5-10-5 Deb Wiles

Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

Hello and can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Deb (in England they call me Debs) and I am the Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum and a garden historian.

The Arts or Horticulture, which do you feel most associated with?

Both. They really go hand in hand, don’t they? Artistic ability runs in my family (the joke is it skips every other generation so my great-grandmother and my mom were/are talented artists. My brother and I decided to buck the trend and grabbed a bit of the talent as it tried to skip over us). I’ve always enjoyed drawing and would love to learn to paint. I’m also addicted to blank notebooks and the promise they hold, whether in pictures or words or both. I came to study horticulture later but as I delved into its history I found that art history and garden history are quite closely linked and give us a greater appreciation for each when you take the time to understand both.

Could you share with us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m a native of Southern California. I learned to swim in my grandparents’ pool before I could walk. A competitive streak meant I tricked myself into learning to read sooner than teachers thought I could and now I have a book addiction. I also taught myself how to knit and also suffer a yarn addiction. That competitive streak lead me to take up epee fencing after having knee surgery (my doctor laughed at me when I suggested the idea).  I’ve worked as a florist, shop girl, help desk girl, Sign Language interpreter, account manager, corporate training coordinator, and finally a horticulturist and garden historian.

Academically speaking, I have a BA in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Sign Language Interpreting, I studied Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at UCLA, I was a Professional Gardener Student at Longwood Gardens, did a 6-month internship at Great Dixter, and earned my MA Garden History with Distinction at University of Greenwich (London, not Connecticut).

Pasiflora flower

Can you recall your first gardening memory?               I remember sitting on a seat wall in my grandparents’ garden and pinching the Oxalis seed heads. Not knowing they were weeds, I just liked how they exploded when I touched them! In our backyard there was a Pasiflora vine that attracted Western Gulf Fritillaries so there were caterpillars everywhere, then chrysalises, then butterflies. That was the first time I connected an insect to a particular plant but didn’t understand the importance of that connection until much later.

azalea garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Azalea Garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

As Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum what does your role entail?

I’m basically in charge of the 13.5 acres of historic and modern gardens and woodlands that make up Reeves-Reed. I manage one excellent horticulturist and an awesome intern, and there is plenty to keep the three of us busy! Besides working in the garden, I also develop adult education programs, write policies and grants, work closely with all the other directors and managers since the grounds are used for children’s events, weddings, parties, etc., and work with contractors. While managed independently, the Arboretum is owned by the city so I also sit on the city’s Shade Tree Committee and interact with various city administrators on certain issues.

Reeves-Reed Arboretum, naturalized Narcissi

What ideas do you plan on implementing while working at Reeves-Reed Arboretum?

We’re currently in the process of developing a master plan that will help prioritize projects that need doing. The past few years have been defined by storm damage where clean up and triage were the priorities in the gardens. Now (fingers crossed) we can turn attentions back to restoring the historic core which was designed by Calvert Vaux, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Charles Pilat and improving the modern areas. In doing my research, I discovered that each of those designers was influenced in some way by William Robinson so I’d love to incorporate his philosophy of the ‘wild garden’ into the gardens and kick up the plantsmanship a notch or two. I also want to put to work the valuable lessons I learned at Great Dixter. Some of their methods are a century old but still work beautifully, are sustainable, and are still very applicable to a garden like Reeves-Reed today.

Future plans for Reeves- Reed Arboretum?

All kinds of horticultural mischief! I’m immersing myself in books by William Robinson, David Culp, Keith Wiley, Christopher Lloyd, and the journal I kept while at Dixter to get ideas for plant combinations and new things to try. I want the garden to retain its historic elegance but I also want to have fun and give people something new and unexpected to see.

A personal goal is to secure funding for our internships and establish a year-long apprenticeship. Currently the internships are unpaid which means we aren’t able to attract students from outside our immediate area. Managing a historic garden comes with unique challenges and we need to train up the next generation of gardeners so that they’re able to approach those challenges with confidence and skill and conserve our historic landscapes. You and I know how hard those in our field work and how much they have to learn so I feel it’s only fair that they be compensated, even when they’re still students.

GIbraltar Garden 109
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

How does having an MA in Garden History benefit your role as Director of Horticulture?

My interests and training in garden history totally benefit my role as DoH in that I know how to do the research needed for restoration projects, and I know how to “read” the landscape. Being familiar with the players and styles of the American Country Place Era also helps me make appropriate decisions with regard to plant choices and gardening styles throughout the gardens, whether in the historic core or not, so that the gardens relate to one another. It allows me to look back in order to move the garden forward in a way that honors the historic significance of the place while fulfilling its new role as a public arboretum.


If I was interested in becoming a garden historian, what steps or direction might you give about becoming one?

