The Man Who Makes The Earth Move
Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Christopher Sturman
At Wildside, his Groundbreaking Devon garden, horticultural firebrand Keith Wiley manipulates what was once a flat field into undulating layers, creating extraordinary perspectives and new habitats for his plants
Most gardeners, faced with laying out a garden in a flat, four-acre field, would probably go the ‘room’ route, with hedges or walls dividing it up into manageable spaces – and framed views giving glimpses of the landscape beyond. Keith Wiley, however, is about as far from ‘most gardeners’ as you can get. Which may explain why his ex-field – now called ‘Wildside’ – appears to have undergone an extraordinarily localised geological event. Where there was once a pasture dotted with cider apple trees, there are now steep-sided, scaled-down canyons with birch trees clinging to the sloping sides and gentler valleys with water or paths winding sinuously through lush planting. At the top of the garden, open-skied, undulating terrain is vibrant with flowers, and a high point with 360º views is a full 25 feet above the original ground level.
Over the past ten years Wiley, working alone, has moved every inch of soil – sometimes several times. ‘I reckon I’ve moved 75,000-100,000 tonnes, all with a three-ton digger, a three-ton dumper, a wheelbarrow and bucket. I hire a digger for a couple of weeks as a birthday present to myself, although I’ve found that Ros [his wife] objects when I hire it as her birthday present.’
One unforeseen benefit of this is that the total surface area of the garden is now six – rather than four – acres.
His neighbour, who sold him the land, has taken to joking that he wants paying for the additional two acres. ‘I think of it as a giant piece of sculpture on which you grow plants that like the conditions I create,’ he says. ‘This way of shaping the ground naturalistically is something that is applicable anywhere – and with any style of gardening. I’ve met lots of people who have tried to make a mini Wildside in part of their garden after visiting here. You can get lost in these valleys and become part of the community of plants – you can look into the faces of snowdrops. After that, the idea of growing on the flat seems so dull.
‘I’m not copying what is in nature,’ Wiley explains. ‘I’m taking it and adapting it to my conditions. The finest wildflowers I’ve seen grow in the poorest soil, but many of those flowers won’t grow here – instead I’m trying to create the same tapestry effect with plants that are hardy in Britain. To try to grow tender plants from South Africa or the Mojave desert on a north-facing slope in Devon with 60 inches of rain a year would be daft. What I do is not a formula like Piet Oudolf [the Dutch garden designer] does. Piet mixes grasses with perennials to achieve a distinctive look – what I do is much more free-flowing and flexible than that. My ideas have come from all over the place – it’s as if I’ve put them in a blender and ended up with a smoothie version that is reminiscent of all of them, but not one in particular. Of course what I do is crazy unless you make it work, but if you do make it work it creates something that is amazing.’
In the world of gardening, Keith Wiley is undoubtedly a maverick. His passion and intensity about what he is doing is at times overwhelming – Wiley is the horticultural equivalent of a firebrand preacher. He does not do what other gardeners do: he follows his own vision and is so indifferent to fame and fortune that he has now closed the garden and nursery for the foreseeable future so that he and Roscan (finally) have their house built after years of living in a glorified shed. Even when Wildside was open, it was only for the first five days of June, July and August. I first heard Wiley’s name in 2001 when I was on a botanical walking holiday in the Swiss High Alps. Our group had paused before yet another breathtaking view as we refuelled on chocolate, and I was rhapsodising about the carpet of wildflowers at my feet and wishing I could create a garden a fraction as lovely. ‘You should go to The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum,’ I was told. “Go and meet the head gardener, Keith Wiley.”’
