Country Homes & Interiors - - MODERN COUNTRY -

Colour­ful cot­tage-style plant­ing on a shore­line in Dorset

When artist and gar­dener Deb­bie Bell swapped ru­ral som­er­set for life in Lyme regis on the Dorset coast in the 1990s she dis­cov­ered a whole new world of plants. ‘I found that vir­tu­ally any­thing would grow here, in­clud­ing the Mediter­ranean plants that had failed in my pre­vi­ous gar­den,’ says Deb­bie. since 2009 she and her part­ner, Peter, have lived at Lit­tle Cliff, a 1930s for­mer chauf­feur’s res­i­dence in an acre of steeply slop­ing gar­den with spec­tac­u­lar views across Lyme Bay.

the gar­den was al­ready home to a fine collection of ma­ture trees and shrubs when Deb­bie took it on. ‘I liked the way it just ran down the hill­side in a very nat­u­ral way so we de­cided not to ter­race the gar­den,’ she says. ‘How­ever, I still wanted to cre­ate a se­quence of sep­a­rate rooms to in­tro­duce an el­e­ment of sur­prise.’

Deb­bie and her gar­dener, spike, have worked hard over the years to blend the tra­di­tional english gar­den style, found in places like siss­inghurst in Kent, with a coastal gar­den look us­ing ex­otics and ten­der plants to cap­i­talise on the site’s frost-free lo­ca­tion. Vis­its to ab­bots­bury sub­trop­i­cal gar­dens along the coast near Wey­mouth pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion as well as un­usual plants, as did Desert to Jun­gle, a nurs­ery spe­cial­is­ing in large-leaved ex­otics near taunton.

a se­quence of dis­tinc­tive gar­den rooms now step down the hill­side, linked by ex­u­ber­ant plant­ing and ever-present glimpses of the sea. Im­me­di­ately be­hind the house, the box-edged bor­ders are a cot­tage mix of herba­ceous peren­ni­als flow­er­ing in pur­ples, blues and pinks in­clud­ing aga­pan­thus, hardy gera­ni­ums, salvias,

What makes this gar­den so spe­cial... ‘Thanks to the cli­mate, the di­verse range of plants we are able to grow here is thrilling when com­pared with gar­den­ing fur­ther in­land’

echinops and eryn­giums, swirling around clipped ev­er­greens such as box, bay, lime-green conifers and stan­dard olive trees. ‘I love top­i­ary – it’s so good for win­ter struc­ture,’ says Deb­bie.

On the east side of the gar­den, a path edged with top­i­ary bay lol­lipops and a mix of laven­ders leads from the house to Deb­bie’s stu­dio, a small tim­ber build­ing on stilts with a lit­tle bal­cony. Her vividly coloured paint­ings in­spired by lit­er­a­ture and images of In­dia are filled with an­i­mals, birds, fruit, flow­ers and, of course, top­i­ary. ‘I think the paint­ing and the gar­den­ing feed into each other,’ says Deb­bie. ‘I cer­tainly see the gar­den in my head and have a very strong im­age of how I want it to look.’

Be­low the pas­tel-hued cot­tage gar­den, colours get warmer and leaves big­ger and bolder. ‘Strong oranges and reds mix well with plants that have a sub­trop­i­cal feel like palms, cordy­lines and suc­cu­lents,’ says Deb­bie. There are ex­otics here in­clud­ing toothed Da­sylirion ser­rat­i­folium, deep-pur­ple Aeo­nium ‘Zwartkop’, Stre­litzia regi­nae, the bird of par­adise, ten­der ba­nanas and tawny Iso­plexis ca­narien­sis, the Ca­nary Is­land fox­glove. Plants that need pro­tec­tion in win­ter, from wet rather than cold, are kept in pots so they can be eas­ily moved into an un­heated green­house. At the cen­tre of this hot gar­den a bold um­brella-shaped weep­ing cop­per beech, Fa­gus syl­vat­ica ‘Pur­purea Pen­dula’, pro­vides a won­der­ful deep­pur­ple foil for the ar­ray of colour­ful plants in sur­round­ing beds.

Through yet an­other open­ing in a hedge, a potager and white gar­den re­veal them­selves, light­ing up a glade be­tween the

What we love most about this gar­den... ‘The mag­i­cal at­mos­phere, es­pe­cially when a sea mist creeps up the slope and cools the tem­per­a­ture on a hot sum­mer’s day’

green­house and a ma­ture cor­nus, heavy with masses of pink-tinged white bracts from May on­wards. ‘I love the way that a potager con­tains the veg­etable plot and makes it blend into the gar­den as a whole rather than be­ing sep­a­rate,’ says Deb­bie.

At the end of the gar­den, past a sum­mer­house, tree­house and a steep bank of dec­o­ra­tive grasses, is a bog gar­den where tree ferns, hostas, skunk cab­bage and can­de­labra prim­u­las revel in the nat­u­rally wet con­di­tions. Lit­tle Cliff may be sit­u­ated on a busy hill lead­ing out of the town but a gate in the back fence leads di­rectly into the wilder­ness of the Un­der­cliff, the wild, jungly stretch of land cre­ated by land­slips over many cen­turies that stretches from Lyme Regis to Ax­mouth in Devon. ‘We can walk through the gate and down to the beach across land that is full of or­chids,’ says Deb­bie. In the sum­mer, sounds float up from the beach, es­pe­cially when sea mists rise up from the shore to en­velop the gar­den.

One chal­lenge is the slope of the gar­den that is too steep for push­ing wheel­bar­rows up and down. ‘We use one-tonne bulk bags – which Peter has ac­cess to be­cause he’s in the build­ing busi­ness – and drag them up and down the slope to work the gar­den,’ says Deb­bie. Salty winds can also dam­age the plants, but for Deb­bie ‘a south-fac­ing coastal gar­den brings far more pos­i­tives than neg­a­tives’. Hav­ing vis­ited Lit­tle Cliff, who could dis­agree?


In the lower gar­den a bench is sur­rounded by a mix of grasses and herba­ceous peren­ni­als, in­clud­ing knau­tias, achillieas, cro­cos­mia, Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis and Gera­nium Pa­tri­cia.

A mix of grasses and herba­ceous peren­ni­als, in­clud­ing achil­leas and knau­tias, around a clipped box cone.

Ter­ra­cotta pots filled with suc­cu­lents in the green­house.

The green­house to the side of the potager veg­etable gar­den com­plete with cur­rant bushes and rhubarb bed.

The bog gar­den is home to hostas, ferns, lysi­chi­tons and astilbes.

A roped board­walk pro­vides a path across damp ground.

A can­dle lantern sits on the deck­ing by the house be­side a blue, pur­ple and pink bor­der.

Topi­ary yews mark the start of the path lead­ing from the lawn to the lower gar­den. The flower-filled bor­der is planted with scabi­ous, salvias, Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis, he­le­ni­ums and Sisy­rinchium stria­tum.

Deb­bie’s stu­dio is built into the slop­ing gar­den and is viewed here across ma­genta Dianthus carthu­siano­rum, globes of echinops and a stan­dard olive tree.

The Chi­nese wind­mill palm, Trachy­car­pus for­tunei, sits in a mixed bor­der with achil­leas, cam­pan­u­las and a clipped golden shrub.

The end of the gar­den shed is dec­o­rated with a large wo­ven wil­low heart and a group of pots planted with clipped box, pelargo­ni­ums, salvias and laven­der.

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