The secrets of Britain’s greatest gardeners

From Vita Sackville-West to Rosemary Verey, our most famous horticulturists were eccentric but incredibly talented.

So you think all great gardeners are nice? Salt of the earth without a care in the world? I’ve been writing about gardeners and gardening for 25 years now, and I think that they’re a rum lot. Mad, bad and dangerous, some of them; tricky characters, supremely selfish and absurdly generous, bitchy, tipsy but with a single-minded talent that has given pleasure to millions. Finding out more about their lives as research for my book on the world’s greatest gardeners has been nothing but a delight.

Vita Sackville-West, who made Sissinghurst with her husband, Harold Nicolson, was a woman with a reputation as a rebel who ran away to Paris with her lover, Violet Trefusis. High society was scandalised. After a period of time though, she returned to Harold, children, poetry and the garden. She fell for Virginia Woolf, too, although that was a more platonic affair.


Rosemary Verey was loved by the nation but could be unpleasant to her staff

The poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay made the news when there was an angry, public stand-off in 1983 at the gate of his moorland garden, Little Sparta, south of Edinburgh. The bailiffs came when he refused to pay rates on his gallery, which he claimed was a temple to the arts and therefore exempt. The papers loved it — an artist versus the blind forces of bureaucracy.

Rosemary Verey, who died in 2001, was a doyenne of society gardening and so proud to have worked for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove — in her later years she was also known as a bit of a heavy drinker. Arriving with a swirl of chiffon in the 1980s, as a designer and author, on a gardening scene dazzled by superb photography that at last could be cheaply and brilliantly reproduced, Verey became loved by the nation. Yet she could be a different person with her staff at Barnsley House, rude, snappy and altogether unpleasant. There were two very different sides to Rosemary, but I always found her charm itself.

Christopher Lloyd, who died in 2006, was the kindest, most generous of hosts, but never quite happy to have “the public” roaming his garden at Great Dixter, especially on weekend afternoons when he and friends were taking afternoon coffee on rugs by the horse pond. Family groups would arrive for a pleasant day out and his dachshunds would snap and nip at little ankles. For Lloyd, the dogs could do no wrong: it was invariably “the child’s fault”. After Lloyd’s death the dogs were given a more relaxed routine and became as sweet as lambs.


Capability Brown was comfortable in all company

The gardening world thinks of Gertrude Jekyll, collaborator with Edwin Lutyens on so many wonderful Arts and Crafts gardens, as a rather plain old lady with bottle glasses, obsessed by the use of colour. Yet as a young woman she boldly explored north Africa, producing beautiful watercolours as she went. Her protégé, Lutyens, was led a terrible dance by his barmy theosophist wife but found a confessor in Lady Sackville, Vita’s mother. Lutyens, the master of so many sober First World War memorials, was secretly an irrepressible doodler and brilliant cartoonist, like that darling of 18th-century house and garden design, William Kent.

This year saw the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth; the gardener who left behind hundreds of sublimely crafted English landscapes. He seems to have been the ultimate nice guy, a good businessman and comfortable in all company, whatever its class or political complexion. Brown was offered £1,000 to go to Ireland to advise on the Duke of Leinster’s garden, but politely declined, saying he had “not finished England yet”.

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