At West Dean – Book review

Our Guest reviewer, Susie White, reviews ‘At West Dean: The Creation of an exemplary garden‘.

West Dean in West Sussex is one of the most important gardens in England, famous for its walled kitchen garden, its 13 working Victorian glasshouses, 300 ft Edwardian pergola and 50 acre St Roche’s Arboretum. Gardening on this scale, balancing all the different elements of the grounds, and elevating it all to the highest standard has been the work of Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain for the past 27 years.

A new book celebrates this achievement, largely written by Jim with Sarah as ‘technical advisor, photographic editor, muse and chief whip‘. It is their shared story.

West Dean College is internationally recognised for conservation and creative arts, and part of the Edward James Foundation which includes the gardens. Edward James was a poet and a collector of art who created an extraordinary surrealist fantasy, Las Pozas, in the Mexican jungle, visited by Monty Don in Around the World in 80 Gardens.

The gardens at West Dean, when Jim and Sarah first went there, had no cohesion. It was just after the Great Storm of 1987 and one of the first tasks was the clearance of fallen trees. The garden had slid back over a couple of decades so it was a moment of change.

Areas were run down, the glasshouses were without glass and subsumed in thickets and brambles; it was a ‘sleeping beauty’. Jim and Sarah have restored and re-developed the garden, taking it to the highest level of horticulture with tremendous skill and efficiency, managing a workforce of some 40 volunteers and the organisation that that takes. That they are retiring next spring makes this the right time to celebrate and describe what they have accomplished.

Many of the techniques and ways of doing things that Jim describes in this book are applicable to home gardeners from overall thinking to construction of paths. Fundamentals such as soil and composting are covered in depth, and there are chapters on lawns, trees, shrubs, perennials and fruit and vegetables. There are tips for tree planting, for overseeing meadows and planting bulbs en masse through turf. The working areas are a perfection of organisation. As Jim says, “time spent searching for things is frustrating and inefficient”. Detailed descriptive captions really add to the narrative. As Jim says, ‘”it’s an attempt to distil into one volume our philosophy and practical approach to garden creation and management that has evolved over the 40-plus years of our careers.”

Andrea Jones took the photographs over a year from autumn 2016 to autumn 2017, making the journey each month from her home in Ayrshire. There are frosty days with bare trees, immaculately clipped topiary appearing through mist, spring meadows, shadows against brick walls and the heat and light of summer.

Taking photographs over an entire year, you get a sense that Andrea could really get get to know and feel for the garden. The images of people working are in black and white, the doing that has made the garden what it is. It is telling that opposite the Contents list, and therefore in prime position in the book, is a montage of people at work: making paths, deadheading, creating plant supports, pruning and gloved hands thatching.

This book is beautifully produced. Andrea Jones’ evocative photographs are well reproduced on quality paper. There’s a clarity to the layout with a calm balance between text, photos, quotations and captions. My only thought is that I would have liked a map, but then I like maps.

This may be the story of one garden but its themes and ways of doing things are applicable to many gardens. It’s an ‘exemplary’ book to keep coming back to.

At West Dean: The creation of an exemplary garden‘ by Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain, White Lion Publishing £40.

Susie is a Guardian Country Diarist and Member of the Garden Media Guild and the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. She is also an RHS Listed speaker. Her website is:

We would like to thank the Publishers for the courtesy of a review copy.

All pictures are strictly © Andrea Jones