This elegant outdoor space in Sussex uses colourful evergreens, shapely seedheads and striking architectural features to create a magical scene in deep winter.
Frosted stems, icy seedheads and colourful evergreens create a magical winter scene at gravetye Manor hotel and gardens in Sussex
The Little garden complete with its oak and sandstone garden room is the perfect spot, whatever the season.”
WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND TO THE HISTORIC GARDENS AT GRAVETYE?
The gardens were originally developed in the 19th and early 20th century by William Robinson, who is widely regarded as the father of the English cottage garden style. Born in Ireland in 1838, he came to Britain after the potato famine and made his fortune from his books, the most influential being The Wild Garden and The English Flower
Garden, in which he popularised the idea of naturalistic planting. He bought Gravetye in 1885 and used it to experiment with different planting schemes. When I arrived in 2010, the gardens had been neglected for some years and the current owners, Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking, asked me to restore and renovate them, using Robinson’s archives, plans and photographs as references.
TELL US ABOUT THE DESIGN OF THIS AREA OF THE GARDEN.
Gravetye covers about 30 acres and this sunny, sheltered area close to the house is known as the ‘Little Garden’. It is the smallest of the gardens and links the house with the rest of the grounds, which include a meadow, kitchen garden, orchard, lawns and a flower garden. As the building is constantly in use, this garden has to look good all year, even in the depths of winter.
WHICH FEATURES AND PLANTS PROVIDE WINTER INTEREST?
The paving and architectural features, such as the old stone bench, water fountain and pots, combine to create beautiful shapes in winter. We also use evergreen plants, including Japanese pittosporum, sage and stinking iris (Iris foetidissima), together with the dried stems and seedheads of deciduous flowers, which give the garden a magical look when they’re dusted with frost. The Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and pheasant’s tail grass
(Anemanthele lessoniana) also add movement as their floaty stems wave in the wind, while the hips of Rosa glauca inject spots of colour.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN THE GARDEN AT THIS TIME OF YEAR?
In autumn, we cut back plants that flop and look untidy over winter, but leave those with tougher stems that will withstand the cold weather, such as the cardoons and Japanese anemones, only cutting them down in spring when new shoots appear. We also lift and divide congested perennial plants in autumn or early winter, when the ground is not too wet or icy, and pop bulbs or hardy biennials, such as forget-me-nots and wallflowers, into the gaps we’ve created. These will then bloom in spring. Other jobs for this time of year include planting trees and pruning overgrown shrubs and trees.
HOW DO YOU KEEP PLANTS ALIVE DURING LONG FREEZING SPELLS?
The best idea is to choose completely hardy plants that need no
protection at all, but if you like more tender plants, such as dahlias, dig them up in autumn and bring them into a cool, frost-free place, such as a garage. Alternatively, you can leave dahlias in the ground over the winter and cover their roots with a thick layer of composted bark, homemade compost or mushroom compost, which should keep them snug. When it comes to larger tender plants, including tree ferns and bananas, wrap them in a wigwam of straw or loft insulation to protect them until the weather warms up in spring.
WHAT DOES THE GARDEN LOOK LIKE AT OTHER TIMES OF THE YEAR?
We plan for every season, and the flowers and plants in this garden
have a pink, silver and blue colour theme at other times of the year. Many of the plants here are also William Robinson’s favourites. During the spring, the garden is decorated with pink ‘Menton’ tulips, forget-me-nots, Clematis armandii and magnolia blossom, plus the foliage from some of the perennials. These are followed in the summer by the violet-blue hardy Geranium himalayense ‘Gravetye’, pinks (Dianthus), dahlias, Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida), as well as Clematis ‘Gravetye Beauty’. I also like to add in a few annuals, too, such as cosmos, tobacco plants (Nicotiana mutabilis), along with blue browallia, which keep the colour going throughout the summer months.