Gar­den fram­ing views of a tran­quil coast­line

A sculpted plot on an ex­posed coast­line frames vis­tas of the Exe es­tu­ary be­yond

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

Nestling into the east­ern bank of the Exe es­tu­ary, on a small bluff, is a re­mark­able coastal gar­den. It sits at the end of a quiet Devon lane lined with tall hedges and is largely shielded by trees and shrubs, sculpted by the pre­vail­ing south-west­erly winds. At in­ter­vals, gaps in the shel­ter re­veal glo­ri­ous views of the tidal wa­ters, mud flats, whirling seag­ulls and the dis­tant Hal­don Hills. The es­tu­ary is a des­ig­nated Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty, a con­ser­va­tion area fa­mous for its wad­ing birds. “I love the way you can tell the sea­sons are chang­ing by the mi­grat­ing birds,” says Jackie Michel­more. She is the cre­ator of the gar­den at The Look­out. Sum­mer is her­alded by black-tailed god­wits and swans with cygnets in tow, glimpsed from within the two-acre gar­den through a haze of sea pinks, Arme­ria mar­itima. Their pa­pery blooms quiver atop long stems, buf­feted by the salt-laden sea breezes rac­ing across the es­tu­ary. The gar­den is all the more ex­cep­tional for its trans­for­ma­tion from an unloved strip of waste­land. It is a labour of love that started back in 2000. Jackie, a newly trained gar­den de­signer, and her hus­band Will were cap­ti­vated by the breath­tak­ing views from the derelict in­dus­trial site, a former mus­sel pu­rifi­ca­tion sta­tion in the vil­lage of Lymp­stone. “It is chal­leng­ing cre­at­ing a gar­den on such an ex­posed site and, to date, I have planted more than 180 dif­fer­ent species of wind- and salt-tol­er­ant plants,” says Jackie. “If plants sur­vive my ‘sea tri­als’ here, they will sur­vive al­most any­where.”

Shield from the sea

After ac­quir­ing the land, the cou­ple set about clear­ing it and build­ing a home. The site was in a sad state, with aban­doned build­ings and over­grown land. Worse still, the orig­i­nal lime­stone sea wall on the east­ern shore of the es­tu­ary was crum­bling, and the 492ft (150m) long shore­side was erod­ing at an alarm­ing rate. “Ev­ery­one thought we were mad to take it on, but it was the lo­ca­tion from heaven,” Jackie re­calls. Un­til the sea wall was re­in­stated, her dreams of cre­at­ing an in­for­mal, nat­u­ral­is­tic, wildlife-friendly gar­den were put on hold. One year later, the bank was re­stored with land­scap­ing ma­te­ri­als. She sal­vaged some of the wave-worn lime­stone from the orig­i­nal sea wall to in­cor­po­rate into the new house and gar­den. “Wher­ever pos­si­ble, we used lo­cal nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als and green oak to blend into the coastal set­ting,” she says.

At the same time, she planted fast-grow­ing trees along the site’s open bound­aries with a road, pub­lic foot­path and rail­way track. These were Scots pine, sil­ver birches and Eu­ca­lyp­tus gun­nii. “Ini­tially, pri­vacy was a ma­jor is­sue, so eu­ca­lyp­tus was an ef­fec­tive quick fix for a site with al­most no trees. How­ever, I am mind­ful that eu­ca­lyp­tus are not na­tives, and am grad­u­ally re­plac­ing them,” she says. The only orig­i­nal trees are some won­der­fully gnarled tamarisks, Ta­marix tetran­dra, planted dur­ing the 1960s. They cre­ate a coastal wind­break be­side a lower lawn. With arch­ing, near-black branches, come early sum­mer, they bear large plumes of pale pink flow­ers. Tamarisks not only with­stand salt spray, but are also loved by honey bees for their nec­tar. Once a shel­ter belt of trees was planted, and the house com­pleted in 2003, Jackie con­cen­trated on the gar­den, start­ing on the ar­eas that im­me­di­ately sur­round the house. To the north are views down into a walled court­yard gar­den, and to the south, a sunken lawn leads to a wild­flower meadow. A deck lies to the south-west and, a stone’s throw away, the es­tu­ary.

Be­tween, fram­ing the views, are hedges of salt-re­sis­tant black­thorn, pruned into low, rounded forms to echo the rolling hills on the hori­zon. “Black­thorn is a real thug and takes a lot of main­te­nance,” Jackie points out. “I have to clip it twice a week dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son to keep it look­ing shapely.” The main­te­nance in­volved amounts to ap­prox­i­mately three hours per week.

