It was raining on the second last day of June when we visited Wildside Garden in Devon but this did not deter us. However, it did mean some of my photos have raindrops blurring out sections when I failed to check my lens. At least it was summer rain and neither cold nor windy. It was our second visit to see if the buzz we felt when we first saw it in 2014 was still there. It was. This is an exceptional garden in our eyes.
Keith and Ros Wiley had shut the garden for the past two years in order to start building their house and are still only open for very limited days but it is worth planning a trip around those days. It was interesting to see the way in which the building of the house gave a central heart to what is a private and very personal garden. But also, we knew we were looking at a situation where the owners’ energies had largely been going into the house in recent times. The garden hadn’t expanded physically into the remaining areas that had already been prepared when we visited in 2014. It will happen at some stage, I am sure. The existing plantings had filled out and softened in the intervening time.
A plant collector is one for whom the thrill of acquisition and ownership of plants is an end in itself. A plantsperson is one who not only knows what plants are special, but also how to grow them and feature them to advantage. Sometimes a really good gardener is also a top plantsperson and they don’t come much better than Keith Wiley. He finds plants fascinating. He collects plants. He knows how to grow them well, even very difficult material. And he gardens with a huge range.
It is even more remarkable when you consider that Wiley started work with a near flat block of land. He has not only manipulated the contour to create a landscape of hills, hollows, banks and even the odd ravine, he has managed the depth of soil and its composition appropriate to the plants he wants to grow. From the start, his planning was to accommodate communities of plants – to create different ecosystems within the garden to enable growing a wide range of different plants.
If you are not much interested in plants themselves, you can admire the scenes he composes These can be like Impressionist paintings though perhaps more Georges Seurat and pointillism than Monet. I am sure it is no coincidence that Ros Wiley is also a painter who prefers flowers and landscape as her subjects. But we are interested in the plants and plant combinations as well. Presumably Wiley has one of the most comprehensive collections of dieramas (angel’s fishing rods) around but they are used throughout and not all concentrated in one block, as “national collections” are usually displayed. We were in the wrong season for the erythroniums for which this garden is renowned but it also has extensive collections of different daphnes, cyclamen, Japanese maples, kniphofia, roscoeas, agapanthus and a host of other bulbs, perennials and smaller growing woody plants.
There is next to no hard landscaping beyond deliberate placement of rocks and constructions of microclimates. Wiley is one of the early practitioners of the new naturalism gardening style, predicated on working in cooperative harmony with nature and creating eco-systems which are a refined version of many different, natural habitats. Do not confuse this with a wild garden which is left to its own devices. It is controlled but deceptively so, with a light hand.
We had been looking at the naturalistic prairie-style plantings around Olympic Park just a few days prior, greatly enjoying their simple charm. At Wildside, we felt that the Wileys were achieving a hugely detailed, complex and skilled variation of those Sheffield School plantings at Olympic Park, but still on the same spectrum of contemporary naturalism. It is no designer garden. It is a landscape created with sensitivity and top level plantsmanship.
It is also a garden that we will make the effort to keep returning to see. There aren’t many gardens that we have visited where both of us walk out feeling as if we have had an experience of joy. Wildside is one.
If you want to see more of Wildside, I have posted the companion album to our Facebook page.