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Meet Tom Coward: Head gardener at Gravetye Manor

Gravetye Manor is the garden of the influential English gardener, William Robinson.

Robin Powell spoke to its current head gardener Tom Coward about its historical accuracy and modern excitement.

Interview and photos - Robin Powell


Meet Tom Coward: Head gardener, Gravetye Manor


You arrived here in 2010 to plenty of weeds. Once you had a blank canvas what did you do next?

That’s the big question. Banks spent the equivalent of millions of pounds in modern money on them and got only as far as having them engraved. The general consensus is that money was getting tight and Banks felt he’d fulfilled his obligations by making the engravings available to anyone who wanted to see them in his library. I first saw them in 1972 and was overwhelmed - firstly that I hadn’t seen them before, and also how outstanding they were, especially given the time and the circumstances in which they’d been made. I thought then that they should be made widely available.


You arrived here in 2010 to plenty of weeds. Once you had a blank canvas what did you do next?

That’s such a difficult question in such an important historical garden. Robinson and his great friend Gertrude Jekyll basically invented the English flower border here. So should we plant it according to Robinson’s planting plans, which we had in the archives? And if so, which plan? Of course the garden changed through his life. Instead, we decided to keep it dynamic and moving. We used paintings of the garden - there was always an artist in residence here - to study the way the plantings changed over time and to predict how the borders might have kept on changing.


Gravetye Manor, the influential English gardener, William Robinson


So are the colors here - soft pinks and yellows with a bit or purple and a dash of orange - his taste or yours?

Partly him, partly us. He wasn’t too much of a colour theorist actually. He turned to Jekyll for that. Tastes change and planting styles change and we try to keep it of the moment. We think very carefully about how we use colour and how we repeat certain colours within the plantings - in the borders but also in the avenues and vistas.


Have you always been a Robinson fan?

Yes, I first got to know the garden when I was 18 and a friend became a gardener here. Then when I was at Kew I studied Robinson and this garden so I’ve always known and loved it. In fact I was offered a job here previously, turned it down to work with Paul McCartney and am very pleased to have had another opportunity.


You've also worked down the road a bit at Great Dixter. How is this different?

After working in a Paul’s private garden, then working at Dixter, a public garden that gets 50,000 visitors squeezed into a short time, I love this. There are people coming and enjoying it but you never feel overwhelmed and the visitors are not just looking, they’re using the garden and getting to see it at different times of day. That’s really special for a gardener - it’s a lot of work and if people don't see it and enjoy it, what's the point!


To experience the Gravetye Manor gardens at all hours, and to experience the wonderful hospitality and food on offer, book a stay. For a quicker look, make a date for afternoon tea.


Soft pinks and yellows with a bit or purple and a dash of orange


About this article

Author: Robin Powell