Tranquil plot comes to life
A carefully tended Somerset garden reveals its owners’ passion for flowers as a delicate show of colour emerges
SITTING COMFORTABLY AMIDST the fields of rural Somerset is a garden filled with the first green brushstrokes of early spring. Rising out of frost-covered ground, it displays the delicate tracery of new green leaves and gently coloured flowers. From drifts of baby-pink cherry blossom and waxed camellia blooms to the low, glancing light across the orchards and the wild primroses crowded beneath, everything revels in the new season. Built in 1870, today, Westbrook House stands in 4 acres of beds and borders, orchards and floral meadows, roses and herbs. From formal box hedging to a grassy orchard filled with spring bulbs, the garden reflects the owners’ triumph over the wet soil, which comprises silt on heavy clay. Garden designer Keith Anderson and his partner David Mendel bought the house in May 2003, in the hope it would provide the tranquillity and opportunity they lacked in their home near Yeovilton, with its noise and small garden. Built for the spinster daughter of the farmer next door, the house’s most recent residents were avid horse owners. The quiet of rural Somerset brought them peace. But at first they did not fully realise just how damp the low-lying, heavy ground could be. It was a dry summer, but when it eventually rained hard, they discovered the essentially squelchy nature of the soil. “It’s a bit soggy here,” says David, with some understatement. “And as it’s lower than the surrounding fields, it’s also a frost pocket.” Keith approached the design of their garden by considering the period of the house and the setting of the plot. Then, he took in their own individual needs. Both he and David like to cut flowers for the house. “Dahlias and
sweet peas mainly, and now they are encroaching on the small veg patch.” Despite this, the cutting flowers are a priority. In spring, these are daffodils and narcissi from the orchard. Then there is another self-confessed problem. “Restraining our inclination to have every good plant known to man is something with which we both battle,” divulges Keith. “A collection of unusual plants rarely makes a good garden, but what happens when we see something we must have?” They admit to getting better at knowing when to say no. “And we’re much better at editing out plants that don’t work.”
Blooms and scent
A path leads around the east side of the house through a long, narrow area of raised square beds. In spring, these are brimming with hellebores. “They seed into everything like invasive weeds,” says David. “But they are easily controlled by pulling out the seedlings from their neighbours.” The beds break up the length of the area, disturbing the symmetry and interrupting the passage of the eye. Originally, they were populated by box balls, like huge round heads, but of late the scourge of box blight has begun to hit. And it seems also to be affecting their favourite winter-scented shrub, sarcococca. So, slowly, a few at a time, these structural anchors in the border are being replaced by slow-growing evergreen Danae racemosa. It is proving an expensive exercise, as the danae shrubs cost far more than box. Large pots and containers of tulips and narcissus stand on the route to the back of the house. Clumps of Euphorbia mellifera selfsow into the corners of the walls as the garden starts to change. The further end of this area and the meadowland beyond had formed part of a riding arena where the previous owners
schooled their horses. The surface was beaten down hard and needed to be broken up. Keith and David decided to tackle this part of the garden in their first winter. “We began by defining the position of the ‘garden’, starting around the house with a terrace of weathered stone.” Then they moved further out with formal beds. The beds were laid out in rectangles, echoing the Victorian lines of the house, and occupied by clipped box balls. Squares of box were placed symmetrically in the lawn, each enclosing a Pyrus nivalis. In April, the trees are weighed down with pure white flowers over the emerging silvery-grey leaves. This, the formal garden, is separated from the meadowland beyond by a post-and-rail fence. At first, they brought in some heifers to keep down the meadow grass. “But they kept attacking our dogs,” says Keith, so they were unceremoniously ousted and sent back to the farmer. Once the arena was cleared, work started on turning the meadows into two orchards. Only then did the constraints of the heavy, damp soil change their plans. “We began by adding cherries to the first orchard, but after the first years of drought, the rain made the heavy soil too wet for them,” says Keith. They struggled. A more successful planting was of apple trees, which are more at home in the enriched Somerset clay. Some are for eating, some for cooking, and a few for cider-making. A local farmer sometimes collects the apples for his cider press. A second orchard has a more mixed planting of pears, damsons, medlars and mulberries. The fruit trees were set among the existing limes, oaks and beech that had inhabited this land over many centuries. Magnolia ‘Heaven Scent’ and amelanchiers have since joined the fruit trees. By April, pink goblets perfume the air, and clouds of white petals drift in the spring breezes. Clumps of shrub roses form large informal beds between the trees. Their leaves are just beginning to appear, lime-green, delicate and pregnant with promise. Keith and David like to prune these and all the shrub roses after they have finished flowering. “It gives us more pleasure than if they were conventionally pruned in spring,” says David.
