Dra­matic forms in a frosted gar­den

Sil­hou­ettes shaped by ever­green top­i­ary make a state­ment in the stark­ness of win­ter

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Caro­line Wheater Pho­tog­ra­phy: Richard Bloom

Deep in the Weald of Kent, among un­du­lat­ing land­scapes and wooded val­leys, sits a pretty, late 18th cen­tury cot­tage with a slop­ing, south-fac­ing gar­den ringed by shel­ter­ing wood­land. This one-acre gar­den, which wraps around the cot­tage and its sev­eral out­build­ings, is home to un­ex­pected res­i­dents that sur­prise and de­light the eye. Here, ever­green top­i­ary fash­ioned in the shape of birds and cloud-pruned hedges pro­vide in­ter­est all year round, but es­pe­cially dur­ing win­ter. The Wealden clay loam soil is per­fect for shrubs and trees and has been much im­proved over the years with the ad­di­tion of bar­row­fuls of home-made com­post and ma­nure from the own­ers’ don­keys and lo­cal farm an­i­mals. The strik­ing gar­den, close to the mar­ket town of Cran­brook, is owned and main­tained by artist and gar­den de­signer, Char­lotte Molesworth and her hus­band, Don­ald, a gar­dener by pro­fes­sion. Both re­cently re­tired, they have lived in this bu­colic spot for 35 years and cre­ated their re­mark­able gar­den from scratch. “Come snow, come wet, we’ve al­ways got these ever­green bones,” says Char­lotte. “When you’re cre­at­ing a gar­den, there’s a sug­gested ra­tio of ever­green to de­cid­u­ous, but I’ve gone over that ra­tio. There is al­ways

“Half the in­ter­est of a gar­den is the con­stant ex­er­cise of the imag­i­na­tion” Mrs C W Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Sur­rey Gar­den

colour and tex­ture in the gar­den: I love the greens of the fo­liage. The gar­den is very much part of both our lives, and we keep work­ing in it through­out win­ter.” The house and land were once part of the Hemp­stead Es­tate, home of the in­de­pen­dent Be­nen­den School since the early 20th cen­tury. How­ever, in 1918, it was sold to Cap­tain Colling­wood ‘Cherry’ In­gram, a renowned flow­er­ing cherry tree ex­pert, when he pur­chased The Grange, a large house next door. “Our cot­tage was where the gar­dener lived, and the lit­tle barn, which we now let out, was Cherry In­gram’s pot­ting shed, while my art stu­dio was the pig­gery,” says Char­lotte. The sur­round­ing land was planted as a kitchen gar­den to sup­ply the house­hold with fruit and veg­eta­bles. Cap­tain In­gram died, aged 101, two years be­fore the Molesworth­s bought the prop­erty and his gar­dener sev­eral years be­fore that, so the kitchen gar­den and ev­ery­thing in it had gone into abeyance. “The house and the gar­den were very tum­ble­down,” she re­mem­bers. “The kitchen gar­den was won­der­fully over­grown, full of flow­er­ing leeks and cab­bages, bindweed, ox­alis, couch grass and black­cur­rant plants, with ev­ery­thing jum­bled up to­gether.” Newly mar­ried and full of vigour, Char­lotte and Don­ald em­braced the chal­lenge and set about rein­vent­ing the plot.

Use­ful gifts

Their con­cept for the gar­den be­gan with a pond that was a wed­ding present from a friend. “He wanted to give us a stained glass win­dow for the house but it was al­ready rather dark, so he said he’d love to make a pond for us in­stead.” Since it was dug in 1986 at the bot­tom end of the gar­den, the pond has be­come a haven for wildlife, but its wa­ter level has never been high enough to create the at­ten­tion-grab­bing,

mir­rored sur­face that Char­lotte orig­i­nally imag­ined. Also on the Molesworth­s’ wed­ding list were yew seedlings, in­spired by the top­i­ary gar­dens of Char­lotte’s mother and aunt. “My mother was a busy farmer’s wife liv­ing on the North Downs, but she al­ways cut her yew and her box into sim­ple, geo­met­ric shapes. She col­lected old-fash­ioned gar­den plants too, such as old roses, trav­el­ling around the lanes in a pony and trap when she was young. It was fi­nan­cially dif­fi­cult to live here, so we asked for un­wanted yew seedlings and took all the box cut­tings from my mother’s and my aunt’s and friends’ gar­dens.” They planted them in rows in nurs­ery beds up by the house and grew them un­til they were big enough to es­tab­lish in the main gar­den. By the mid 1990s, the lit­tle seedlings were the right size to plant out, and via a process of trial and er­ror, the bones of the gar­den were laid. “I started out with a box hedge in a horse­shoe shape, but I didn’t like that,” says Char­lotte. “Young box is easy to move, as long as you can phys­i­cally shift it and get an ad­e­quate root ball.” So it was repo­si­tioned into a more for­mal av­enue that di­vided the gar­den in half, with a cou­ple of ‘rooms’ ei­ther side. This main axis, with its mown grass path, vis­i­ble soon af­ter en­ter­ing the plot , is now a glo­ri­ous run of par­al­lel box hedges. Top­i­ary birds emerge at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, cre­at­ing a the­atri­cal scene that is both in­trigu­ing and uplift­ing. Char­lotte says she never imag­ined the box hedges grow­ing up to full size, but as they got big­ger, so did her am­bi­tions, and the top­i­ary shapes were de­signed in­tu­itively, as a re­sult of her artis­tic skills. “We didn’t start shap­ing the top­i­ary for ap­prox­i­mately 10 years af­ter it was first planted, but then I started ex­per­i­ment­ing and re­ally got into it, cre­at­ing birds, dough­nuts, balls, spi­rals and pil­lars. You can be as play­ful as you want to be.”

