Heather wo­ven through a hill­side gar­den

On the un­for­giv­ing soil of a for­mer Sus­sex quarry, a cou­ple have cre­ated a hill­side gar­den wo­ven with colour and move­ment

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Caro­line Wheater Pho­tog­ra­phy: Abi­gail Rex

High up, where trees cling to the steep sides of a for­mer sand quarry ex­posed to the Au­gust sun, lies Champs Hill. Ten miles from the Sus­sex coast, near Pul­bor­ough, the house and its sur­round­ing gar­den are af­forded some pro­tec­tion by a shel­ter­belt of pine trees and birches. But what sets this 30-acre es­tate apart is the colour­ful weave of heather spread­ing out like a gi­ant ta­pes­try, its earthy aroma fill­ing the warm air. Once the site of three dis­used quar­ries, now it com­prises wood­land, heath­land and the 3-acre heather gar­den which wraps around the house. Far-reach­ing views stretch across Am­ber­ley Wild­brooks, a na­ture re­serve of flood­plain and graz­ing marshes, to­wards the ma­jes­tic South Downs, with the sea­side towns of Lit­tle­hamp­ton and Wor­thing be­yond. To­day, its orig­i­nal south-fac­ing flower beds are a riot of berry-coloured pinks and pur­ples, which runs from July through to au­tumn. In this swathe of gen­tly sway­ing patch­work, the fo­liage of the heathers runs in shades of light to dark green and even red, for con­trast. To achieve this ef­fect, how­ever, has not been an easy task for the own­ers of Champs Hill. The area’s poor soil and chal­leng­ing weather con­di­tions have proved ob­sta­cles in both de­vel­op­ing and main­tain­ing the gar­den.

Com­pat­i­ble choices

“The soil here is pure sand; there’s no good­ness in it at all,” says Mary Bow­er­man as she sur­veys the scene. She has lived here with her hus­band David since 1986, when they in­her­ited their home from his par­ents, and from where they run their mu­sic busi­ness. With such poor soil, she con­fesses that lay­ers and lay­ers of mulch have played a huge role in the de­vel­op­ment of the gar­den, on­go­ing for more than 50 years. David’s par­ents bought the site be­fore the Sec­ond World War, and in 1960 they came to re­tire, hav­ing first built a spa­cious bun­ga­low with large pic­ture win­dows to cap­ture the views. They then turned their thoughts to a gar­den ex­tend­ing from the south front of the house, leav­ing the rest to open heath­land and wooded ar­eas. They chose sum­mer-flow­er­ing heathers, as well as win­ter-flow­er­ing va­ri­eties, to be the fo­cus of the gar­den be­cause they were fairly low main­te­nance and could cope on the quarry clifftop. David’s par­ents be­came so pas­sion­ate about Eri­cas, as heathers are col­lec­tively known, that they be­came found­ing mem­bers of The Heather So­ci­ety. “When the gar­den was orig­i­nally planted, my mother-in-law would have put in a lot of peat, as you have to have some­thing to re­tain mois­ture in the sand,” says Mary. “We’ve added masses of ex­tra ma­te­rial over the years too, such as leaf mould, gath­ered from the wood­land, and er­i­ca­ceous com­post, be­cause many heathers are acid-lov­ing. “A typ­i­cal cot­tage-style gar­den of herba­ceous peren­ni­als just wouldn’t work here. The plants would need too much stak­ing, wa­ter­ing and dead­head­ing,” she ex­plains as she walks around some of the larger beds in this orig­i­nal part of the gar­den. They are made denser and more en­velop­ing with a back­drop of rhodo­den­drons and aza­leas that pro­vide colour in spring, along with the ac­ers, cot­i­nus and berberis that give the gar­den a frame­work all year round. With this ca­coph­ony of shrubs and heathers, and the nearby wood­land, the gar­den is a mag­net for birds. “They tuck them­selves away in the conifers and the big­ger shrubs,” she says.