It took a few years, but I made it there eventually. Beyond the beautiful but conventionally planted walled garden, Wiley had created a series of naturalistic gardens that included a Cretan cottage garden (complete with ruin), an acer glade, a prairie, a wildflower meadow and a South African garden – all in what had originally been four acres of fi eld and paddock. Different areas undulated, dipped or were raised up, sometimes gently and sometimes more dramatically, according to the needs of the plants. For three wonderful hours I followed him round, listening to him explain his methods and frantically trying to make notes about everything. It was revolutionary thinking – the usual gardening mantra is ‘right plant, right place’ – in other words you grow what suits your soil and the amount of sun the garden gets. The idea of going another route and manipulating the land to create different habitats and aspects had never occurred to me.
Three years after that first meeting, Keith and Ros left The Garden House. He had spent 30 years putting his heart and soul into the garden, but in the final analysis it wasn’t his own. The opportunity arose to buy their own land – it was time to leave so Keith could get on with some no-holds-barred gardening, while Ros, who is an artist, could divide her time between working alongside him and creating her plant-inspired paintings.
Ten years after they moved to Wildside, Wiley is taking me round the garden to see what they’ve been doing. It’s clear that it’s an evolving process. ‘When we came here, we didn’t have any money,’ Wiley explains, ‘but we had lots of plants and we were trying to get them in the ground as quickly as we could, just to keep them alive, because we were spending four hours every day on the end of a hosepipe. Things got pushed in and it worked okay, but I want to redo parts of the garden. You can’t do that when you are open – if you start to do that in the public eye, people aren’t keen. Anyway, if I had done it all at once it wouldn’t have developed the way it has, so I’m very happy that it has happened very slowly, because the intricacy has had time to evolve – the devil is in the detail.’
We begin at the bottom of the garden, in watery dells fringed with flowers and surrounded by a grove of magnolias and banks clad with Japanese maples. The linked ponds will eventually stretch over 100 yards and have every appearance of being part of a natural watercourse, but there are no springs to feed them; they are filled entirely by rain. Natural or not, wildlife has taken up residence in droves and we are enveloped by the sound of contented humming from the bees as they feed on the nectar-rich flowers. It’s a perfect example of ‘build it and they will come’. The neighbouring (still flat) field has a fraction of the biodiversity contained in this small area.
‘We have 100 magnolia trees, mostly concentrated down this lower area,’ says Wiley. ‘A neighbouring nurseryman friend gave them to us. When his pot-grown stock goes beyond a certain point, they can’t be sold. These were being thrown out, so we gave them a good home – and now we’ve got woods of them!’
‘One of the beauties of planting on banks is that everything appears older than it actually is,’ Wiley adds. ‘If you put a six-foot tree on a six-foot bank, it looks 12-foot high from the bottom – and you are looking into the thickest part of the trunk, which also adds a sense of maturity. It’s something I learnt at The Garden House – sinking paths to create banks immediately gives an illusion of age. And shaping the landscape creates such varied habitats – on one side of a valley I can have a shady north-facing bank where I grow Himalayan woodland plants, while the other side is south-facing, with hot shade where I can grow things that inhabit the woods of California. People think that shade is shade – it isn’t.’
Another technique Wiley brought from The Garden House is ‘skirting up’ shrubs or trees. ‘I like to look inside the foliage to see if it’s hiding a shapely pair of legs that would benefit from the skirts being lifted,’ he explains, delightfully. I’m not sure the PC brigade would approve, but it is an image I’ve retained from that first meeting – and a technique I have used to good effect in my own garden. As it happens, there’s a whole series of beautiful trunks currently awaiting this treatment around Wildside. ‘At the moment you can’t see them, because of all the perennial plants,’ Wiley says. ‘When we started, we put lots of Michaelmas daisies in among the small trees and they worked fantastically, but as the trees have grown up, the sun-loving daisies have become shaded. We’ve got open, sunny conditions in spades up the top of the garden, so they are being moved. Suddenly the trees become the thing and it changes the atmosphere – you release the grace and form of the trees and every one of them becomes beautiful.’
