Places: The Beth Chatto Gardens

After such a long hiatus (take a look at my Published work to see what I’ve been up to), I couldn’t help but write about a long awaited trip to a very special garden.

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Stood with in earshot of the A120, and less than 15 minutes from the centre of Colchester, it is difficult to imagine that a garden could so easily transport you away from the present moment. And yet among the island beds of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, I could have been stood in the mountainous foothills where she found inspiration.

The Gravel Garden was started in 1991, converting 0.35ha (¾ acre) of parched grass car park into a new garden. Faced with low average annual rainfall and poor quality, heavily compacted soil there was uncertainty about whether anything would ever grow. However, instead of despairing at the conditions Beth used these to her advantage. This included taking into consideration the changing weather patterns, with hotter, dryer summers and milder winters.

By early spring 1992 the first plants started to fill dry riverbed-inspired design. Beth used hosepipes to define the beds, creating two long outer borders with a series of sinuous island beds between. The pathways looped their way around the garden with no formal direction or shape.

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Bergenia and Poa labillardieri (left); Allium sphaerocephalon (right)

Every plant was dunked in a bucket of water until saturated, planted and watered again, after that only Mother Nature would provide further watering. To begin with Beth experimented with plants that grew wild in countries bordering the Mediterranean; tolerating free-draining soil and dry summers. She knew that not every plant would be able to cope with the irrigation-free conditions and at the end of the first summer wrote: ‘Not all plants will be successful, some may die, other may prove unsuitable, or simply it may be I won’t like the effect, or the way one thing smothers out another.’

Exploring the borders

In a dry, gravel-covered garden, especially on a hot summer’s day, the atmosphere could have felt arid. However, the Gravel Garden is anything but. The planting is abundant and vivid, combining herbaceous stalwarts with unusual neighbours. Swathes of purple and silver, including Allium sphaerocephalon, Eryngium giganteum and Verbena bonariensis mix with airy grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima and S. gigantea. The planting is a magnet for wildlife too, with pollinators hopping between blooms and birds taking cover in the plants.

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Sedum telephium (Atropurpureum Group) ‘Karfunkelstein’; Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’; Origanum laevigatum

Many of us are driven by colour when we garden, but in the Gravel Garden dramatic combinations of texture and shape are the main focus – even in the height of summer. At the edge of one bed the almost succulent leaves of Bergenia, with their stout, upright stems of flowers are set against a background of the fine billowing New Zealand blue grass, Poa labillardierei.

Elsewhere, Verbascum bombyciferum seeds freely around the garden. As a biennial, the silvery leaves create architectural rosettes, before throwing up triffid-like spires of yellow flowers that tower over the borders. The rosettes, which almost look like a Sempervivum on steroids, are such a contrast to the surrounding plants, including the strap leaves and arching blue heads of Agapanthus, and delicate, scented Origanium. Somehow everything is harmonious, yet the considered planting design means that every border is punctuated by a glut of shape and texture.

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Verbascum bombyciferum

With such a varied and rich use of plants, the gravel plays an important role in keeping the whole area securely linked together. Although the borders and pathways have clear definition, the sea of gravel that creeps between the spreading plants softens any hint of a line.

In many ways the Gravel Garden doesn’t feel like a garden at all. It is an ongoing plant study, living art installation, nod towards our changing climate and sickening proof that so many of us could spend less time watering. If the ‘right plant, right place’ adage needed a mascot the Gravel Garden would surely be it. Flaunting the rules of planting may seem like fun, but if following them can create a garden as beautiful as Beth’s then I’m happy to oblige.

Photos taken: early August 2016


Visit The Beth Chatto Gardens website for more information.

 

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Places: A Secret Garden

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Austere as the granite fortress may seem, perched on the edge of a gorge-like valley overlooking rugged countryside and bleak moorland beyond, it was never intended to defend or do battle. The highest garden owned by the National Trust, 862 feet above sea level and only completed in 1930, Castle Drogo is a modern masterpiece, and the last castle to be built in England.