Step 1: Read, read, read and then read some more! Lots has been written about the subject since it became an academic interest 300-and-some years ago. Like most disciplines, it’s possible to specialize in a particular era and you can find a wealth of information on just about every era of garden design there is.  Garden history encompasses more than the changes in garden design over time, it touches on social, economic, political, military, architecture, science, and art history as well. When I say read, I mean everything you can get your hands on!

 Step 2: Get thee to England. Tragically, there are no university programs focusing on garden history here in the States. While some degree courses in landscape architecture and related fields offer a class in garden history, it’s not offered as a separate discipline like art history. The only programs I was able to find are in England; even so, two of them have disappeared in the last five years.

Step 3: Get thee a passport! Sure, you can look at glossy pictures of gardens in books and read about how, why, and by whom they were created, but gardens are spatial works of art and to be truly understood they need to be experienced in that dimension and with all the senses first hand. I had no idea how big the amphitheater at Claremont was until I went there,  and you can’t be overpowered by the warm scent of jasmine smothering the walls of a courtyard at the Alhambra by looking at a photo, or feel how truly vast a High Baroque avenue is until you stand at one end and fail to see the other.

Step 4: Get Involved and make friends in the field. The Garden History Society is a good place to start, as are the Garden Conservancy, and Library of American Landscape History. There’s also the Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian, and the Institute of Historic Research in London offers excellent free lectures on garden history. And all those gardens that you’re visiting – talk to the gardeners and curators! Every one that I’ve met has been incredibly welcoming and keen to share the story of their garden.

Step 5: Don’t leave home without a journal, a pen, and a camera. Ever! And don’t keep the stories to yourself – share them with others. Keep a blog, write for magazines, submit scholarly articles to academic journals – something I’ve yet to do but I keep hearing my tutor’s voice saying: “Just add 50,000 words to your dissertation and turn it into a book!”

Step 6: Constantly cultivate curiosity. Sometimes being a garden historian is more like being a garden history detective. People mistakenly think libraries and archives are boring but that’s when it gets fun! I’ve had several ‘OMG!’ garden history moments in libraries!

Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

If you had your choice to live in a historically important house and garden of your choice, which would you choose?

I always dream of winning the lottery and restoring the estate at Gibraltar Garden in Wilmington, DE. Another Ellen Biddle Shipman design, the garden is still open to visitors but has suffered benign neglect and the house is in a sorry state. It’s such a beautiful yet heart-breaking place, I can’t help but crave giving it a proper restoration whenever I visit! There was also a 17th century manor house recently for sale in England at a bargain price; if I win the lottery I can have both, right?

What is it about garden history that really grabs you?

I like stories and I like gardens and the fact that all gardens have a story to tell (or several stories), how those stories came to be, and why gardens change the way they do is what interests me. Also the detective work; the gardens I studied for my MA have undergone such drastic changes over the last few centuries and some no longer exist but with a little bit of snooping, you can still find evidence on the ground of past iterations of garden design. And I always get a little of the ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling when I go to the library and hold an ancient manuscript, or visit a historic family castle and hold their ancestor’s 300 year old travel diary in my hands. It’s like time travel, in a way.

Great Dixter, Topiary Garden

Choosing a public or private garden, where inspires you?

Great Dixter is a given; Christopher Lloyd’s and now Fergus’s sense of adventure and experimentation with plant combinations and their respect for and sensitivity to old ways constantly inspire.

great dixter 059

I know how much you loved being at Great Dixter, what is one of your best memories?

Meeting you and Mark and learning about Longwood…attending the symposium 9 years ago and meeting Linda Smith, who would become one of my best friends…Fergus cooking dinner for us on a makeshift bbq in the nursery…the time we went to see native Narcissus pseudonarcissus in the woods with Dan Hinkley…being introduced to Beth Chatto…going to Devon to collect Helenium for a trial and seeing Whistman’s Wood…Thanksgiving with Rachael, James, Yannick and Emma making homemade pizzas…Bertrand and me being the first to stay in the new student rooms down at Dixter Farm and figuring out how to work the oven…Craig teaching me to use a lathe and turning my own mallet…seeing Lewis’s wolf hat (or was it a fox) bobbing over the Solar Garden wall as he walked through the Wall Garden below…pricking out seedlings in the nursery…6am pot display changes…wait, did you mean just one!?

If you were to be left alone on an island and could choose one plant and one piece of art to take, what would you choose?

This will reveal what a geek I am! For a piece of art I would choose a Gallifreyan painting (from Doctor Who; Time Lord art, bigger on the inside! It’s a stasis cube which captures a 3-D image of a moment in time that you can interact with). The image would, of course, be a fantastic garden at its peak that I could roam around in when island life became tedious. With that kind of painting I wouldn’t have to choose just one plant because there would be many in the garden depicted in the artwork! (Is that cheating?)

