COLOUR IN EVERY CORNER
An original Oxfordshire garden with deep vibrant borders creates a sense of intrigue wherever you turn
there are people so enthusiastic about what they do, you feel they must bound out of bed each morning, and the potter and gardener Stephen Baughan is one of them. He fizzes with energy – it’s no wonder he restricts himself to just two coffees a day. This verve stood him in good stead as he started a business making ceramics – a subject he knew absolutely nothing about – and created a garden around it from scratch, armed with little but eagerness.
“Early on, I decided I wanted a career making something useful that people could interact with and that had longevity,” he explains, “so I started making mugs and jugs.” Aston Pottery in Oxfordshire has been going for 35 years now, growing from just a studio to include a visitor shop and café. The pieces Stephen and his team make are unusual in that they are made in small batches by machine and then decorated by stencilling, using unique processes created through trial and error.
This unorthodox approach extends beyond the pottery to a rather surprising garden, set out in a series of discreet borders around the buildings and car park. “We develop our ideas in isolation here,” Stephen says. “There is an awful lot of making it up as we go, with many mistakes on the way.” The first area he planted was a strip along the front wall. “It was a business proposition at the start, to draw in custom by enticing people to visit us on warm sunny days,” he says. With no real horticultural experience, bar growing some vegetables as a child, he threw himself into the project with gusto, decorating the outside areas of the pottery as colourfully as he would one of his plates.
“I choose plants that I like, not plants that necessarily go together,” he laughs. “For 20 years I’ve carried notebooks with me wherever I go, in which I write down plants I’ve seen, and, when I note the same one three times over a few years, I know I really like it.” The front border stands seven metres deep, and is packed with perennials such as persicaria, sedums and phlox in quite a traditional style, backed by Cotswold stone walls, and framed by crafted split-oak fencing. The adjoining path is lined with pots bursting with agapanthus and pineapple lilies.
This path leads out to the large car park, where Stephen has made his second area. “Having got the bug, I wanted to make a double border, so I created a walkway right down the centre, with a boundary of hornbeam trees. Of course, we can’t have lawn, so I have enclosed the path, making a tunnel of foliage.”
A pavilion with seating at the end creates a focal point beyond the beds of late-summer flowers, including echinacea, salvias, crocosmia and
rudbeckias. At the back stand towering Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, reaching up more than two metres to touch the bottom leaves of the hornbeams, which Stephen will start pleaching next year (“No idea how to do it yet,” he admits, “but we will give it a try”).
To the side of the parking area is his dahlia garden, another double border. This is split into compartments of 12 dahlias each, framed with tall ornamental grasses such as molinia and calamagrostis, and edged with agapanthus and asters. Here, he can indulge his obsession with all sorts of dahlias, from collarettes and balls to waterlily and cactus types. “My absolute favourite is the decorative ‘Ballego’s Glory’,” he says. “I love yellow and red and bicolour dahlias, and this one is all three.”
Along the back lies Stephen’s annual border, inspired by the “completely stunning” one at Nymans garden in Sussex. He and his helpers plant it up in late May with cosmos, nicotiana, sunflowers and flamecoloured Lobelia tupa grown in his polytunnel from seeds and cuttings, and by July it is a riot of colour and texture that goes on until the first frosts. At the other end, Stephen is crafting his masterwork: the ‘hot’ bank. When building the café foundations, they had to dig a large hole and dump the soil at the end of the site, creating a ridge 20m deep by 3m high. Stephen put a copper beech hedge at the top, and then focused on planting the slope with yellow, red and orange flowers. There are dahlias and penstemons, but also more exotic canna lilies, ricinus, eremurus and bananas, all of which he can leave in over winter, as the bank drains so well. Everything flowers right into autumn. “We want plants that give us three or four months of interest,” he says, “so we have lots of salvias, alstroemeria and kniphofia.”
Stephen says this bank is the hardest task he has ever had in his life. “But I like experimentation and the surprise of how projects turn out. Some ideas work, some don’t, but you get an evolution. If it’s wrong, you can do it differently next year. That’s the great thing about making a garden – you can do what you like and keep making it up as you go along.”
THIS PAGE, FROM TOP LEFT Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Pink’ and Agastache rugosa make a winning combination; Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ grows up to two metres tall; plants for Stephen’s riotous annual border are raised from seed in his polytunnel and...
OPPOSITE, ABOVE Great mounds of vivid yellow Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii stand out among asters and salvias in the double borders leading to the car park BELOW Spires of flamecoloured Lobelia tupa rise up through ‘David Howard’ and ‘Moonfire’ dahlias