The passionate plantsman and owner of Wildside, Keith Wiley believes the only way to garden is to be bold, experimental and willing to take a few risks
People sometimes talk about having a passion for gardening, which generally means they like it a lot. But for true passion, few measure up to Keith Wiley. His garden, Wildside, on the fringes of Dartmoor, has been acclaimed as the most exciting and innovative in the UK. “We haven’t even begun to explore all of the possibilities for where gardening can go,” he declares, eyes glittering. “We’ve all done it in the same way, year after year, generation after generation.” At Wildside, however, he is determined to push the boundaries of an experimental, ‘style’ of gardening – one inspired by close observation of nature, but with an understanding of form, a sense of narrative and a lyric intensity that lifts it on to an entirely different plane from more familiar forms of naturalist or otherwise gardening.
Over the past 14 years he has moved some 100,000 tonnes of rock and soil, three times over, to create the spectacular landscape that is Wildside – a labyrinth of serpentine paths and tree- clad hummocks, of ponds and canyons and shady groves – capturing the essence of a myriad habitats from damp Cornish valleys to the Temblor Mountains of California, from the flowering deserts of South Africa to the tumbledown barns of his Somerset childhood.
Keith describes that childhood as ‘ feral’, roaming the countryside in search of birds’ nests, studying their habitats with a forensic exactness of observation. Most of us lose that ferocious power of concentration as we grow older, but Keith has retained it, noting the precise moment at which the movement of the sun gilds a curve of the land, or relishing the freckling of red in the shaggy bark of a pine. His father, too, was an ambitious garden- maker – always one for the grand gesture – but not so good at finishing a project, confides Keith. He has clearly inherited the bravura gene.
After training at Wye, in 1978 he was appointed head gardener for punctilious plantsman Lionel Fortescue at The Garden House. ( The previous head gardener had quit, convinced, as were the garden’s trustees, that it was unviable.) Keith turned it around. By the 1990s visitor numbers had soared from 200 a year to around 45,000, attracted by Keith’s bold new naturalistic plantings – glorious bulb and wildflower meadows, a cottage garden inspired by the landscapes of Crete, a mythic stone circle guarded by pinkstemmed birches, and above all a South African garden that spectacularly evoked the heat and dazzle of Namaqualand under the milky Devon skies. After 25 years of unstinting commitment at The Garden House, Keith came unexpectedly to loggerheads with the trustees and quit. On his 50th birthday, Keith found himself jobless, homeless and penniless. “We didn’t have enough money to buy a house. We had just enough to buy a field, and hoped we would get planning permission for a nursery and eventually a house.” And thus, on a flat, south-facing, four-acre field, just down the lane from The Garden House, began Wildside, which he set about transforming with a superhuman energy, fuelled by anger and a deep sense of betrayal.
It is impossible to speak of Keith Wiley without mentioning his wife, Ros. They met at Wye, and have been inseparable ever since. Another woman might have been grumpy at waiting 14 years for her house to be built. She might have objected to the 80- hour weeks at The Garden House, and the years of unpaid toil ever since, at the lack of time for her own art ( Ros is an accomplished painter), or the dearth of creature comforts. Instead, she is unflinching in her support. At one point, Keith took a few steps into the well-paid international lecture circuit, but he found it too lonely without Ros at his side, unwilling to explore new lands and lay down new memories unless he could share them with her. She couldn’t go with him; there were 40,000 plants to be tended.
They manage the garden and nursery themselves, but rather than being daunted by the scale of the work, they are afire with new projects: a serene, faintly Oriental pond, a new and better South African garden, a series of summerhouses, each facing a different direction. Keith will reach state pension age next year – not a reason to slow down, but a welcome source of additional income to fund the works. The pair’s only concession is a plan is to give up the nursery, to allow them time and head-space for painting – she in pigments, he in plants.
“The potential here is just massive,” says Keith. So charged is he with a driving joy, I half expect him to shoot up into the stratosphere. “I go to bed every night dreaming about the next day. I suppose you could call it obsession.” USEFUL INFORMATION Wildside Nursery and Garden, Green Lane, Buckland Monachorum, Devon PL20 7NP. Tel 01822 855755, wileyatwildside.com The nursery is not open to the public, but plants are on sale at the garden entrance on garden open days. See website for details. NEXT MONTH Stephen Crisp, head gardener at Winfield House, London home of the US Ambassador to the UK.
WE HAVEN’T EVEN BEGUN TO EXPLORE ALL OF THE POSSIBILITIES FOR WHERE GARDENING CAN GO