Inspired by vast, open expanses of salt marsh and shingle, Emily Erlam has created a naturalistic garden that is seamless with its surroundings
Near the shore in Dungeness, Emily Erlam has designed a garden on shingle that blends seamlessly with its surrounding landscape
WORDS JODIE JONES PHOTOGRAPHS RACHEL WARNE
I CELEBRATED WHAT WAS HERE AND CREATED A BACKDROP FOR THE OWNERS TO LIVE IN
Driving to Dungeness across the low expanse of Romney Marsh, the land seems to flatten even further, as if pressed down by the enormous sky. Modest dwellings are scattered sparsely across the shingle, among them Prospect Cottage, where Derek Jarman famously made a garden that is now gently subsiding into the beach. Follow this road to its conclusion and you are confronted by three Dungeness landmarks – the monolithic nuclear power station, a black-and-white lighthouse, and the station terminus for a now defunct narrow-gauge railway. Just before you reach the station car park is a converted research station building where, six years ago, Emily Erlam was invited to create a garden. It could have been a daunting prospect. “It’s a harsh environment, with low rainfall, a punishing easterly wind, and not a jot of protection,” she says. “Plus, two thirds of the garden is a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI], so you can’t even walk on it, let alone replant it.” But the limitations were helpful, allowing her to focus on what the site would allow. “I always start with the clients’ wishes. I designed where they would sit, where they could walk, and what plants would embellish the space.”
The single-storey, L-shaped building has stunning views on two sides. To the east, a huge picture window looks out over the SSSI and on to the sea. In the crook of the building to the north, French doors lead on to a worn wooden deck that steps down into the ornamental part of the garden where mounds of rosemary, Santolina and Amsonia soften the change in level. Spreading carpets of Persicaria and Crambe maritima recur everywhere, delineating the curves of a sinuous path through the greenery.
“Almost everything I planted here is growing wild in some form on the beach beyond,” says Emily. “It was important that the garden blended with its surroundings, while keeping its own integrity. That’s why I planted a loose windbarrier of Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ to screen the house from the neighbouring property, instead of a more solid hedge. It’s also why I climbed the lighthouse and used the most interesting shapes from the surrounding land mass on which to base the form of the beds and paths.” Observing how areas of bare shingle tended to sink lower than areas protected by mats of vegetation, Emily banked up her planting areas to emulate the effect. “We also heaped imported topsoil on these beds, sitting on a weed-suppressing membrane, then topped off with more shingle.”
The planting was partially inspired by Piet Oudolf ’s technique of ribboning and interweaving plants. “We also discussed how far to echo Derek Jarman’s garden, but it has become so iconic we didn’t want to end up copying it,” says Emily. Even the planting palette is quite different. “I love working with colour, so we intertwined two strands – one of purple and pink, the other of bright green, yellow and blue.”
Mounds of santolina create permanent structure, but there are also seasonal peaks that animate the effect. In May the garden has a delicacy typified by the pure-white flowers of the sea kale that Emily likens to a beautiful moonscape. By July, the palette intensifies with bold splashes of colour from iris, Sesleria autumnalis, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’, thyme, Allium sphaerocephalon and Agastache ‘Blackadder’. The Amsonia, blanketed with clear-blue flowers in summer, modulates into a rich autumnal palette of butter-yellow foliage, complemented by tawny pink Sedum and Persicaria.
The garden has now settled comfortably into its surroundings. Over time, the owners have introduced flotsam and jetsam, stone circles and two tiny, cast iron lizards, as well as maintaining a loose expansiveness in the planting. “I love the way it has matured,” says Emily. “I never think it is my job to decorate a garden. I just create a setting in which the owners can make themselves at home.”
USEFUL INFORMATION Find out more about Emily Erlam’s work at erlamstudio.com
The brick-built Experimental Station, originally a research facility for testing marine and signal apparatus, adjoins an array of timber-clad eco residences arranged around a communal courtyard where hardy plants, such as Santolina chamaecyparissus, Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia and Mentha spicata soften the landscape. 44