Wildside: Keith Wiley's Field of Dreams

Last month we had the privilege of hearing Keith Wiley speak at the University of Bath Gardening club. Keith is a knowledgeable and humorous speaker with plenty of colourful slides to satisfy the most flower hungry amongst his audience. He also has quite a different approach to creating a garden which was a wonder to behold.

Keith started his gardening career at The Garden House in Devon where he was Head Gardener for 25 years. Testament to his skills there has been paid by Tim Richardson no less, who named The Garden House amongst his list of the most influential gardens of the noughties in this month's Garden Design Journal.

Change of ownership at The Garden House meant that Keith left in 2004 and the pictured well-written and illustrated book was also published that year. It not only shows how wonderful the garden was under Keith's care, it also tells of how his father's grand gardening projects combined with Keith's detailed examination of wild flower communities and their natural associations in his travels all over the world have inspired and influenced his new garden at Wildside.

So how does one start a completely new and exciting garden from scratch, starting in 2004?
  • Have sufficient cash to buy an almost flat 4 acre field full of cider apple trees not far from the Garden House and nothing else
  • Have only yourself and your wife available as labour for creating the garden and starting a nursery business (I'm not quite sure where his house fits into all of this! The Garden House had a staff of 20 to keep it in tip top condition)
  • Persuade your wife that changing the levels in the garden will provide some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside
  • Understand your site's aspect (south facing), climate (very windy with 60 inches of rainfall) and soils (a very stony, gravelly 'shillit' [?] beneath varying depths of topsoil, neutral to acid) perfectly
  • Create an enormous variety of different soil conditions and microclimates in a very small area. This is achieved by using a digger and creating enormous banks of soil and shillit of varying heights and sizes. In places the height difference from top to bottom is now 25-30 feet. This in turn will allow drifts of lots of different plants to be planted in each area
  • Be a flower junkie: thus having a vision of them filling the viewfinder - 'I want to go out every day and see as many flowers as possible'
  • Take natural landscapes as inspiration: the flower filled scenes of South Africa; the Acer/natural scrub mixture on the USA/Canadian border; a rolling Californian landscape; the unusual vegetation of New Zealand, the Mediterranean vegetation of Crete. NB this doesn't necessarily mean using the plants from those regions, but plants suited to the garden's climate which will create the same effect
  • Ignore the 'rules' and trust your own instinct/ learning from observation: don't bother with the traditional colour wheel rules because nature doesn't; understand that e.g. a plant on well-drained soil in a rainy climate can still perform well despite what the books might say (the book probably documents the author's own experience of their garden in Essex say, rather than the full extent of where a plant might thrive); plant 30 Magnolia trees where normally only one would do; grow honeysuckle trimmed into a shrub rather its usual climber form; have an entire wood of free-standing Wisterias on 4ft high banks - 'who says you can't have one?'
  • Take inspiration from the surrounding landscape but use different plants: mass-planted Magnolia trees mimic Hazel copses; the form of Acers are similar to Hawthorns
  • Use The Garden House experience: large drifts of pastel-hued plants are also planted at Wildside, but the intention this time is eventually to have them reflected in water; rescue plants thrown out from The Garden House such as 50-years worth of crocuses and 'bonsai'-like trees
  • Don't stake anything and Chelsea chop plants like Campanula and Michaelmas Daisies so that they don't need support
  • Indulge flower passions such as Erythroniums - 'my dream plant'
  • Use grasses and plants self-seeding into gaps to allow the planting to knit itself together
  • Have a spectacular vision and infinite amounts of patience - this is a very long term project
Towards the end of his talk Keith said with a wry grin:
I seriously need therapy. My dream garden is a quarry and I now realise I've made myself a quarry. He reckons he's shifted about 50,000 tonnes of soil so far... and the garden's not completed yet.
I asked Keith during question time whether he was using a garden plan. He isn't, but his vast gardening experience allows him to see what opportunities a particular combination of slope, aspect, soil and drainage has in order to select plants that will not only do well in that particular spot, but will combine well with its neighbours. He said he couldn't plan because sometimes he's out digging until late at night and in the morning what he thought he'd dug turns out to be completely different! I'd say that's the mark of an extremely knowledgeable and confident gardener.
Unfortunately I can't show you any of the oodles of superb views Keith showed us during his talk. However with the power of blogging I can supply you with links to a couple of posts to drool over from Arabella (plus her corresponding piece about The Garden House) and Anna, together with these articles from Gardeners' Click and The Telegraph. I hope to add my own pictures to theirs very soon.
UK residents will also be able to see Wildside from the comfort of their armchairs as it's been filmed for Matthew Wilson's Landscape Man series for Channel Four. The latest from Matthew is that the series is due to be aired in April.
Wildside is open Thursdays and Saturdays from March until July (NB this is what Keith told us at the talk; the website currently shows 2009 opening times which are very different).


  1. I would love to visit as I really enjoyed my visit to Garden House but my husband didn't enjoy Garden House so I don't think we will be visiting Wildside! But I will be buying the book! I wish I lived nearer to Bath, as you have some great speakers, thank you for sharing this with us.

    Best wishes Sylvia

  2. Now, that is what you call a serious endeavour! I just sat here, open mouthed, reading that!

  3. I could do all of wot that chap did too, except that I don't have a wife. An awful drawback that!

  4. Did I miss their ages when they started this project! I can't imagine why that would pop into my awareness;) gail

  5. wildside is my type of garden-esp. should i ever get a proper lot w/decent lighting! the word 'obsession' does pop into mind;)

  6. Dear VP, Reading your detailed account I am sure that I should have found KW to be an engaging and interesting speaker. And whilst his style of gardening is far removed from that which appeals to me most, I do admire his vision, energy and commitment to the task in hand.

    Thank you for commenting on my latest posting where I have left a reply.

  7. Enjoyed this post VP and thanks for the link. I wish I could have heard Keith's talk and must buy the book. I came away from the garden with senses stunned. I think that of all the points you mention that his incredible vision and patience are the main factors driving the creation of this garden. Hope that you get there soon. On the subject of garden visits we have just had a most enjoyable afternoon at Dunham Massey - will post about it soon.

  8. Great post and two wonderful gardens.

  9. Fabulous post, I felt I was there. KW is something of a genius - and then some!

  10. Loved this post VP. I think the man is quite mad in the most wonderful way! You really are incredibly lucky in the speakers you get to the gardening group.

  11. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of Miss Ellen Willmott and the way she created her gardens. The talk by Keith Wiley must have been enjoyable. I'd like to read his book.

  12. Hi everyone - yes it was a tremndous and inspirational talk. I can't wait to go and see for myself.

    Like Idiot Gardener, I'll be open mouthed when I see it.

    Keith tells me the Landscape Man programme is due to be aired on 8th April on Channel 4 at 8pm.


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