Tom Brown, Head Gardener of Parham House, West Sussex
Tom Brown, Head Gardener at Parham House, West Sussex, is surely destined to become a luminary of the horticultural world. As one steps into the four acre walled garden it is immediately apparent that here is an exhilarating garden steered by a consummate plantsman. At every turn there is something to delight and intrigue whether it be an unusual plant or a subtle combination of colours or textures. A gentle, modest man, Tom constantly re-evaluates every inch of his domain as well as continually dreaming up new schemes. The fact that Sarah Raven has written about him in the Gardening Section of the Daily Telegraph demonstrates a growing recognition of his talent.
Parham is an idyllic Elizabethan country house nestling in the lee of the South Downs. But it was not always thus. The Hon.Clive and Alicia Pearson bought it in 1922 in a sorry state.They carried out an extensive programme of repair with the help of the architect Victor Heal and opened the house to the public in 1948. ‘There are many old and historic houses now opening their doors for the first time to the public, but none, I believe holds safe within its walls a more enchanted atmosphere, a greater peace and kindliness, distilled perhaps from all the centuries it has outlived,’ wrote Alicia Pearson.
There is a beguiling timelessness that pervades the spirit of the place. The house is now lived in by Lady Emma Barnard, a great granddaughter of Clive Pearson and her husband. Two years ago I wrote about the long tradition at Parham of cut flowers in the house (see my blog: https://www.doddingtonplacegardens.co.uk/the-parham-style-of-flower-arranging ). It is an important aspect of Tom’s work.
Tom first became interested in gardening when he was sixteen. He began working at RHS Wisley in the plants centre. ‘It was before computerization,’ he tells me. ‘My job every other Sunday was to go round with a clipboard counting the shrubs in the shop. It was a great way to learn.’ After training at Merrist Wood College, he jumped the hedge and starting working at Wisley full time in the Floral Ornamental department under Jim Gardiner, Vice President of the RHS. After an eight year stint, he moved to the Trials department finishing his RHS career as Senior Supervisor.
Tom became Head Gardener at Parham in 2010 and oversees a team of five gardeners who each have a specific role, as well as several volunteers. For example, Max manages the vegetable garden and the cut flowers. ‘A big project for next year is what we call ‘grazing beds’.’ Tom explains that these are large edible bedding schemes, with plots measuring 3 x 3 metres. ‘The idea is to produce lots of cut flowers and vegetables throughout the summer,’ he enthuses. ‘You can pop in every week and come out with an armful of produce and blooms.’
Sensibly Tom is conscious that visitors want to be able get inspiration for their own gardens ‘Most people don’t have long herbaceous borders on our scale. If people have a small space in their back garden they can replicate our ‘grazing beds’ with whatever takes their fancy.’ See Alexandra Campbell’s excellent blog on gardening tips to take home from Parham:http://www.themiddlesizedgarden.co.uk/8-inspiring-ideas-stunning-english-country-garden/
Inspired by his work in the Trials department at Wisley, Tom is continuing the practice at Parham. ‘We do a lot of trials.This year we planted up a 30 metre bed with several different alliums.’
Henry looks after the five main herbaceous borders. ‘His job is to make them look individual.’ Look carefully and you will observe that the schemes are tightly orchestrated using a palette of just a few plants.
But for me it is the glasshouse that is the crowning glory of a visit to Parham. The dense profusion of flowers including daturas, fuchsias and perlargoniums in a relatively confined space is magical. Tom and his team recently overhauled the greenhouse stripping all the plants out. ‘Now everything is in pots with nothing in the ground. The idea is that we can keep juggling things around to maintain the overall effect. Overwintering plants in the greenhouse attracted pests.
‘This way we can root prune the plants and keep them healthy.’ It also made us realise that a lot of our pelargoniums are not available anymore. ‘We now have the ‘Parham Collection’ growing separately so that if we lose a plant in the greenhouse we still have a specimen.’
Do visit Parham, which is open in October. I promise that you will not be disappointed.