Visits with interesting plants

Borde Hill Gardens, West Sussex – past and present meet in this varied and beautiful garden

Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath in West Sussex had been on my 2020 list of gardens I’d never been to and wanted to visit. Originally it was a pretty extensive list which ended up being shortened to three gardens as things turned out, and I counted myself lucky to get to that many new places.

I was at Borde Hill in September for the annual Specialist Plants Fair, and as a guest of owners Eleni and Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke, invited as a member of the Garden Media Guild (Eleni is also a member).

The plant fair was made up of independent nurseries, many of them local to the garden, selling a diverse range of perennials and shrubs. The plants were great quality, the nursery people knowledgeable and the prices were good. It was a bonus to go while the fair was on, but it was the garden I was really keen to see.

With most large gardens, the buildings, layout and surroundings are an important part of the package and this is very true of Borde Hill. The house and gardens are surrounded by acres of undulating Sussex countryside in varying hues of green with just the first hints of autumn colour when I was there. Much of this land is part of the 200 acre estate and from just north of the house there are fantastic views across fields to the Ouse Valley viaduct.

At the centre of the garden, which is listed Grade II* by English Heritage, is the house. Its oldest section was built in the 16th century with the central part and the east wing added in the 19th century. The gardens and woodland spread out around it. The formal parts of the garden are arranged in a series of rooms, each with it’s own highly distinctive style and they are extensive, well kept, beautiful, and varied. It was the variety that struck me most – whatever type of garden you enjoy visiting and whatever types of plants you’re interested in seeing, you would find something you liked here.

In front of the house, beyond the lawn, the Paradise Walk border runs to the West along a wall which gives views of the fields beyond. It was recently designed by Chris Beardshaw but problems with plant deliveries earlier in the year meant that some plants had only recently gone in and some were still to be added. Even so, the late summer show was already impressive, with purple agastache, asters, hardy geraniums, a compact Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Purple Bush’) and salvia-like Lepechinia hastata, combined effectively with yellow flowers of achilliea and various daisies.

Chris Beardshaw has also devised a new planting scheme for the Italian Garden, an area originally created from a tennis court in the 1980s. Smart and stylish, this gorgeous garden combines the structural elements of neatly clipped hedges and formal standard trees with large pots of agapanthus and red pelargoniums around the pond, under which lie tumbling tussocks of self-sown Erigeron karvinskianus. Behind the hedges clumps of salvias and perovskia keep the colour going into autumn while the fountain in the middle of the pond is fun to watch as the leaves fill with water and then tilt to tip it back into the pond. The effect is relaxed and distinctly Mediterranean, especially on a sunny day.

Nearby, the old potting sheds area of the garden has a very different feel. Here what remains of the potting shed walls is cleverly used to create shelter for tender (and some tender-looking but in fact quite hardy) exotic plants, a theme which extends through the Round Dell. Plants here include Lobelia tupa, tetrapanax, colocasia, banana plants (in flower although apparently they don’t produce fruit), indigofera, ricinus communis, abutilon megapotanicum, lagerstroemia indica, tender salvias, palms, and much more besides; this area was crammed with interesting plants.

Beyond this are a more hilly and wooded series of areas including the Garden of Allah, which, with its camellias and magnolias must look its best in spring. Stephanie’s Glade, filled with rhododendron and carpeted with bluebells, must also be spectacular in spring. There are some magnificent trees in the gardens and parkland, quite a number of them rare. These include around 80 Champion trees, collected and planted since the late 19th century. Look out for Magnolia fraseri and Magnolia officinalis, a chinese tulip tree (Liriodendron chinense) and the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata).

In September there was early leaf colour from acers and Prunus sargentii, hydrangeas were still blooming, their fresh white heads mingling with the rouged red of the more mature blooms, and at my feet many colchicums were lapping up the sun.

A sumptuous rose garden, originally designed by Robin Williams in 1996, showcases around 100 modern English rose varieties from David Austin roses, including some of their most recent introductions. These are combined with peonies, phlox and delphiniums. At it’s side runs a long border filled with colourful summer perennials – asters, aconites, dahlias, echinops and salvias in flower in September – the perennials punctuated by large shrubs including smokebush, Continus coggygria, and pittosporum.

It’s a riot of colour, but just in case you start to feel overloaded with all the drama, you can cross the path to the dappled shade of the white garden, where white flowered asters and Japanese anemone, amongst others, create a completely different, quieter mood.

I’m sure there are areas and plants I haven’t mentioned, and much I probably didn’t see on this one visit, but you get the picture. Borde Hill is a garden that has been created over many years by a series of plant lovers. You are always aware of its history, but there is also a very healthy present. The current owners are clearly committed and capable not just of preserving what has been planned, introduced and planted in the past but to continuing to develop and improve the gardens, and to keep them up to date. Between the past and the present the various owners of Borde Hill have created a fabulous box of delights.

Borde Hill gardens are now closed for the winter but will reopen on 13th February 2021

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