We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip main navigation

An interview with Tom Brown, Head Gardener at Parham House and Gardens

Annie Guilfoyle, KLC's Head of Garden Design, speaks to Tom Brown of Parham House and Garden about his use of colour as part of planting plans
I’m Annie Guilfoyle. I’m a garden designer and I’m here in West Sussex at Parham Gardens, Parham House and Gardens. And on this glorious late summer day. It’s absolutely stunning. Talking to Tom Brown, the Head Gardener. We’re sort of discussing colour, but it’s very, very easy to get sidetracked. But Tom, tell me a little bit about the garden, the history, and who you are. Yeah. Parham House sits in Pulborough in West Sussex at the foot of the South Downs. Parham House was– the foundation stone to the house was laid in 1577, but the area where we’re standing now we think is much older than that. Because it was a monastery before Henry VIII demolished it and then the house was built.
So the area where we are has been cultivated for an awfully long time and it’s got a great deal of history associated with it From my point of view, I’ve been here for about seven years as Head Gardener, and are now trying to find that balance between creating a real place of beauty and magic for Lady Emma Barnard and her family who have been here since the early 90s. And only three families have lived at Parham since the foundation stone was laid. So it’s a truly historical family home. And what we try and do here is also cater for all the visitors that we get from April through till October.
So the use of horticulture and colour has got to deliver on two fronts really. For as a special family home and also to excite the visiting public too.
And we’re here today to talk primarily about colour, but at the moment we’re in the Rose Garden. Which in one respect has a more traditional palate with the soft pinks and the blues, but it’s not a very traditionally designed rose garden because you’ve got a lot of under-planting under your roses. Which might surprise some people who expect a traditional rose garden with bare soil. Yes, quite a different spin on a rose garden. Traditional rose gardens would be almost a monoculture of just roses with bare soil underneath them. But here we’ve got a much greater palette of herbaceous perennials that are working with the roses.
So now only a sort of supporting– a beautiful pink rose like this Gertrude Jekyll there is beautiful in itself. But all you want the planting to do around it, and the use of colour around it, is to suppose that. You don’t want it to scream too much and argue with it. So with all of the roses that we have in here, they’re surrounded by perennials that support them and also take a longer season as well. Because traditional rose gardens could be quite short in their window of interest.
So if you’ve got these beautiful perennials coming up through them, and the seed heads, and the way that the bees work on those perennials, it just adds a whole new element to that rose garden. But the main thing is again that sense of tranquillity and space that you create with that planting and the use of colour. Yeah. I mean it has an instantly much more relaxed feel to it, but like you say, we’ve just got this Gertrude Jekyll rose here which is the most gorgeous shade of pink, but then it’s coming out of and lifting out of this wonderful sort of sea of nepeta which the bees are happily buzzing around still.
But what struck me the moment I walked in here is there’s quite a lot of soft grays and green grays in here. There’s some stachys and the nepeta. Grey is such a fantastic colour to use in the garden isn’t it, because it goes with absolutely everything. Nothing clashes with grey. But with the pastel range that you were talking about, grey’s just lovely and it’s just the sort of soothing backdrop isn’t it? And the ground cover that’s underneath. It’s almost creating a harmony isn’t it? So if you’re having a conversation with three or four different people, If everybody all talks at the same time you can’t hear and you don’t get anything from the conversation. Or even a choir.
If you’ve got everybody singing in harmony, you don’t mind someone stepping forward and doing a solo if everybody’s harmonising with them. If everybody’s stepping forward into the limelight and singing away you hear nothing. So very similar with planting. So you want to work out who your stars are, who your divas are. Who your key conversationalists are. And then have the other people that will back them up. And it’s the same with planting and planting groups.
Are there any colours or any colour combinations that you yourself personally just think I cannot tolerate that, I just can’t deal with it? Yeah. Is there? Yeah there are. I think pink and yellow is always a classic one, and I find that very difficult to get on board with. But I think it depends what kind of mood and what reaction you’re trying to provoke from people. So if you did want to create that sort of stand back and start to look at a particular plant, go for pink and yellow. And also interesting thing with tulips, for example, is how many different colours you put together.
