It was fitting that Gardeners’ World, in the first programme of the new series, chose to highlight the miraculous resurrection of the gardens at The Salutation in Kent. In December 2013 a freak tidal surge in the English Channel inundated the grounds of Lutyens’ superlative Queen Anne style house, leaving up to 5ft of standing water trapped behind the high banks that were intended to guard against such an event. Head Gardener Steven Edney said “it made me feel a bit sick” when he surveyed the garden the morning after the night before. And who could blame him? Most of us have had to deal with one kind of gardening disaster or another, but few of us have had to rescue a garden of great note from a catastrophe of such magnitude.
Fortunately for the owners of The Salutation (Dominic and Stephanie Parker of Gogglebox fame) their Head Gardener is made of stern stuff, a true Man of Kent. The next day Steven and his team waded in, literally, rescuing whatever flotsam and jetsam had floated to the surface. Over the next week five million litres of sea water was pumped back into the River Stour, revealing slicks of silt and putrefying worms – a soil ecosystem drowned and poisoned by salt. What would happen next was anyone’s guess. The flooding looked pretty devastating, fatal in some places. I hope Steven will not mind me saying that the long-term effects have not been as terminal as one might have anticipated. Some plants swung back into action when spring arrived, as if nothing had happened. Others grew but failed to flower well for a season, before getting back into their stride. A few collapsed outright, whilst a handful remain in the throes of a slow, painful death. Among them are certain varieties of climbing rose, but interestingly not all of them.
A good gardener senses light on the darkest of days. Steven says he found solace in the words of Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer”. This was not a quote I’d heard before but it sums up the sense of hope and optimism (they call it bloody-mindedness) that saw the team through the difficult months that lay ahead. A visitor to The Salutation today would detect nothing of the disaster that befell the gardens little over 2 years ago. In fact they have rarely looked better. The idea has never been to undertake an historical recreation of the original planting scheme (which is thought to have been Lutyens’ work rather than Gertrude Jekyll’s), but to build a bold, colourful, experimental garden on foundations of incomparable pedigree. The Salutation itself was the first 20th century house in England to be listed Grade I, less than 40 years after its construction. The gardens are listed Grade II. Lanning Roper described them in Country Life in 1962: “One never doubts the apparent symmetry of the garden. Lutyens made the most of the elements of surprise and containment; indeed The Salutation consists of a series of separate gardens or outside rooms, each different in character, but so ingeniously arranged that there is a natural progression from one to another.”
What I enjoy about visiting any garden in winter or early spring is the opportunity to observe the underlying structure. The Salutation has it in spades. Lutyens was renowned for creating gardens with good cheek bones – always in perfect relation to his houses and with enough hard landscaping to contain and frame the ebullient planting typical of the period. Before too much foliage blurs the scene one can not only enjoy the great architect’s fabulously masculine gateways, but also views out of the garden to surrounding cottages and the solid, square tower of St Clement’s church. I suspect Lutyens and his rich clients wanted to do anything but look outwards, hence the high brick walls, dense hedges and poplar trees arranged around the boundaries. This was familiar territory for a man who designed hundreds of genteel village houses for customers who yearned for country life, but not necessarily the attentions of the locals.
Within the garden yew hedges are carefully maintained to prevent their great thickness from rendering them inelegant. Yew will take drastic pruning and come back thicker and more lustrous for it. Columnar, clipped trees along the holm oak walk stand like soldiers, saluting the gardeners that have kept them that way for over 100 years, on and off. Even in the kitchen garden, furthest away from the house and probably not part of Lutyens’ original plans, there are well-trained espalier apple trees and tidy borders edged with old railway sleepers.
In just a few weeks time, day perhaps, the poplars will start to fizz like limeade and soft catmint will begin sprawling over brick pathways. There will be bananas, cannas and other exotica near the house; roses and delphiniums in main perennial borders and dahlias everywhere one turns. This year Steven will plant a new border near the spring meadow with over a hundred varieties, organised by colour rather than flower shape. The Salutation will once again be a riot of colour, a fanfare of flowers, a triumph over adversity and a tribute to the combined skills of designer and gardener.
(Photographs taken on rather dim, blustery Easter Saturday).