Whilst the historic buildings dominate the 4½-acre site at Keble College, they are set around traditional lawned quads with flower borders and a few mature trees, the whole forming a peaceful enclosed place in which to live and work.
Butterfield's original 1870's designs did not show any plantings on the drawings: he wished the buildings to dominate, even incorporating a sunken lawn to further accentuate the verticals of the Chapel.
Later building programmes have disrupted the gradual evolution of the gardens (the former Fellows' Garden, for example, having been sacrificed to the building of Newman Quad), and around the turn of the millenium it was decided to take a fresh look at them. The consultant landscape designer Sarah Ewbank was engaged with a brief to re-design the gardens in a manner to harmonise with the buildings whilst taking into consideration more practical contemporary concerns such as labour requirements, the problems associated with maintaining historic buildings, and the year round use of the space.
The sparkling green sunken lawn is the perfect foil for the bulk of the Chapel and enhances the impression of height. The narrow borders under the walls are filled with a mixed planting. The colours are predominately green, with single white, primrose and blue flowers, and looks its best in spring and early summer. New oak benches presented by Alumni give visitors the opportunity to admire the architecture comfortably, and students an outdoor social and work area in fine weather!
The long border by the Butterfield range is filled with pentesmons and looks its best from mid-summer. During the winter, the crisp edges of box hedging form an architectural feature. Under the plane trees, a woodland planting will evenually form a tall green enclosing wall. These plants are slow growing on this challenging slope. Hopefully, this will become an attractive place for birds.
In the corner between the Arco and Chapel buildings is the “Secret Garden”, a small warm gravelled garden full of colourful bedding plants and seats, which also houses the memorial plaque laid by Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon to commemorate the College's centenary in 1970.
Once the site of an orchard, just two apple trees remain. The borders and raised beds have a soft lilac and pink planting and some grasses to add a feeling of movement. The quad is used intensively for informal social events and as an extension to the Bar and the JCR all summer, with tables and chairs on the grass.
The copper beech is about the same age as the buildings and is underplanted with an ivy lawn with cyclamen, crocus and bluebells. At the other end, by the library, are eight evergreen magnolias in locally craftsman made oak Versailles tubs. These are enhanced by seasonal bedding.
The Warden's Garden is private. The layout is from 1953 and a peaceful formal green space is being developed here.
The Gardens and Grounds team aim to be very enviromentally aware. An ample composting area has been built at the Grounds, spraying is kept to a minimum, watering is carefully targeted and birds encouraged by feeding and providing water.