When the opportunity comes up to work in a garden of historic importance, you take it, and you experience lessons that are tied in to the spirit of the place that can’t be learned elsewhere. I had been down this road before with other gardens I had the opportunity to work at and was excited for Gravetye to tell me its story. Having read the writings of William Robinson and seeing pictures of Gravetye Manor had only fed my fascination for the place even more for what seemed like a wild and mysterious paradise. For you see, it is not just a house, nor a garden, but together a piece of history that changed the way many garden, both then and now. So when the chance came up to work in this garden so rich in history, I took it because you learn things that only that place can teach, where you get to immerse yourself in history and live inside of its story.
Starting at the end of the autumn season, in September 2012, seemed like the right time to begin though I was barely able to get to see the garden before it plunged itself into a deep winter slumber. Able to catch a short glimpse of the gardens before dormancy, I realized it was just a slight teaser of what was to come during my time there. A year before us seems a long time to have, but looking back we realize how fast time escapes us, flying past at a dizzying rate.
The winter was long, very long, but this is the best time to get to know the bones of a garden, the structure that holds it all together, before it dresses itself in the its gaudy garb that spring can sometimes provide.Winter seemed to last longer than ever before and just when it seemed too much to bear, the sun came and brought the garden slowly back to life.
Cracking the earth open, the bulbs came springing forth out of the meadow, supplying the colors our eyes were so desperate and hungry for. It seemed like a dream, imagining William Robinson and his then team of 30 gardeners plunging tools into the ground, placing each bulb one by one during its early stages.
The rest of the garden followed suit, and with the long cool spring that was provided these symphonies
spilled into each other, creating beautiful melodies that in other years only seem to pass too quickly..
William Robinson was a man of genius, going against the grain of Victorian gardening trends everywhere during his time and pioneering the more natural and relaxed way of planting areas at Gravetye known as the wild garden. We need teachers like this or we don’t evolve, things become too stagnant, and he is responsible for pushing ahead a new way of thinking about plants that continues to evolve today.
Sometimes looking up from a garden bed, it was easy to imagine William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, who were close friends for over 50 years, discussing which plants were worth putting in the border. They often helped each other with garden designs and shared their favorite plants between them.
To live in a garden is to know it intimately, understanding when to catch plants in their best light.
Then there is the shift that all gardeners know, that shift in our bones, in temperature, and we realize we are seeing one season fade and bleed into the next.
We realize the first act is finished with more to follow, and a whole new cast of characters are about to appear on stage.
Didn’t someone once say that gardening is the slowest form of theater? That couldn’t be more true.
There are many plants that I learned about during my time here, and there are many lessons but one thing that William Robinson taught me is that it’s ok to color outside the lines. He taught me to think outside the perimeter of a flower bed, to not be afraid to try new combinations in these areas and he taught me how to soften the landscape with plants. It is easy to color in the lines, but Robinson has pushed my boundaries, and so has Tom, who continues to see things in new poetic combinations that work so well with Robinson’s gardening theory.
Time continued to tick by and each moment was spent relishing my surroundings, like watching the Long Border, that was only planted in spring, fuse together to create such a tightly woven tapestry. The act of seeing plants fill a border out in such a rapid pace is astonishing, proving once again the importance of good soil.
Summer soon gave way to mornings of dahlias shrouded in fog, with colors that remind you that autumn was right around the corner.
Does time go so fast, because we gardeners notice all the details happening around us in the garden, causing the season to blur together? Is it because we love what we do so much, that we don’t notice the hands of time spinning in circles so rapidly? But with each circle you come to that point you once started at, knowing that time is about to overlap.
And I soon realized I was seeing moments that I had witnessed a year earlier, my eyes were no longer seeing things that were new to me, but familiar…
And my year at Gravetye had come to an end, and in that time span I encountered so many lessons, large and fragile, and I take all of that forward with me.
Thank you William Robinson for letting me experience your creation, and Tom and team, for educating me in a whole new way of gardening… James