Designer Matt Keightley has created a minimalist garden using conifers that echoes a wider landscape
It takes quite a bit of effort to make something look effortless, and designer Matt Keightley had to consider every little detail when he set about creating this serene and elegant courtyard garden. A contemporary, minimalist space, it was designed as a small garden for a new cottage, part of the owners’ 45-acre estate with views of the iconic Malvern Hills. The couple, who met Matt at the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, explained that they wanted a quintessentially English cottage garden, “but they kept referencing modern living, low maintenance, and a love of entertaining their friends,” says Matt, “so something didn’t add up. I did a couple of concepts: something that resembled a cottage garden; and something quite out there, an Eastern-inspired space. They immediately went for that one.” It was a risky move, considering Asian-style gardens in Britain can end up looking contrived and pastiche, but Matt was quietly confident that childhood holidays spent in Singapore, where his mother grew up, gave him an insight into the essential character and tone of Eastern landscapes.
The starting point for his design was to request a Zen-like level of patience from his clients, by eschewing the English penchant for a floral extravaganza in summer, and instead creating several peaks of interest through the year. The first show comes in spring from the blossom of Magnolia stellata and M. x loebneri ‘Merrill’, followed by
a drift of irises in summer, with a finale of colourful leaf fall in autumn from pin oaks. These moments of beauty are supported by year-round evergreen structure from cloudpruned yew and Pinus mugo, and Pinus sylvestris ‘Watereri’ clipped into bonsai forms.
The seasonal highlights can be viewed from the 3m-wide composite decking boardwalk that runs, like the garden, along the width of the property, allowing the owners to consider the space before entering it. Arranged on one level, the garden might at first seem at odds with the surrounding countryside. Matt countered this by echoing the shapes of the rolling hills beyond in the face pattern of the granite water wall. The water spills down into a crystal-clear rill, complete with koi, and progresses across the space to where it turns a corner, compelling you to follow. “This was a way of stretching the garden, making it feel larger than it actually is,” Matt explains,“but it also provides that drama and intrigue a garden needs, to get you to move through it.”
Across the rill, an area of dark gravel features several characterful boulders and has as its centrepiece a small pool that reflects the sky and trees. This contrasts with the sleek, pale-grey terrace, with its uber-stylish metal loungers and bespoke paving – huge, clean-cut pieces of stone that have been laid with no grout, creating crisp shadow lines.
Matt describes making the garden as really exciting, because it was a unique opportunity to do something so restrained. “It’s almost like doing a show garden, where every element has to be just so, and the soft and hard landscaping have to marry perfectly,” he says. “I think here we got the balance just right.”
Facing page The granite water wall was designed to echo the shapes of the Malvern Hills in the distance, bringing the wider countryside into the garden. This page from above left The garden contains several magnolia trees and pin oaks ( Quercus palustris), which create beautiful effects on the pale paving and dark gravel when their blossom and foliage fall. The mirror pool contains a black pond dye to help it reflect the surrounding garden and canopy as well as a neighbouring walnut tree.
Facing page The rill turns a corner and leads the eye across the terrace, which has large stone pavers with ungrouted joints, giving a clean, crisp finish. Bonsai-form specimens of Pinus sylvestris ‘Watereri’ offer a different texture to the structural cloud hedging beyond. This page, from above left Iris sibirica ‘Pansy Purple’ flowers throughout the garden in open pockets left in the evergreen cloud-pruned hedge, and lights up the garden in late spring. The base of the rill features layers of riverwashed boulder pebbles that add depth to the feature. The rill is edged with clipped Taxus baccata and Pinus mugo.