Legendary gardener, plantswoman and educator Sarah Raven talks Sissinghurst, Perch Hill and her new book and podcast.

Sarah Raven never set out to become a gardener. It was only when, while on maternity leave from her training to be a doctor, that she found herself newly with time and space to cultivate her own cutting garden. Then, a summer spent volunteering at Great Dixter, the gardener’s garden, sealed the deal: she was hooked and, from there, the whole course of her professional life switched lanes.

And it is to the delight and benefit of the many attendees of her gardening and cookery courses at her farm, Perch Hill in Sussex, that it did. Having moved there 27 years ago from Vita Sackville-West’s legendarily romantic Sissinghurst, where she and her husband Adam Nicolson still share a part of the house with extended family, Sarah has been tirelessly championing new varieties of flowers, penning books, cooking, teaching and running her mail-order plant business ever since. Great Dixter’s Christopher Lloyd said of her in the nineties that, she is ‘really energetic and creative... promoting a more dynamic and showy style of gardening than has been fashionable for many years.’Amen to that.

Here she tells us how she transformed the once down-at-heel ex-dairy farm into the bucolic delight it is today; advises what to do in the garden this month; and tells us how her new book, A Year Full of Flowers, will give inspiration and planting ideas for keeping gardens colourfully resplendent – all year round.

Your garden at Perch Farm is enchanting. Could you tell us the story of how you came to live there and create your business?

Adam and I moved to Perch Hill 27 years ago in May 1994 from London. We fell in love with what was then a ramshackle ex-dairy farm with a lot of concrete, corrugated iron and not much else.

Since then, we have converted the farm into an organic 90 acres, putting in many new hedges on old lines, trying to encourage wildflowers into the meadows and introducing a herd of Sussex cattle and a flock of Romney cross sheep.

I have cooked all my life for family and friends and am always serving up something full of goodness. The space at Perch Hill allowed me to open my own cookery and gardening school. We also grow and test a lot of the gardening product at Perch Hill and love welcoming visitors too.

The constant supply of my favourite flowers comes from the two large cutting gardens. The original is used mainly to trial perennials for picking, and the second is the annual cutting garden where the beds are filled with hardy and half-hardy annuals and biennials, with two or even three different crops in the same square foot of soil in one calendar year.

Dahlias and chrysanthemums have their own trial garden. Every year new varieties of dahlias go in there, gathered from my trips to Holland the previous autumn. Another garden is for testing new annuals from seed, seeing how many buckets they produce through the whole season per square metre and whether they are easy to grow. Sloped gardens round the school grow edible crops in an ornamental way and serve as trial grounds, as well as growing produce, particularly salads and herbs, to supply the school kitchen with home-grown fruit and vegetables.

And how has Perch Farm evolved over the years?

Despite working long hours as a trainee doctor, I began to make a garden on the flattest bit of land near the house so I could stay close to the family hub while I dug. I grew up botanising with my father and made a garden when I lived in London, so it was the natural thing to do. With little money to spare, I sowed annuals in the rich Venetian shades now kind of associated with my name. I have an instinctive reaction to colour. I had done some floristry in London and got so bored with pastel colours. I wanted bold, velvety drama.

These days, with friend and company co-founder Louise Farman, I employ more than 80 people at Perch Hill and across the Sarah Raven company, including a team of four gardeners headed up by Josie Lewis. With the day-to-day running of the garden in safe hands, and my children grown up, I freer to travel widely in search of new varieties to trial. I also lecture regularly and am currently working on my eleventh book, this time about growing time and space-efficient veg.

Yours is a cutting garden. What varieties of flowers are you most proud of having cultivated? I think it’s fair to say that you have almost single-handedly been responsible for the rehabilitation of the lovely dahlia…

I never tire of our ever-expanding range of dahlias. We are involved with both tulip and dahlia breeding programmes now and selecting ones that we — and we think our customers — will love. I love and am inspired by trips to the trial fields, mainly in Holland, that I go on with Lou in spring and early autumn. I hope for those again this year.

We have new varieties which will be released next spring and the one after which I’m super excited about – particularly as we have a dahlia, ‘Abigail’ named after our head buyer and ‘Rosie Raven’, named after one of my daughters both in the collection. We already have a very beautiful Dahlia ‘Molly Raven’, after the other.

I’m also excited about chrysanths, ones that we can ideally pick from outside right into November. Last autumn we had great success with a whole new group called the ‘Tula Series’. We’ve got plenty of those in again this year to trial, and quick-flowering nerines. Nerines famously need to settle into their garden space – without overcrowding – for up to five years before they flower well, but hopefully not the ones we’re experimenting with. They are claimed to flower straight away. I love nerines, what I think of as The Christmas Shopping flower, beaming out colour when all else has turned brown and grey as the winter starts in earnest.

You are truly multi-talented, having read history and then trained as a doctor before your garden became your professional focus. You’ve also written books and hosted TV shows. It’s an incredibly impressive CV! Did you always cultivate a garden even before it became your work?

My father inspired my love of flowers. I have fond memories of spending weekends in his Morris Minor searching for wildflowers. But it wasn’t until I took maternity leave while training as a doctor at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton, that I started to work on creating my own cutting garden. I had a garden before that to get away from the white-coat sterility of the wards, but it was my hobby not my work.

You also, of course, lived at Sissinghurst for eight years. Could you tell us about that experience and how it has shaped the gardener you have become…

Sissinghurst is one of the most beautiful built places in the world, I think, with the tumbling, full, romantic garden within its red brick walls, and apparently slightly softly crumbling buildings. They’re not really crumbling at all of course, because it has been perfectly restored by the National Trust. We share one part of the house with our extended family now and I absolutely love visiting Sissinghurst, particularly when the light is fading or at first light. I prefer to live in our own garden and house, where we are in control of how everything is and shall be. Our life is very full-on here and can be chaotic at times and that’s better done in private!

Vita Sackville West’s garden, which you wrote about in your book, Sissinghurst: The Creation of A Garden, is one of the most legendary in the country. Which great iconic gardeners and gardens have inspired you?

I have been very inspired by Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter. When I decided to stop my medical career and give myself time to think about whether gardening was really going to be my thing, I did a summer as a volunteer at Great Dixter, 25 years ago. I had a full-on home life at the time with an already large and expanding family, but Christo took me under his wing and he and head gardener, Fergus Garret, set me even more firmly than I was already on the gardening track.

I also met one of my dearest friends, Pip Morrison, working at Great Dixter then. He is a garden designer of total genius and I have admired and remained firm friends with him ever since. His ideas of working with what you have, the sense of place of a garden is something I think of almost every day. He makes utterly beautiful gardens.

You teach both floristry and cookery at your wonderful Perch Farm. What are the chief lessons that people typically take away from your courses?

I want everyone leaving one of the courses here to feel confident and ambitious with their new gardening – or cookery – knowledge, no matter their experience before that day. My latest course, inspired by my book A Year Full of Flowers is not directed at the cut flower grower, but instead the general gardener, who – like me – adores and thrives on year-round colour, scent and floweriness just outside the door.

Most of my courses cover functional lessons on how to create the best growing conditions or how to maximise a crop, but also cover colour and scent, as well as some of our top practical tips learnt over the past 25 years.

And, in turn, what have you learned from your students?

I get recommendations of tasty varieties of veg, or particularly beautiful and long-lasting cut flowers or garden performers almost every time I teach. I absolutely love that; hearing, learning and sharing what we have all learnt from our own gardens and through our lives. I’m a huge believer in sharing, and that seems to encourage people to share with me too. I think that’s SO lucky and on and on the wheel turns, making us better gardeners.

Amidst the pandemic, you’ve managed to pen a new book: A Year Full of Flowers. Can you tell us a little about it?

Colour and scent are the simple luxuries that everyone can bring into their garden. A Year Full of Flowers reveals the hundreds of hardworking varieties that make the garden sing each month, together with the practical tasks that ensure everything is planted, staked and pruned at just the right time.

The book traces the year from January to December at Perch Hill and shares the lessons learned from years of plant trials. Earlier this year, I also launched my first podcast series, ‘Grow, Cook, Eat, Arrange’ with Arthur Parkinson. The weekly episodes aim to engage gardeners of all ages and levels of experience in the joy that gardening brings to the home and kitchen.

You worked with your long-time collaborator, photographer Jonathan Buckley, on the book. Can you put your finger on the particular synergy you have with him?

It’s such a privilege working with people who really know who you are, what you like, love and want. It means you can really crack on without having to say too much and leave more time and head space to be creative, to invent new combinations, move on to new ways of doing things and embrace new varieties.

Jonathan and I have now worked together for 25 years — and on three different photographic themes: gardening, cooking and wildflowers. They’re related, but very different and he has kind of reinvented how he photographs each. Above all I feel Jonathan has perfected a whole way of getting close-up plant portraits, so that they look glamorous and beautiful and yet are true, without nifty wide-angle lenses and pulled focus. This is one of the cornerstones of our mail order plant and seed business. So even though our shoots are exhausting, I love them.

How has the garden helped you through the pandemic – and how did lockdown impact your business? Were you teaching over Zoom etc?

With lockdown preventing me doing face-to-face teaching, I really want to carry on showing people the best plants I’ve come across in our trials over the last couple of decades, and inspiring gardeners month-on-month as the seasons evolve. The release of A Year Full of Flowers and the launch of my podcast both at the start of 2021 meant I had plenty to focus on during a quieter year. I did a few lectures over zoom, but didn’t love them, so am happy to be back to face-to-face. In time, I think we will film all my courses so people further afield in other countries can join in more easily, but that’s a plan for a less busy moment.

What are your favourite flowers in the garden in October?

Euphorbia oblongata, sunflowers and scabious are all beautiful late flowering varieties. Together, they make a lovely arrangement to be cut and bought into the home. And I adore snapdragons, sown late and Rudbeckias, particularly the delicate colour mix ‘Sahara’, for now.

What are your top jobs to do in the garden this month?

Preparation for winter is in full swing in October – fruit and autumn veg are ready to be brought in and stored, and plants should be cut back, wrapped up or brought inside to help them survive the chilly winter temperatures. My top tip for October is to save seed from your favourite plants – it is easy to do and will provide you with plenty of plants to fill gaps or make an existing scheme have more impact.

Leave a few seed heads on your plants after they've finished flowering to allow the seeds to ripen, then collect them and store in paper bags in a cool dry place until you are ready to sow them.

What are you looking forward in this next stretch leading up to Christmas?

My favourite way to make easy Christmas decorations is to go out into the garden, collect from a wood or harvest from the hedgerow. With just a little work they can look more beautiful than anything you can buy and so I love the autumn period ahead of the festive season for this reason.

By Nancy Alsop
September 2021

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Nancy Alsop


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