VIDEO: Shaping the magnificent gardens at West Dean

Husband-and-wife team Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain have written their own 'natural conclusion' as they near the end of their time at West Dean Gardens.

Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain (c) Andrea Jones
Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain (c) Andrea Jones

With retirement looming for them both at the end of March next year, they have chronicled their achievements as gardens manager and gardens supervisor respectively in a new publication, At West Dean: The Creation of an Exemplary Garden by Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain (White Lion Publishing, £40 hardback). It is the first book to document comprehensively the extensive restoration project at West Dean Gardens which Jim and Sarah have overseen since their arrival in the early days following the devastating storms of 1987 and 1990.

It was a book Jim admits he was initially reluctant to write.

“We have been asked to write books for the last two decades and I thought if you are going to write a book you need to have something to say and you need to want to say it, and also writing books is quite hard work. But the same person that has been badgering us for years knew we were coming up for retirement and asked us again, and I thought ‘Well, film stars write books; actors write books. Why can’t gardeners!

Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain (c) Andrea Jones

“I have written a lot of magazine articles over the years but writing a book is something very different. I decided that I wanted to write a book about our time at West Dean, what we have done, why we did it and maybe also to give some pointers to other gardeners.

“I also wanted to write the book from a professional perspective. One of the problems is that people think that what you do professionally is the same as what you do in your own garden, and it isn’t. I also wanted to celebrate gardening.

“One of the first things I say in the book is that you are in it for the long term. We have been here for 28 years and to be frank we have only just got to where we want to be.

“As a gardener you have to like being in the natural world. You have got to like being out there at all times of the year. You have also got to be ruthless. People get sentimental about plants, but you can’t as a professional. There are times when you have got to be quite brutal. We are dealing with a hundred acres with relatively-small resources.

“But totally integral to what you do, you have got to have an eye for beauty. You have got to have almost a familial relationship with the landscape that you look after. You have got to know it in all its guises. But you have also got to realise that you are not totally in control. You are at the beck and call of the elements. In lots of respects, I am a control freak, but in others, you have got to accept that you are not always in control of the garden, but that can be a good thing. I am a great believer in happy accidents, when something just happens that works out.

“But yes, beauty is what you are looking for. The story of the Garden of Eden, the myth of paradise. We are all somehow harking back to the desire to be in that good space, to be part of that ease and beauty. I am not going to try to define beauty, but I know it when I see it, and a lot of it is to do with that sense of rightness. Some gardens are over-engineered, over-worked. It feels like they have been imposed.

“If a garden, just like a work of art, isn’t right, you can just feel it. When it is right you just can’t imagine it being any other way, and one of the nicest things that people say when they come to West Dean is that it feels right. A garden should seem effortless. You don’t want it to seem too obvious or that someone has tried too hard.”

Fortunately, Jim and Sarah arrived at a good time: “I would like to think that we have given the garden a renewed life which is sustainable into the future. When we arrived, the garden was tired. The garden had been knocked about. We arrived in 1991. There had been the 87 storm and the 1990 storm. West Dean had been known for its large trees – too many trees. And that was cured by the storms, cured in a very brutal fashion. But in hindsight, they did a lot of good. They cleared a lot of dead wood and dying wood, and what the storms did across the country was that they forced landowners to assess what they had, what they had lost and how they wanted to go forward.

“We were fortunate to arrive at the point that the storm damage had been cleared and the trustees were going through the process. It could have gone either of two ways. They could have retrenched and gone with a considerably-reduced garden and they could have done as they did and gone with my argument that this had been a great garden and could be a great garden again, a real asset for the foundation. It was very much about directing the resurrection.”

And Jim uses the word resurrection deliberately. His faith is an essential part of his gardening: “I see it all as very much a co-operation with the creator.” And also with his wife Sarah. Officially she is the gardens supervisor while Jim is the gardens manager, but he is happy for them to be considered, for ease, as the head gardeners – head gardeners whose achievements have now been set out for all to see in the new book. They retire on March 31 next year, almost 28 years to the day after arriving: “The idea of retirement has grown on me in the last two years. We love what we do, but I will be 65 and it is still a very physical job and your body starts to tell you that you are not even 55 anymore!” And that’s where the book has helped, as part of the transition: “It is one of the things that has made me less worried about retirement. It is like a natural conclusion.”