Beneath the trees, clumps of narcissi are naturalising in the rich grass. Keith and David have worked out by degrees which varieties will thrive best in their conditions. “Over the years, we have found that the most successful here are the Narcissus pseudonarcissus, our native daffodil,” says Keith. The smaller yellow trumpets are surrounded by primrose-yellow petals to create an effect that is dainty and natural. They are joined by N. actaea, taller with white petals and small orange trumpets, and N. ‘White Lady’, whose lemon-yellow
trumpets and white twisted petals are equally delicate. So far, both these have gained full marks for endurance and charm. The plantings are united by the nodding bells of snakeshead fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, that have spread throughout the area. They particularly relish the heavy, damp soil. At the top of the mature oaks are raucous bands of rooks, rowdy with nests. “They eat my purple and blue crocus,” bemoans Keith. There is a special corner in the first orchard by the stream that surrounds the garden. Here stands an elegant white pergola that forms a shelter for the grave of their much-loved dog Gwenny, who died, aged 17, in 2011.
“Now when the primrose makes a splendid show, And lilies face the March-winds in full blow, And humbler growths as moved with one desire Put on, to welcome spring, their best attire,” William Wordsworth, ‘Poor Robin’
Maintaining the garden
From early spring, David mows paths through the orchard, once every week or two. This keeps them tight and differentiated from the medium-length grass in between the trees. In the more open centres between the paths, the grass is kept long. “The mown paths form islands of grass. They create interest, and it only takes about an hour a week to maintain the pattern,” he says. The time they actually spend on maintenance is, they say, otherwise hard to judge. “We tend to do it when we can. I suspect every season we both spend a couple of weeks in one go doing a major blitz on pruning and weeding.” This regime sets the garden up for the summer. “On top of that, in the late spring and summer, we’re out doing something for part of every day, even if it’s just for an hour or two”. Keith has been away a lot in the past two years, advising and designing gardens. “There’s a lot of catching up to do this year. But we’re getting there, I think.” After 15 years, there are now no major projects left to be done. “It’s a case of fine tuning and sometimes doing some ruthless editing, which we hope keeps it fresh,” says Keith. They tend to divide and replant more of what survives their heavy clay. They also make and use lots of garden compost, which is spread on the soil in late winter to improve the texture, breaking up the clay and increasing the drainage. The result in spring is essentially satisfying. “I can’t say pleasure is something I find weeding all day in wet, sticky clay with occasional hailstorms,” says Keith. “But when I look at the results of freshly weeded beds, mulched with horse manure and compost, it makes me smile.” “The evening light is always kind and tends to hide any faults,” adds David. Their modesty conceals a passionate commitment to creating a beautiful space as spring develops. This is a garden that quietly celebrates excellence.
The silhouette of a pear tree, Pyrus nivalis, underplanted with clipped box square, creates a focal point behind the house. Narcissus pseudonarcissus trumpets spring’s arrival.
Fragrant Narcissus actaea, with its cupped, red-edged centre.
Left to right: Young shoots emerge from the dark stems of Rosa ‘Martin Frobisher; the petals of magnolia ‘Heaven Scent’, flushed with magenta, can grow to 4in (10cm) in length; Amelanchier lamarckii puts on a spring show.
Clipped box balls add definition and structure to the formal garden.
David Mendel, left, and Keith Anderson with their dog, Gertrude.
Euphorbia mellifera, with its knobbly flowers, has a honeylike scent. The glossy leaves have a cream-coloured central vein and can grow up to 8in (20cm) long.
Pots of Tulipa viridiflora, Skimmia japonica and camellia bring a burst of spring blooms to a patio near the rear of the house.
Bare trees underplanted with Helleborus orientalis, ideal for brightening shady areas.
A joyful profusion of narcissus ‘Silver Chimes’.
As the sun rises, its low beams illuminate the frost-tinged grass at Westbrook House. Clusters of narcissus ‘White Lady’ and soft Prunus sargentii blossom add fresh colour to the garden.
Dew sparkles on the gently drooping, chequered heads of Fritillaria meleagris.
A place to sit by the lawn and enjoy the burgeoning borders, with box balls, Viburnum burkwoodii, narcissus and Primula vulgaris.
Dog’s tooth violet, Erythronium ‘Pagoda’, bears up to 10 nodding, star-shaped flowers.
Colourful, scented Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk’.