Two years ago when we dug the pond, the soil from the excavation was trundled up the hill and used to extend the level beyond the barns, where I’ve been gardening with self-seeders in the rubbly ground. The new soil pushed the landform out towards the plum orchard where, in the back of my mind, I’d always seen an extension to the garden. The subsoil from the base of the pond was capped with the topsoil strip and in the first autumn the banks were seeded with a wildflower mix from our neighbouring valley, to hold the slopes. We over-sowed the topsoil with a green manure crop of winter rye and clover to protect it over winter. Then last spring, after rotovating in the green manure, I sowed an annual pictorial meadow mix to buy myself a summer of additional thinking time.
My mother, who is quite rightly concerned about us overreaching our energies, loved the riot of colour that flooded the new garden last summer. “Could you not simply repeat the annuals rather than give yourselves yet more responsibility?”. Of course, it was a good question, but the germ of an idea had already sprouted. I mowed a curving path into the annual meadow of cosmos, cornflowers and fluttering poppies to play with the idea of a movement across the site and so began the shaping of the place in my mind. We would keep a working track to the barns that would divide the flatter ground from the gentle rise above to make two new environments. The upper area, beneath the grown out hedgerow on the bank above, would provide the opportunity for a shade garden, while the lower area would offer a place to experiment with a plant palette that will cope with our increasingly dry summers.
Over the winter, I started a plant list. One for the dry garden, which will be this year’s project, and one for the shade garden, which will be planted next year. In March we started on part one with the apparently simple act of scoring a line through the space. The mown path from last year became a brick path, a line of conviction that takes us through the space and allow immersion in the planting. We upcycled local bricks from a demolished Victorian factory in Bristol, which matched the brick in our milking barn. To accentuate perspective and lengthen the space the path becomes narrower at its end, where it will eventually lead to a break in a new low wall that will hold the sloping ground of the shade garden above. Steps in the wall up into the shade garden will lead through the area where we now have a topsoil pile, and lead to a gate into the plum orchard. From there we will be able to turn and look over the new spaces and the pull of the valley below us.
A number of contributing factors have been the drive for the planting to either side of the brick path. Until recently our West Country climate and the springs which run through our ground have allowed us to grow the hearty perennials that have thrived here, but the last two summers have called into question how we garden here on our open, free-draining slopes.
The commission to redesign the Delos garden at Sissinghurst also allowed me the opportunity to get to know a Mediterranean palette with more conviction. I spent time with Olivier Filippi at his incredible nursery in Southern France for my research into plants for a dry climate. A palette which will not need any additional water once established and be happy here as long as it has free-draining ground in the winter. The learning of one project naturally fed into the thinking for the other.
The third factor which influenced how we approached the garden was hearing Peter Korn speak at the Beth Chatto conference in 2018. He described his experiments planting into sand, which he used as a deep mulch to improve drainage in the crown of the plant, while encouraging the roots to go deep into the existing soil beneath. A 15cm layer of sharp sand also inhibits seeding, which in my case will help keep down the maintenance.
The sand mulch will help improve winter drainage, because we are quickly learning that the effects of climate change are not as straightforward as simply planting for drought. The possibility that we might not have water or be able to irrigate in summer is a real consideration, but more rain in winter is not ideal for many Mediterranean plants, which tend to have respite from rain in their winter, not the continual wet, which, from recent years, seems to be becoming the pattern here.
Making your own garden where you are prepared to push the boundaries of your own comfort zone is also important to grow as a designer and as a gardener. It is also good to be able to take your time and to grow slowly into a garden and so I have raised a large proportion of the plants from seed or cuttings so that I really understand their life cycles from the beginning.
I have started with a few key moves to provide structure. Four yew domes, which I will grow out into soft mounds to echo the horse chestnut and old Luccombe oaks in the distance, enabling your eye to make connections beyond the garden. The path in turn encourages your eye to travel to the surrounding hedgerows, so that the planted garden doesn’t sit in isolation. The reclaimed stone mortars that I’ve worked into the planting will provide anchor points for smaller combinations. A tree broom over one with a pool of pale mauve Phlomis italica and the lime green form of Bupleurum longifolium. Near another, white Vitex agnus-castus with Salvia sclarea ‘Vatican White’ and silvery verbascum for vertical tapers. The planting will mostly be low with wisps of feathery stipa to catch the evening light that sets behind it.
I have an order for drought-loving plants placed with Beth Chatto’s Nursery that have been proven in her gravel garden. Californian fuchsia, asphodeline and Baptisia alba, which so far I have failed with where our ground lies too wet in winter. There will be special umbellifers and other treasures noted on last year’s trip to the remarkable De Hessenhoff Nursery in Holland and I have plans to re-visit Olivier Filippi’s nursery to try and secure some special phlomis and the olive-leaved convolvulus. My aim is to complete the planting over the course of the summer and early autumn to settle the plants in before the winter.
It is good to be able take the time to make a place and feel your way with a garden and whilst I am planting up the new sand garden, we have wallers working away on a drystone wall, which will hold back the bank behind the shade garden. The new wall will be a line in the landscape that makes this place feel intended and settled and provide a backdrop against which we can foreground winter-flowering shrubs and autumn-fruiting spindle that will offer shade. Meanwhile, my woodland list grows and seedlings of plants that are hard to find begin their journey to next year’s shady sequel.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 26 May 2023