A FLIGHT OF FANCY
Fantastical topiary forms and intriguing architectural finds feature in an artist’s garden in Kent
birds are everywhere in artist Charlotte Molesworth’s garden in Benenden, Kent. Not only does she encourage the real ones by feeding them in winter, but she has also found a creative way to make her own. Sprouting from yew hedges are wondrous peacocks, perched upon deftly fashioned balls and columns. Below these are chirpy-looking fledglings, roosting on wave after wave of boxwood, glimpsed through green spirals and pyramids, cones and balls – all products of Charlotte’s vivid imagination, artistic eye and razor-sharp shears.
“I don’t like cutting straight lines – that’s terribly boring,” Charlotte says. “So, after I ‘waved’ the top of one hedge, I slowly realised I wanted all the garden to be like that.” She has clearly had tremendous fun and the effect is utterly magical, especially on a misty winter’s morning, when a touch of frost still rimes the precise outlines of her creations. Topiary forms are trained using bamboo sticks and string. “Never use wire, as it gets forgotten and then strangles the poor plants,” she says.
Charlotte simply follows her instincts and a plant’s natural structure to tell her what shape to develop. She prunes from a steady, three-legged Niwaki ladder for safety, with an electric hedge trimmer used over the straight bits and Japanese hand shears for intricate detail. “Yew has a wonderful energy and vigour,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of cutting it – even if you muck something up completely, you can put it right the following year.”
She and husband Donald moved to Balmoral Cottage more than 30 years ago. Although the acre of garden had lain waste, it had a lovely rich, fertile soil, having been the wellworked kitchen garden of the great Victorian plant hunter and Japanese cherry expert Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram.
“There was no real plan,” Charlotte says, “but box was definitely on the agenda from the start – we took hundreds of cuttings from my mother’s garden and asked for yew seedlings as wedding presents and set them all out in rows to grow them
“Yew has a wonderful energy and vigour – don’t be afraid of cutting it”
on.” A path leading from their donkey field to a newly dug pond formed the backbone, and the rest of the garden evolved from there, expanding out to either side, with beds full of herbaceous perennials, shady borders under trees, a nuttery, kitchen garden and chicken run. Ferns also feature – Charlotte recommends ‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’, a choice cultivar of the soft shield fern Polystichum setiferum, “which retains its shape from when the first fronds unfurl to when you chop it down in March”. Echoing the organic nature of the plants are sinuous metal sculptures on loan from Peter M Clarke (petermclarke.co.uk).
Much of what she and Donald have garnered for the garden has come from skips and been donated by friends and relatives – rescued stone from a demolished barn forms a terrace, slate is now a tabletop and an upturned, galvanized water hod makes a surface for a collection of treasures. “Donald and I are infamous scavengers, so we are forever being offered things,” Charlotte says. On one occasion she bundled a vast, uprooted yew bush found abandoned by the side of the road into her Mini Countryman, driving home with barely room to move, her face pressed against the windscreen. Even her first wavy-topped hedge was made up of “waifs and strays” – cuttings and seedlings of yew, box, holly and hornbeam amassed from friends and family.
Generous in return, Charlotte proffers cuttings to those who show interest, and is happy to share her knowledge. Her skills
as a topiary artist are much in demand and she has travelled to many other gardens to clip, shape and advise. Recently, she has been pleased to find an associate, Darren Lerigo of Modern Mint (modernmint.co.uk), who she describes as “eager, strong and ready to go”, to take over from her on larger commissions, as she prefers to spend time in her own garden and art studio.
So far, to Charlotte’s relief, there has been no sign of the dreaded box blight that has affected so many gardens. She puts this down to luck and scrupulous plant hygiene (see box, right) and, more recently, the use of biological controls called Microferm and Oenosan, which fortify the plants and increase their resistance. These are made up of effective micro-organisms (EM), and she buys them from Karel Goossens’s nursery in Belgium (buxuskwekerijgoossens.be/en). “I spray very early in the morning when the leaf petioles are open and most receptive,” she explains.
Also on the advice of Karel, who Charlotte met through the European Boxwood & Topiary Society (ebts.org), she now cuts box from November to February only, when there are fewer fungal spores, instead of at the traditional time of early June. She recommends his biological spray to deter box caterpillar, too. “There was a time when I feared we might have to bulldoze the lot because of our aversion to the use of chemicals, but now I feel confident that box does have a future. I have high hopes that these biological controls could be the answer.”
Creating any garden is a learning process and Charlotte has also discovered that you should always make paths at least half as wide again as you think you might need. “It’s definitely something to bear in mind if you’re starting out.”
Balmoral Cottage in Kent is open for the NGS on Sunday 29 April and 6 May, 11am-6pm (ngs.org.uk), and for Open Studios on weekends in June 11am-6pm (except Saturdays 16 and 30). A cottage in the grounds is available to let (thepottingshedholidaylet.com).
PREVIOUS PAGES Topiary peacocks, spirals and balls create a magical scene
FROM LEFT A terrarium filled with lichens and a clay pot of succulents are combined with salvaged items atop a galvanized water hod; the small glossy leaves of box (Buxus sempervirens) are decorated with a sparkling
white coating of frost OPPOSITE Many characterful architectural finds, including this water pump and iron pig swill boiler, both found on site, have been integrated into Charlotte and Donald’s garden design