Country Living (UK)
MAKING THE MOST OF SPRING
Rosemary Alexander’s garden is a lesson in seasonal planting
The prospect of a garden visit to the home of the founder and principal of The English Gardening School could seem daunting. After all, Rosemary Alexander is one of
Britain’s gardening gurus. She has headed up the internationally renowned school since 1983, written six books – two of them award winning – and lectured all over the world. So it is good to find that she is not only warmly welcoming but also refreshingly honest about her own garden. “Oh, that’s a mess,” she’ll say, waving a hand dismissively over a bed that needs attention. “This all needs to come out” or “We need to make changes here”. These are statements guaranteed to encourage any gardener, for if Rosemary Alexander can’t always get it right, there is hope for us all!
Of course, to a less discerning eye, her garden – particularly in early spring – looks to be brimming with successful plant combinations and design techniques. Analysis and evaluation are second nature to Rosemary, so in the 18 years she has lived at Sandhill Farm House, near Petersfield in Hampshire, she has constantly refined and improved it. An excess of conifers was the first thing to go, enabling Rosemary to devise a delicate woodland area that perfectly frames the 17th-century farmhouse.
Some existing trees – a mature, multi-stemmed Amelanchier lamarkii and twin Betula utilis var. jacquemontii – have had room to shine since the conifers went. The amelanchier is reassessed every spring so any new growth that might spoil its elegant, open framework or threaten to shade the planting beneath can be judicially pruned. A ladder is leant against the white birch trunks, which are then scrubbed with a scourer and bucket of water (plus a tiny drop of washing-up liquid) until their barks seem to glow, just like freshly exfoliated skin – a trick that Rosemary learned on her travels in Japan.
Beneath them comes an under-storey of early flowering shrubs – equally carefully pruned and many sweetly fragrant – including spike witch hazel Corylopsis spicata, with pale yellow flowers hanging like delicate tassels from its naked branches, and white-flowered evergreen Osmanthus x burkwoodii, which wafts its scent right across the garden. One of Rosemary’s favourite witch hazels, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Vesna’, forms a goblet shape of twiggy growth, dotted with deep orange-yellow flowers.
Rosemary has banked up the borders in the woodland area by piling up peat blocks and back-filling with soil. This was done 18 years ago, and although the use of peat has since come into question it has proved an effective device here, raising the beds almost three feet higher in the middle than the edges, so the plants appear to spill down towards the paths and are easier
“Use every inch – you can have two or three things in one area”
to see and admire. The ground is carpeted with hellebores and pulmonaria, erythroniums, narcissi and honesty, and dotted with early tulips including rich orange ‘Ballerina’.
Tulips ‘Maureen’, ‘Exotic Emperor’ and ‘Spring Green’ are stars in the green and white border, which is an area that strikes visitors as they arrive through the gate. It looks particularly effective in the evening, so supper guests are greeted by a luminous planting scheme. Among the tulips, Rosemary grows white bleeding heart Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Alba’, fluttery white ‘Thalia’ narcissi and summer snowflakes Leucojum aestivum. “For years we had roses here but they never did well, so eventually out they came,” Rosemary says. She adds to the bulb numbers every year, as tulips, unlike the more reliable narcissi, don’t always re-flower.
Irish yews provide structure all year round, along with box balls, which Rosemary has pruned into nimbus cloud shapes either