Monday, 23 April 2012

Gardeners Delight

“Informative, friendly and inspirational!”, read the on-line caption of the ‘how to find us’ on the Sarah Raven, Perch Hill Farm page in Google.... and yes it was.  My colleagues and I thought that  perhaps Ms Raven was shy, which considering her public profile was interesting.  Her husband was charm itself, warm, welcoming and jovial, but he has had a lifetime of such a role, being a  Nicholson, after all.

I was expecting to find fault and to be disappointed with this visit, bearing in mind the high octane merchandising publicity that goes on - how wrong I was. Instead,  I found riches of visual and intellectual delight. There were long rectangular beds of companion planting, known in the trade nowadays, as the head gardener at Arundel Castle gardens informed us on the Thursday evening before, as “fleg” planting, ie. flower and veg. together. These  beds were raised with wooden boards and were inventively and successfully staked into box frames about 25 cm in size, constructed with wood batons, tied together,  to compliment what was being grown in them. For example, on this occasion, the place was  alive with hot, brilliantly coloured spiky tulips, for which Ms Raven is justifiably renowned, mixed in with purple leafed Kale, ‘Red Bor”, and both were nodding happily in the strong breeze,  neatly squared off in their sections. The breeze  and temperature fluctuations, which  I  imagine would be fairly prevalent here, as the site is on an exposed hillside in East Sussex,  
 had been diverted and calmed successfully, to some  degree, by carefully planned tall hedges.

In another long raised bed, rows of delphiniums and allium, amongst other flegies,  had been loosely, but effectively, lassoed by long twists of hazel, wound round and round the plant formations, like lovingly twisted scarves. It all looked natural yet  beautifully maintained. There were several other creative treats too. For example, the path between the beds at one point had been punctuated with metal arches, which were made from pale jade green wire, crafted to look organic, while themselves supporting old gnarled clematis. The whole avenue not only complimented the arch cut into the hedging on the far  side, but leant this section of the garden an almost Eastern, mystical atmosphere.

Moving on deeper into the gardens didn’t disappoint either. There were a number of intimate “rooms”, as Sir Roy Strong first penned these types of gardens within gardens, again, mainly, divided by hedging. At each beginning there were helpful and interesting notices of information. In one section we learned that half the roses here would be treated organically, while  the other half would be chemically treated to deter beasties! At the end of the summer the results would be logged and much will have been learned, the results of which, I hope, will be made public to Ms Raven’s adoring public.

Turning another corner, we tumbled upon some rich and flowing, almost prairie style planting in classic cottage bed schemes, and some very old climbers, snuggled round the barn walls,  though here the upkeep looked like heavier work. The beautiful Sussex tile hung cottage was crying out for some tlc, and I understand the couple were about to make Perch Hill their main home. Paths were a mix of gravel, brick and old concrete blocks and we were led naturally, though not in any pushy way, to the hub of this commercial enterprise. A large, low half conservatory, half greenhouse building was buzzing with  walls hung with specially packaged seeds, books, and garden ephemera. We headed straight for the dining tables and the teaching areas - both delighted us. Lunch was simple and simply delicious and the list of classes and talks inspired us.

Sarah Raven is renowned for her confident and exuberant use of colour, famed for her tulips and dahlias. Having seen the tulips in situ, we have vowed to return later on in the year to feast on the dahlia extravaganza. My colleagues and I  agreed on and were most impressed by the feeling that this garden had retained the personal touch, no easy task when running a large business. Here one could imagine the family picnicking and sipping tea in  glorious privacy amid bursts of colour, while being gently soothed by the borrowed  landscape of the South Downs.

Details of further open days, classes and shopping opportunites , are all available on the website

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