Destruc­tion and re­birth

The weather is al­ways an is­sue, rolling straight in from the Chan­nel and over the Downs. It can be glo­ri­ous in sum­mer or wild when the weather turns. There was no wilder event than the Great Storm of 1987, when hur­ri­cane-force winds knocked down ap­prox­i­mately 800 trees at Champs Hill. “In just a few hours, hun­dreds of pine and birch trees fell over, and we even had one through the roof,” re­calls Mary. De­spite the dev­as­ta­tion, the Bow­er­mans, to­gether with a band of helpers, spent many months chop­ping up and burn­ing the fallen trees, while other saplings quickly moved in and were al­lowed to stay. “The pines like the sandy soil and plant them­selves, which is help­ful be­cause our big prob­lem is en­sur­ing the

cliff edge above the big­gest quarry doesn’t re­cede,” she ex­plains. “We have to grow a lot of veg­e­ta­tion to keep it sta­ble. We’ve cut some of the Scots pine right down, to give a hedge-like look; to de­lin­eate the edge of the gar­den while main­tain­ing our views.” Al­though the storm was de­struc­tive, it gave Mary and David the chance to de­velop the gar­den in their own way and ex­pand it be­yond the south­ern frontage of the house. Mary con­fesses to hav­ing made some mis­takes along the way. “Af­ter the hur­ri­cane, there were lots of blank spa­ces, so we had to start plant­ing, and I must have put in more than 50 dwarf conifers. Af­ter ap­prox­i­mately 12 years, we had to re­move them be­cause they’d grown too tall.”

Wa­ter sup­ply

They quickly re­alised that wa­ter and ir­ri­ga­tion would al­low them to achieve their plans for a much larger gar­den that spread to the east and the north of the house. “It was a bap­tism of fire, but we were still in our prime” she says. “We had some hot sum­mers when we first moved in, and saw that the gar­den was to­tally de­pen­dent on be­ing wa­tered, and that we would need bet­ter ir­ri­ga­tion if we were to add more flower beds. David, al­ways far-see­ing, sen­si­bly said: ‘We’ll put in ir­ri­ga­tion while the gar­den is in such a bad state’.” To this end, in the early 1990s, they lined the two smaller quar­ries to the north of the house and trans­formed them into rain­wa­ter reser­voirs, in­stalling un­der­ground ir­ri­ga­tion pipes through­out the gar­den. Wa­ter col­lected from the house’s am­ple roof struc­tures feeds into these reser­voirs, en­sur­ing that the chlo­rine-hat­ing heathers and other plants have a con­stant sup­ply of rain­wa­ter. Once the reser­voirs were in­stalled, the cou­ple could con­cen­trate on putting in new beds for more heathers. “To the side was a pine wood, and all the way be­hind us was com­pletely wild, open heath­land,” says Mary. Af­ter all the fallen trees had been cleared, the Bow­er­mans be­gan to con­vert some of the heath­land into lawn and dig large flower beds to the east and the north of the house. “The 1990s were a very busy time, but we were very lucky to have a won­der­ful gar­dener called Sid Brown, who was trained by my par­ents-in-law, to help us,” she re­calls. “Sid was an ex­pert on heathers and he could look at any plant at any time of the year and tell you ex­actly what it was called and how to treat it.” With his help, they filled the new beds with both sum­mer- and win­ter-flow­er­ing heathers. Rar­i­ties in­clude the tall tree heathers, with their frondy flower spikes; a spec­ta­cle in spring, but with the best over­all dis­play in sum­mer, from mid-July on­wards. Pot­ter­ing from bed to bed, an ex­u­ber­ant

blend of na­tive cal­luna heathers, pretty daboe­cias and Erica va­gans can be seen. These in­clude va­ri­eties such as dusty pink Cal­luna vul­garis ‘E. Hoare’, ma­genta-coloured Daboe­cia cantabrica ‘Rain­bow’ and Erica ma­nip­uliflora x va­gans ‘Va­lerie Grif­fiths’, with its golden fo­liage. The newer East Gar­den, also re­ferred to as the Enigma Gar­den for the el­e­gant sculp­ture that sits at its cen­tre, is reached via a green sward of grass lawn. This is one of the bowl­ing green lawns which link the en­tire gar­den. Here, in the large curv­ing flower beds, the bell heathers can be seen; vivid pink Erica cinerea ‘Lady Skel­ton’ rub­bing shoul­ders with soft pink ‘Blos­som Time’ and the deep bronze flower of ‘Rendlei’. “Pair­ing a heather with red flow­ers or fo­liage al­ways makes a good con­trast against the pink-flow­ered and green-leaved heathers,” says Mary. The last part of the gar­den to be cre­ated, in 2000, at the north side of the house, is known as the Mu­sic Room Gar­den be­cause it was made for the en­joy­ment of guests who come to recitals at the Bow­er­mans’ pri­vate con­cert hall. “We wanted a gar­den where our guests could come out dur­ing an in­ter­val with a glass of wine and en­joy the vis­tas. We cleared away a few trees and scrubby heath­land to cre­ate this space.” The Mu­sic Room is open all year, so guests wan­der around some of the heather beds en­joy­ing the ebb and flow of the sea­sons.

