Bold and bril­liant

On a site with few ad­van­tages save for its hill­top lo­ca­tion, Sarah Raven cre­ated an iconic cut­ting gar­den; 25 years on, it’s a gar­den­ing em­pire

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS JODIE JONES PHO­TO­GRAPHS RICHARD BLOOM

How Sarah Raven cre­ated a gar­den­ing em­pire on the once-derelict site of Perch Hill

D riv­ing down the wind­ing green lane that leads to Sarah Raven’s Sus­sex home, it is easy to miss a dis­creet sign mark­ing the way in to Perch Hill Farm, but nav­i­gate an en­trance bounded by na­tive hedgerows and you are hit by an ex­plo­sion of colour. Masses of dahlias in rich shades of orange, ma­genta and plum flank the grassy drive­way. On ei­ther side, the gar­den ex­tends away in a grid of brick paths, clipped hedges and ax­ial vis­tas all but oblit­er­ated by an ex­cess of roses, sweet peas, cos­mos and salvias. Kale and colour­ful let­tuces dec­o­rate one slope like a pointil­list can­vas, and the white cowl of a pretty oast house is sil­hou­et­ted by trees. It all looked very dif­fer­ent 25 years ago, when Sarah first walked up the drive. Back then she was keen to move out of Lon­don with her baby daugh­ter and hus­band (the jour­nal­ist Adam Ni­col­son, grand­son of Vita Sackville-West), and had al­ready spent many months house hunt­ing when she stum­bled on what one neigh­bour called ‘the poor­est farm in the par­ish’. Perched, as its name sug­gests, on a windswept hill, the mod­est house was ma­rooned in a sea of con­crete and sur­rounded by a se­lec­tion of out­build­ings in var­i­ous stages of de­crepi­tude. Over­look­ing the prop­erty’s ob­vi­ous short­com­ings, Sarah was en­tranced by the glo­ri­ous fields and woods that rolled away in ev­ery di­rec­tion. “The house was a disas­ter, but I just knew it was the place for us,” she says.

Few would have agreed with her at the time. Adam’s three sons from his first mar­riage of­ten came to stay and the house wasn’t big enough to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­one, so the fam­ily adopted an ec­cen­tric style of liv­ing in a se­lec­tion of out­build­ings as well as the farm­house, much as Adam’s fa­ther Nigel Ni­col­son had done when grow­ing up at Siss­inghurst. “At one point the only loo was out­side across the court­yard,” says Sarah. “It cer­tainly wasn’t glam­orous.”

De­spite work­ing long hours as a trainee doctor, Sarah be­gan to make a gar­den on the flat­test bit of land near the house (now part of the tri­als gar­den), so she could stay close to the fam­ily hub while she dug. “I grew up botanis­ing with my fa­ther and made a gar­den when I lived in Lon­don, so it was the nat­u­ral thing to do.” With lit­tle money to spare, she sowed an­nu­als in the rich Vene­tian shades now as­so­ci­ated with her name. “I have an in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion to colour,” she says. “I had done some floristry in Lon­don, and got so bored with pas­tel colours. I wanted bold, vel­vety drama.”

The gar­dener and au­thor Christo­pher Lloyd, a fam­ily friend, vis­ited soon af­ter the fam­ily moved in. “He took one look at the heavy clay soil, and told me I might as well move be­cause it would never make a gar­den,” laughs Sarah. Un­de­terred, she brought in tonnes of com­post to im­prove the soil and planted hedges to baf­fle the winds. When the ground be­came wa­ter­logged, she put in land drains. When the hedges were blown flat, she im­pro­vised hur­dle fences (chest­nut poles in­ter­wo­ven with in­ex­pen­sive roof­ing lathes) to pro­tect them while they es­tab­lished.

Sarah laid the first paths her­self, ex­tend­ing level ar­eas where the slop­ing ter­rain al­lowed, and slot­ting in steps to link them. “We just made it up as we went along,” she says. The ugli­est out­build­ings were grad­u­ally de­mol­ished and the rest im­proved. Friend and land­scape de­signer Pip Mor­ri­son planned the rose gar­den, but oth­er­wise the lay­out evolved or­gan­i­cally as time and funds al­lowed.

The only in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle in those early years was the morn­ing sick­ness that blighted Sarah’s sec­ond preg­nancy, so she never com­pleted her med­i­cal train­ing. In­stead, she spent more and more time in her gar­den. “Maybe it was my an­a­lyt­i­cal, med­i­cal back­ground, but the minute I started grow­ing things I be­gan chart­ing their per­for­mance. I wanted flow­ers to cut for the house, so it was log­i­cal for me to record which va­ri­eties pro­duced the most pick­ings and lasted longest in the vase.”

Con­se­quently, she al­ready had a sheaf of notes on the sub­ject when her hus­band met the pub­lisher Frances Lin­coln at a friend’s wed­ding. “Frances wanted to pro­duce a book about grow­ing cut flow­ers but didn’t know who to com­mis­sion. When Adam told her about my cut­ting gar­den project she asked me to send her a pro­posal by Mon­day.” That out­line, pro­duced in the course of one rather stress­ful week­end, be­came The Cut­ting Gar­den, named Best Spe­cial­ist Book of 1999 by the pres­ti­gious Gar­den Me­dia Guild.

Friends who read the book asked if Sarah would give a talk on the sub­ject. Visitors who ad­mired her un­usual va­ri­eties of sweet pea and an­tir­rhinum begged to buy them. Frances com­mis­sioned an­other book ( The Bold and Bril­liant Gar­den), this time fea­tur­ing peren­ni­als. Sarah’s name had sud­denly be­come a busi­ness sell­ing din­ner-plate-sized dahlias, gourmet veg­etable seeds and the sort of wellies you wouldn’t mind be­ing seen out in. “There never was a grand plan,” she says. “My first cat­a­logue was a folded sheet of A4 pa­per which I coloured in on the kitchen ta­ble. Since then I’ve had suc­cesses, but there were also times when I lost money. I was just mad enough to keep try­ing.”

These days, with friend and com­pany co-founder Louise Far­man, Sarah em­ploys more than 50 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a team of four gar­den­ers headed up by Josie Lewis. With the day-to-day run­ning of the gar­den in safe hands, and her chil­dren grown up, Sarah is free to travel widely in search of new va­ri­eties to trial. She also lec­tures reg­u­larly and is cur­rently work­ing on her 11th book, this time ex­plor­ing the gar­dener’s colour palette.

“I never imag­ined all of this hap­pen­ing, but I love what I do. I wake up think­ing about a par­tic­u­lar dahlia and what I might put with it. Perch Hill is my pas­sion and my life’s work.”

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Ad­dress Perch Hill Farm, Willing­ford Lane, Brightling, Roberts­bridge, East Sus­sex TN32 5HP. Tel 0345 092 0283. Web­site Open The gar­den can be vis­ited on open days. The shop is also open on these days, but oth­er­wise only on week­days by ap­point­ment, or on Christ­mas shop­ping days. Visit the web­site above for de­tails of 2019 open day dates, cour­ses and on­line shop­ping.

Look­ing out over the oast gar­den, to­wards the north side of the farm­house and the new Dutch yard, the plant­ing is ex­u­ber­ant. Long toms filled with Aga­pan­thus ‘Navy Blue’ line the path, the bor­ders brim­ming with bold blocks of Melianthusma­jor, Arundo donax and Cro­cos­mia ‘Lu­cifer’. Late-flow­er­ing an­nu­als such as Titho­nia and dahlias are still in bud, ready to flower soon.

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