What would your dream project be?

One of the sources of my MA dissertation was the travel diary of Celia Fiennes, a 17th-18th century noblewoman. She remarkably traveled through every county in England, visiting several great houses and gardens along the way. I would love to retrace her journeys and visit all the sites that she did, studying how the gardens have changed since she saw them. I’m researching her biography and have been to a few of the places she noted, but I would love to spend a year or two just focused on her and her travels!

What  sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?

I knit, I keep a journal, I doodle, I daydream.

Deb Wiles

Words of advice that you care to share?

I guess the cliché is, “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams” but I think there’s more to it than that. Dreams are powerful things and that power can propel you in directions you may not have imagined and might not be prepared for. They can put you in the company of giants and take you to distant, foreign lands. They upset your life in wonderful ways. So don’t be afraid to follow your dreams, but respect the incredible power they hold, because sometimes you just never know where they’ll take you!


Thanks for the interview and for being an inspiration Deb. –  James          see more @: (gotsoil?)

Thank you Mr. Robinson


When the opportunity comes up to work in a garden of historic importance, you take it, and you experience lessons that are tied in to the spirit of the place that can’t be learned elsewhere.  I had been down this road before with other gardens I had the opportunity to work at and was excited for Gravetye to tell me its story.  Having read the writings of William Robinson and seeing pictures of Gravetye Manor had only fed my fascination for the place even more for what seemed like a wild and mysterious paradise.  For you see, it is not just a house, nor a garden, but together a piece of history that changed the way many garden, both then and now.  So when the chance came up to work in this garden so rich in history, I took it because you learn things that only that place can teach, where you get to immerse yourself in history and live inside of its story.

Starting at the end of the autumn season, in September 2012, seemed like the right time to begin though I was barely able to get to see the garden before it plunged itself into a deep winter slumber.  Able to catch a short glimpse of the gardens before dormancy, I realized it was just a slight teaser of what was to come during my time there.  A year before us seems a long time to have, but looking back we realize how fast time escapes us, flying past at a dizzying rate.


The winter was long, very long, but this is the best time to get to know the bones of a garden, the structure that holds it all together, before it dresses itself in the its gaudy garb that spring can sometimes provide.Winter seemed to last longer than ever before and just when it seemed too much to bear, the sun came and brought the garden slowly back to life.


Cracking the earth open, the bulbs came springing forth out of the meadow, supplying the colors our eyes were so desperate and hungry for. It seemed like a dream, imagining William Robinson and his then team of 30 gardeners plunging tools into the ground, placing each bulb one by one during its early stages.


The rest of the garden followed suit, and with the long cool spring that was provided these symphonies


spilled into each other, creating beautiful melodies that in other years only seem to pass too quickly..



William Robinson was a man of genius, going against the grain of Victorian gardening trends everywhere during his time and pioneering the more natural and relaxed way of planting areas at Gravetye known as the wild garden. We need teachers like this or we don’t evolve, things become too stagnant, and he is responsible for pushing ahead a new way of thinking about plants that continues to evolve today.



Sometimes looking up from a garden bed, it was easy to imagine William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, who were close friends for over 50 years, discussing which plants were worth putting in the border. They often helped each other with garden designs and shared their favorite plants between them.


To live in a garden is to know it intimately, understanding when to catch plants in their best light.


Then there is the shift that all gardeners know, that shift in our bones, in temperature, and we realize we are seeing one season fade and bleed into the next. IMG_2039

We realize the first act is finished with more to follow, and a whole new cast of characters are about to appear on stage.


Didn’t someone once say that gardening is the slowest form of theater? That couldn’t be more true.



There are many plants that I learned about during my time here, and there are many lessons but one thing that William Robinson taught me is that it’s ok to color outside the lines. He taught me to think outside the perimeter of a flower bed, to not be afraid to try new combinations in these areas and he taught me how to soften the landscape with plants.  It is easy to color in the lines, but Robinson has pushed my boundaries, and so has Tom, who continues to see things in new poetic combinations that work so well with Robinson’s gardening theory.


Time continued to tick by and each moment was spent relishing my surroundings, like watching the Long Border, that was only planted in spring, fuse together to create such a tightly woven tapestry.  The act of seeing plants fill a border out in such a rapid pace is astonishing, proving once again the importance of good soil.


Summer soon gave way to mornings of dahlias shrouded in fog, with colors that remind you that autumn was right around the corner.


Does time go so fast, because we gardeners notice all the details happening around us in the garden, causing the season to blur together? Is it because we love what we do so much, that we don’t notice the hands of time spinning in circles so rapidly? But with each circle you come to that point you once started at, knowing that time is about to overlap.


