Spring gar­den filled with geums

An in­for­mal cot­tage gar­den in Kent comes alive with vi­brant blooms, en­hanced by a long-last­ing dis­play of geums

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy: Nicola Stocken

Off a vil­lage street deep in the Weald of Kent, a nar­row foot­path bends be­tween houses. It passes a dense hedge of hawthorn, ash and holly, be­fore fi­nally ar­riv­ing at a Victorian cot­tage. A side gate swings open on rusty hinges to re­veal a gar­den brim­ming over with ra­di­ant flow­ers bask­ing in the spring sun­shine. Ev­ery­where the acid green heads of Euphor­bia chara­cias wulfenii and Euphor­bia poly­chroma vie with the golds and or­anges of tulips and geums. This ¼ acre gar­den at Brick­wall Cot­tage, Frit­ten­den, is shel­tered by hedges and neigh­bour­ing gar­dens. Stand­ing on a gen­tle hill, the vil­lage is en­closed by a patch­work of cop­pices and fields de­lin­eated by an­cient hedgerows. The soil is heavy, yel­low Wealden clay, but in the cot­tage’s gar­den, it is rich and fri­able. For decades, it has been reg­u­larly fed with ma­nure and lime. It is nearly 30 years since Sue Martin moved here, won over by the sunny, south-west-fac­ing plot that now brims over with spring flow­ers. “It’s hard to be­lieve that one day you are look­ing at empty beds, and in a short space of time they are full,” she says.

A trans­for­ma­tion

To­day the gar­den is a world away from the orig­i­nal plot. Then, with its rows of veg­eta­bles and a fruit cage, it looked more like an al­lot­ment than a gar­den. Initially, Sue sim­ply grassed it over while the cot­tage was ren­o­vated. At that time, noth­ing more than a knee-high, na­tive hedge sep­a­rated the gar­den from the foot­path. “It was rather like liv­ing in a gold­fish bowl, un­til the hedge grew suf­fi­ciently tall to give me pri­vacy,” she ad­mits. The trans­for­ma­tion started with the cre­ation of a laven­der-edged path. This ran from the rear of the cot­tage to a newly planted, pleached lime screen on the far bound­ary. “It cre­ated a lovely view from my kitchen win­dow,” says Sue. When old laven­der be­came woody and was re­moved, the grass path was re­placed with a brick one. Then, above the path, a rus­tic per­gola was in­stalled that, come spring, rises above a kalei­do­scope of tulips. “Initially, I colour-themed the tulips, but bulbs from pre­vi­ous years kept reap­pear­ing and the colours be­came mud­dled, so I now just en­joy the mix,” she says.

Grad­ual de­vel­op­ment

From the out­set, there was no master plan, just a gen­tle guid­ing hand that al­lowed the gar­den to evolve and change grad­u­ally. A frame­work is pro­vided by the sal­vaged bricks used to build the pa­tio, ter­race and paths. With their nat­u­rally aged patina, they har­monise with Sue’s old cot­tage, as well as cre­at­ing a mel­low back­drop to an ever-ex­pand­ing col­lec­tion of plants. Many of these came from the an­nual seed ex­change or­gan­ised by the Hardy Plant So­ci­ety, a great source of un­usual plants. Orig­i­nally, the bor­ders were formed by lay­ing gar­den hose on the grass to cre­ate the curv­ing edges. How­ever, as Sue has bought more plants, the bor­ders have be­come in­creas­ingly in­ten­sively planted, and more lawn has been an­nexed. “My prob­lem is that I can’t re­sist plants, and keep hav­ing to find a home for new ar­rivals,” she says. Trees were planted, to both screen the plot from neigh­bours and add struc­ture. Near­est the house, there is an east­ern red­bud, Cer­cis canaden­sis. This stun­ning spec­i­men her­alds spring with dainty, pur­plish flow­ers and glau­cous, heart-shaped leaves in ap­ple green. It stands at the cen­tre of an is­land bed brim­ming over with spring bulbs, and an up­right clump of a beau­ti­ful gold and white Dutch iris, ‘Apollo’. Bind­ing the var­i­ous ver­ti­cals to­gether is a frothy mat of self-seed­ing for­get-me-nots. Over the years, the plant­ing has evolved in a style that is com­posed to fit with the nat­u­ral rhythm of the sea­sons. “Oth­ers de­scribe my plant­ing style as cot­tagey or in­for­mal. I call it wild,” says Sue. Hers is a re­laxed de­sign ap­proach, much of it im­pro­vised as var­i­ous self-seed­ing plants ap­pear.

