West Dean Gardens, a few miles outside Chichester, are located at the foot of the South Downs and are one of our favourite places to visit. Part of the Edward James Foundation (think Dali and lobsters, and educational courses in everything from silversmithing to photography) they combine amazing planting, the highest standards of horticulture, interesting architecture, and regular festivals focussed on themes such as chillies or apples.
Yet a few decades ago, before the present husband and wife team of head gardeners, Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, took over, the gardens had nearly disappeared beneath years of neglect subsequently made worse by the effects of the great storms of 1987 and 1990. The Foundation’s trustees committed resources to their revival and, by a massive effort, they have reached their present state of excellence with an immaculate restoration of the High Victorian feel and structure of what must be one of the UK’s great gardens. Eight full time gardeners are supported by a large team of volunteers and constant attention to detail ensures their pristine appearance. Despite the fundamentally quite poor soil, with a high demand for water in summer, careful mulching and composting have produced good growing conditions.
The old walled gardens are still largely used for the original purposes of growing fruit and vegetables, with a supporting backdrop of flowers alongside the dividing paths. There are superb plantings of many varieties of squashes, onions, tomatoes and almost everything you can imagine. A display of dahlias includes many old varieties, all staked and labelled in best cutting garden manner. The borders either side of the paths in the main vegetable garden are planted with trained fruit and a fine collection of predominantly hot coloured plants in reds, yellows and oranges including cannas, castor oil plants and mimulus. In the orchard area the box hedged borders are predominantly planted in blue, yellow and pink tones and the orchard itself contains numerous specimens of heritage apples and plums, often trained in elaborate shapes such as goblets as well as the more usual espaliers, stepovers and cordons.
The old walls, restored glasshouses with their vines, peaches and figs, and the delightful apple house all give particular charm to the kitchen gardens. Elsewhere a 300 foot long stone and timber pergola designed by Harold Peto in the Edwardian era is probably as good of its type as anything in the UK, an opinion that many visitors would echo for the gardens as whole. Have a look at our slide show and judge for yourself! Chris