Dramatic forms in a frosted garden
Silhouettes shaped by evergreen topiary make a statement in the starkness of winter
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.
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’.