The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle
We humans like sorting things into categories: even when doing the laundry and the washing up. We separate socks from T-shirts and put knives, forks & spoons into the correct compartments of the cutlery drawer. I guess it’s our way of exerting some control in what sometimes feels like a chaotic world. Horticulture and botany excel in sorting. Botanists classify plants into families, genuses (genii?) and species. Gardeners divide them into trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, biennials and annuals, with sub-categories for plants thriving in particular soils or in certain aspects: sunny or shaded, dry or boggy. I could go on ad infinitum: herbs, grasses, succulents…..
Nowhere is the horticultural imperative to sort plants into categories more manifest than in a botanical garden. Traditionally these consist of sometimes dozens of rectangular order beds where plants of a particular family or genus are massed together forming a living textbook for study by professional and amateurs alike. I’m thinking here of the botanical gardens in Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and the Chelsea Physic Garden. And, until a few years ago, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Order Beds in the northern section of the Gardens were replaced in 2019 by the Agius Evolution Garden, where those rectangles were transformed into sinuous curved ‘rooms’ containing plants of species and families linked by evolutionary connections revealed by DNA research.
On 14 September this year I went with other members of the Garden Media Guild to a botanical garden in Kent created less than 25 years ago, where a map of the world informs the horticultural sorting. This is the World Garden at Lullingstone Garden near Eynsford in Kent, the creation of plant explorer Tom Hart Dyke within an existing one acre walled garden* and one acre of polytunnels. A world map is set into the walled garden, the continents containing ‘phyto-geographically’ categorised species, the borders against each perimeter wall housing hybrids and cultivars. Tom was our hugely enthusiastic guide around this unique garden, generously spending the morning with us and regaling us with fascinating facts about the many rare species featured in the garden.
This is a remarkable garden for many reasons. It’s been made with a small budget, 92% of the plant material having been donated, often raised from cuttings and small plants. The ‘continents’ are landscaped with rocks from the British Isles, but chosen because their geology mirrors that of the continent featured. Where appropriate, Lullingstone’s flinty alkaline soil has been replaced with acidic soil sourced from glacial deposits near Wisley in Surrey.
But perhaps the most remarkable fact about the World Garden is that when Tom had the idea for it he didn’t know if he would live to see his beloved Lullingstone Castle again let alone make the garden of his dreams there. In 2000, whilst on a orchid hunting trip to Central America, he and fellow adventurer Paul Winder were kidnapped and imprisoned by guerillas when crossing the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. Tom made very light of his ordeal in the introduction to his tour, but I’ve been reading The Cloud Garden (2003), his and Paul’s account of their 9 month captivity, which reveals the desperately dangerous and terrifying nature of their situation during that period.
After being kidnapped a day or so after beginning their 66 mile trek to the Colombian border, they were forced to move between several encampments, trekking many miles through the thickly forested mountain terrain. They often spent several weeks in each camp, some of which were located in the cloud forest where Tom found relief from the oppression of his circumstances when he found immensely rare orchids growing in profusion. Bizarrely his captors would occasionally allow him to wander from the camp to collect these epiphytic plants which he brought back to camp and displayed on a makeshift luggage rack he had fashioned out of cut branches. When the time came to decamp, he was forced to abandon his living collection of rare species which would have been the envy of many an orchid specialist.
Their captors changed leader several times during the nine months, as did the armed guards in the camps, some reappearing after a few weeks. Despite their protestations, the kidnappers believed that the pair came from wealthy families able to afford million dollar ransoms for their release. Or that they were CIA operatives intent on foiling the exploits of the drug cartels operating in the area. Between gruelling interrogations, Tom and Paul found solace in playing draughts with pieces hand carved by Paul or teaching the guards to sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’! Their good humour and resilience saw them through dark times of illness induced by poor food and parasites, as well as the terrifying uncertainty of their circumstances.
The pair were held from February until being freed shortly before Christmas 2000, having endured many months of deprivation. They never established for certain who their captors were, though they were thought to be guerrillas belonging to FARC, the anti-government armed militia with whom the Colombian government reached a peace deal in 2016. Tom has written about the building of the World Garden and his plant-hunting exploits in An Englishman’s Home: Adventures of an Eccentric Gardener (2007).
Starting his tour near the crenellated gatehouse built in 1493, Tom introduced us to the rare conifers planted between the house itself and the walled garden. I think this photograph captures something of his infectious enthusiasm for the plants in his care. In all there are 450 different species of tree at Lullingstone.
A series of island beds, approximately 3m across, planted with about 500 dahlia cultivars, draw the visitor towards the moon gated entrance to the World Garden.
Our first stop in the World Garden was Asia where we saw species from across the continent, before moving to Australia to admire a Eucalyptus volcanica, one of the specimens which make up the National Collection of Eucalyptus of which Tom is the registered curator. Mexican plants, including a tree Dahlia from the cloud forest region, enjoy a south-facing aspect. Protection against winter cold takes the form of a polytunnel about 18 metres long and over a metre wide.
I was fascinated by the use of a coal mulch on the South American bed to protect many tender plants from slugs and snails. I’ve not come across this material being used in this way before.
Pots of aeoniums are embedded into soil and dug up and protected under cover during the winter. The south-facing border provides the right place for numerous salvias, Helianthus, and South American Dahlias such as species Dahlia Dahlia merkii.
I am now going to let the photographs do the talking. Sadly I didn’t photograph all the plant names so a few of the plants featured are unidentifiable.
The anti-burglar plant Colletia histrix, also hails from South America.
The following images of a Begonia, Pelargonium and spectacular cacti were taken in the polytunnels.
Tom and his small team run a nursery shop stocked with plants raised at Lullingstone. A beautiful garden in its own right, few of us could resist the temptation of buying a souvenir of a memorable visit to this unique place. I treated myself to a pretty light purple Salvia Lavender Dilly Dilly, destined for new resilient planting in the front garden, a project I plan to progress and document here in the coming months. Also a green tinged Aeonium Velour, now getting VIP over-wintering treatment on the shelf in the spare bedroom. I feel a responsibility to nurture these two plants, given that Tom mentioned them both when signing my copy of his book!
How much the poorer the horticultural world would be had the kidnappers not freed their prisoners 23 years ago. Tom Hart Dyke’s vision of a garden encompassing unique specimens from across the globe would never have seen the light of day, a garden which has put Lullingstone Castle well and truly on the map for all plant lovers.
Kew Gardens, 3 December 2023
*The walled garden was formerly home to the white mulberry bushes (Morus alba) for the Lullingstone Silk Farm set up by Tom’s grandmother Lady Zoe Hart Dyke. Silk produced by the farm was used for the late Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and her coronation dress in 1953. I love the fact that until the operation of the farm moved to Hertfordshire in 1956, hundreds of thousands of silkworms were bred in 30 rooms in the house where they grazed on the leaves of the mulberries.