I’d planned a leisurely morning. A bit of gentle pottering around in my own garden, then out later to deal with something at a garden I look after.

My phone buzzed: fellow Ranter Marianne was in my area, should we meet up?


We visited Wildside, a small but interesting garden near the romantically named Devon village of Buckland Monachorum.

Created by Keith Wiley and his late wife Ros, Wildside describes itself as an experimental garden. There are no lab coats and carefully controlled conditions here: this is an experiment in New Naturalism.

A scene in the central part of Wildside, the only flat part of the garden

When Wildside was conceived, just 20 years ago, New Naturalism was still very much in its infancy in the UK. The British gardening scene at the time was dominated by the ‘garden makeover’, largely thanks to a popular TV show called ‘Ground Force’. The premise was that a team of gardening presenters created a new garden to surprise someone who had experienced a tragedy or difficult time in their life. Looking back it was rather formulaic; a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), a bamboo, a water feature, a deck and so on. No doubt it was easier to adapt a set formula to each garden rather than to design from the beginning each time; it certainly did wonders for sales of maples, bamboos, water features and decking at the time

The New Naturalism pioneered by the late Henk Gerritsen, and popularised and further developed by Piet Oudolf and others, was a strange new idea.

What Makes Wildside Different?

Generally speaking, designers create gardens that largely work with the natural topography of the site. Usually there is a reluctance to do too much groundwork beforehand, work which adds to costs and slows progress.

By contrast the gently sloping site at Wildside was restructured to build a series of mounds and valleys; the topography of Wildside is nearly all completely artificial.

This hill hasn’t always been there


Why go to such lengths to create a garden when it’s much easier to create a garden on a gentler site?

Gardening with dramatic slopes can indeed be a challenge, but can also offer different opportunities. Get the planting right on sloping ground and you can display plants in a more ‘three-dimensional’ way.

It’s easy to enjoy the beauty of camassias at eye level

Think in terms of a school photograph: if everyone is standing at the same level then it’s difficult to make sure that everyone is in the picture, but if you stand students on tiered staging you can show everyone equally, making a much better group photograph.

What Use Is This To Us?

The two main areas of interest at Wildside are the physical structure of the garden and the planting.

In addition to showing the plants off to their best advantage, the artificial hills at Wildside create a series of habitats for plants; on one side of a hill it will be hot and sunny, creating the perfect place for plants that prefer these conditions, while on the other side it will be cooler and shadier. An interesting selection of trees also helps to cast shade too.

Luxuriant shade loving plants

Usually gardeners rely on trees, shrubs and hedges to create different growing conditions. This is perfectly reasonable, practical, and a less expensive and destructive way to make a garden. Wildside demonstrates an alternative approach, changing the ground itself to create different areas of the garden.

The planting is broadly speaking separated into zones according to the plant’s needs, the classic ‘right plant, right place’ mantra at work. However while there are clearly themes to the planting there isn’t a rigorous attempt to by puritanical about them. If a plant looks right and will grow well then it is included in that part of the garden. The idea is to nurture a sense of place rather than to show off a botanical collection.

The plants at Wildside seem to get along

Marianne and I both saw plants that are unfamiliar to us and we would love to have known what they were, but at the same time the overall effect was so captivating that we didn’t really mind too much.

White irises and thalictrums punctuate shades of green, yellow and blue

We were quite taken with a white Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) next to a pond; we gardeners usually prefer the effect of massed flowers in our gardens. Irises however have a distinctive shape, an architecture to the flowers, that can get lost when they’re all close together. We noticed how much more impact the small dabs of white had than a big clump, and how even at a distance you could make out the distinctive shape of the iris flowers.

In Conclusion

Don’t hire machinery to rip up your garden just yet.

Creating Wildside has been a labour of love for a long time; it’s been a massive undertaking and labour of love, and took nearly 20 years for the whole garden to come together. The apocalyptic earthworks of the early days, the subject of much local discussion, have been vindicated by the garden as it stands today.

Trees are maturing nicely, but so is the underplanting

The landforms at Wildside are beyond most of us to replicate but remain interesting; when construction work is carried out there is often a lot of soil that must be removed. It might be possible to reuse this soil in the garden, to create interesting changes of level in the garden rather than paying for the soil to be taken away. If your garden has very poor soil then you might consider bringing soil in and creating landforms on top of the underlying soil, giving you good growing conditions without having to spend endless time and money trying to improve your existing soil.

Also, and it’s a point that needs to be stressed far more in gardening, have fun. Be as brave and as bold as you can.

Mix things up.

Defy convention. Push the boundaries and don’t be afraid to question conventional gardening wisdom and practice.

Bearded irises seem happy in the sunnier parts of the garden

Gardening has become beholden to the words of a small group of people/organisations perceived to be all-knowing, but this hasn’t always been the case. Before we had endless books and websites telling us what to do and how to do it, gardeners were free to experiment with ideas and share their results with other gardeners. Older gardening magazines contained letters and articles from ordinary gardeners keen to share information based on their observations.

Most things in gardening came about because someone had an idea and tried it out. There’s increasingly a sense that gardening has become stagnant, with progress inhibited because gardeners believe that the practices taught on horticulture courses and in books represent the pinnacle of our understanding rather than just suggestions about how things can be done.

20 years ago gardeners believed Keith Wiley was mad to dig up his gently sloping field; they now flock to Wildside to see the results of his efforts. Hopefully others will be inspired to make their own Wildside.

A few might even be inspired to improve on Keith Wiley’s work, after all New Naturalism was built on the foundations laid down by William Robinson over a century before.