Cre­at­ing move­ment

A short circular walk round the gar­den starts from the deck, where pots of suc­cu­lents, sea-washed drift­wood, shells and peb­bles rest be­neath pan­i­cles of golden oats, Stipa gi­gan­tea, glow­ing richly in the evening sun. The deck steps down to a nar­row shale path de­fined by ran­domly placed, large round cob­bles. The path is edged in hum­mocks of sea pinks and tufts of pheas­ant’s tail grass, Ane­man­thele lesso­ni­ana, and feather grass, Stipa tenuis­sima. Jackie loves grasses for their free-flow­ing forms that rip­ple in the breeze, a vis­ual barom­e­ter of the wind strength. Some are mass-planted on slop­ing ar­eas, mim­ick­ing the mar­ram grass on Dawlish War­ren. Grasses thrive in the neu­tral, nu­tri­ent-poor soil and crop up through­out the gar­den, along with sea holly and sea kale, na­tives of Devon’s coast­line. Among her favourite grasses is Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis ‘Morn­ing Light’. “It has good struc­ture, form­ing clumps of soft, var­ie­gated fo­liage, and doesn’t grow too big, too quickly,” she notes. Pen­nise­tum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is an­other; a joy when it erupts with fluffy, soft-beige flow­ers. She be­lieves a sea­side gar­den would not be com­plete with­out the neat, low clumps of blue fes­cue, Fes­tuca glauca. “Its soft glau­cous fo­liage looks good by the coast and among the peb­bly mulch.” Then, for tough var­ie­gated ground cover that also light­ens up shady ar­eas, Jackie grows Carex mor­rowii ‘Ice Dance’. “It’s very eas­ily di­vided when clumps be­come con­gested,” she says.

The shale path flanks a lev­elled lawn that wraps around the es­tu­ary side of the house. It widens to the south and is en­closed in planted banks, ris­ing in tan­dem with a ramp of grass on the lee­ward side of the black­thorn hedge. From the low cloud-pruned forms, the hedge stands 10ft (3m) tall, top­i­arised to cre­ate win­dows to the es­tu­ary views be­yond. It is un­der­planted with helle­bores, sea pinks and out­crops of spurge, Eu­phor­bia chara­cias wulfenii, its lime-green flow­er­heads con­trast­ing against the lichen-clad black­thorn trunks. “Lichen grows ev­ery­where here, in­clud­ing on the wooden gar­den fur­ni­ture,” says Jackie. Crouched be­hind the protection of the black­thorn, the banks are planted with a mix of flow­er­ing species of sea­sonal in­ter­est vis­i­ble from the house. “I’ve used a muted colour palette, es­pe­cially the glau­cous fo­liage of eu­phor­bia and Con­volvu­lus cne­o­rum, avoid­ing stri­dent colours that would dis­tract from the nat­u­ral beauty of the set­ting,” she ex­plains. Many of the plants have ver­ti­cal ac­cents that meld with the or­na­men­tal grasses, and a small open habit to link with the wild flow­ers be­yond. White spires of Sisy­rinchium stria­tum, Achil­lea mille­folium and pearly, ever­last­ing Anaphalis triplin­ervis form a froth be­neath airy Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis in­ter­min­gling with rangy white Va­le­ri­ana of­fic­i­nalis. Fox­gloves and ragged robin read­ily self-seed, and daisy-like flea­bane creeps into any avail­able gaps.

A nat­u­ral space

From the sunken lawn, four steps built from re­claimed rail­way sleep­ers and turf lead up to a wild flower meadow. “From here on­wards, the gar­den be­comes wilder and wool­lier,” says Jackie. Mown paths lead through a meadow that is planted with cam­pion, ox-eye daisies, knap­weed and wild clary. “I’ve also es­tab­lished semi-par­a­sitic yel­low rat­tle, which is weak­en­ing the more vig­or­ous grasses, al­low­ing the wild flow­ers to in­crease.”

In ad­di­tion, she is steadily re­duc­ing the soil’s fer­til­ity by an­nu­ally mow­ing and re­mov­ing the hay. Sev­eral mown paths lead to gaps in the hedge where benches over­look the es­tu­ary. “It’s a good com­pro­mise hav­ing open sec­tions al­ter­nat­ing with pro­tected ones.” On the land-side boundary, she has planted sil­ver birches, field maples, hazel, holly, wild cherry, oak and hawthorn to cre­ate a wildlife cor­ri­dor and screen a rail­way line. The wild­flower meadow ends in a damp gully and pond, which pro­vides an­other habi­tat for wildlife amidst mar­ginal plant­ings of flow­er­ing rush, wa­ter mint, um­brella plant and flag irises. “From the bridge, you can some­times see newts, frogs and drag­on­flies,” she says. The path con­tin­ues into a copse of na­tive hawthorn, ash, Scot’s pine and elm, un­der­planted with English blue­bells, fox­gloves, wild gar­lic and vi­o­lets. “The area was the dump­ing ground for the mus­sel farm, and took huge ef­fort to clear,” she ex­plains. Emerg­ing from the shade of the trees, the path ar­rives at a sun-filled van­tage point edged in sculpted hawthorn. Perched some 23ft (7m) above a steep earth bank, it af­fords panoramic views to­wards Ex­mouth, Cock­wood and up­river to­wards Ex­eter. From here, a nar­row wind­ing path fol­lows the curves of the shore­line.