Weav­ing a pat­tern

As in other ar­eas of the gar­den, the heather patch­work is a blend of plants, but heavy on the sum­mer-flow­er­ing cinereas, much loved by the bees which come to col­lect nec­tar to make honey. “Be­cause of the con­certs and events, the beds have to

look rea­son­able all year round, so I’ve in­ter­wo­ven them with other plants, such as daphne, pit­tospo­rum, fuch­sias, aga­pan­thus and se­dums. But ba­si­cally, the flower beds are a patch­work of heathers with a back­ground of shrubs,” she ex­plains. Some heathers are cho­sen par­tic­u­larly for their fo­liage colour, to cre­ate a foil for the less strik­ing flow­ers. These in­clude Cal­luna vul­garis ‘Ar­ran Gold’ and ‘Wick­war Flame’, with its yel­low to hot-or­ange fo­liage, or the sil­ver grey of Cal­luna vul­garis ‘Ali­son Yates’. In com­mon with the south­ern and east­ern sec­tions of Champs Hill, the flower beds here gen­tly curve and un­du­late. “The beds we put in are all round or curv­ing: I don’t like straight lines. It’s a very nat­u­ral gar­den, wild al­most, where you just wan­der from one thing to an­other,” says Mary. She claims that there is “no de­sign; it just hap­pens”. How­ever, she and her two gar­den­ers, Sid’s sons Adrian and Lynn Brown, have a mas­ter­ful touch with plant­ing if that is so, man­ag­ing to in­ter­weave so many dif­fer­ent heathers with such a deft­ness of touch. “Most of the beds are pretty much wholly heather, and the key to get­ting a ta­pes­try is to plant quite a few of the same va­ri­ety to­gether to make a rib­bon. You need to plant five, seven or even nine plants of the same va­ri­ety to cre­ate this ef­fect,” she adds. Af­ter all these years of ded­i­ca­tion and cul­ti­va­tion, Champs Hill has a col­lec­tion of heathers which stands at more than 300 va­ri­eties. One of the best pri­vate heather gar­dens in the coun­try, it has opened an­nu­ally for the past 40 years in aid of the Na­tional Gar­dens Scheme. Mary and David have been awarded a beau­ti­ful bronze sun­dial in recog­ni­tion of their con­tri­bu­tion to the char­ity. “In the sum­mer, the gar­den is like a patch­work of heathers, with one plant flow­ing into an­other. It’s my favourite time of year,” says Mary. “It’s a very nat­u­ral gar­den, and we’ve de­signed it so you have to keep walk­ing around the cor­ners to find sur­prises. We have a lot of mu­si­cians here to stay, and they’re all bowled over by the views and the ta­pes­try of heathers. It’s very sat­is­fy­ing to see the things we’ve planted ma­ture, and the frame­work fill out.”

Mary Bow­er­man, who has taken the ba­ton from her in-laws in de­vel­op­ing the heather-filled gar­den at Champs Hill.

Soft waves of heather car­pet the Bow­er­mans’ gar­den, bring­ing a vi­brant sum­mer dis­play to the hill­side.

A med­ley of rich colour, com­pris­ing bell heathers Erica cinerea ‘Lady Skel­ton’, ‘Blos­som Time’ and ‘Rendlei’, with its un­usual deep bronze flow­ers, along with Erica ma­nip­uliflora x va­gans ‘Sum­mer Time’ and ‘Pal­l­ida’, and a Cal­luna vul­garis with gold fo­liage.

The south-fac­ing east side of the house, bound by trees in­clud­ing a sor­rel, or sour­wood, Oxy­den­drum ar­boreum. In the fore­ground are a mix of Erica ma­nip­uliflora x va­gans ‘Va­lerie Grif­fiths’, Daboe­cia cantabrica ‘Rain­bow’ and Cal­luna vul­garis ‘E. Hoare’.

Com­pact, low-grow­ing Cal­luna vul­garis ‘Wick­war Flame’, which has or­ange fo­liage in sum­mer.

A spin­dle tree, with the yel­low fo­liage of Erica eri­gena ‘Thing Nee’ bank­ing up be­hind. This re­tains its sunny colour through­out the year.

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