Two-acre vegetable garden at Gravetye Manor. Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor

NATURE’S TURN: William Robinson’s grand kitchen garden and wild gardens at Gravetye Manor

Tom Coward observed that gardens serve to connect people to nature and vegetable gardens provide, perhaps, the ultimate connection.

March 9 – 22, 2020

Detail of vegetable garden. Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor

Mount Washington — Gardeners and garden enthusiasts have been swarming to inspirational talks concerned with the practice and vision of growing landscapes for food and beauty. With the ground frozen under my feet and momentum toward the new growing season mounting, two weeks ago I was one of hundreds gathered for Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture, “The Legacy of Wild Gardener William Robinson.” As a student of wild lands who is less schooled in fine gardening, I was drawn to what promised to be a thoughtful discussion at the intersection of the two.

The speaker, Tom Coward, a sunny, affable Englishman, is carrying forward the work of visionary gardener and author William Robinson (5 July 1838 – 17 May 1935). In 1885, Robinson purchased Gravetye Manor, built in 1598 in Sussex, England. Over time, he developed his estate to include over 1,000 acres; 35 acres around the manor house devoted to flower gardens; great mixed borders; meadows; an orchard; and, to my delight, an amazing, historic vegetable garden. Tom Coward writes, “This can be considered one of the jewels in Gravetye’s crown. The two-acre garden is enclosed by a unique elliptical sandstone wall, which holds the warmth in and keeps the wind and hungry animals out.”

Flower garden/border at Gravetye Manor. Photo: Elizabeth Hosking, proprietor

Tom observed that gardens serve to connect people to nature and vegetable gardens provide, perhaps, the ultimate connection. At Gravetye Manor, which is supported by an extraordinary hotel and restaurant, produce and cut flowers arrive fresh from the garden.

William Robinson published one of his most influential books in 1870: it was titled “The Wild Garden,” with a rambling subtitle. In 1895, in its fifth printing, the full title reads, “The Wild Garden or The Naturalization and Natural Grouping of Hardy Exotic Plants with a Chapter on the Garden of British Wild Flowers.” That edition is available today as “The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition” with new chapters and photography by Rick Darke. “The wild garden doesn’t abandon design, but it does imply that design devoted to complete control is unsustainable.” (Page 54)*

Summer Garden Salad, Gravetye Manor Restaurant. Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor
Gravetye Manor Restaurant. Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor

“On the subject of wildness, William Robinson was clearly a modernist. “There has been some misunderstanding as to the term ‘Wild Garden’,” he wrote in 1881. “It has nothing to do with the old idea of the ‘Wilderness’.” More than a century later, we still often confuse wildness and wilderness, and this confusion clouds our vision of what is truly ecological and what is genuinely sustainable.” –Rick Darke, “The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition,” Page 52*

There is much more new-world thinking to discover at its roots in the old world. Look here for growing tips I gleaned from the generous and resourceful Tom Coward.


*William Robinson, “The Wild Garden, Expanded Edition,” with new chapters and photography by Rick Darke, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2017

Gravetye Manor

Lee Buttala

Opportunities to participate

Saturday, March 21, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. – Winter Farmers Market Great Barrington, Monument Valley Middle School, 313 Monument Valley Road

Saturday, March 28 – Seed Starting Workshop at Turtle Tree Seeds