Cultivated: Oak Bay gardener smitten with salvias in Sussex

Christin Geall explores the gorgeous gardens of Sussex, England

Gravetye Manor in West Sussex

Gravetye Manor in West Sussex

When Gravetye’s head gardener Tom Coward met me in a pair of shorts on the last day of October I might have twigged to the semi-tropical splendour in store for me in Sussex. A second before, I’d stepped out of a 16th century manor into a low-angled ray of golden sun. Backlit magenta dahlias glowed from the borders and a hot pink haze of salvia surrounded them. I’d just driven stick with my left-hand for four hours, racing to make it to Gravetye before dark (a trip that was meant to take two hours but somehow involved a pet owl and more adorable ‘hollows’ and wild ‘wealds’ than I meant to see), so I had barely dropped my bags and grabbed my notebook when Tom found me blinking, agog, shamefully stumped at the genus level in 40 seconds flat.

“What salvia…?”

He was all sweat and swagger; bits of bark stuck to his face. With a wide grin and thick palms, he looked every bit the position and passions he held. (Later in the orchard he would reveal himself to be a ‘pomologist,’ soon off to Normandy apple hunting.) His dog Vera wriggled about, and in the moment I knelt to pat her I thought how apt that I bow down.

Until this last trip, I’d forgotten how classically trained gardeners in the UK learn to speak about plants, how they lead talks, learn how to guide eyes around a garden. The week before I’d been up at the Cambo Estate in Scotland and heard Elliot Forsyth give a chat to his two interns: he stood alongside a broad border and taught his students not to only name plants, but to see: shapes, forms, colours. One does not point and prod such a sophisticate with ‘what’s this? what’s that?’ rather one waits as the gardener unfurls their narrative, connecting the plants to the place.

And what a place Gravetye is. William Robinson, one of the most influential of English gardeners, developed the gardens in 1884 until his death in 1934. As a trained plantsman and self-taught writer he argued against the Victorian carpet-bedding of hothouse annuals in favour of a wilder, more naturalistic style (making him a part of the wider Arts & Crafts movement of the time.) His most influential books included The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883), which in later editions Gertrude Jekyll contributed to. In fact her success often eclipses Robinson’s, but his legacy – numerous books and a thousand acres strong – is formidable.

And it’s Tom’s job to oversee it.

As a columnist, of course I had to ask names, thus revealing both my ignorance and my bliss. Kid in a candy store? I can’t do better than that cliché, particularly when flowers bright as gum balls stood in my path.

While Tom spoke, I jotted down a list starting with the cerise wonder I’d swooned over walking out of the manor’s heavy oak door: Salvia curviflora with a lipstick-perfect trout pout. In other borders Salvia confertiflora towered above tall Tagetes (French marigolds) and the crimson Dahlia ‘Dove Grove.’ The confertiflora stood over five feet and had long deep maroon pedicels, all studded with minium-coloured ‘flowers’ (yes, you will need to look that colour up, but it has an interesting history).

The house florists had used these blooms in an arrangement I spotted en route to my room and even in my haste I noted how stately it was, spiky yet soft, adding a rich autumnal hue to a simple selection of lilies. (Gravetye is a Relais & Chateaux property with a Michelin star which I’m guessing explains the spendy out-of-season blooms.)

But where were we? Wandering in fall’s fading light, snapping and jotting. Salvia amistad – a stunner with black calyxes and purple blooms. Salvia…

We didn’t have long enough.

I’ll save some of what I learned from Tom for another column and whisk us off to East Sussex where (after supping on pheasant, marigolds, and the gorgeous greens I’d seen in Gravetye’s Victorian walled garden) I headed the following morning.

There, at Sarah Raven’s Perch Hill farm, I attended a floral design class and had the pleasure of a tour led by Sarah. (Her book The Cutting Garden is fantastic.) Again the salvias called and I scribbled: S. ‘Nachtvlinder’ with jaunty flowers; Salvia ‘Tutti Frutti’ a shrubby perennial; the showy raspberry S. involucrata ‘Hadspen’; the muted pink S. greggi ‘Stormy pink’…

Sarah’s salvias were planted throughout her garden for late season splendour – in a patio garden between brick pavers, in pots outside the garden shop, in a small courtyard next to her oast house. Yes, Perch Hill was that lovely, and here’s another reason why: in the hazy mists of autumn, the singe of salvia cheers. Like a red apple on bare tree, there’s something elemental about all that fire burning through fog.

I returned to Gravetye for dinner and after a divine breast of guinea hen, I went hunting in the garden, this time for a second look at the fuzzy Salvia oxyphora, screaming sex alongside towering Aeonium. The next morning I made it to Heathrow in an hour and half. No owls. No hollows. Just a husband happy to see me home.

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Construction in Oak Bay is nearly all focused on rebuilding new single-family homes and without secondary suites. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Oak Bay nears regulation of secondary suites

Preliminary report hints there’s no preferred option

Sidney Jon Blair said he would have died if a van and car had collided at the intersection of corner of Resthaven Drive and Brethour Avenue in early December. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Sidney senior urges motorists to slow down on Resthaven Drive

Jon Blair said community must become more pedestrian-friendly

Tarpaulin-covered tents sit next to one of the ponds in Beacon Hill Park. The location of the Meegan community care tent has still not been nailed down, as Victoria council rejected the recommendation offered by city staff. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Location of care tent for Victoria’s Beacon Hill campers still not settled

Council roundly rejects Avalon Road site, road’s edge on Cook Street appears the top alternative

Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, will be available for a Q&A through the Vancouver Island Regional Library Jan. 28. (Courtesy of Vancouver Island Regional Library)
Q&A on the Indian Act with Bob Joseph open to Greater Victoria residents

Bob Joseph is the author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act

Coaches with the Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey association have had to get creative during their weekly practices to keep players interested and improving their skills without physical contact. (Damian Kowalewich photo)
West Shore minor hockey coach shares what it’s like on the ice without parents, fans

Most practices consist of relay races, goalie shots and passing drills

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

Everett Bumstead (centre) and his crew share a picture from a tree planting location in Sayward on Vancouver Island from when they were filming for ‘One Million Trees’ last year. Photo courtesy, Everett Bumstead.
The tree-planting life on Vancouver Island featured in new documentary

Everett Bumstead brings forth the technicalities, psychology and politics of the tree planting industry in his movie

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)

Most Read