Keith Wiley was head gardener at The Garden House, in the southwest of England, from 1978 to 2003. Here, on the rainy fringes of Dartmoor, he pioneered an adventurous new approach to horticulture to create what was been described as the most exciting and innovative garden in Britain. His aim has always been to work in harmony with nature, allowing plants to thrive much as they would in the wild. He takes inspiration from nature to create areas of planting that capture the essence of some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes on the planet.
Keith has published three books: On the Wild Side (Timber Press, 2004), Shade (Mitchell-Beasley, 2006) and Designing & Planting a Woodland Garden (Timber Press, 2014). He is a regular contributor to all leading gardening magazines, a somewhat reluctant guest on British television, and has lectured widely on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2004 Keith featured in a photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London celebrating the 53 people in Britain whose work has most influenced ‘our ideas about nature, gardens and the world of plants’.
Trained in both environmental science and the creative arts, Ros Wiley’s artistic talents began to flourish at the Garden House, amid the lush, green landscapes of south Devon. During their 25 years at the garden, the Wileys were responsible for developing a looser, more naturalistic style of planting which proved to be an irresistible source of inspiration for Ros. Her paintings caught the dancing light and jewel-box colours of this widely admired garden, attracting interest from collectors around the world.
Despite the pressures of creating an entirely new garden from an empty field, Ros continued to paint when the Wileys moved to Wildside in 2004. Ros died, far too young, [the victim of an aggressive cancer] on September 4th, 2019. (The eulogy given at her memorial service can be found below.) However, her studio is now open to visitors on open days, exhibiting a large number of her works. A few in the future will be offered for sale throughout the year, in order to raise funds for creating a cancer respite centre in the garden – see the Tribute Garden page for details.
Ros Wiley (6th October 1955 – 4th September 2019) – A Celebration of a life.
Ros was a quiet, warm, person, always quick to laugh, but shunning the limelight and happy to hide her talents and let others take the credit. But, beneath that self-effacing exterior beat a fierce determination. She grew up on a farm in south-east Cornwall as the youngest by far of five siblings spending much of her earliest years enjoying the freedom and space that living on a farm can bring. Later in secondary school the different ideas, viewpoints and humour that swilled around there were in stark contrast to her home life. This fuelled a determination to sample life beyond that farming community. She focused on getting good exam results and by hard graft she duly did, getting 4 top-grade A-levels enabling her to go to university. Her choice of a statistical-based Geography degree at UCL in the middle of London hardly seemed appropriate for a country girl with a deep love of the natural world and she left after her first year, escaping to the Lake District to sort out what she wanted to do next. She lived by the shores of Derwentwater for a few months working in a hotel and exploring the fells on her time off.
Hotel work though, however beautiful the surroundings, was always going to be temporary and this time her choices of university course and location were much more suited to her personality. In 1975 Ros went to Wye College, an offshoot of London University, in the heart of beautiful Kentish scenery to study Rural Environmental Studies. She was never one to take the easy option, so despite the college being packed to the gunnels with very wealthy farmers’ sons, she fell for probably the poorest student, with the weakest grasp on financial matters in the whole college. It was however my greatest good fortune and thus began a 44 year love affair that never dimmed.
When we graduated from Wye, Ros chose not to pursue a further degree at Sheffield but instead to follow me to Devon to be at the Garden House where I had been given the Head Gardener’s job. She was a natural, self-taught painter but for a year she took a general Arts & Crafts course at Plymouth Art College where her creative talents excelled in everything she touched. A coffee table she made had to be forcibly prised from the Principal’s office at the end of her course and she proved to be a very skilled and talented potter. When that course finished she started working in the nursery we had set up at the Garden House and very quickly was soon running that with her trademark efficiency. We married in this church in 1980 and to keep costs down organised everything ourselves and unbelievable as it seems to me now Ros did all the catering for our reception as well.
Besides selling plants to the garden’s visitors we also set up a pottery for her. A couple of years later and now seven months pregnant, she had her first and only firing of her new kiln, as a few days later, she went into labour. Talk about unprepared, as neither of us had the foggiest what was going on. When her waters broke one evening, we phoned the doctor’s surgery to ask what the heck was happening and 90 minutes later, with no name decided, and seven weeks early, along came our ‘screaming Jimmy’, who on registration 2 weeks later became placid, laid-back Tom.
Now motherhood took central stage and I remain in awe of how well she did this given she had so many other pressing commitments and interests. As well as being a mum and running our own household, Ros ended up propagating and growing all the plants we sold, then organising their delivery and presentation in the sales area, including staff rotas both at visitor reception and in the tea rooms which she was also running. However whenever one of her paintings from the tea-room walls sold it gave her such a buzz that people would give her money for something she loved doing so much. That never left her and even a few weeks ago when she was very seriously ill the sale of a painting noticeably lifted her spirits. When she did paint she entered an almost trance-like state of contentment, all played out to full volume Rolling Stones, Dire Straits or an eclectic mix of other artistes. Painting was when she was most blissfully happy.
The relentless pressure of work did become a factor in our decision to leave the Garden House and step into the unknown of creating something on a bare field at Wildside. Enough has been said about Wildside recently, suffice to say, none of it would have happened without the herculean efforts that Ros put in. Even the very essence of the signature style of planting that has become associated with Wildside owes its origins to Ros’ love of the way wildflowers mingle and interact. Her knowledge and tastes for colour arrangements are the very basis of my own, and every idea of design or plant grouping I had would be run past her for approval. A less than enthusiastic reply would result in me looking again at whether it was such a good idea in the first place, and a total silence would almost invariably mean the idea was dead in the water as she was almost always right on reflection.
I have based this eulogy on what I consider to be her overlooked and often understated achievements through her life. She was also a wonderfully patient loving mother, doting granny and loving, caring sister to Heather. As someone said to me a week or so ago and I quote “Aside from her talent Ros was such a quietly observant, wry, funny, intelligent, insightful and sensitive person but it took me some time to see those sides of her”
Many people have also said to me in recent weeks what a wonderful legacy she has left behind with her paintings and the garden she helped to create, and yes, her spirit is in every leaf, flower and stone of Wildside, but gardens by their very nature change. I think her true legacy was that at her core there was a genuinely good human being with barely a bad cell or mean thought in her. Throughout her life you would be hard pressed to find anyone who ever met Ros who would say anything other than positive things about her. That warmth, that smile, that barely suppressed sense of humour, those are memories to be cherished.
For me personally, she was my whole life, and the love, joy, humour, friendship and companionship we shared together will be with me forever, and for all that and a million and one other things, I thank her from the very, very bottom of my heart.