Why uncertain times are perfect for long-delayed tasks in the garden

When faced with redundancy, the gardeners at The Salutation Gardens teamed together to create something magnificent

The Salutation Garden, Sandwich
The Salutation Garden, Sandwich Credit: Marianne Majerus

I visited The Salutation Garden in Sandwich for the first time last year – I can’t think why it took me so long. But to anyone who knows how frantic the diary of a gardener becomes in summer, or has experienced the busy, bendy roads that wander east-west through Sussex to the sharp end of Kent, it is perhaps less of a mystery. So it was with some gratitude that, last summer, friends drove me to have lunch with head gardener Steven Edney and his partner Lou Dowle.

The Salutation and its garden were designed by Edwin ­Lutyens and completed in 1912, a sizeable private house, hidden behind heavy gates in the higgledy-piggledy medieval town of Sandwich.

In 2003 it was acquired by Dom and Steph Parker (cliché alert: “of Gogglebox fame”) who, realising that the classically laid out but neglected Arts and Crafts garden deserved serious restoration, hired Hadlow and Merrist Wood-trained gardener Edney and gave him more or less free rein.

The Parkers ran The Salutation as a posh B&B. The restored garden was opened in 2007, and started to attract attention. Its relatively modest size (just over 3.5 acres) made it, in modern parlance, “relatable” to an increasing number of visitors.

There are now glasshouses and alpines, thickets of bamboo in a tropical “jungle”, a fashionable dalliance with dahlias, a wild pond area, a small flower meadow, plant stalls and a shop – all 21st-century additions stitched seamlessly on to the original tapestry of wide lawns, densely planted long borders and statuesque clipped evergreens. I loved all of it.

After almost 15 years, the much written-about Salutation had “arrived”, becoming a star garden in the crowded firmament of the South East.

Along the way, Edney, a plantsman, lecturer and all round good egg, acquired a host of friends and many of the hallmarks of approval bestowed by the Great and Good of horticulture. His tenure, in a field where head gardeners often move on once they feel they have “made their mark”, has been an extraordinarily long one. What could possibly go wrong?

A nasty surprise

Man on a mission: Head gardener Steven Edney Credit: Marianne Majerus

On Jan 3 this year, with only very little notice, the guests, staff, Edney and his team were told that the hotel had, quite simply, gone bust, and were given a few hours to leave.

As shock waves spread, Edney set about using the unexpected hiatus to get the garden ready to open again when the dust had settled.

It was, after all, a release from the annual pressure (that many of us with more modest gardens feel) of having to get the garden perfect by spring. However, he needed extra help. So, he put out the word on Twitter and got a huge response.

That’s how I, a self-taught “domestic” gardener, happened to spend a day working alongside up to 18 or so of the crème de la crème of the South East’s young professionals, an experience from which, after some reflection, I bring you encouragement: we should all carry on during the current crisis, and even take advantage of it.

We could and should view our “gardening leave” almost as a bonus, giving us time and space, as the sun warms our backs, to tackle the unthinkable: carry out a once-every-five-years renovation pruning job on an elderly flowering shrub (and miss this year’s flowers, if it can’t be helped); embark on the construction of raised vegetable beds or a pond, or start an always disruptive and prolonged tussle with perennial ground elder, perhaps.

All this can be done now, at a time when growth is speeding up and, importantly, no one is around to see the mess. Despite our isolation, and without Edney’s ability to conjure up 18 helpers at the drop of a hat, the results of our own efforts, our physical and emotional stamina, can still bear fruit later this year and for years to come.

At The Salutation, we each took a section of the double border and carried out a “first pass”, cutting down to the ground the lofty remains of perennials.

Penstemon and exotic ricinus and canna line a path in late summer Credit: Marianne Majerus

We barrowed or dragged away (in builders’ ton bags) the resulting ullage to create a small mountain for composting. We were not there to prune the roses or titivate shrubbery; self-seeded colonies of this and that were left intact, to be culled or relocated later, ditching only tiddlers growing too close to the lawn.

More than once we held earnest, ground-level conferences as we tried to work out what was what. Following orders, we left time-consuming jobs – such as the grooming of winter-worn clumps of Libertia grandiflora – for a later, more meticulous second pass.

My workmates came from such temples of excellence as Kew Gardens, RHS Wisley, and Canterbury Cathedral garden, to name a few, along with assorted head gardeners and specialist plantspeople. ­Disconcertingly, most were probably less than half my age (and with fully functioning knees).

As one who has always worked alone, it was an experience that was as eye-opening as it was ­heart-warming, and from which I learned a lot. It was, quite frankly, one of the nicest, most rewarding days of my gardening life.

What happened to the salutation?

  • Since 2016 the Salutation Hotel has been managed by John and Dorothy Fothergill, who took out a five year lease on the business.
  • It has been wrongly reported that the Parkers (Steph and Dom) themselves have gone into liquidation, but they are actually among the principal creditors.
  • According to the Daily Mail (March 16), Dom estimates he is owed “somewhere upwards of £400,000”.
  • Although the Parkers are open to the possibility of further leasing arrangements with interested parties, they have put the 17-bedroom hotel and restaurant, plus its 3.7 acres, on the market for £5 million.
  • What will become of The Salutation Garden is yet to be decided, but I, like many, remain confident that Edney’s own future is bright.

For updates, follow Steve on Twitter: @stevenedney4

What gardeners like 

Having all these gardeners “kettled” in one place was a bit of a gift. I worked just as hard as they did, but managed to conduct some on-the-hoof research and jot down the answers:

Burgon & Ball’s Razor Hoe  Credit: Burgon & Ball

Why gardening?

  • Interestingly, for eight out of the 12 that I asked, gardening was a second career, and quite a few had started by volunteering first. Several became apprentice gardeners and worked while taking RHS exams – which seems to be the convention. Low wages were universally deplored.

Must-have hand tools?

Favourite gardens?

Common ground 

I was reassured to find I work in much the same way the professionals – long experience of the craft of gardening can be just as valid as training. All these practices are common sense:

The good fight: Volunteers answered Edney’s call Credit: Marianne Majerus

When working on a deep border, start from the middle (if it is double-sided) or from the back (if it is not). Work backwards/outwards, cutting herbaceous plants to short stumps as you go.

Tie twine around tight clumps of grasses before lopping with one-handed shears. Keep a receptacle (everyone had tub trugs) close by, to the left if you are right-handed, to minimise twisting and overreaching.

Very importantly, always loosen compacted soil with a fork or shrub rake as you work backwards, so as to leave an immaculate “finish” in your wake.

 I noticed with private amusement that border forks were always safely stuck in grass, left, when not in use, and never left lying prongs-up. Were the professionals taught to do that, or did they learn, as I did, from painful experience?

Lastly: trousers e.g. from Genus), with numerous tool/phone/notebook pockets and built-in knee pads, are worth the money.