Col­lect­ing geums

From the is­land bed, for­get-me-nots have spread to a neigh­bour­ing herba­ceous bor­der edg­ing the path run­ning par­al­lel to the cot­tage. This is filled with clumps of red, tan­ger­ine and orange-coloured geums. All are part of a Na­tional Col­lec­tion that Sue has es­tab­lished in the gar­den. “Iron­i­cally, the first geum I ever planted died,” she re­calls. “It didn’t like sit­ting in heavy clay.” Un­de­terred, she tried again with the lovely, orange-flow­ered ‘Prinses Ju­liana’. “I wasn’t that keen on orange, but this was such a won­der­ful plant, flow­er­ing vig­or­ously through­out the gar­den,” she notes. After that, she bought ev­ery geum she saw. Dis­cov­er­ies in­cluded gems such as the beau­ti­ful ‘Red Wings’, apri­cot-coloured ‘Mar­malade’, which is one of the first to flower and in­cred­i­bly re­li­able, and ‘To­tally Tan­ger­ine’. The lat­ter is tough and just keeps on flow­er­ing. The piv­otal mo­ment came when she vis­ited the then-holder of the Na­tional Col­lec­tion. “I spent a week­end with her, and she even­tu­ally asked me to take over her col­lec­tion.” There are now more than 100 dif­fer­ent geums at Brick­wall Cot­tage. They are grown both in a ded­i­cated nurs­ery area and spilling over in beds and bor­ders. There, they jos­tle for space with eu­phor­bias, tulips, aqui­le­gias, blue­bells, for­get-me-nots, cen­tau­rea and al­li­ums. “Geums are fan­tas­tic, com­bin­ing well with other plants,” says Sue. At­trac­tive part­ners in­clude chives, lemon-coloured achil­lea ‘Moon­shine’ and orange-tinted Lib­er­tia pere­gri­nans. To add blue tinges, ‘Crater Blue Lake’ veron­ica is ideal. Hardy gera­ni­ums also blend well, with the early flow­er­ing Gera­nium syl­vaticum ‘Mayflower’ a favourite. The spring-flow­er­ing Geum ri­vale is a Bri­tish na­tive. It is the par­ent of cul­ti­vars such as ‘Snowflake’, which does well in par­tial shade. “How­ever, if you leave the seed­heads on the flow­ers, they are also very pro­mis­cu­ous. If they cross pol­li­nate, the re­sult can be many sub-stan­dard plants,” says Sue. Just two chance seedlings in her gar­den have turned out well. She has named these ‘Olympic Flame’ and the soft yel­low, frilled ‘Dawn’. The lat­ter, ris­ing on ma­roon stalks, high above hand­some, lobed leaves, flow­ers al­most con­tin­u­ously for six months. Sue’s spring plant­ing re­lies on a lot of self-seed­ing plants that add great spon­tane­ity. “But they need con­trol­ling,” she adds. “I reg­u­larly thin out seedlings, oth­er­wise the beds be­come con­gested.” Among her favourite self-seed­ers are large spurges with iri­des­cent, acid green-turn­ing-lime-yel­low flower

heads. All are ba­bies from one orig­i­nal plant. It is a sim­i­lar story with pur­ple-flow­ered hon­ey­wort, Cerinthe ma­jor ‘Pur­puras­cens’. “Once you have one, you have it for life.” Aqui­le­gias in­ter­bred from just four orig­i­nal named va­ri­eties. How­ever, these have re­cently fallen vic­tim to downy mildew, a dev­as­tat­ing virus. “I’ve had to dig up and de­stroy all aqui­le­gias, and am now grow­ing a new batch from seed to re­place them,” says Sue. For­tu­nately, for­get-me-nots are un­af­fected, and con­tinue to spread ev­ery­where. “I have to ruth­lessly rip out tatty clumps to cre­ate space for sum­mer’s peren­ni­als, but they al­ways come back next spring.” A re­cent ex­per­i­ment with love-in-the-mist did not work. “It grew too tall, and smoth­ered the geums be­neath.”

En­joy­ing the view

Skirt­ing the in­for­mal bor­ders, the brick path con­tin­ues past a porch to a small pa­tio within sight of the cot­tage. Here, there is space for a ta­ble and chairs. This is en­closed by ever­green holly and camel­lias, with a wooden ar­bour to one side pro­vid­ing sup­port for roses. It is a tran­quil spot, as­suaged by fa­mil­iar sounds drift­ing through the fresh spring air. Chil­dren chat­ter in a nearby school play­ground, and the bells ring out from St Mary’s Church on Sun­day morn­ings.