I have grown up with Castle Drogo right on my doorstep. As a little girl I carried armfuls of flowers through the wood-clad corridors and watched the local flower club, which my mum belonged to, bring the house alive. Formal fireplaces were set ablaze with bold stems of scented lilies, while the kitchens were a cottage garden delight of produce and annuals. In my teens I performed in a play that told the story the Drewe family who once lived in the castle. The gardens were our stage and the moving performance wound its way down to the imposing granite entrance of the cosy castle.

The Drewe family bought the empty plot of land and gave gifted architect, Edwin Lutyens, a budget of £50,000 to build the house and £10,000 for the gardens – although the project had cost three times the original estimate by the time it was finished. Lutyens embraced the unusual brief of a Norman fantasy fortress, but made sure that the castle had all the mod cons it would need to be a snug family home. The design included a flat asphalt roof, which began to leak soon after the castle was completed and continued seeping water into the house until a major scaffolding-clad restoration project began in 2012.

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Completely detached and hidden from the family home, the gardens are approached by a set of moody granite steps; flanked on either side by towering yew hedges, which are guarded by a windbreak of beech trees. With out this wall of greenery the borders would be battered by unforgiving moorland winds – the location receives an average rainfall of 45 inches every year. Anyone making their way down the long, sweeping drive would travel straight past the gardens completely oblivious. There are no entrance lodges, ornate sculptures or flawless topiary, just unruly heathland and beech trees.

Lutyens put as much effort into the gardens as the castle and with the help of knowledgeable plantsman George Dillistone, the area was divided into three separate spaces. The first room, discreetly hidden by the yew fortress, is a formal garden. A checkerboard of rose beds divides the pristine lawn, with four newly planted crab apples adding height to the lowest part of the garden. Making sure the roses are healthy is a labor-intensive job as the soil condition is poor acidic and stony. Each corner of the formal garden is punctuated with breathtaking domes of pleached Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Pendula’) – welcome areas of cool air and shade on hot, still days and simply planted with hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) and European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum). On either side of the lawn are raised terraces with deep herbaceous borders. A path runs from one end of each terrace to the other, although instead of being a continuous line, elliptical curves allow planting to spill over the path and create a meandering walk. It is believed that the design work Lutyens did in Delhi influenced the shape of these paths.

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More glittering granite steps, with twisted wisteria mirrored on either side, lead to the next level of terrace – a small fragrant garden. Again, balance is key. The long strip of terrace has two of the four Persian ironwood domes at either end. Yew forms the skeleton of this area also; two benches look back down towards the formal garden, positioned in alcoves cut from the hedge.  It is clear how important shape and symmetry are in the formal garden below. Even though there are multiple levels, the strength of shape and sharp line makes it all interlock seamlessly.

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The formality suddenly changes, after climbing another flight of steps, as crisp lines of the pathway disappear, blurred by the branches of Japanese maples, magnolias and azaleas. Winding woodland paths loop around the back of the shrubs where ferns and foxgloves grow side-by-side under the towering beech trees. The formal garden is a distant memory, with the boundaries of the surrounding Dartmoor National Park trying to creep into the garden. The Shrubbery is a complete contrast to the perennial-heavy formal garden; it provides a fiery display in spring and autumn when the rest of the garden taking a breather.

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One last room awaits and it is possibly the boldest space in the entire castle. A final ascent of steps leads to the huge, but empty, circular croquet lawn. The simplest but most striking part of the garden, a pathway circles around the island of grass, with a loop of familiar yew hedge and beyond that the halo of beech, appearing taller than ever. The framing provided by the trees makes the sky as important as the plants themselves. The branches seem to reach up and touch the clouds, pulling the atmosphere down into the garden. For an enclosed space, the structure and size of the trees and hedging, coupled with the vastness of sky, stops the garden feeling small and understated. The simplicity of the croquet lawn never ceases to excite me whenever I visit.

