Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by paula mcwa­ters pho­to­graphs by lynn ked­die

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.


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’


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

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