Tran­quil plot comes to life

A care­fully tended Som­er­set gar­den re­veals its own­ers’ pas­sion for flow­ers as a del­i­cate show of colour emerges

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - ▯ Words: Sally Greg­son ▯ Pho­tog­ra­phy: Heather Ed­wards

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.

Ground-level plant­ing

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’.

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