Serge Hill: Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith's unique project to promote gardening
At their home in Hertfordshire, Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith are working together to create a unique project to promote gardening, creativity and health. Words Jodie Jone, photographs Richard Bloom
Just over a decade ago, Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith wrote a book, The Barn Garden, about the creation of their garden on the Serge Hill estate in Hertfordshire. It was subtitled Making a Place and described how the land, which was bought by Tom’s grandfather in 1927, has gently evolved as the Stuart-Smith family’s involvement has grown and changed. Today a new chapter is being sketched out on this same wedge of land, shaped by a recent cross-fertilisation of the couple’s individual areas of professional interest. Tom, as regular readers of Gardens Illustrated will know, is an internationally renowned landscape designer. Sue is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and passionate advocate of the power of horticultural therapy, as she eloquently explained in her best-selling 2020 book The Well Gardened Mind.
The couple have gardened companionably together since their marriage in 1986, but their work spheres remained largely separate until Sue visited the Sunnyside Rural Trust. This Hertfordshire charity provides nursery-based horticultural training for young people with learning disabilities, and Sue was so impressed by what she saw that in 2015 she invited them to help in her vegetable garden. “It worked very well and they started coming every month,” says Sue. “Then I persuaded Tom to visit their base in Hemel Hempstead, and he was so struck by the value of their work that he suggested they set up a perennial plant nursery with expert help from Toby Marchant, of Orchard Dene nursery. Within six months Sunnyside was producing all the herbaceous plants for the garden Tom designed at RHS Hampton Court in 2021.”
This first-hand experience of horticultural therapy in practice had a huge impact on Tom, and the couple began discussing what more they could do to meld their complementary interests and areas of expertise. “We wanted to share what we have here in a way that would have the maximum benefit for as many people as possible,” says Tom. “Our three children are all adults, we are effectively empty nesters, so it felt like the right time to do something. We just didn’t know quite what shape it would take.”
One of those adult children, Ben, an architect, contributed a significant piece to the puzzle when he suggested Tom give up his London office and build a studio at home. Having total control over the contents and configuration of his workspace for the first time allowed Tom to consider what he felt were the important components of a successful workplace. He wanted his 18-strong team to sit down and eat together, so he included a fully stocked kitchen where everyone now takes it in turn to cook a communal lunch. He also wanted the young designers to have first-hand experience of the plants they work with. “There is an element of enlightened self-interest in this. I want to work with good people, avoid rigid hierarchical structures, and create an environment where they can maximise their talents. Few of them have gardens of their own, so they don’t have the opportunities I’ve had to observe how plants grow and develop. That was how we came up with the idea of a plant library.”
The Plant Library became the first tangible element of Tom and Sue’s broader altruistic aspirations, which were corralled under the heading The Serge Hill Project for Gardening, Creativity and Health, and in 2020 they were granted planning permission to develop a community garden on the family’s land.
“We started with the idea of creating a reference resource that would be of use to our own studio team, but that quickly expanded to include horticulture students, garden designers and local schools,” says Tom.
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“We also wanted an events space for a variety of groups that could be used as a meeting place where people could come together and support each other,” says Sue. “I visit so many wonderful therapeutic projects where the organisers are pretty isolated and would really benefit from getting together to share ideas.”
Naturally, the couple turned to their home-grown architect to design a suitably multi-functional building. Ben, co-founder of architecture social enterprise Okra, came up with a beautifully understated carbon-sink timber structure, insulated and finished in cast hempcrete and clad in shingles cleaved by hand from oaks cleared near the site. “Fortunately we ordered all the construction materials just before the pandemic hit, or we might never have started at all, but events definitely slowed us down,” says Sue.
Consequently the building is only just nearing completion, but the Plant Library garden – expertly cared for by head gardener Millie Souter – is already looking glorious. “I bought all the plants just before Covid hit,” says Tom, “so we pushed ahead with planting more than 1,200 different varieties chosen to suit the different sets of conditions, from dry sun to quite damp shade. These have been arranged in a vast and carefully catalogued grid of 1m squares, designed to showcase each specimen individually.”
Viewed as whole, Tom and Sue’s big idea is both very simple in its altruistic aspirations and enormously complicated to sum up. “What is so moving is how it works on every level. This has brought our different worlds together, and the fact is we don’t fully know what it is going to be. We want it to grow organically, based on how people respond and interact with it,” says Sue. “We are still finalising the finances and organisation, and it has been challenging at times, but I’m not stressed by it any more,” says Tom. “It may take a while to achieve its full potential, but it is important that we do it right.”
Find out more about The Serge Hill Project at tomstuartsmith.co.uk and suestuartsmith.com.
Gardens Illustrated is hosting an exclusive reader day at Serge Hill later this year. Be among the first to find out more about this exciting event by signing up to our Events Newsletter here
Jodie Jones is a freelance garden writer, who works for titles that include Gardeners' World Magazine, The Daily Telegraph and Gardens Illustrated.
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