Gravetye Manor is a historic hotel nestled into the Sussex countryside, roughly 30 miles outside of London, England. From 1884 until 1935, Gravetye Manor was the home of the famous gardener, William Robinson. Robinson was a prolific garden writer best known for his views promoting a more natural form of gardening. The man was not a fan of high maintenance Victorian gardens. The fact that he thought cutting lawns was wasted labor makes him a Gardening Super Hero in my book.
We stayed at Gravetye Manor in mid-September 2018. We didn’t go to be pampered at a 5 star hotel (which happened regardless). We went to see the gardens. And let me tell you. Gravetye Manor has some very beautiful gardens.
The gardens at Gravetye Manor are currently under the watchful eye of Head Gardener, Tom Coward and his band of talented gardeners. Although Gravetye Manor is grand in scale, it holds lessons that apply to any garden. Even my tiny garden.
“A garden should grow out of its own site, if we are to have the best of it.”
– William Robinson
The 3 Lessons We Learned from Visiting Gravetye Manor
1. Let Your Site Determine What You’re Going to Grow
This is great advice for all gardeners. You need to study your site. The soil, the climate, the light, the wildlife. Does the garden get a lot of rain, or is it hot and dry most of the time. You aren’t going to be able to change the site. You aren’t going to be able to grow a tropical rain forest in the middle of a desert. You may be able to truck in soil and water everyday, but those plants will never thrive.
William Robinson’s idea is not new. Study your garden and understand what will grow best in that particular site. As gardeners, we need to know the limitations of our site and select plants that will thrive under those conditions. In the end, you will end up with a garden that’s healthier and requires far less maintenance.
I’ve needed to come to terms with this lesson myself. My garden is shade and part-shade. I live in Zone 5 which means 3 months of the year, the garden is hibernating. I need to have structure in my garden so there’s something to look at during those 3 Winter months. That’s why I added evergreens. Even after the plants have died back, there is a framework in place so the garden still looks like a garden in Winter.
The other reality is that I live with wildlife. Our area is teaming with hungry deer. What that means is I need to use deer-resistant plants. I don’t want to spray repellents every week or cover my garden in chicken wire. So I’ve accepted that I can’t plant tulips or hostas or yews and instead use deer-resistant varieties of plants.
2. Use Big Drifts of Plants With Repetition
Gardening is like decorating your home. The same rules you follow to decorate a room, apply to designing a garden. A room requires perfectly sized furniture and a garden requires perfectly sized plants. It is far more effective to have fewer plants in bigger quantities, than single plants scattered here and there.
A great lesson from Gravetye’s flower garden is to plant big, bold drifts of plants. Repeat these drifts of color and form to create a cohesive design. As you look at the photographs below, notice the large drifts of bright pink and orange scattered throughout the flower borders. The repetition of color and form holds the design together.
This view along the garden path that leads through the flower garden from the dining room demonstrates repetition of colors along the flower border. This path is seen by hotel guests while they are enjoying their meals. So they have a lot of time to look out over this garden, down the path. The plantings appear like paints in a painting with big groups of bright pink, orange and yellow scattered along the path.
3. Plant Trees
I share William Robinson’s love of trees. I was amazed to read Robinson’s garden journal to learn of the shear quantity of trees he planted at Gravetye. Those trees are a priceless addition to the landscape. I’ve included a few photographs below so you can appreciate the beautiful trees surrounding the manor. Planting trees is the perfect addition to any garden.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
– Greek Proverb