we mulched the roots of the apple trees and surrounding beds with some of the lovely Charleston compost that head gardener Fiona has been making. It was wonderful to be outside in the open air after spending too much of the last month indoors. Now I can’t wait to see the apple blossom in the Spring.