Wildlife habi­tat

Ex­posed, but sunny, the bank is planted with tough na­tives such as hawthorn, black­thorn and golden-flow­ered gorse, its co­conut scent loved by bees. There are also grasses and in­dige­nous wild flow­ers, in­clud­ing wild car­rot, teasels and yar­row, cre­at­ing a habi­tat that teams with in­sects, slow-worms, hedge­hogs, rab­bits, field mice, voles and birds. “Badgers and foxes are reg­u­lar noc­tur­nal vis­i­tors,” adds Jackie. The path runs be­neath the house, pass­ing some of the flot­sam and jet­sam left on the beach by each ebbing tide. Through­out, beach­comb­ing finds com­ple­ment the nat­u­ral­is­tic sea­side plant­ing. Quirky drift­wood sculp­ture and mar­itime arte­facts, in­clud­ing buoys, an­chors, ropes and net­ting, are ar­ranged among

tus­socks, be­neath shrubs, or cre­ate in­for­mal punc­tu­a­tion marks at the be­gin­ning of path­ways. Phormi­ums fea­ture promi­nently, grown for their spiky ar­chi­tec­tural forms and ex­tra­or­di­nary re­silience. “After a huge storm in 2014, which de­stroyed a sec­tion of Dawlish’s rail­way line, ev­ery leaf in the gar­den was scorched brown by the salt spray, ex­cept on the phormi­ums. They’re real toughies,” says Jackie. The path ends near the low­est part of the gar­den, a walled court­yard cre­ated in­side one of the orig­i­nal cast con­crete fil­ter beds used for clean­ing the mus­sels. It is here, in sunny, shel­tered raised beds sur­round­ing a swim­ming pool, that Jackie grows Mediter­ranean plants such as figs and pots of aga­pan­thus. “I don’t like grow­ing trop­i­cal ex­otics in front of the nat­u­ral land­scape, so they are tucked away,” she says. Pros­trate rose­mary tum­bles over the re­tain­ing walls, along with broad-leaved spurge, Eu­phor­bia myrsinites. Sea pinks and bil­low­ing laven­der vie with clumps of Stipa gi­gan­tea, hon­ey­bush and Mediter­ranean spurge. Dot­ted through­out are Yucca glo­riosa, ad­ding struc­tural in­ter­est all year round. Steps as­cend through the plant­ing, part­ing clumps of golden oats, be­fore ar­riv­ing back at the house. De­spite the chal­lenge posed by the el­e­ments, this is a gar­den shaped by its stun­ning lo­ca­tion. A project car­ried out with love and en­thu­si­asm, it sits in per­fect har­mony with the land­scape, a haven from which to en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar coastal views on an early sum­mer’s day.

Sea-worn peb­bles perched on a drift­wood plinth form a nat­u­ral sculp­ture im­mersed in a sea of flea­bane and eu­phor­bia (top). Rusty iron ma­chin­ery parts, un­earthed from the mus­sel sta­tion site, make a quirky ar­range­ment.

Re­claimed wood steps flanked by birches and banks of flea­bane, lib­er­tia, grasses and eu­phor­bia, lead from the lawn to the wild flower meadow.

Top to bot­tom: Stipa tenuis­sima dis­plays feath­ery flow­er­ing pan­i­cles in sum­mer; the nar­row leaves of Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis ‘Morn­ing Light’ are finely edged in white; strik­ing blue-tinged Fes­tuca glauca adds cool coastal colour.

Hedges of salt-tol­er­ant black­thorn, shaped to mir­ror the Hal­don Hills op­po­site, frame a panoramic vista across the ex­panse of mud­flats and calm wa­ters.

A wooden hen­house is shaded by an old tamarisk tree, heavy with flow­ers.

Gar­den owner Jackie Michel­more sits against one of The Look­out’s many coastal fea­tures, with labradoo­dle Archie.

Breaks in a shel­ter belt of black­thorn re­veal views of the Exe es­tu­ary as seen from a cou­ple of lichen-clad wooden chairs. To­gether, they com­bine a re­lax­ing spot with stun­ning scenery.

Steps dis­ap­pear into clouds of flea­bane, sea pinks, oregano, eu­phor­bia, rose­mary, sil­very elaeag­nus, phormium and grasses.

A court­yard with re­tain­ing wall beds planted with rose­mary, eu­phor­bias, grasses, hebes and sea pinks. The dag­ger-like leaves of Yucca glo­riosa make for a strik­ing fo­cal point.

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