What Were We Thinking?
Our garden sits on the heavy clay of the closed down clay pits used by Brannam’s pottery until the early 1960s.
The lawn that was here when we moved in was cracked and crazed and it was clear that grass was not going to be an easy option and therefore we have none. One quarter of the garden is a solid apron of 4 to 6 inch concrete and we did not fancy doing much to that so it now houses seating areas, two large (16ft x 8ft and 14ft by 10ft) greenhouses and some large raised beds, all built on top. A huge block built shed at the bottom has been demolished except for the back wall and thus we have a mini walled garden segment behind the greenhouses.
A further quarter of the garden is taken up by the large pond and surrounding beach, with the soil dug up to make it creating a long bank along the back of the garden which is home to an enormous banana plant, a few trees and an enormous rambling rose. We have now added a couple of beds either side of the pond so that, on a sunny day, we are not blinded by the glare of the sun on a mass of yellow Cotswold chippings.
We have a central tropical bed full of giant plants
These bits of design were determined by the geography of the space we bought (fortunately the garden came with a free bungalow that someone had built on the plot). The rest of the garden was designed and has been endlessly meddled with over the past 20 years to display our favourite plants. Often plants are picked to suit the design of a garden but in our case it is the other way round. This was driven home in the winter of 2018 when the kind donation of brugmansias from John Kelf and Exotic Earth Plants resulted in a significant number of changes to accommodate these beauties.
The principles are simple and not at all unusual. We have tried to create a garden where you can’t see too much all at once and have to go round corners and be surprised; while at the same time providing areas where you can get sweeping views and appreciate some of the bigger plants from a distance. With National Garden Scheme openings in mind we also wanted lots of seating and have created several areas so that, although the garden is only 50ft x 100ft, we can have up to 30 people sat around (drinking tea, eating cakes, chatting about the garden, unfortunate fashion choices of the gardeners etc). One favourite seating area is a large U shaped pergola where up to 10 people can sit round, which leads to visitors who don’t know each other meeting up.
The planting choices are based on the fact we had a tiny garden before coming to Devon and had a ‘no fillers’ rule. Every plant had to earn its place and we have brought that philosophy to bear in a bigger garden. Plants have to be loved to find a place here rather than just be liked or tolerated because they fill a space. The plants we love are all divas in some shape or form, either being enormous, brightly coloured, scented or else dramatic in some other way (ugly or sinister etc). This has led us to the tropical or subtropical style of William Robinson revived by the late Will Giles in the 1990s with a twist of our own. This approach, we feel, is just another element in the garden design toolbox and so there are no hard and fast rules (other than avoiding overly aggressively speading plants!). We have a tropical area full of tall cannas, colocasias, paulownias and other tropical treasures, one greenhouses mostly full of dramatic passionflowers, and a second full of hedychium; raised beds with hardy flowering highly scented hedychium and coloured leaved ensete bsnanas, a prairie area with rudbeckias and perennial sunflowers, a sort of hybrid medditeranean/South African area, a spring area and an autumn area for shrubs various. The rule is that if a plant looks good it stays and if not it goes. As a result we are quite happy for things to self seed and neighbouring borders do often bleed over into each other. In 2018 we tried out a June preview opening to take advantage of the high early numbers and for people to see the early summer cottagey garden thing going on. A visitor was outraged that we allowed foxgloves to flower in the Mediterranean area; the explanation that they were allowed to grow there because they looked good did not convince her (we do appreciate that, for some people, strict adherence to rules and discipline is a key part of their gardening enjoyment, and other parts of their lives too – or so I’m told. But it’s not for us.) With our kind of garden the role of the gardener is more to incite a riot than to establish control (though as we move into the spring weeding and planting season I’m reminded how much discipline is required to ensure the right kind of riot!)