Tending the Rewley House gardens: A Profile of Deborah Bowden, Rewley House Gardener

What's your background and how did you come into your line of work?

I was living in Oxford doing some TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and working in various Oxford bookshops. I loved plants and gardens but at the time I didn't have my own garden, so I'd spend my free time walking the streets, parks and meadows of Oxford looking at plants and trees. Then I got a job in the garden shop at Waterperry Gardens, near Wheatley. Waterperry is a gem of a place, full of horticultural history, with a fabulous plant collection. I've never looked back.

How long have you been tending to the gardens at Rewley House?

I have been a gardener at Rewley House for six years. I don't do it all on my own though; I'm one of 30 gardeners who work for the University Parks department. We look after the University Parks itself, which is where our yard is, and we also maintain almost all University department sites and many university related properties besides. So when we're doing a big plant changeover or when we're changing the window box display or planting the bedding out, I'll have someone else from the Parks' team to help me. Likewise, my colleagues will often come in and check the watering or deal with the weeds when I'm tied up elsewhere.

What changes have you seen in the gardens at Rewley over time?

The biggest change has to be the size of the silver birch. Walter Sawyer – our Parks Superintendent, who retired earlier this year – remembers when it was a very small tree, only recently planted. I don't remember that, but it has grown significantly in my time. Its canopy now completely covers the lower courtyard, which makes for a charming, green space. However, for us it presents a challenge – the lower courtyard is much shadier and drier than it used to be. Plants which used to be happy and flower well - e.g. Fuchsia 'Thalia' - now struggle and often produce very little flower.

You have previously mentioned that there are different 'environments' at Rewley House, and that there are 'tender' plants and 'year-long' plants. What are some of the key areas, and what is your philosophy in planting them?

Yes, different spaces at Rewley House do have different conditions and so we're always trying to use plants which can tolerate or indeed thrive in each of those conditions. For example, the upper courtyard is very exposed. Pelargoniums thrive up there, being able to cope with full sun and drying winds. We'd never put begonias up top, they'd hate it, they'd sulk and their leaves would get scorched and crisp at the edges. Nor would we put the banana plants up there because their leaves would soon get shredded in the wind. However the sunny side of the Reception level courtyard suits the banana plants well, while the begonias look a picture of health down below in the silver birch courtyard.

As for the plants outside the front door, they have to tolerate very dry conditions because not only do they get baked by the afternoon sun, they are also next to a wall, under the eaves and in relatively shallow soil. Again, we use a variety of species pelargoniums here. We've also had two Aeonium 'Zwartkop' in this front bed for a couple of years. These always prove a talking point even though they are certainly not flourishing, making only small plants with small rosettes. We're surprised that they've made it through two winters in this bed without succumbing to the frost.

Some of the planting at Rewley House is permanent, including the climbers. But much of the planting is temporary and seasonal. For this we can draw on a huge range plants that we propagate and grow in our nursery area in the University Parks. Some of these plants are bedding plants, either summer bedding or winter/spring bedding. However, most are tender perennials, and won't cope outside through the winter because the frost would kill them. These have been specially chosen for spectacular flowers or for long-flowering season, or maybe for attractive foliage. Many of these plants are southern hemisphere plants which will start to flower in late summer. This is advantageous to us because it means we can have a long season of interest extending right through autumn until the first frosts.

We grow roughly 120 different tender perennials in our glasshouses. I'll name just a handful to give you a flavour of them: Salvia uliginosa, Salvia elegans 'Scarlet Pineapple', Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii', Cuphea cyanea, Geranium maderense, Pelargonium denticulatum 'Filicifolium', Impatiens tinctoria, Argyanthemum 'Jamaica Primrose'.

As for our philosophy in planting the courtyards? That's such a tricky question. Making plant combinations that work and will work for several months to come is immensely challenging. Not least because we are working under huge time pressure. We know that often we don't get it right. However, personally, I love our range of plants. I'm fond of them and proud of them and I get a thrill from seeing them in different combinations and new arrangements. I know that if I am finding joy in the plants themselves and the process of arranging them then that will come through in the final display. As you can imagine, in moments of high stress on our changeover days, it's not easy to remember to be playful but we do try.

Can you describe your typical 'day in the life' as an estates gardener?

At 8 o'clock in the morning we line up – how old-fashioned is that! - and each of us is assigned our work for the day and our vehicle. Then we head out all around Oxford, each with a mass of tools and equipment. At 4 o'clock we return to the yard with vans and trailers full of grass, leaves, weeds and prunings. We spend another half hour dealing with this debris and putting all equipment back exactly where it came from before leaving at 4.30.

What's your favourite garden in the world, and why?

My own, of course! It's very unkempt, it's not a gardener's garden at all, primarily a space for the children. But nothing beats seeing a garden and its plants every day of the year, in all weathers, all seasons and in all manner of different light.

Otherwise, I am very fond of The Beth Chatto Gardens at Colchester. I can vividly remember the impression it made on me the first time I visited – a place of calm and of exquisite beauty. The plants are grown to perfection, creating pools of flower or foliage. There's such a clear appreciation of both the details of individual plants and of their important contribution to the whole design. I've only actually visited the garden twice, but I feel I know it well because I've read most of Beth Chatto's books several times. I am full of admiration for such an extraordinary plantswoman.

Finally, what about your favourite plant, and why?

Strangely, one of my all-time favourite plants – Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group - actually grows in the lower courtyard at Rewley House. There are two plants, either side of a bench, on the western wall of the courtyard. You start to see the right hand one as you come down the stairs from the Reception level. When not in flower it can look rather unprepossessing, deciduous in winter, with hairy, mid to dark green leaves appearing in spring. Then in July time, the flowers appear, gorgeous two-tone lacecap flowerheads, mauve-purple in the centre with the larger paler flowers around the outside. All set off nicely by the dark green leaves. Quite lovely.

A few more of my favourites are:

  • Omphalodes cappadocica – a charming plant with vivid blue flowers which closely resemble Forget-me-nots. Planted in dappled shade, it will cheerfully flower on and off for a long period in spring.
  • Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' – one of the best dogwoods grown for winter stem colour. As the name suggests this one has stems in yellow, red, orange and coral, all resembling a huge bonfire when lit up by the winter sun.
  • Anthemis tinctoria 'Sauce Hollandaise' – One of the hardy marguerite daisies, it has a mass of pale cream, almost white flowerheads with a rich yellow centre, all held above dark green, finely divided foliage. A really good doer for a midsummer border.


Published 10 October 2017