COAST AND COUNTRY
ARTIST DEBBIE BELL HAS DESIGNED A COTTAGE-STYLE GARDEN FULL OF SURPRISES ON A STEEP SLOPE OVERLOOKING LYME BAY
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?
LITTLE CLIFF, SIDMOUTH ROAD, LYME REGIS, DORSET DT7 3EQ, OPENS FOR THE NATIONAL GARDENS SCHEME ON 9 AND 11 JUNE AND 7 AND 9 JULY, NGS.ORG.UK. TO SEE DEBBIE’S ART, VISIT DEBBIEBELL.CO.UK.
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.
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.
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.
A mix of grasses and herbaceous perennials, including achilleas and knautias, around a clipped box cone.
Terracotta pots filled with succulents in the greenhouse.
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.
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.