I was getting to grips with parenthood in a sweltering London flat when an even bigger challenge fell in my lap: restoring the horticulturalist’s sprawling garden
Swifts race past our south London window on midsummer evenings and nest below the terrace rooftops opposite; in rural Suffolk, droves of swallows dart across an agrarian skyline and down into next door’s open barn. For a nature enthusiast, this swapping of one set of neighbours for another is a subtle contrast between the city and country experience. In late summer 2020, my wife Clemmie and I, with our then six-month-old baby, relocated to Suffolk to look after Benton End, the former home of influential artist-plantsman Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Having spent spring getting to grips with parenthood within the context of Covid and the confines of a sweltering flat, we jumped at the opportunity, which arose through my work as head gardener at London’s Garden Museum.
The museum, together with the Pinchbeck charitable trust, is restoring Benton End as a centre for horticulture, art and learning. It was suggested we come as temporary custodians and I document and nurture this once-celebrated garden. Benton’s 1.2-hectare (3-acre) garden slopes gently to the west and has the best loam soil I’ve worked. In its heyday, a walled garden of gravel pathways and colour-packed island beds was the focus; above it is a sprawling former orchard of vegetables, wildflowers and bearded irises. Colourful and unusual species of bulbs, many of which he collected on winter painting excursions to the Mediterranean and north Africa, seduced the great gardeners of the day, including Vita Sackville-West, Constance Spry and Beth Chatto.