A Garden Designed to Run Wild

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In “To the Small Celandine” (1815), William Wordsworth marvels at the itinerant nature of the flowering plant: “Careless of thy neighbourhood, / Thou dost show thy pleasant face / On the moor, and in the wood.” The ode is one of three the poet wrote to his favorite flower — commonly known as the lesser celandine or fig buttercup and recognizable for its glossy, egg-yolk-yellow blooms — which is also a persistent weed. This fact, that what some see as a flicker of natural brilliance is to others a nuisance to be removed, puts the lesser celandine, along with many other wildflowers, in a precarious position. And indeed, so many gardeners come down on the side of “nuisance” that to cultivate wildflowers purposely, to allow them to be the focus of one’s labors, even, is something of a rebellious act.

This is an idea that has captivated Caroline Kent, the founder of the British stationery company Scribble and Daub — which offers letterpress cards hand-drawn with vibrant pen-and-ink illustrations — ever since she first encountered the gardens at Great Dixter in East Sussex, England, an ongoing source of inspiration for her, almost a decade ago. The historic estate consists of a mid-15th-century timber-framed manor house that, in the early 20th century, the architect Edwin Lutyens, acting on commission from the house’s owner, Nathaniel Lloyd, combined with a 16th-century yeoman’s hall; Lutyens also laid out a six-acre garden. In 1954, Lloyd’s son Christopher, who had always loved working in the property’s garden with his mother, Daisy Lloyd, and who had recently been working as a lecturer in horticulture in Kent, returned to the family home to open a plant nursery on the grounds, which are now preserved by a trust. Working from Great Dixter until his death in 2006, Christopher became one of Britain’s most pre-eminent gardeners and garden writers — he completed 25 books and had a longstanding weekly column in Country Life magazine. He was known for his willingness to deviate from tradition, once telling the horticultural writer Rosemary Verey, “a garden is a garden [and] whether it looks English or not, I wouldn’t care.”

“Upon entering the property, you see stately York sandstone flags and an ancient gate,” says Kent. But then these elements give way to something wilder: In tension with the considered architecture of Lutyens’s gardens, done in an Arts and Crafts style consisting of a series of distinct “rooms,” Lloyd’s plantings are profuse, bold and joyfully informal — as he put it, there are “shrubs, climbers, hardy and tender perennials, annuals and biennials, all growing together and contributing to the overall tapestry.” He, along with his mother, until her death in 1972, also tended to the property’s various swaths of dedicated meadowland, from which, come the warmer months, wildflowers, including orchids, yellow rattle and buttercups, emerge at random. “Many traditional gardeners find it outrageous,” says Kent. (This is, after all, the same country where she once witnessed a neighbor trim the edges of a flower bed with a pair of nail scissors.) “But I think it’s magical.”

Credit…Carolyn Clarke/Alamy

She and her husband, Tim Kent, who works on the business side of Scribble and Daub, have tried to create their own magic, if on a smaller scale, with the meadow at their home in Robertsbridge, a small village that’s just a 20-minute drive west of Great Dixter. Here, a waist-high, half-acre expanse of meadowland traces the eastern and southern walls of their early 20th-century farm cottage. The gently swaying sea of wild grasses is punctuated by the bobbing heads of a multitude of oxeye daisies, their faces turned toward the sun, as well as wild carrot plants with constellations of delicate white flowers, purple thistles, pink mallow and acid-yellow lady’s bedstraw, so called because it was once used to stuff mattresses. Cutting through it all are carefully mown paths that lead to a pair of apple trees, a gift from Kent’s grandfather — a member of the U.K.’s Forestry Commission and another formative influence on her horticultural taste — who died late last year. “I spent so much time rooting around with him in the garden,” she says of her childhood in the fenlands around Cambridge.

Kent moved to the cottage, originally owned by her mother-in-law, with Tim in 2010, after spending a decade working as a curator and artists’ agent in Scotland. And though the garden there now reflects her own romantic and informal style, it did require some initial sweat and toil. Wildflowers, poetically, flourish on impoverished land: If the soil is too nutrient-rich, grasses grow that prevent the flowers from taking hold. This meant that the first step in creating the meadow was to use a digger to strip all vegetation, including a wasteland of bramble and an old hedge on the garden’s south side, and a layer of topsoil from the ground. Then came a major coup — two giant sacks of clippings obtained from Great Dixter. (A friend of Kent’s who worked at the estate shared word of her and Tim’s project with the property’s head gardener, Fergus Garrett.) Once the clippings’ seeds had dropped, the couple waited to see what would emerge. In time, up came indigenous plants like knapweed and yellow rattle and more exotic blooms like Camassia, byzantine gladiolus. And, though they took three or four years to come through, multiple varieties of orchid — “the holy grail of meadow plants,” says Kent. While many of these plants also appear in the garden at Great Dixter, Kent’s meadow has its own marked personality, partly thanks to the plugs of ragged robin she added “for their delicate dabs of pink,” alongside denser plantings of snake’s head fritillary, narcissus, crocus and tulips “with pink and red centers like weird fried eggs.”

The meadow plants (along with an eclectic assortment of whimsical objects and motifs, from brightly colored lobsters to lips and decorative bows) frequently feature in Kent’s work, as she likes to wander among the grasses clipping flowers to draw. In fact, the very existence of her stationery company is largely the result of “staring out of the window” of her studio, she says. That’s what she was doing when she made a single card for a friend’s wedding while pregnant with her first child, Arlo, not long after moving to the cottage. (She and Tim now have three boys.) Other requests followed, including those from Liberty London, 10 Corso Como and Hermès. Kent draws and hand-colors her creations with a dip pen and Dr. Ph. Martin’s ink — the same sort Warhol, whose influence can be seen in her cards’ confident line work, used for his commercial art in the ’50s. She also enjoys the self-imposed limitation created by drawing exclusively with pen and ink, particularly the fact that using ink often means relinquishing any ambitions of coloring to the precise edges of an outline. This dance with imperfection gives Kent’s work a sense of freedom and spontaneity, one carefully balanced with her eye for an elegant detail or flourish (her cards are printed on the finest Italian stock). Her favorite collaboration thus far might be the one she did with Great Dixter itself — a line of cards depicting plants from the meadow there, proceeds from which went to its charitable trust. She’s working now on another project with the estate — which has been hard hit by the pandemic and will host a digital auction next month — and on an expanded range of floral cards designed to support various charities.

If drawing is one way for her to glean therapeutic benefit from relinquishing control and feeling close to the land, so is the garden itself, which is guaranteed to come with unexpected occurrences, some welcome and some less so: A group of deer recently ate all the fruit and young shoots from the apple trees. Kent and her husband keep the meadow’s edges neatly mown, and cut it down in its entirety, with scythes, to scatter its seeds every September. The timing of the cut determines which plants will return the following year, though in that, too, there’s only so much that can be controlled. Plants emerge wherever they like, and yet, says Kent, somehow “always manage to pop up in the right places.”

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