Garden framing views of a tranquil coastline
A sculpted plot on an exposed coastline frames vistas of the Exe estuary beyond
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.
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.
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.