And I soon realized I was seeing moments that I had witnessed a year earlier, my eyes were no longer seeing things that were new to me, but familiar…


And my year at Gravetye had come to an end, and in that time span I encountered so many lessons, large and fragile, and I take all of that forward with me.


Thank you William Robinson for letting me experience your creation, and Tom and team, for educating me in a whole new way of gardening… James

Gardeners as yet.. W.R.

Gravetye Manor

Gardeners as yet seldom look at general effects of things. The flowers are so dear to them that the garden, as a picture, is left to chance, and hence so much ugliness in gardens, for those at least who look to the robe as more than the buttons.  – William Robinson


Wall flowers at Gravetye

       In the early spring we finally planted out the long border, meant to be a summer border, at Gravetye, and now it is a treat watching the plants fill out, take off and come into their own.  It is the guests who always make me smile,  as they excitedly point at this plant and that combination,  comparing their plant names and knowledge with each other.  There are certain guests who see not only the show taking place in the border but rather the theater that is taking place behind the bed on the stone wall. Plants they drive me up a wall…

        The south facing stone wall is about 12′ tall and is home to a cast of plants that have rooted into its crevices, enjoy the free draining soil, and flourish in the baking heat of the sun.  The largest plant in the wall by far is the plume poppy, Macleaya cordata native to China and Japan. This member of the poppy family blooms in summer and will soon put out a spray of white flowers. Heliotropism works to our advantage here,  causing the handsome foliage to be displayed to us in the best way possible.

                  A small plant by no means, Erigeron karvinskianus, is a South American native, and is a member of the Asteraceae family. The tiny perennial plant with daisy-like flowers thrives happily in full sun and well drained soil and loves to self seed.

                    These self sowers are pest and disease free and can quickly create dense carpets of blooms, giving a textural buzz. I have also seen these cheerful blooms colonize steps at Great Dixter, causing smiles to anyone walking over them.

The diminutive blooms with golden yellow discs florets first emerge white, turning to a pinkish-purple as they age.

A Geranium planted in the bed beneath, stretches up to reach the Mexican fleabane to create a colorful combination that couldn’t exist any other way.

                   A vertical pairing like this one in the photograph is successful in terms of contrast between the Erigeron and Geranium blooms and handsome Macleaya foliage. This combination could still work if planted in the ground next to each other but it will be drastically different.

                          A native perennial to England, Euphorbia amygdaloides, the wood spurge, is usually found growing in woods and clearings but has taken root in the wall, showing us the power of geotropism. On another part of the wall we have a rock climber growing from the crevices. These purple blooms belong to Campanula porscharskyana with heart shaped foliage and is  known as the Serbian bellflower.

                          With its heart shaped foliage and star shaped flowers, this perennial plant stretches itself farther and farther up the wall, causing guests’ eyes to twinkle with delight as it catches their eyes. Who knew wallflowers could attract so much attention!                   -James

Gravetye Giant full circle

fog meadow

In full bloom
In full bloom

In the autumn, shortly after arriving at Gravetye Manor, my friend Stuart and I were asked to bulk the wildflower meadow up with more spring blooming bulbs.  The morning is forever engrained in my mind, a cool foggy mist surrounding us as we plunked each dormant bulb into the cold dark soil with our trowels, lost in the quiet cloud of our task. I first learned about this bulb early on when I  started studying horticulture, Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’, seeing it used often in gardens that put it to good use as a plant that naturalizes easily. This is a cultivar that has history here at Gravetye the great garden writer,  William Robinson found its bloom to be superior in size to the others growing on his estate.

We continued planting a  few crates of them into the grass  that was so heavy with moisture, and I thought to myself about how these bulbs were returning home, their place of origin, the home of their much older relatives that they descended from.  As I tucked each one to sleep for winter, packing the soil around them, my thoughts turned to Spring and I looked forward to seeing their green tips of their foliage, still months away, emerging in heat of warmer days.

Now, with Spring having arrived, it is obvious to see that these bulbs are everywhere at Gravetye, coming up in drifts in the wildflower meadows, in the hillside gardens, and even growing in clumps in the woods along the drive to the house. They bloom for a long period of time, about 2-3 weeks weather depending, due in part to the multiple bell-shaped flowers that emerge one after the other and all dangling from a single scape.  With the blooms now beginning to fade outside, and the foliage soon turning yellow, it is only a matter of time before there is no trace of them left in the garden, only known to those who have seen them here. Feverishly I cut some stalks for myself, to be greedy and have some alone time with them, to prolong this memory of my friends that I met in Autumn. William Robinson was a smart man for seeing this plant and realizing its potential and for the future, I will never see this bulb in the same light again, now that I have seen its history come full circle.   -J

Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'