They fell asleep.. a review of Kiftsgate by Anne Wareham

July 11, 2013

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

I didn’t intend to write a review. I was just having a good day off and taking some photographs for Tristan’s piece. But it didn’t turn out like that: I found I hated the probability that all the masses of tourists at both Hidcote and Kiftsgate were thinking that this is the best that British gardens have to offer. Perhaps they are just past their sell by date, but if these gardens are our best, we need to shut them and give up.

Anne Wareham, editor.

 Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Nice plants but did they plop out of a plane? What they doing there?

Anne Wareham:

Well, we went to Kiftsgate at the same time as we visited Hidcote. Forewarned, I had expected that Hidcote would be disappointing. But I was expecting Kiftsgate to be a joy. I had liked it on previous visits, some years (too many..!) ago. So, a reliable treat, I thought.

And perhaps that’s important: years of making and attempting to perfect my own garden, and of visiting other gardens have affected my perspective. I have got more particular, and have a greater sense of what actually is possible and important than I did in my salad days. (when, yes, we did grow salad).

So, I’ll be clear – Kiftsgate was a great disappointment to me. Better I had not gone back.

Let’s start with some of what was nice. (that word chosen carefully).

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


That’s not bad – old stone, an intriguing entrance, glimpse of a pool..

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

and that’s the kind of pleasant borders you’d expect?

Here’s a little repetition, making a pleasant edging to the path:

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

And there are plants to look at.

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The hostas everywhere in the garden were in wonderful condition.

And here is an amazing view, over the cliff, as it were, to the bathing pool:

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

What on earth is that revolting phormium doing, dying so miserably there?

and here’s another pool:

24th June 2013 156 .Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

If you haven’t been before you may even find those last two a ‘wow’. However, – and this will be too picky for some, but is an interesting question I think – does this

24th June 2013 155 Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens s

really belong in the same garden as this?

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The inevitable green murky water….shame.

Or indeed with this?

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The garden loses coherence and integrity for me, juxtaposing these incongruent styles and time frames. This is not what would happen in a first rank garden.

And, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is no longer a first rank garden. It’s pretty enough in places, but the planting is random and mostly meaningless.

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Was that really a yellow grass? Or just my rotten photography?

At best, pretty. At worst

24th June 2013 108 Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


There are problems which I find in almost every public garden I visit. Intrusive staking:

24th June 2013 164 Staking..Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

– the garden is well strapped up.. Intrusive and inaccurate labelling:

24th June 2013 163 Anemone lipsiensis - think not. Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Bare soil and random planting:

 Bare soil and random planting. Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

and things which make no sense at all – what on earth is that Trachycarpus doing there? It is ugly, out of place and unhealthy. And distracts from a good view, together with its miserable friend the dying phormium.24th June 2013 112 Trachycarpus fortunei Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Perhaps this

24th June 2013 159

was not surprising?

So what did we think, overall? I really don’t know what these gardens  (Kiftsgate and Hidcote) looked like originally in terms of their planting. I imagine pleasant evening walks with like minded plant lovers, discussing the plants, and maybe not the planting. Eric, (name not given) in a comment on a recent post spoke of the  ‘British upper crust whose passion for collecting every new plant from every colony in the Empire that defined what we think of as today’s English garden style of dynamic and complex mixed borders of shrubs & perennials.’ 

This may have been the origin of the planting style, but was it really executed like this? Discussing the ugly bare soil and gappy planting which appears here and at Hidcote, a friend instantly identified ‘the tyranny of the hoe, the death of good gardens’. I recently spoke to John Sales, who says that gardens are all about management and this, I believe, illustrates his point. Hoeing is horrid.

And as for the majority of the planting,  Gertrude Jeykll said, and I never tire of quoting:

‘I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and how ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.It seems to me that the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in gardens is to so use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should always  be training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistitic conscience that will not tolerate bad or carless combination or any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honour to be always striving for the best. It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening which may rightly claim to rank as fine art.’

I think this is an aspiration which both Hidcote and Kiftsgate have let slip. Perhaps the maintenance style is that of professional gardeners? In which case, their training may need reviewing.

And perhaps over familiarity with a garden – when it has been in the family for a long time as this has for example, -means the sharpness gets lost? Perhaps it’s a good plan to call in a critical eye now and again to discuss what’s needed in a garden to freshen it up?

Anne Wareham, editor  of thinkingardens and garden maker at Veddw. See also (if you are interested in garden reviews and critique) the visit to the Laskett.

014 anne pic

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: