World Garden at Lullingstone

PUBLISHED: 12:34 25 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:34 25 October 2015

The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle

The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle


2015 has marked a milestone for Tom Hart Dyke, celebrating 10 years of his World Garden at Lullingstone Castle, which has blossomed from an idea envisaged while in captivity in the Colombian jungle. From darkness to light and with irrepressible enthusiasm his journey is one to really inspire

Tom Hart Dyke conceived the idea for the World Garden at Lullingstone while he was being held captive by terrorists in the Panamanian jungle. Sometimes when faced with adversity a turning point can change your life for the better and we are all thankful that was the case for Tom.

Heir to Lullingstone Castle, one of England’s oldest family estates, Tom’s journey has helped to deliver the property into a more certain future with the success of his World Garden. In case his story isn’t familiar to you, here’s the background to what could have been a tragic situation.

While orchid hunting in 2000 with Paul Winder, a mountaineer friend, in the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, they were kidnapped. Tom was just 24 and travelling around the world on a plant-hunting expedition partly sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society.

On 16 March 2000, almost immediately on entering the guerrilla-infested rainforest, they were seized by gunmen and for nine months dragged around the jungle with them. The British Embassy gave the boys up for dead, although their parents never once gave up hope.

“On 16 June 2000, a rifle was pointed at my head and we were told that we would be executed that very night. They told us to prepare to die and left us alone for the afternoon. Paul spent the afternoon in prayer,” recalls Tom.

“Like any other sane plant hunter worth his salt, I pulled out my jungle diary as a mental escape and began drawing plans for my dream garden at Lullingstone that would contain plants collected from across the globe, planted out in their respective countries of origin.

“At five o’clock on the dot they came back. I closed my eyes. I opened one eye. I opened the other eye. No guns, just the evening meal; squashed armadillo,” says Tom with a wry smile.

Fortunately their captors eventually released them suddenly in December, saying, “Go away, get lost or we will shoot you.” The boys certainly did just that. “We got lost and had to go back to the guerrillas for a map. They gave us money; they paid to get rid of us,” adds Tom casually.

Possibly there was an underlying respect for this ‘plant nut’ making gardens in the mountains despite the adversity he faced. The expedition, that had gone so disastrously wrong may have deterred an ordinary mortal, but Tom remains determined to continue his plant hunting.

“The experience made me look at life a little bit differently. It also gave me the impetus to really ‘go for it’ in a horticultural sense when I returned home to Lullingstone Castle a week before Christmas in 2000,” he explains.

From the seed of an idea, the jungle sketches, plus a world map-shaped plan drawn up once safely home in Kent, Tom with the help of garden designer Adam S Bailey saw his dream become reality. Central to it all are the plants in the garden and the legacy for his family. “I persuaded my father to mortgage the castle to pay for the construction of the World Garden. It was a bit like the last throw of the dice for us, as only by attracting paying visitors can we continue to maintain the family pile,” says Tom.

In 2004 the existing herb garden was cleared and the building of the World Garden began, opening to the public in Easter 2005. “The old herb garden had been tended for 20 years by my Gran, whom I call ‘Crac’, and it was an emotional day when we decided to go ahead with the plans for the World Garden and take out all the old roses, poppies and apple trees.

“Gran got me interested in plants when I was three and she gave me a packet of carrot seeds and a trowel. She filled me with a wonderful passion for plants and for adventure.”

Over 10 years the garden has evolved through hard graft, with the support from wonderful volunteers and visitors, many of whom return to see progress. This year has seen a succession of events to mark the anniversary, including the delightfully eccentric Plant Hunters Weekend.

“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought we’d be so far ahead. We haven’t had an actual timetable of what we would do until the last couple of years.

“It’s not exactly as visualised, it has digressed in a very positive way, but the map idea and ethos behind it to show where plants come from and about plant hunters has been realised.”

The design is made up of continent shapes in a world map set over an acre, representing Australasia, Asia, Africa, Europe, The Canaries and the Americas. The first country the visitor comes to on entering the space is the UK.

“It makes sense to start our trip around the globe, here in the UK,” says Tom. “This is where the great plant hunters embarked upon their journeys around the globe, risking life and limb to bring back amazing flora.

“The aim of the garden is to show where the plants we grow today actually originate from and to learn about the plant hunters who introduced them to our shores. More than 80 per cent on average of what you see in each UK garden isn’t from the UK as a native plant at all.”

The process has been a therapeutic one. “You realise how lucky you are and I’m doing what I love, expressing my passion for horticulture. I love the Q&As at the end of a tour, it’s a way of venting and works really well. It’s given my parents, who have opened the gardens for 60 years through the National Gardens Scheme, a new lease of life too,” he adds.

Despite the garden needing to be run on a tight budget, the UK’s first-ever ‘World Garden of Plants’ continues to grow and build each year, with rare and important plants being added.

Some of Tom’s special plants include Puya retrorsa from Ecuador that flowered for the first time this year, and he hopes to soon obtain a Welwitschia from Namibia. One of his latest plans is to build an orchid house.

Tom’s experiences have resulted in celebrity, from a best-selling book he and Paul penned about the Colombian trip, The Cloud Garden, giving talks, being the subject of documentaries and presenting on television.

“There are so many spin offs from the idea I had 15 years ago in captivity. I could never have dreamt in my wildest dreams of all that has come of it. The garden in so many ways has kept the place going.” w

Get in touch

Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford DA4 0JA

Open: April -Sep Fri, Sat, Sun, Bank Holiday Mondays and Sun in October, 12-5pm, adults £8, children £4

Plant of the month

Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’

• Crab apple

• Small, deciduous tree

• Showy spring flowers

• Inedible glossy fruit

• Ideal for winter interest

Growing notes

• Fertile, moist, deep, well-drained loamy soil

• Full sun to part shade

• Protect from wind

• Won’t tolerate water-logged soils

• Fully hardy

Jobs to be done

• Tidy borders, cut down collapsed plants but leave some that fade elegantly such as sedums and grasses

• Leave some perennials standing also for winter interest and for wildlife, birds will enjoy the seedheads and hollow dried stems make great shelter for insects, especially ladybirds

• Plant tulip bulbs in the garden and containers for a spring display next year

• Clean out pots and the greenhouse

• This is a good time to plant bare-rooted trees, shrubs, roses and hedging

• Rake fallen leaves, use some for leaf mould and tuck a pile out of the way for hibernating hedgehogs or other wildlife

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