The Serge Hill Project, a Community Interest Company recently started by Sue and Tom Stuart-Smith

Posted: October 18th, 2023

Anyone interested in gardens and the therapeutic benefits of gardening needs no introduction to the dynamic husband and wife duo of Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith.  

Drawing on their prodigious knowledge and expertise they have started the Serge Hill Project, a Community Interest Company working in partnership with the local Hertfordshire based charity Sunnyside Rural Trust. The Orchard Nursery will work with local charities and horticultural resources to offer educational activities focusing on mental health especially with schools and young people but all ages as well with a range of learning disabilities such as autism, adults with dementia and care leavers.

The Plant Library and the Orchard Barn at the Barn Garden, Hertfordshire home to Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith

The Plant Library and the Orchard Barn at the Barn Garden, Hertfordshire home of Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith

It is a win win combination of Tom’s and Sue’s expertise and passions; the couple are eminent figures in their respective professions – Tom is an internationally renowned landscape gardener and Sue is a psychotherapist and psychiatrist and is also the author of the best-selling The Well-Gardened Mind book.

The seeds of the idea originated at the Garden Museum’s first Literary Festival which was held at the couple’s house, The Barn Garden in Hertfordshire. Christopher Woodward, the Director of the Garden Museum found Sue’s talk on the beneficial impact of gardening on mental wellbeing so inspiring that he urged her to write her book. Serendipitously it was first published just as Covid took hold. It has since been published in 18 different languages.

Before lockdown Tom took the drastic step of moving his entire office from London to the Barn House. One of the couple’s sons Ben, an architect, suggested Tom shift the centre of his operations – creating a studio and office at home.

‘I was worried about the impact it would have on Sue and was scared that my staff wouldn’t come with me, but they did’.  It all sounds very utopian – the staff car-share the journey to and from their homes in London, taking it in turns to cook lunch, using ingredients, grown, of course, on site outside their office.  It all sounds too good to be true, but it clearly works.

‘I realised very few of my employees had their own gardens meaning that they lacked sound practical hands-on knowledge of plants.  Also, some of them studied landscape architecture and consequently have limited plant knowledge.’

Tom had the ingenious idea of creating a living plant library. ‘We needed a collection of plants not a designed garden.’ He began by asking everyone to suggest plants: ‘the result was a very unadventurous list.’

The library comprises some 2,000 different varieties of plants  on a catalogued grid of 1 metre square. Each plant has its own plot and number which can be easily located on the data base.

‘Visually it is very exciting’ says Millie Souter, Head Gardener, who is responsible for the library. She is assisted by a team of volunteers. There are lots of rare plants including some not normally grown in England. Many were sourced from Olivier Filippi in France, Derry Watkins of Special Plants and the Dutch nursery de Hessenhof. 

Millie Souter who looks after the Plant Library

Millie Souter who looks after the Plant Library

The Charles Dowding ‘no-dig’ method was employed to prepare the site – laying a layer of cardboard followed by six inches of composted green waste from the local council that had been cooked to a very high heat killing off all the weeds.  In the first year 2022 a limited amount of watering took place but there has been none in 2023.  Part of the grid encompasses a damper woodland area covered in 2-3 inches of strulch, a straw that has been mulched. It doesn’t blow away and regulates the soil’s heat whilst retaining moisture in the soil.

a stunning rodgersia in the damper section of the Plant Library

A stunning rodgersia in the damper section of the Plant Library

The collection is always changing, plants are often moved around and edited. ‘Initially it was a collection of garden plants with a few airport thrillers, but along the way it has been refined’ says Tom.

Sunnyside will be growing a wide range of perennials for commercial sale propagating with plants from the library on site using it as a stock bed for the nursery.  All the herbaceous plants Tom used in the garden he designed for the Horticultural Iconic Hero garden RHS Hampton Court were grown by Sunnyside.

‘Most garden centres and nurseries sell plants grown from plugs from Europe. Very few nurseries now propagate. Sadly, it is a dying art’  Tom observes.

The Plant Library is an invaluable resource for learning about the plants and for sparking ideas. Tom’s staff can often be spotted wandering around scrutinising the plans armed with notebooks.

Tom himself loves ‘spending 3 hours weeding on a Saturday morning.’

Sue envisages the plant library becoming a great teaching tool for children particularly as climate change and biodiversity are now on the curriculum. ‘Kids already adore immersing themselves zig zagging around it.’

The plan is to launch the Friends of the Plant Library who will have access to it one day a week using it as a reference resource for horticultural students, gardeners, garden designers and local schools.

The Orchard Barn designed by Ben Stuart-Smith of Okra Studio

The Orchard Barn designed by Ben Stuart-Smith of Okra Studio

To one side of the library is the beautiful Orchard barn designed by Ben Stuart-Smith, co-founder of architecture social enterprise Okra Studio.  It is a carbon-sink timber structure, insulated and finished in cast hempcrete and clad in shingles cleaved by hand from oaks cleared near the site and it provides a venue for workshops, talks, training and other events.

A winning combination of colours and forms

A winning combination of colours and forms

To wander around the plant library is a thrilling experience, at every turn there are marvellous plants to marvel at – including some stunning plant combinations that literally stop one in one’s tracks.

Sue says she does not have a prescriptive vision for the project. ‘I will see how it evolves.’  It is sure to be exciting whatever direction it takes.

From April to October, on the first Tuesday of each month you can visit the Orchard Plant Library and Barn Garden from 10.00am-1.00pm.  All money raised from ticket sales will go directly to the Serge Hill Project which is a not-for-profit CIC (Community Interest Company).