Aldona at Large: Woolbeding Gardens & ideas to steal

Woolbeding Gardens in Midhurst, Sussex amply demonstrate what can be achieved when you combine money, vision, great taste and perseverance. In 1972, the late Sir Simon Sainsbury (who, with his two brothers, financed the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery) and his partner, Stewart Grimshaw, leased this 26-acre property from the National Trust, which has owned it since 1958.

Working with architect Philip Jebb, the two men first undertook a massive reimaging/renovation of the 22 bedroom, two bathroom (!) house. This involved a year of planning and two years of construction. In Grimshaw’s book, A Garden in Sussex, he recalls first touring the house …  “having strenuously ignored evidence of damp, both rising and falling—we coughed our way through clouds of assorted spores, declined to mention bugs and grubs as large as the newly introduced 1p coins, and agreed that the place was perfect for us.”

Wow. That’s brave.

Next, they moved on to create a garden that has been hailed as a 20th century masterpiece, enlisting the help of such great designers as Lanning Roper and Isabel and Julian Bannerman. And it’s lucky for us that they did.

While the house is still private, since 2011 the garden has been open to the public under the auspices of the National Trust. But it’s open only from early April through the end of September, and only on Thursdays and Fridays. There is no parking, and you need to call in advance to reserve a seat on the minibus that makes regular trips from Midhurst or they won’t let you in. Seriously. Still, it’s well worth the effort, as you will see.

At the top of this blog post is an image of Woolbeding’s beautifully laid out lettuce bed in the immaculate vegetable garden, and here’s the close-up. The man on the reception desk told me that four of Wisley’s best gardeners work at Woolbeding, and the results of their care are there for your enjoyment. Fabulous plant combos, wonderful traditional and modern details, follies a-plenty are what you will see on these grounds, which are really two distinctly different gardens linked by a long pasture along the edge of the Rother river.

So let’s put on our wellies and go exploring.

While not a large, fancy operation, the garden entrance building does have a small café and gift shop, where you can get a map.

Nearby, several courtyards delight the eye with their compositions and attention to detail.

You can see many interesting cultivars of old favourites, such as this bachelor’s button/cornflower, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’.

Or, looking for all the world like a prettier version of Queen Anne’s Lace (a.k.a. in Britain as cow parsley), this Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’)

Close by the house, the stainless-steel, champagne-shaped water sculpture was created in 2011 by William Pye to replace an ancient tree that had toppled over in a storm (the property boasts wonderful old cedars, oriental plane trees and a huge black walnut tree as well. The infamous October 1987 storm took out a tulip tree that was reputed to be the largest in Europe).

Who says all green is boring? Not me!

A contorted hornbeam walkway links an upper section of the garden to a lower one.

In order to get to the far reaches of the garden and its woodland walk, you must walk across a broad expanse of pasture, with long views of the oriental plane trees near the river as well as a few sheep.

Eventually you come to this “ruined” abbey—which is actually a folly.

Now over the Chinese bridge to another world…

Complete with a hermit’s hut.

The hut is beautifully detailed…

With a floor made of painstakingly laid, smooth, flat stones.

Isn’t this railing beautiful?

Rounding a corner, you come upon upon the gothic summerhouse and statue of Neptune.

Here’s the well-planted and maintained water’s edge.

And finally, when you least expect it, there’s Edyth, the red elephant sculpture that headed up my last blog post.

Fabulous garden furniture at Woolbeding

A wooden stumpery bench.

Some graceful faux bois pieces.

I love this charming, at-home-in-nature set of child’s furniture. It sure beats the plastic kind.

Now then, wasn’t that a nice armchair tour? To find out more about visiting Woolbeding Garden, go here.

Fresh ideas you can steal

As promised, here are some ideas I spotted at RHS Wisley Garden near London, and elsewhere.

Red twig and yellow twig dogwood branches are used to create rivers or screens, and provide a vivid contrast to these English daisies (Bellis perennis).

The branches (and colour) are echoed in large planters.

Breaking away from the traditional straight mowing “stripes” in the lawn, the Wisley gardeners have created languorous curves. (Tip: don’t try this after a couple of drinks.)

Similarly, these newly planted veggies have been laid out in curving, not straight, lines. I hope they have a good map of what’s where.

At many National Trust properties, pliable branches (from prunings?) are used to weave natural supports for tall plants, such as this meadowrue.

And finally, my friend Dorienne’s Sussex garden boasts this handsome obelisk, which is simply constructed of stout branches lashed together with thick rope and set off by stones.

So there you have it, kids. Come back in a couple of weeks for more adventures.

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  • Helenbee

    Luscious, Aldona. Oh, for a few acres…and a team of gardeners.

    • Aldona

      A team of gardeners. Absolutely. With all this rain, I can barely keep up with the prodigious growth, deadheading and weeding in my own, not-so-large garden. Where’s Mellors when you need him?!

  • Mary-Fran

    Love the use of red twig dogwood, but better keep an eye on that screen. All those pretty twigs are eager and ready to take root!

    • Aldona

      Haha–ain’t it the truth? Of course, the same goes for any sort of willow, too. Perhaps this was a temporary spring display (I was there in late May). Still, Wisley always seems to be experimenting with the new and the different, so I try to get back there every time I’m in London to see what’s what and it never disappoints.

  • Aldona

    A reader sent in this comment: “I enjoyed Aldona at Large’s article on Woolbeding Gardens. But feel that I must correct an error. Queen Anne’s Lace is Daucus carota, but cow parsley is Anthriscus sylvestris, and although they look similar from a distance, up close they are very different. The former has a woody stem and can be used in oasis, but the latter has a soft, hollow stem, and will break if pushed in to oasis…” As I explained to this reader, I was referring to common names–i.e., what plants are commonly known as. Having lived in England for a number of years, I never ever heard the term “Queen Anne’s Lace” used over there, just cow parsley as a blanket term (much as most Canucks would likely say Queen Anne’s Lace). And of course, the plant shown is neither (it’s Pimpinella major), but vaguely looks like both! Still, it is not my intention to mislead and I’m grateful that she wrote in. So I’m passing this info along to you.