How Graduate Gardeners went to work on the blank canvas of a country house garden
An ambitious project has turned an empty field into a beautiful Cotswold garden
It takes a curious mix of the visionary and the purely practical to make a garden that will work long-term. Skimp on the detail and the result may have instant impact but little more. Get the framework and the planning right and the garden will grow into its space in a satisfying way.
A huge amount of vision was needed when Bisley-based Graduate Gardeners were called in to create the garden at a country house near Moreton-in-marsh.
Unlike many of their projects where existing features have to be worked into a new design, they were presented with a completely empty space where even the original house had been demolished to make way for a new build.
It was, designer Mark Draper recalls, a case of where do you start?
“It’s trying to have that foresight because you’re designing with nothing here. Literally it was a blank canvas. Once everything was demolished there was just a field.”
The advantage was there were no restraints beyond the clients’ wishes and budget. The downside was there was nothing existing to anchor the garden.
“You’ve got to really try to project the vision and, from the clients’ point of view, trust that it will look like this in a few years to come,” he says, looking around the garden, which at six years old is now starting to bulk up.
Like any experienced designer, Mark began with the practicalities: the need for a driveway, parking, a utility area, and a buffer to shield the garden from a nearby public footpath, and features the owners wanted, such as a swimming pool and kitchen garden.
With a ‘tick list’ drawn up, he then set about designing something that tied in with the rural setting, working closely with the clients about the things they liked.
The aim was to create something that sat naturally in the Cotswold countryside and in particular with the meadow that fills the outer reaches of the 8.5-acre site.
“I wanted to design a garden that doesn’t look designed,” explains Mark. “It’s trying to create a space that just flows and doesn’t look too forced.”
This has been achieved by keeping the planting simple with prairie-style rather than formal herbaceous borders and soft colours that mimic the landscape beyond.
Meanwhile, the various parts are locked together with the repetition of yew, box and trees such as Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’.
These key planting elements form the backbone of the first part of the garden at the front of the house. The style is understated with stepped yew
and box hedges forming an outer boundary around a simple combination of gravel drive, grass, pyrus and three specimen Acer palmatum.
The green theme is continued with the addition of hints of yellow from hemerocallis and astilbe in borders that soften the Cotswold stone of the house.
It’s a simple design that belies the work that went into achieving it. Originally the garden sloped from one end to the other and a massive earth-moving operation was mounted to create level ground around the house.
“It’s just sitting the house in the garden rather than just perching on a slope,” says Mark.
The slope behind the house was then sculpted so that it gradually moves down into the meadow and around 4,000 tonnes of topsoil were brought in for the borders.
“We started digging and it was rubbishy clay soil. You couldn’t do a thing with it.”
The change in levels – the service drive is much higher than the area at the front of the house – is cleverly hidden by the stepped hedges which cover up a retaining wall. Meanwhile, giving the service drive a metal edge means the gravel can go right up to the hedge further disguising the mechanics of the design.
It’s such details that lift a garden from the good to the outstanding. Around the Kitchen Garden, the walls are Cotswold stone on the outside to reflect the house and other garden walls but they have been faced inside with brick, which is better as a backdrop for the vegetables. An added detail is the rounding of the corners, giving what Mark describes as a “bespoke” feel.
Fruit and vegetables are grown in wooden raised beds and a beautiful old-style greenhouse
with a central sundial adding interest to the layout and ‘arrow slit’ windows in one wall giving glimpses of the garden beyond.
The cool mood of the front garden is continued around the main seating area at the back of the house. Here, Alchemilla mollis, hostas and white astrantia edge a large York stone terrace.
Nine parasol hornbeam have been planted to create a living pergola over the table, an idea that is particularly useful on what can be a windy site where umbrellas could be more troublesome.
It was to create some shelter that this area was enclosed by yew hedges. Now that the rest of the planting is maturing, these have been reduced in height to allow better views out.
A neat touch is what at first looks like just another section of yew hedge. In fact, it’s a way of screening the barbecue from sight, a trick that is repeated in the swimming pool garden.
Originally, a water feature was planned to run alongside the main terrace but it offers views over the main borders that could not be wasted and so is now a small seating area with amelanchier adding structure and height.
It’s in these borders that the garden’s main colour is found with hemerocallis, helenium, echinops and Verbena bonariensis weaving shades of blue, lemon, mauve and coppery red through perennial grasses. These, along with box balls and hedging, give the scheme structure when the perennials die down.
Beyond is a cherry walk with long grass, an outer ring of wild flowers and then the natural grasses of the meadow, which has mown paths to draw the eye out.
It’s a gradual progression from the gardened to the natural that happens slowly with enough points of reference – the use of grasses, the perennial colours picking up those of the wild flowers – to make it feel natural rather than contrived.
“It’s trying to create a garden with no boundaries really, that just bleeds out,” explains Mark.
Another seating area, inspired by Yorkshire sheep folds, is set into the meadow. Sheltered by a Cotswold stone wall, this circular sunken area has a cantilevered seat around the central fire pit, while lighting and speakers make it perfect for evening gatherings.
“The idea was to create something to draw you out from the house. When you’re down in there, you really do feel that you’re sat in the landscape.”
A group of silver birch may address an immediate need –
‘It was a blank canvas. Once everything was demolished there was just a field’
screening an ugly pylon – but planting a number of oaks and a cut-leaf beech in the meadow is very much part of the future vision.
Designed to counterbalance the few original mature trees on the opposing boundary, they will become an imposing presence.
“These will be parkland type trees eventually, creating that scale and structure that we’re looking for 50 years down the line.”
Aside from those few trees, the only other original feature was a large, natural clay-lined pond. This has been kept but with the addition of some steps down to it and a small deck.
It plays an important part in an aspect of the garden that is not immediately obvious: a complex drainage system that was vital on a wet, clay site, and the installation of an underground 20,000L rainwater harvesting tank. This is used in a network of irrigation pipes for all the beds with any excess draining into the pond. Elsewhere, a square of paving in the gravel parking area is angled towards a central drain ensuring that water used for washing cars can also be recycled.
Other practicalities that are easily missed are creating a large turning circle before the main gates so that letters and parcels can be dropped off without needing to negotiate the electric gates. Even a composting area was built into the original design and the service drive allows access to that and the meadow for its annual late August cut.
It’s infrastructure like this that ensures the garden will continue to work long-term. Sensibly, the owners brought the awardwinning Graduate Gardeners in from the very start of the project and the firm was able to work with the architect and builders so that the house and garden were designed together.
The garden was five months in the planning and took another year to create with the landscape team still returning periodically to tweak something. It was, says Mark, a rare opportunity.
“For a designer, they don’t come along like this very often. To have the scale of it and a client that was really engaged, it was just fantastic. As a project, it was one of my favourites.”
ABOVE: Parasol hornbeam create green shade for the table
LEFT: Views over the meadow are an essential part of the design
ABOVE: A seating area looks over the perennial borders ABOVE RIGHT: The outer wall of the Kitchen Garden is softened by plantingRIGHT: Helenium is one of the features of late summer in the perennial borders