Mak­ing her mark

Her birds are fan­tas­ti­cal, but of­ten have the look of a pea­cock about them, and one of her ear­li­est was grown on a yew seedling that she res­cued from a gypsy en­camp­ment. “The poor trunk was com­pletely ripped apart, and there was only a lit­tle tuft of leaf left,” she re­calls. Now, the yew, which is on the left side of the gar­den en­trance, is mag­nif­i­cent and bears a large bird, with proud fan­tail. “I’ve grown that bird for 25 years: I love him,” she says of her old friend. He and other birds are pro­tected from high winds by trees and shrubs that shel­ter the gar­den. These in­clude Char­lotte’s favourite;

the pro­lif­i­cally flow­er­ing crab ap­ple, Malus hu­pe­hen­sis. Its pruned branches are given to the Molesworth­s’ four rare breed sheep to nib­ble on. Walk­ing down the left-hand side of the gar­den, more of Char­lotte’s trea­sures are ev­i­dent, such as a Buxus sem­per­virens ‘Green­peace’, which nat­u­rally grows into a tall pil­lar or obelisk shape. “I’ve got a lot of columns: I like them,” she says. “When I’m writ­ing, I’m a great ex­cla­ma­tion mark user, and these are ex­cla­ma­tion marks in the gar­den.” Then there is a huge golden box of ‘Lat­i­fo­lia Mac­u­lata’, with its gen­er­ous var­ie­gated leaves, which con­trasts with two neat lit­tle Chi­nese boxes, Buxus har­landii and Buxus bo­d­inieri. Also dot­ted around are lots of dumpy lit­tle Buxus mi­cro­phylla, or Asi­atic boxes, teamed here and there with grasses such as Stipa gi­gan­tea and mis­cant­hus, whose seed­head fronds add lay­ers of shape, tex­ture and in­ter­est to the bare, win­try scene. A hor­i­zon­tal hedge of horn­beam, box, holly and yew marks the end of the for­mal gar­den and leads once more to the cen­tral axis path, with views up to­wards the pig­gery, hawthorn and right-hand side of the gar­den. Here, there is a large lawn at the back of the house. These big­ger hedges are Don­ald’s ter­ri­tory when it comes to cut­ting and are cloud pruned by him into beau­ti­ful swoop­ing shapes which Char­lotte likens to a hel­ter-skel­ter.

Ring­ing the changes

Trim­ming the top­i­ary birds into shape is Char­lotte’s task. Some have a slightly com­i­cal look, a re­flec­tion of her happy-go-lucky spirit. A deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the nat­u­ral world, ac­quired through her life­long prac­tice of paint­ing and teach­ing art, also dwells at the heart of each box or yew sculp­ture. “Some start off as balls, then I get bored and turn them into a bird by cut­ting a hol­low in the mid­dle and pulling out branches for the beak and tail. I’m a bit posses­sive and con­trol­ling about the birds. If some­one else cuts them, they will have been given a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

They are my chicks,” she says, most em­phat­i­cally. Through­out early win­ter, she gets up on her top­i­ary tri­pod lad­ders to tend to each bird with top qual­ity top­i­ary shears. “If you don’t have the right tools, it’s a los­ing bat­tle,” she ex­plains. Change is con­stantly in the air, and Char­lotte is not averse to chop­ping off a head or two if she has had enough of cer­tain top­i­ary cre­ations. Lately, she has be­come more in­ter­ested in cloud prun­ing both yews and boxes, which brings a more con­tem­po­rary look to the gar­den that pleases her. “With any gar­den, you’ve got to be up for it evolv­ing,” she says. “I don’t just want to do main­te­nance; I like to do in­ter­est­ing things.” So speaks the true artist.

In win­ter, the Molesworth­s’ Kent gar­den has a sense of the­atre with a path­way draw­ing visi­tors past its dra­matic top­i­ary.

Char­lotte Molesworth with a corkscrew box top­i­ary.

Buxus sem­per­virens ‘Bowles Blue’ and Buxus sem­per­virens are formed into stark shapes and winged crea­tures, bring­ing the frosty gar­den to life.

Yew and box lead to an out­build­ing, the hedge bear­ing spher­i­cal top­i­ary re­sem­bling a line of guards­men. Grasses dot­ted in large weath­ered con­tain­ers mir­ror the top­i­ary mounds. They in­clude Arum italicum, carex, cratae­gus, Hakonechlo­a macra and Hed­era helix ‘But­ter­cup’.

Char­lotte re­lies on spe­cial­ist tools to keep her top­i­ary in shape.

A sit­ting bird makes for a strik­ing state­ment among the tall columns of box top­i­ary, while the feath­ery seed­heads of grasses add con­trast and tex­ture.

The dense fo­liage of Buxus sem­per­virens ‘Ele­gan­tis­sima’, Buxus sem­per­virens ‘Bowles Blue’, Buxus sem­per­virens and sweet box Sar­cocca con­fusa create depth.

Cloud-pruned Buxus sem­per­virens ‘Myoso­tid­i­fo­lia’.

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