One of the most respected head gardeners working in Britain today, Tom Coward cut his teeth as Fergus Garrett’s deputy at Great Dixter in Sussex. For the past nine years he has headed the garden team at Gravetye Manor, once the home (now a hotel) of Victorian ‘wild garden’ exponent William Robinson. The garden is open only to paying guests, and Tom busies himself with creating pleasingly boisterous borders (Crocosmia ‘Zeal Giant’ in full effect on my visit) and developing a highly productive kitchen garden that is harvested daily for the head chef.
Tom draws me away from the post-lunch guests socialising by the lawn and up through the Azalea Bank towards the walled kitchen garden. It is here he seems most at home, plucking fruit from favoured trees and bushes for us to consume on the hoof. We start with apricot ‘Flavourcot’, a revelation for someone like me who is not an apricot fan (or so I thought). Then there are sticky mulberries from an ancient tree, peach ‘Peregrine’ from the glasshouse, which Tom says is the best cultivar of all, and ripe, red ‘Discovery’ apple from the orchard, which he candidly admits is below par at the end of July.
This kind of connoisseurial appreciation of produce is a traditional trait in head gardeners – but Tom has combined a thoroughly modern grounding as a gardener with an unconventional career.
It all started with fruit, his passion. And there is indeed something rather apple-like about Tom himself, with his rosy cheeks, round face, amiable disposition and a soft burr of an accent, thanks to an upbringing on the Isle of Wight. “My mum is a brilliant gardener and I helped her in the garden quite a lot,” he says. “I vividly remember one occasion when I was a teenager. We were working in the garden when she just stopped and said, ‘Oh, I wish I could do this as a job’. This ‘ping!’ went off in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea, mum’.”
Tom left school at 16 with the idea of going into commercial fruit production. He applied to RHS Wisley as a specialist fruit student, but was taken on to train in general horticulture. “That year blew my mind,” he recalls. “I was a naive boy from the Isle of Wight.” Tom says he is still in touch with his contemporaries – all of them professional gardeners. “You only realise later that it’s your classmates who are the most important thing.”
After four years’ study at Pershore College and then three more at Kew Gardens (on its celebrated Diploma in Horticulture course), Tom finally got the idea of commercial fruit-growing out of his system. His first job was as assistant head gardener at a property owned by Sir Paul McCartney in Sussex. It was quite a learning curve. “I discovered a lot about working on your own and making the most of the situation. It was a big shock after Kew, where you’ve got 300 mates and you’re all growing the best plants in the world; then suddenly there are just three of you.”
After two years of this Tom went travelling, working in gardens in New Zealand and France to earn money as he went. It was during his travels, in 2007, that he got the call from Fergus Garrett at Dixter. “I was on the next boat,” he says.
Tom had known both Fergus and the late Christopher Lloyd since his time at Wisley, but says that being at Dixter changed him as a gardener and as a person. “It was the best education in flower gardening that you could dream of. The intensity of Dixter is quite phenomenal – the number of people and plants. I learned about the importance of detail, and about plant selection – what it is you are looking for in a plant, the flowering season, the colour. It was already in there, but Fergus was able to formalise it.” It was not just technical expertise that Tom took away from the experience: “It all made sense – a feeling that you’re not just wasting your time with gardening. It was a validation of your craft.”
Three years later, in 2010, the position at Gravetye came up. Oddly enough, Tom had already been offered the job before, six years earlier, by a previous owner. “I turned it down then and really regretted it,” he recalls. “I knew the garden well from my time at Wisley. A friend of mine was head gardener there. We used to spend the weekends playing chess and drinking rum coffee. We’d walk around the garden and fantasise about what we would do if we had the budget.”
Now Tom is in a position to make the fantasy a reality. The five gardeners he appointed on arrival are still with him, nine years on, and he says that at the age of 40 he enjoys the challenge more than ever. “I love it here. Sometimes I dream about gardening in another climate or being given a lump of soil and the freedom to do what I want with it. But no, I’m quite content. Unlike some other head gardeners, I can just get on with the gardening.” Which means, of course, that he can grow as much fruit as he wants to.
Useful information Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex RH19 4LJ. Tel 01342 810567, gravetyemanor.co.uk Tours of the garden tours are available.