Many of us have been inspired by Sarah Raven https://www.sarahraven.com/ (for those of you who don’t know), so I could not resist a visit to her garden at Perch Hill near Brightling in Sussex when she opened for the NGS on a Thursday in late August.
It had been simply dreadfully wet the day before, and as we parked in the field below the house a lady in the next door car told me how glad she was that she had not come the previous day, “Much better to come on an NGS day” I suggested, “Oh, why is that?” she asked, “the people are so much nicer” I replied and swiftly moved up through the meadow past the willow beds to where the garden gate was open.
Narrow paths divide this first part of the garden which is laid out in a sort of gloriously floriferous grid system, where beds of flowers are cut for Sarah’s flower arranging courses.
As we walked up and down the gravel paths there was a burst of colour on either side. An area originally devoted to annuals, it is now full of perennials grown for picking such as the striking persicaria orientalis standing at a full five feet tall,
and slightly shorter, swathes of plants notably zinnia, either lime coloured (zinnia Benary’s Giant Lime),
or in pinky/red (zinnia Queen Red Lime); paired in a vase together they look stunning. It is for these colour combinations that Sarah is so famous.
The plants are cultivated and trialled here before they are offered for sale and I wonder if this rudbeckia ‘Russet Glow’ will be added to the collection.
Structures have that unpretentious ‘home-made’ feel to them, constructed from the willows that I passed on my way in. Arches to support climbers up and over the path,
or simply as a decorative focal point at the end of a parade of dahlias.
Twenty three years ago this was a tumbledown ex-dairy farm which Sarah and her husband Adam renovated. As we walk through the hedge up to the house, the concrete farm track that we cross over is the only evidence of what it might have been.
The neatly laid brick path brings us to the garden directly in front of the house with its old apple tree towering above the soft planting of flowers and structured box balls.
A path runs horizontally right to the barn where there is the feel of a cottage garden,
with perhaps a suggestion of Great Dixter, a garden not so far away. The plants in their enthusiasm almost hide the pathway;
there is not an inch of ground left uncultivated.
I thought I would encounter a far more commercial operation but this is very much a family home, and perched on a hill it must be heavenly to sit here, admire
and watch everything that grows either in the trial garden below,
or look out at the distant view beyond. It is here that Sarah’s husband Adam Nicolson asks if we have come far and is amazed to hear that we ventured out from Norfolk and, just for a moment we feel like martians from another planet. He has converted the farm to an organic 90 acres, replanting hedges and encouraging wild flowers, and begins to warm to us as we admire the wildflower meadow close by.
Just round the corner is the shepherd’s hut familiar to anyone who has read Sarah’s garden cook book.
No area is left unplanted even tucked away on the north side of the house,
and further on still, the former cart sheds are incorporated into the design of the garden,
and we look back through the rich tapestry of colour
where to the right the detached oast house, an office for Adam, rises out of bright tithonia mixed with soft miscanthus grass.
A small marquee is set up on the lawn set ready for this afternoon’s demonstration. It is time for coffee and cake which is served in the beautifully restored barn.
Gardens never stand still and in an area by the house, once shady and muddy is the most recent renovation in what is now called the Dutch yard and where water deliberately flows gently over a rustic tank.
Sarah is famous not only for her skill in growing and arranging flowers but also her imaginative ideas for the planting of pots. Everywhere there is a variety of containers which are filled with delightful combinations of bulbs, annuals and perennials, or sometimes simply a single splash of colour such as pink diascia on the corner of the barn.
It is not just flowers either; edible crops are grown, naturally in an ornamental way, which supply the family and also the kitchens that are used either when a course is running or on open days.
A grass path cuts diagonally across the slope garden up to the glasshouse,
where at one end is table and chairs and a loud display of geraniums,
and at the other it is a leafy jungle of crops of ripening aubergine, peppers and tomatoes.
I always learn something new on a garden visit and today is no exception. I have discovered that aromatic salvias can help to keep roses relatively disease-free, preventing the dreaded black-spot and mildew.
In a letter to Beth Chatto, in the 1990s Christopher Lloyd described Sarah as “really energetic and creative”, proof of which can be seen in not only her enthusiastic writing, presentations and her business but also in her charming garden. Lloyd went on to sum up her influence as “a more dynamic and showy style of gardening than has been fashionable for many years”, testimony of which can be seen in the number of visitors on an Open Day who have come to admire it for what is essentially a private home.
I am off to order my tulips from her delightful catalogue, the illustrations of which will now have much more meaning.
Put it in your diary for a jaunt next year but do get there in good time.