Let it rain
In her Norfolk garden designer Emily Erlam has created a colourful and constantly evolving garden she and her family can enjoy whatever the weather
Considered but practical planting in Emily Erlam’s private Norfolk garden creates a constantly evolving space for the designer and her family to enjoy
Garden designer Emily Erlam’s home is in deepest north Norfolk – the bit where the roads narrow to single-track lanes enclosed by high banks and overhanging trees – and where the traffic consists largely of fossicking pheasants and partridges. The pace of life here is very different from that of her busy design practice in the King’s Cross area of London. The Tithe Barn is the place where she gardens for herself – in peace and privacy.
Eight years ago, Emily bought the 18th-century brick barn, its adjoining old pig shed and flint-walled yards, and the surrounding three acres of land. Once the architects had worked their magic on the buildings, she began to plan her garden. Two-and-a-half acres were retained as a tree-fringed meadow, bordered by large expanses of lawn where Emily’s two sons play cricket and football. Having dealt with the bigger picture, Emily could concentrate on the areas close to the house.
“As far as the design process was concerned,” Emily says, “I treated myself as the client.” The remaining space was divided into three connected areas – the Rain Garden, leading to the outdoor kitchen and the Orchard beyond. “As you pass from one to another, each is relaxed and joyous, contained and with its own identity and sense of tranquillity. I stopped myself making it overcomplicated. Although I loved the idea of the sumptuousness of a kitchen garden, the design process is about having big visions and then honing them down – knowing the feeling I wanted to create and stopping at that point. So there is no vegetable garden; instead, the partially walled Orchard has the feeling of productivity without the work.”
Although Emily was initially slightly disappointed with the southeast orientation, it has proved to be extremely sheltered from the prevailing southwesterlies, with several layers of defence, which means that the family is able to make maximum use of the garden. The outdoor kitchen is used
all year round, for example, with Emily doing a lot of slow cooking in the wood-fired oven.
The Rain Garden was the first of the three gardens to be laid out. It is closest to the house and is dominated by a large bed of exuberant planting that extends out into the lawn. Vertical molinias and tall sanguisorbas erupt from among mounds of perennials including rudbeckias, heleniums and purple sage. A trio of dwarf Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ anchor the perennials – and turn a vivid red in autumn. The covered porch that runs along both sides of the house allows Emily and her family to spend time in this garden even when it rains – hence the name. To one side, a gravelled area shaded by a multi-stemmed Amelanchier tree contains a table designed by Emily, with cedar chairs adapted from a 1950s design. The Amelanchier was the first thing Emily planted when she reclaimed the garden from the builders.
Because this area of the garden had been the hard standing in front of the former pig shed, many layers of concrete and hardcore had to be excavated before any gardening could be done. Work completed, good-quality topsoil was brought in and Emily placed the order for the plants, only to find that the entire area filled with water when it rained. A compacted layer of chalk was found to be the culprit, and clay lozenges in the soil exacerbated the problem. This meant ripping out the chalk and installing French perforated drains before any planting could begin.
The Rain Garden is now in its fifth year. “I have been greatly inspired by the tall planting at Jardin Plume in Normandy and have chosen plants for a similar effect in the autumn,” says Emily. “My planting is constantly evolving, using pinks, yellows and reds to work with the brick. Anything new gets a bit of love until it has established itself, but basically everything has to survive alongside the other plants. It’s quite a science. Although the garden was designed with autumn in mind – the time when the molinias and Euonymus turn butter yellow and red respectively – it has to perform all year round. Seasonal drama is important to me.”
Explaining her approach to this very personal project, Emily says, “I consider this to be a very normal garden. The whole point was to focus on the plants, but I didn’t want planting that was so intensive that I couldn’t look after the garden myself.”
The view towards the house and barn across the Rain Garden, with the Outdoor Kitchen on the right; a multi-stemmed Amelanchier (left) andKoelreuteria paniculata (right) frame the bright hues of the Rain Garden and the softer tones of the planting in front of the outdoor kitchen. 34
NINE KEY PLANTS IN THE RAIN GARDEN 1 Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ Semi-dwarf evergreen with purple foliage when young, maturing to grey-green with blue flowers. 60cm. AGM*. RHS H5, USDA 6a-9b†. 2 Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’ Dark-purple spikelets on arching stems above dense tussocks. 90cm. RHS H7. 3 Sanguisorba officinalis Dense red flowers atop wiry stems, above feathery foliage, from June to September. 1.2m. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b. 4 Achillea ‘Terracotta’ Flattened flowerheads on upright stems fade from rich terracotta to biscuity tones as they mature. 1m. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b. 5 Euphorbia x martini Dwarf evergreen sub-shrub with grey-green leaves and salmon-coloured flowers. 60cm. RHS H5, USDA 6a-8b. 6 Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ Compact shrub with stunning red autumn foliage and corky winged bark in winter. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b. 7 Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ Large, golden-yellow, daisy-like flowers from August to October borne on upright stems. 60cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-9b. 8 Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ Upright perennial with dark-centred, copper-red flowers from June to August. 1.25m. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b. 9 Koelreuteria paniculata Slender deciduous tree with divided leaves and panicles of yellow flowers. 8m (more compact when multi-stemmed). RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b.
Clockwise from top left Exuberant planting separates the outdoor living area from the Orchard beyond. Purple sage ( Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) softens the edges of the border as it tumbles over the gravel and lawn. Layers of planting in front of the brick and flint wall of the courtyard with the bright yellow of rudbeckias and bronze Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ in the foreground topped by a haze of molinias and sanguisorbas. Sheepskin covers on the cedar chairs ensure that Emily and her family stay cosy outdoors even in cold weather. Bright-red Helenium ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and pale-yellow Anthemis Susanna Mitchell (= ‘Blomit’) nudge up against the edge of the porch. Emily designed the simple table and benches in the outdoor kitchen and surrounded them with fragrant lavender and Santolina chamaecyparissus. The multi-stemmed Koelreuteria paniculata is a favourite tree of Emily’s.