He points out a group of small conifers. ‘I grew those from cuttings 20 years ago and planned them right from the beginning to be a group of three, so they have always been very close together, even when they were in their pots. I love them. To me they are like a group of small Scots pines.’ This long-term vision is typical of how Wiley works, it’s about as far from ‘instant gardening’ as you can get. ‘You learn to be very patient if you don’t have money,’ he adds.
Wiley points out that beneath the trees there is a secondary layer of shrubs, and even a third groundcover layer of ferns and bulbs, creating a community of plants in a very natural setting. ‘I want the combination of plants to work from the microcosm to the macrocosm. In summer and autumn these layers get lost in the vegetation, but in the winter and the spring you see all the secondary shapes. This has been one of my guiding principles for the past 30 years. The textures of a small plant and its setting are just as important to me – it’s like a camera with a zoom lens – whether you are in macro, or pulled right back, what you see should work in harmony on that scale.’
As we walk up a gently meandering slope, he continues, ‘I deliberately plant trees very close together so that they naturally form groups and arch over, so you can see the [yet-to-be-built] house framed on the skyline. It’s interesting to mention the house at this point, because you see it against the sky, later you will look down on it.’ This revealing remark shows the way Wiley works. In his mind’s eye the house already exists – and has been integral to the plan from the outset. ‘At the moment the garden is like a wedding without the bride and groom,’ he explains. ‘When the house goes in, the picture will be complete. Everything else has been made ready for them to arrive.’
We walk past the vacant plot where the house will stand and into an enclosed courtyard. ‘This is about hot countries we have visited,’ Wiley says. ‘I walk in here on a sunny morning and it immediately feels like I am somewhere on holiday, the colour of the walls is Bryce Canyon in Utah, while the cordylines and other strong architectural shapes are Karoo Desert Botanica Gardens in South Africa – and the low-growing flowers are another bit of South Africa.’
The house will have the same ochre-coloured walls and will open onto the courtyard garden, which will be viewed through the 80m-long, wisteria-clad pergola. ‘I wanted to create the effect of a cloister where you are in the shade looking out onto the sun,’ Wiley explains. ‘The views change constantly as you walk through this garden and the fragrance adds to the feeling that you are somewhere much warmer. The group of Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’ is my version of an olive grove.’
As we walk up a path that leads out of the courtyard, I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that this was all once a flat field. We find ourselves looking down on the courtyard from an undulating landscape where agapanthus in different shades of blue emerge among a sea of grasses. ‘Throughout the garden, it’s the same basic principles, just on different scales,’ Wiley points out. ‘This is agapanthus territory, with over 100 different varieties. They flower under big skies, which is what I’ve created here. It was dreamy earlier on in the summer, with orange crocosmia and pink dierama – and now the asters are weaving through the taller grasses. When the sun sets you get the light streaming the grasses and that’s when you get magic – it’s one big “Wow!”’
Following one of the paths through the ‘big-sky territory’, we finally reach the apex of the garden where you get to look down into the ‘Grand Canyon’. ‘I love the idea that you could take a photograph of it and, although the birch trees in it are still very small, because there is nothing to gauge the perspective against, you could be looking at trees 30-foot tall,’ says Wiley. He points out the way secondary valleys open up from the main canyon and describes his plans for areas yet to be completed. ‘That will be a natural swimming pool – I’ll bring in 15 tons of sand so I can have my own beach – and that bank will go back and I will build a pirate’s house up there. It’s for the grandchildren as well as me,’ he adds, hastily. ‘Actually I’m still a big child making little places and hidden valleys to explore.’
As we look down on Wildside, I venture to ask Wiley about their plans for the future. ‘We’ve been opening here and in the previous garden for 35 years,’ he says. ‘Ros wants to paint and I think I can put my ideas across through photographs and writing. I remind myself that there are just two of us and the garden is getting bigger and we are getting older. The swallows have just left and I thought, “That’s another summer gone by and I’ve missed it.”’
So maybe next year there will a little less earth moving and a little more time for Wiley to look up from his endeavours and watch the swallows wheel overhead. It would be nice to think so.