‘Doing your own thing’
Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit the highly individual garden of Beech House in Marnhull
Published in March ’10
When Linda and Peter Antell were looking for a house thirteen years ago, the one essential was that it should have as much garden as possible. Beech House met that condition, but with lawn and fruit trees the only concession to ‘garden’. Undeterred, Linda sat down and drew up a plan. They had always had gardens, but this one was going to be something rather different. Apart from one bone of contention – a slight difference of opinion over whether or not a pond at the furthest point from the house was practicable – the plan has been achieved. Beech House now boasts a garden like Dr Who’s Tardis; once in, the size and design are amazing.
Linda’s helpful notes around the garden point out that nothing is included that is labour-intensive. In an almost throw-away line she adds that more than five hundred different plants have been introduced. Time-consuming annuals are excluded, with emphasis on herbaceous in a strong skeleton of shrubs and trees. The garden also welcomes surprise visitors that seed themselves, the point being that if something is thriving it is almost certainly in exactly the right place.
Entering the back garden along the side of the house, a generous square pergola smothered with clematis and wisteria is invitingly shady on a hot day. It is reminiscent of vine-hung Mediterranean trellis offering lazy hours with a cold drink, but is also used to protect potted camellias in the spring, bringing them near to the conservatory so that they can be enjoyed from indoors.
The narrow garden beyond the pergola is immediately made more interesting with a curvy central bed and shaped borders. Swathes of perennials in pastel colours flow around the feet of two classical sculptures, the heady scent of eleagnus in the air. No bright colours are on show here. Linda explained that each year they dig out a border completely to get rid of persistent weeds, which was why Flossie’s Border was looking a little sparse. It looked lovely to me, with clouds of aquilegia. Shrubs such as lilac and aucuba provide focal points and there are masses of hardy geraniums.
A bog garden has been created around a small pond, the frogs helping to keep down slugs. Gunnera manicata grows here but perhaps has not enough water to achieve full size, much to Linda’s relief. It leaves room for a brown turkey fig on the boundary which fruits prolifically. Slugs are not the only problem, either. Badgers are constant visitors, disrupting and destroying as they go. Other wildlife is encouraged in the orchard, where the grass is left long between the trees to flower as a meadow. Even the log pile is attractive, with its timber mushrooms. The clump of nettles surrounding it attracts butterflies. A triangle of terracotta pipe pieces holds a small collection of ornamental grasses. Clever ideas like this are what make the garden so interesting.
The original apple orchard has been expanded with plum, greengage, cherry and pear trees; walnut and mulberry are more unusual additions. Several nearby hazels provide nuts for a vegetarian diet, while their coppiced stems are use as supports for peas and beans in the vegetable garden. This shaded area is known as the woodland walk, where several berberis provide a deep purple background for spring bulbs.
A small summer house nestles under the trees, overlooking a mosaic garden. The interest contained in this narrow space could easily be duplicated in a small town garden, with irregular paving and patches of dianthus, geum, heuchera, nemesia, rudbeckia and erysimum. Colours are the key, vibrant as well as quiet, and perhaps – as here – strengthening the theme with a mosaic of interesting china oddments and souvenirs. This peaceful and secluded spot, furthermost away from the house, has a choice of seats beneath the blossom.
What a contrast is the hot spot, as Linda calls it. All the brash and brazen are here: poppies, paeonies, doronicum and, a little later in the season, red and orange dahlias to add late summer sizzle (a ‘rare concession’ to tender planting). The delicately cut leaves of an acer, huge sword-shaped phormium and a tree paeony – the latter two grown from seed – give contrasts in foliage as well as colour. Nearby, a silver pear reflects the light and a tiered viburnum with its spreading branches loaded with creamy-white flowers is given just the right feature spot. Contrasts of colour, too, are well thought through, with lime green – a perfect foil – setting off orange euphorbia, scarlet geum and dark lysimachia.
It was in these furthermost reaches of the garden that a small note of discord was heard in early days. Linda’s plan included a large water feature but, as Peter pointed out, getting water to it was going to be problematic. In any case, he said, he wanted a bit of jungle complete with bamboo. The compromise is intriguing, to say the least. A circle of firs, holly, bamboo, and a monkey-puzzle tree, is entered through a narrow path. In the depths of the dark green, a metal ‘Ninja’ sculpture in vivid orange and purple is a reminder of ‘biking days’. The tiny enclosed space has a small mosaic table and two chairs, just perfect for a secluded glass of wine at the end of the day. Or any time of day, I suppose, since absolutely no-one would know you were there. Perfect.
Of course, with a garden this size you don’t spend too much time relaxing. There is a large kitchen garden, immaculate, complete with fruit cages and asparagus beds. The working area of greenhouses is well hidden behind hedges. Beyond the vegetables, a screen of shrubs with a lovely eucalyptus backs the silver garden and parterre. Alliums, feathery grasses and catmint all enjoy this area of stony, well-drained soil. The box hedging of the parterre encloses spring bulbs followed by scarlet fuchsias. A central fountain sprays a self-seeded honeysuckle, which is one of those unplanned successes. At the far end, oval borders are kept green and white, primarily with Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’.
Each quarter of the parterre boasts its own sculpture on elegant support: watering-can, bucket, shears and sieve. Linda says they ‘challenge the formality’. Quite simply, they made me smile. After all, isn’t that what gardens are all about: doing your own thing? At Beech House, Linda and Peter have done their own thing with enormous success. I hope they do find time to sneak past the ‘Ninja’ into that tiny, secret space, and relax with a well-earned drink.
The garden opens for the NGS, when teas are served in aid of RoadPeace. Check the Yellow Book for opening dates/times.