If you put three different colours together, in some ways that can really emphasise the effect. But if you go for four or five it can just be too much, and you’re better off going with two so you just get that stark contrast. So yeah, I think with colour is a very sophisticated tool that if you get it right– and we all make mistakes and we all get it wrong, I think as long as you can learn from that and build on your successes with colour that’s the main thing.
So Tom, this bed, you call it your grazing bed is that right? Yes, so like a grazing principle, if you like, what we’re trying to do in the small space, about three by three metres here, trying to create a bed which is planted up in May, and then will give you cut flowers and vegetables throughout the summer. So the idea is, you can constantly graze them. So you’re cutting your zinnias and your amaranthus your love-lies-bleeding there, and you can– and the tithonia, the large tithonia at the back– you can put that in a vase on the kitchen table.
But you can also then pick up some kale, some courgettes, and your squashes and beans and chard for your tea as well. So you’re constantly in and out all the time, coming away with two armfuls of either flowers or veg or both. Yeah, what a great idea. But I suppose then coming back to the colour theory idea, you know the colours that are going on here with the chard, with the lovely you know green leaf and the lovely red spine that goes up through it. I mean, you know, there’s a lot going on. This is quite vibrant and will go on until frost I guess. Until the frost hits it.
Yeah, go right through and producing right through until the frost. And with this sort of late summer sun that we’re getting you keep getting those cut flowers and you keep getting those leaves from the chard for your tea as well. Do you think it works best being surrounded with the box hedge because that kind of contains it, but you’ve also got this kind of green foundation, if you like. It kind of keeps it all in and then it’s almost like an oversized container isn’t it? You’ve got this– it’s contained within this. Yes they sort of create a bit of a foil or a bit of a rest on the eye before you start playing with the eye with the planting.
And again with the planting in the colour, it’s sort of a tapestry as well. Say where you’ve got this lovely orange zinnia you’re picking up with the orange tithonia and at the very centre you’ve got an orange squash as well. So your eye is bouncing all around the orange. And making your eye work with colour is very important too. I think it’s an important point though and something I again would say to clients is not to forget that green is a colour. Everybody sort of says we want colour all year round, but they don’t– often forget the importance of having this evergreen, whether it’s box or whether ilex or whatever it might be.
That’s giving you your sort of stabilisation throughout the year that’s something really solid. But I’m intrigued with this one, this zinnia here with your favourite combination of yellow and pink. So how do you feel about that? Because that’s such an amazing natural colour combination. Does that sit well when you or does it make you sort of spike a bit? I think in the context of this I think it works. I think if you were to then start putting yellow with that pastel tones I think it would shout out a bit too much. But it kind of– it harmonises with this. It fits.
And because you’ve got these zinnias that are really grabbing your attention in the planting, they’re surrounded by, as you say, the lovely green box and the purple kale, the red banana. Which kind of allow you to exhale a bit as well when you’re looking at the planting. So you can– they can shout really loud because everybody else is quite quiet.
I wonder if you agree with this that actually by picking flowers and arranging them you can play around with colour combinations in a small way. And then that will give you ideas for next year. And putting cut flowers together you can actually– that works amazingly well or that isn’t great you know. With a lot of the borders that we’re working on– we’re working on a white border at the moment– but if we were to plant all white flowers it wouldn’t work. So we’re looking at the use of silver, dark green, and lime green to set off the white.
But the starting point for designing that border is actually to go around with a bucket and cut flowers and textures and put them all in a bucket. So you almost got your border in a bucket. So you can then say to someone that perhaps hasn’t got that same vision that you’ve got up here in translating that. That’s what I mean. So you’re right. Actually cutting stems, cutting flowers, putting them together in a vase or in a bucket gives you that sense of what you want to achieve on a much greater scale.
Parham House is an Elizabethan manor house that was established following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. The house and its grounds are located at the foot of the South Downs hills in West Sussex.
The house and its beautiful gardens and grounds are open to the public in the spring, summer and autumn.
Tom Brown has been Head Gardener at Parham House for 7 years and in this video discussion with KLC’s Head of Garden Design, Annie Guilfolye, he explains his approach to colour use in the garden.
This article is from the free online

The Power of Colour

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education