The Power of Horticulture: One Garden in Stanmer Park

Photo courtesy of One Garden.

While there is something inherently democratic about gardening there is also no doubt that it can feel like an exclusive world. Well-known gardens generally charge money for entry or are part of grand estates where many of us don’t feel any connection – or welcome. Personal gardening usually involves living somewhere with outdoor space, and the resources to tend it.

Yet there are some incredible projects around the world encouraging people of all backgrounds to start growing. Like Ron Finley’s ‘gangsta garden’ scheme, that empowers people to grow fresh produce in what he calls ‘food deserts’; or gardens in camps for displaced people where women can find solace and independence amongst the plants. And more locally to us in Sussex, there are places like One Garden Brighton.

I’ve visited a few times since it opened in 2021, so I’m nearly put off my latest trip by a heavy burst of rain. But my deadline’s looming and I want to refresh my memory. So, in waterproofs and sturdy boots, I hop on a bus and arrive in time for a temporary break in the clouds.

Free to enter, designed to inspire growers with small urban gardens, and home to educational, horticultural and community projects, One Garden Brighton is a fascinating and beautiful ‘place for everyone’. It is set in the walled garden of Stanmer Park, Falmer, on the outskirts of the city. The Palladian-style Stanmer House was built in the 1710s for the Pelham family. The house and gardens, set in 500 acres of park and woodland, were designed by French architect Nicholas Dubois in the English Landscape style and completed in 1748.

Since then, Stanmer Park has housed the Prince Regent and his mistress, a traitorous colonel involved in the American Revolution, injured soldiers home from the Western Front, Canadian troops stationed there during WW2, pupils at a boarding school, and Sussex University students (including Doris Lessing). Many of the Canadian soldiers took part in the failed amphibious raid on Dieppe in 1942 [see pg 82]. They had practised in Stanmer Park for this ill-fated mission, driving tanks around the parklands and launching mortar bombs.

By the 1960s the house was owned by the local council and fell into disrepair, until it was bought by a businessman, renovated and turned into a restaurant in the 1980s. The walled garden had been used to grow food for the house and was taken over by Plumpton College to train horticultural students, but Stanmer Park was on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. In 2017 the college, in collaboration with Brighton & Hove City Council, the South Downs National Park Association and others, won substantial funding to restore the garden and 20 acres of landscaping.

Volunteers began clearing overgrown areas and the walled garden was redesigned by Dominic Cole, who had worked on the Eden Project. Students and staff from Plumpton College replanted and landscaped the space, with the intention of creating a greener future and to get more people involved in horticulture. The new garden opened to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, when access to nature and open spaces was more needed than ever. Now the park has a Green Flag, recognising it as a well-managed space, and the garden is a popular destination for people of all ages and backgrounds.

When you visit One Garden Brighton, you’re immediately struck by the impressive walls flanking the borders, and the varied planting of the different sections within. As Peter Wood, Head Gardener, explains: ‘The principle of the design is to inspire our local community, presenting ideas or concepts more on a scale of our own back gardens.’ Cole has divided the space into small, themed gardens, like the drought and rain gardens that show how planting can mitigate some of the effects of climate change, a mindfulness garden that encourages contemplation and relaxation, and a pollinator garden designed to attract and support insects. The medicinal garden showcases plants that have been used to treat illness, like willow, rosemary, garden mint and hollyhock. There’s even a Canada garden, in honour of the park’s wartime past. Visitors can buy many of the plants on site, taking home not just inspiration but a piece of One Garden Brighton’s story.

The design uses unusual combinations of plants – the main path is lined with apple trees and hardy banana palms, climbing plants create hedges, and throughout there are interesting mixes of textures and colours. On this visit I am again struck by a sense of curiosity, of wanting to know what is around the corner. And because this visit coincides with the runup to Halloween, today this is not just inspired planting but a pumpkin-headed scarecrow or dummy witch splayed in a tree. Children run eagerly along the paths, delighting in giant cobwebs and freedom. Young couples explore with damp whippets. Older people stop to admire the vegetables.

As another deluge comes down, I linger by the rain garden, looking at how some of the various plants (wisteria, euphorbia, zantedeschia, lonicera, pachysandra) capture water on their leaves. Although each garden is distinct there is an easy flow around the space that encourages visitors to wander, pause, and meander. I cross a wooden footbridge, brush past tall grasses, skim my hands along bare-headed rudbeckia, spy handsome orange marrows in the vegetable garden that inspire menus for the One Kitchen restaurant. The whole place invites interaction and engagement. It is not a garden to observe, but to be part of.

As well as the shop selling produce made by Plumpton students, there is a barn that houses community events and art exhibitions, a café, huge glasshouses awaiting restoration, and even a dog-grooming studio. Visitors can come for a floristry or propagation workshop, enjoy a meal or coffee in the garden, and go for a walk in the woods beyond.

The design of the whole space is artful. It feels inclusive and achievable. As Liz Mouland from Plumpton College explains: ‘We believe in the power of horticulture to shape the future: to improve our food, wellbeing and environment. Through our part-time courses (some of them RHS-accredited) and apprenticeships, we offer immersive education for a changing world.’ One Garden Brighton has community at its core –whether that’s local people, the wildlife it supports, or the global community who need to adapt to an uncertain future.

Next time, I’ll visit on a sunny day, when I can sit on the grass and absorb the sights and sounds properly. For now, I head back to the A27, dodging spray from passing traffic and picturing tanks lumbering through the undergrowth.

Lulah Ellender is the author of the memoirs Elisabeth’s Lists (Granta, 2018) and Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden (Granta, 2022).