The gardens at Castle Drogo are not large, especially compared to many stately homes. However, this helps them to feel more like a family space, not a statement of wealth or something boasted about whilst taking tea in the drawing room. It owes its success to three elements: beech, yew and granite– the backbone of the design, and the defense system guarding the precious microclimate. Combined with beautiful planting and enforced by inspirational line and shape, Castle Drogo is a garden that will always feel like a second home – forever welcoming me back with open arms.

PLACES: Piet Oudolf @ Hauser & Wirth

 

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Layers and layers of planting

I couldn’t quite believe it when I found out that one of Piet Ouldolf’s newest garden designs was a stone’s throw away in the quaint village of Bruton, Somerset. The renowned designer and plantsman has worked on some truly incredible projects, from The High Line in New York to the Serpentine Gallery, London. A leading figure (he basically invented it) of the New Perennial movement, his design style is effortless, natural and unlike any other. For many designers he is someone to idolise and aspire to.

The garden in question, at Hauser & Wirth gallery, has been planted with no less than 25,000 plants! All carefully placed around the modest 1.5-acre site. It is a perfect example of the New Perennial movement, layered swathes of grasses and herbaceous perennials with sinuous pathways that guide you around the space. I wish there had been places to sit with in the garden. With out places to pause it felt like I was on a conveyer belt, being slowly led around the garden with all the other visitors. However, it was still a delight. Each turn created a completely new perspective of the garden and a new collection of plants layered together.

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Looking up the garden from the gallery

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A small selection of key plants

Alongside the garden there is an exhibition of Oudolf’s planting plans, an insight into how he creates and develops his signature style of planting. They are definitely worth seeing and a great reminder (particularly for me) that it is best not to be too precious about your work. If something needs changing, grab a pen and change it!

What also interested me, as I walked around the gallery of felt-tip pen planting plans, was this idea of gardens as art. To go and visit an art gallery to appreciate scribbles and lines on tracing paper. It is probably a subject with no perfect answer; I definitely don’t know where I stand. However, it did make me wonder whether placing garden design in hushed, whitewashed rooms would unlock horticulture to new audiences. Does linking gardening and contemporary art make it appear youthful and trendy? Or does it just raise Garden Design up another step higher on the social ladder?

I could probably dedicate an entire blog to debating the subject and perhaps still end up with no definitive answer. If you like art, wear those peculiarly cool-but-oversized-glasses and haven’t heard of Piet Oudolf then the exhibition is probably a good thing. If you are a 16-year-old school leaver with a slight interest in horticulture, but you don’t know how to pursue it, then a pretentious art gallery probably isn’t for you.

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Perfect colours even in the dull weather

It’s hard to end a post when I cannot even come to a conclusion with myself. Promoting garden design and horticulture in new and unique ways is obviously a good thing. However, I hope garden design never looses sight of the dirt under its nails.

Not forgetting Piet Oudolf and his marvellous new garden, here is a lovely and rather apt quotation from his book Designing with Plants. ‘In the same way that a painter works with a palette of coloured pigments, so the garden designer can select what plants to use from the palette of plants’.

PLACES – The Courts Garden, Holt

Much of our time gardening is spent battling. Whether it is the on-going job of weeding, cutting hedges that are out of shape, edging paths, staking, tying, raking, pruning… we definitely keep a tight control of how our gardens are allowed to grow.

However, as the year starts to wind down, so do we and our gardens take on a glorious ‘shabby chic’, as herbaceous borders elegantly flop over paths and patios, like untying your hair after a long day in the office.

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A line of topiary ‘figures’ walking across the lawn

This is why I particularly enjoyed my visit to The Courts, near Holt in Wiltshire. The let-it-all-hang-lose-effect of late summer, just takes the edge off pristine formal gardens and is a beautiful reminder that sometimes plants just need to do their own thing.

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An archway of apples and grapes, unlike any I’ve seen before!

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I fell in love with the colour of this vine

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…and also fell in love with this combination of grass and hips

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