Charleston’s walled garden was created by the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to designs by Roger Fry. Together they transformed vegetable plots and hen runs, essential to the household during the First World War, into a quintessential painters’ garden mixing Mediterranean influences with cottage garden planting. In the 1920s a grid of gravel paths gave structure to beds of plants chosen by Grant and Bell for their intense colour and silver foliage. These became the subject of many still lifes over the pair’s long residence at Charleston.
Part of the garden’s sense of luxuriance and surprise comes from the variety of sculpture it contains. Classical forms sit side by side with lifesize works by Quentin Bell, mosaic pavements and tile-edged pools. Thanks to a grant from The Chalk Hill Trust, we have produced downloadable map and guide highlighting key areas of interest in the Garden. Copies of the map can be purchased in the Shop.
The Garden was (and still is) an enchanting retreat from London life, offering spaces for tranquil contemplation, creative inspiration and simple pleasures. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
In August 2014 John Tebbs of The Garden Edit visited Charleston with photographer Amber Rowlands. He spoke to our Gardener Mark Divall about ‘spider days’, oriental poppies and what Charleston means to Mark.
In July 2015, Kendra Wilson visited Charleston and wrote about her time in the garden for Gardenista: Bloomsbury in Sussex: Garden Visit to Charleston Farmhouse by Kendra Wilson.
Behind the Garden Wall
Notes from Mark Divall, Head Gardener
Structure is so important in the Garden, especially in Spring. In the foreground is a support for the sweet peas, made from weaving a latticework of beech branches onto a bamboo structure. The background is dominated by runner bean poles. These hazel stems have been selected for their straightness and strength. All are made from natural materials so as to blend in to the Garden.
A.L. Kennedy has recently challenged the notion that April is the cruelest month by putting forward August for this accolade. Expectations are set impossibly high, but often those 31 days let us down in so many ways. From the Garden’s point of view, we went from the early days of August, where prayers were offered up for a decent shower, just for a brief respite from the tedious business of pointing a hose pipe at a wilting plant, to the end of the month when similar prayers were being chanted for the deluge to stop. Growth and flowers held in check by the sècheresse were unleashed by the rainfall, and flowering annuals such as Cosmos, Zinnia, tobacco plants and nasturtiums have grown with gay abandon. For example, on the seed packet for the Cosmos plants, an ultimate height of 36 inches can be expected; in reality my arms begin to ache when reaching up to dead-head these ferny giants. As often happens with nature, all is not as it seems. Today, enjoying the sight and perfume of the towering tobacco plants, my attention was drawn down to their base. Here amid the warm and humid air, the first signs of decay are taking hold, a reminder that before long the unequal quest to hold back the inevitable will be lost.
I am often asked by Garden visitors during July and August whether I like Hollyhocks. Like is not nearly a strong enough word. The Hollyhock is far and away the most important plant to the fabric of the walled garden at Charleston. By accident and design, a wonderful community of tones and colours have emerged during the last thirty years. The source of this varied community remains somewhat a mystery, but can it be a complete coincidence that an equally varied collection of single flowered Hollyhocks also line the approach to Berwick church? There is hardly a single summertime Vanessa Bell that does not mention the Hollyhock and it often appears in her paintings. It reigns supreme in July, carrying its varied colours high above ones head and making themselves far more accessible for bees to access the abundant pollen. I have noticed that with the wind battering the Garden in recent days, it has not been unusual to see the odd bumble bee clinging to the centre of the large open flowers as the tall stems flail about. Food and sanctuary. No other plant in the summer garden offers such an agreeable haven.
The Garden has looked as well as I can remember this Spring. The last eight years of steady soil renovation and planting means that only a small percentage of the planted areas still need to be upgraded. The dreaded ground elder now holds sway in only a few isolated pockets. I’m reminded of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix on entering the Walled Garden, as purple Foxgloves, Sweet Rocket, Siberian Iris and wild Aquilegia dominate the colour spectrum. The different transition from Spring to Summer now approaches. Out with the tulips, wall flowers, forget-me-nots and Honesty, to be replaced by Zinnias, Dahlias, Nicotania and Cosmos. In the meantime, if the conditions are right, the many climbing and shrub roses will put on a fine show until the end of June.
The Festival is over for another year, and during the next few days I will try and catch up with tasks that are difficult to do when the Garden is crowded. The Festival attendees are a very considerate lot. Even with a footfall of up to a thousand people a day wandering the narrow paths of the walled garden or picnicking on the lawn, it is rare to find anything squashed or broken. The birds that have found Garden niches to build their nests seem to carry on regardless, frantically searching every nook and cranny for something to feed their fledglings. On the last evening of the Festival, a very grand homing pigeon landed outside the front door of the house. Its neck was of iridescent green and wings of grey and white. It wandered into Clive Bell’s study before being directed outside. Two days later it is still to be seen, now in the Folly garden. Maybe it is building up its strength before it heads off to the Hay Festival!
During the month of April there is always so much happening as a myriad plants come to life. The most important plant species is always the Tulip. This year we were blessed with growing conditions that suit them best, exceptional sunshine and a sparsity of rain. There is no other plant that produces so much pure colour, and if the combination is right, they can give so much joy. The displays at the front of the house and in the Dahlia border have been eye catching, but even more pleasing are the unplanned combinations, such as a single tall orange Tulip coming up next to the acid yellow of a Euphorbia just outside Vanessa’s bedroom. For those that take the time to look, there will be many such treats.
I have been much preoccupied by the complicated nesting habits of the Mallard Duck. Three nests were built in the garden this year, one in the Folly and two in the Walled Garden. The female duck builds the nest, and scores very highly for the construction of its nest and her devotion to sitting on the eggs for the four weeks of incubation. She plucks down from her breast to line the nest before laying up to 14 eggs and then covers them with more down. The sighting of the nests however, is often ill chosen. The one in The Folly garden reminding me of amateur mariners who build boats in small back gardens with no thought of how to extricate the boat when completed. There is no obvious way out of the Folly, but when the ducklings hatched and after a couple of days of awkward co-existence between customers enjoying refreshment in the sunshine and the family of thirteen bobbing about on the Folly pond, the mother lead her family out through the café. She could have turned left for the main pond, but instead turned right, presumably for a new life on the slurry lagoon. That’s ducks for you.
A wonderful image that caught Penny’s eye this month, is of the climbing Hydrangea that is growing against the wall of the Garden Room. It epitomises this time of the year as it shows the desiccated flower from earlier this summer , combined with an already swelling bud that brings thoughts of next year. The Hydrangea petiolaris was a particular favourite of Duncan Grant’s. A native of Japan, it has panicles of white flowers during June and July.
The other image shows an area just inside the entrance to the walled garden where the first phase of the reinvigoration of this border is taking place. The procedure here is particularly complicated as the border has become over run with Ground Elder, one of the gardens most pernicious weeds. We remove all plants where possible, and the soil down to a depth of 30cms. A special membrane is then placed on the sub-soil, followed by fresh soil, mixed with grit and manure. If original plants are to be returned to the bed, great care has to be taken that not even a centimetre of the Ground Elder is included with them.
The rest of the bed will be replanted following recommendations from the plans drawn up for the garden restoration in 1985. I hope you will be able to visit the garden next year to see the improvements made during the closed season.