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

 

Just Posted

Law Enforcement Torch Run in support of Special Olympics B.C. kicks off with a run at Swan Lake on June 6. The virtual fundraiser runs until June 20. (Saanich Police/Twitter)
Torch run seeks to scorch previous fundraiser, targets $75,000 for Special Olympics

Global movement shoots for 40,000 km in honour of the 40th anniversary

Victoria Truth Centre and Long-term Inmates Now in the Community (L.I.N.C.) Society are hoping to replicate in Langford the format used on Emma’s Farm in Mission, pictured here. (Patrick Penner/Black Press Media)
Victoria Truth Centre hopes to grow transformative justice in Langford

Purchase proposal would see offenders, survivors and families work on organic vegetable farm

Tyson Muzzillo, regional manager of BC Cannabis Store, welcomes shoppers to their Uptown location, opening on June 16. (Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)
Government-run cannabis store opening at Saanich’s Uptown

BC Cannabis Store the first for government in Greater Victoria, 27th in province

Mural artist Paul Archer will soon begin work on a piece on the rear of a building at 100 Burnside Road West. (Gorge Tillicum Community Association)
Back of Burnside building in Saanich to feature mural of hope and positivity

Artist Paul Archer says subject will inspire memories, depict children’s future, sunshine, flowers

West Shore RCMP K9 Halla. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sound of RCMP dog enough to stop suspects in Oak Bay

West Shore RCMP K9 unit called in, didn’t get to chase

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

Cowichan Tribes man Adrian Sylvester is worried that he was targetted by a trailer hitch thrown from a vehicle. (Facebook photo)
Cowichan Tribes man worried he was target of trailer hitch

Adrian Sylvester says no one has reported a missing hitch after one nearly hit him

Graeme Roberts, who was mayor of Nanaimo from 1984-86, died this month at age 89. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Community Archives)
City of Nanaimo flags at half-mast as former mayor Graeme Roberts dies at 89

‘Giant-killer’ beat out Frank Ney in mayoral election in 1984

Ivy was thrown out of a moving vehicle in Kelowna. Her tail was severely injured and will be amputated. (BC SPCA)
Kitten thrown from moving vehicle, needs help: Kelowna SPCA

The seven-week-old kitten had severe tail and femur injuries

Most Read