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
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 sarahraven.com 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.