A TOUCH OF ROMANCE
A skilful balancing act of perennials, grasses and self-sown annuals has brought a wild beauty to a Wiltshire garden
A skilfully orchestrated balancing act of perennials, grasses and self-sown annuals has brought a wild beauty to a Wiltshire garden
James Williams is modest about his garden at Manor Farm in Wiltshire. “It only looks smart for about two days a year; the rest of the time it lacks ‘finish’ but that’s how I like it,” he says. “My aim is to give the garden some structure, crowd-control the plants a little and then basically let it do what it wants. As long as one plant isn’t bullying the others too much it seems to work.”
His modesty belies the skill and time he puts into this soft, hazy style of planting. There is artistry at work here – a lightly orchestrated balancing act to achieve a loose, romantic style with towering grasses and perennials of James’s choosing alongside annuals that find their own way here, self-seeding themselves in the wide beds intersected by grass paths.
He and his wife Charlotte moved to the property near Warminster in 2000 after a stint working in Asia. Gardening was new to him then but he has learned fast and developed a strong sense of what he likes. The previous owner, Martin Wood, a landscape expert, had laid out the bones – arched openings in garden walls, a long ‘miroir’ canal and intricate interlocking hedges. James lived with these for ten years while he “learned the ropes of gardening and got to know the soil”. In 2010 he was ready to make changes and called in the services of garden design professional Robin Williams.
Robin’s brief was to build on the existing layout and create a more magical atmosphere. James felt this would then give him more scope and space for his own creative planting. He acknowledges Robin’s good advice in not having too many different plants. “He was spot on,” James says. “If you hop about too much with your choices you end up with something a bit like a fruit salad – it doesn’t work. So we started with about 15 plants and repeated and repeated them.” James was inspired by the wild-style planting at Le Jardin Plume, a garden created on flat, open farmland in northern France. However, by virtue of Manor Farm’s backdrop – a mellow 17th-century stone farmhouse with a series of weathered garden walls and fine views over Wiltshire’s chalk downland – his own interpretation somehow manages to have a greater sense of place and tradition.
While James has some help with hedge-trimming, grass-cutting and weeding in the canal garden, he does the majority of the work himself. “It’s essential to be hands on,” he explains. “I need to be able to recognise the young seedlings as they emerge, then make the decision whether they stay or are moved. It is this placing of plants that is the creative driving force.”
In the area outside the family kitchen, various sanguisorbas and Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Alba’ and ‘Firetail’ reach a terrific height, jostling for space with grasses Stipa gigantea and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. Thalictrum delavayi, Verbena hastata, Cephalaria gigantea and the
two-metre-tall, bright blue Salvia uliginosa are equally statuesque. “None of the plants are grand and there aren’t any big, showy bloomers, but that’s not the point. There’s not much going on at all with some if you analyse them, but they form good strong verticals and then float and bob around – I like that.” The planting has got looser and more naturalistic over time and James has gradually weeded out the tallest, most thuggish elements, such as the cardoons and much of the cephalaria, as they were threatening to take over.
Plants here must be tough to survive: “I don’t really feed them and I water twice a year at most,” James says. The site is a windy one, 300 feet above sea level, beside the highest hill in Wiltshire, with little in the way of shelter from trees, although the original low farm walls that now mark out various areas of the garden offer some protection, as do the undulating hedges of beech and cotoneaster that mimic the shape of the hills. “The chalk soil is thin but at least there is never any mud to wipe off your boots, even after rain,” he adds.
His small cherry and apple orchards and two lines of upright, ornamental pears Pyrus communis ‘Beech Hill’ are growing fast. Other trees include six Betula utilis var. jacquemontii that James chose for their distinctive ghostly white bark, to mark the entrance to the meadow. On arches over several gateways grow Pyrus communis ‘Williams’ Bon Chrétien’ – delicious dessert pears that fruit prolifically.
James, Charlotte and their daughter Phoebe, who has grown up here, make great use of the garden for entertaining friends and family. A paved sunken area, devised by Robin Williams, is perfect for barbecues, and there is plenty of space for big parties and homecooked food with produce from the vegetable garden. This is presided over by Charlotte: “I plant it up in one fell swoop at the end of May with an array of small plug plants supplied by a local organic vegetablegrower friend,” she explains. “I used to try to grow from seed but they struggled to get going because spring warmth arrives late here.” Just like James, Charlotte has learned to understand the idiosyncrasies of this rather special site and go with the flow.
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM
TOP LEFT The mellow stone farmhouse dates from the 17th century; Echinacea purpurea; tall, branching Verbena hastata provides eyecatching detail; drifts of crimson sanguisorba are complemented by a mass of Eupatorium purpureum ‘Album’ and vertical fountains of feather reed-grass
OPPOSITE Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM
TOP LEFT Himalayan birches flank the grass path to the fields beyond; a chestnut gate made to order by greenmanwoodcrafts. co.uk; the view across clouds of Salvia officinalis to the Wiltshire countryside; prolific-fruiting Pyrus communis ‘Williams’ Bon Chrétien’; vibrant Hydrangea serrata
OPPOSITE Grasses soften the dramatic pairing of yellow
Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ with the fiery foliage of Euonymus alatus in borders by the canal