The pa­tio over­looks the per­gola walk, its en­trance punc­tu­ated by two large box balls. The per­gola is care­fully po­si­tioned so that, when viewed out of the kitchen win­dow, it frames a lovely view. “It is con­structed from lo­cally-sourced, cop­piced ch­est­nut poles that are stripped of their bark,” says Sue. The over­head poles are notched to slot onto the frame­work of up­right poles. These are im­mersed in the bor­ders stretch­ing be­neath, form­ing a back­drop to spring bulbs. The per­gola strad­dles a path that runs un­til about half­way along its length. Here, it ar­rives at a small, square, raised pool with a foun­tain play­ing in the mid­dle. Be­yond the pond, the brick path con­tin­ues be­neath the per­gola, be­fore ar­riv­ing at an­other herba­ceous bor­der pep­pered with tulips. A visual link be­tween the dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the gar­den is cre­ated by the ever-present for­get-me-nots and geums. This broad bor­der stretches from the na­tive hedge to a pole-and-rope swag that sep­a­rates the cot­tage’s im­me­di­ate gar­den from an ad­di­tional strip of land. This was ac­quired after the death of Sue’s mother, who had orig­i­nally lived next door. “After her cot­tage was sold, I kept part of her gar­den at the bot­tom of my L-shaped plot. I use it to house a

poly­tun­nel for the geums and nurs­ery area,” she ex­plains. Be­yond the swag, there is a grassy area with a ta­ble and chairs set out. The spot is shaded by the canopy of a gnarled ‘Beauty of Bath’ ap­ple tree. “The ap­ples taste re­volt­ing, but the tree has kept its shape,” says Sue. It is the only tree that re­mains from the orig­i­nal gar­den. Beau­ti­fully pol­larded, it forms a quiet, shady place to sit in sum­mer.

En­joy­ing the view

Trees are an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the gar­den’s struc­ture. Over the years, ad­di­tions have in­cluded sil­ver birches, white­beam and crab ap­ple, as well as a liq­uidambar and Cratae­gus pruni­fo­lia, a small com­pact mem­ber of the hawthorn fam­ily. Be­yond the ap­ple tree lies a small parterre. The four beds are con­tained by hedges of low-grow­ing box and the ever­green shrub teu­crium. As spring ad­vances, the beds be­come in­creas­ingly blurred by al­li­ums and tulips, cen­tau­rea, aqui­le­gia and euphor­bia. The parterre re­places a square veg­etable plot that had be­come too much work. “It’s di­vided by gravel paths into four tri­an­gu­lar beds, chunks that I can cope with a bit at a time,” says Sue. From the parterre, a gravel path leads to a green­house over­look­ing four raised beds in which she in­tended to grow veg­eta­bles. “Two have al­ready been taken over by geums be­cause I keep adding to the col­lec­tion,” says Sue. She never ceases to be amazed by the long flow­er­ing sea­son. For ex­am­ple, scar­let geum ‘Rubin’ flow­ers over a five-month pe­riod, start­ing in spring. “Geums are such won­der­ful plants, flow­er­ing pro­fusely,” she says. “The ground-hug­ging ri­vale va­ri­eties ap­pear in March, while taller chiloense cul­ti­vars can bloom from April well into the au­tumn.” They all join to en­sure that, once the geums have taken cen­tre stage, the lovely gar­den at Brick­wall Cot­tage is filled with colour all spring and sum­mer long.

Per­go­las Pleached limes Ter­race Cot­tage Ap­ple tree

Shady bed Is­land bed with East­ern red­bud

Herba­ceous bor­der Nurs­ery area

Parterre Raised beds Shed Green­house Sue Martin tends a raised bed planted with some of the glow­ing red and tan­ger­ine blooms in her Na­tional Col­lec­tion of Geum. ›

Geum ‘Farmer John Cross’ shows its nod­ding but­ter­cup-coloured heads from May to Septem­ber. Geum ‘Prinses Ju­liana’ is a vivid orange semi­dou­ble that will flower from spring into sum­mer. Geum ‘To­tally Tan­ger­ine’, a peachy-orange, long-flow­er­ing cul­ti­var, lasts from late spring into early au­tumn. It reaches a height of 35½in (90cm). Gera­nium syl­vaticum ‘Mayflower’, or wood cranes­bill has vi­o­let-blue flower heads up to 1in (2.5cm) in width. It reaches 27½in (70cm) in height.

Geum ‘Roger’s Re­bel­lion’ has rasp­berry flow­ers with cream un­der­tones. Geum ‘Dawn’, with its frilled, soft yel­low, semi-dou­ble flow­ers and con­trast­ing dark red stems and buds. The lolling heads of del­i­cate geum ‘Straw­ber­ries and Cream’ rise above their dense ever­green leaves, cre­at­ing a light and airy feel to a spring bed.

• • • • • The per­gola span­ning the brick path cre­ates a frame for the square pool with a foun­tain in the cen­tre. Shots of acid green and ra­di­ant colour per­vade from box balls, euphor­bia, Cerinthe ma­jor ‘Pur­puras­cens’ and tulips above a froth of for­get-me-nots.

An old ap­ple tree cre­ates a nat­u­ral canopy over a ta­ble and chairs in this tran­quil cor­ner. Sur­round­ing it are al­lium, tulips, geums, euphor­bia, cen­tau­rea and for­get-me-nots. This area sits be­hind the rope swag. The raised beds in the nurs­ery gar­den were orig­i­nally in­tended for veg­eta­bles but two have been taken over by geums. Tomato red geum ‘Rubin’ takes from two to five years to reach its fi­nal height of be­tween 6-18in (15-45cm).

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