Heron’s Mead, East Burton
Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a garden that has been over twenty years in the making
Published in March ’11
The bungalow at Heron’s Mead, East Burton, is fronted by a garden of modest size but with imaginative planting well removed from a small lawn with narrow beds. It gives just a hint that something unexpected might lie beyond and the visitor will not be disappointed to find a back garden which goes on, and on, and on …..
In the twenty-odd years that Ron and Angela Millington have lived here, they have, banishing brambles and nettles as they went, very cleverly turned this half-acre garden into a series of different areas that flow seamlessly from one to the other. Ron found escape from his high-tech job at nearby Winfrith by planning and constructing the hard landscaping with dwarf walls, small ponds, paths and patios. Gardening, as all keen gardeners know, is the ultimate relaxation – even when it involves a lot of hard work. The latest project, a circular patio with mosaic features, is an eye-catching welcome to a garden that is their pride and joy.
Angela told me that, when they moved in, only a couple of old trees and a mobile home occupied the plot, which had been mainly left to its own devices. The services to the mobile home dictated the position of what is now a large garden chalet, which comes into its own for serving teas when the garden opens under the National Gardens Scheme. The mature trees, cherry and walnut, still stand and provide welcome shade; to a large extent it was their positions that dictated how the garden was to evolve.
On a May afternoon, the spring bulbs, for which the garden is well known, have all but faded, and lime and gold foliage begins to gleam among early-summer greenery. Many-branched euphorbia and soft-leaved spiraea are under-planted with alpine phlox and clumps of cranesbills which are only just beginning to fill in as the season gets under way. After a long hard winter, plants are looking for rather more encouragement to make their mark. Burgundy tulips are a similar, but deeper, shade to the Clematis alpina, which scrambles over rustic trellis. This useful group of clematis do not have spectacularly large flowers but there are more of them on a climber which, as its name suggests, is ideal for cold, exposed sites. The usually bell-shaped flowers fill the spring to early summer gap and often produce attractive fluffy seed heads as well. A delicious scent has me bending to Viburnum carlesii ‘Aurora’, thriving in a semi-shady position where its balls of pink-tinged flowers show to advantage. Not only is this shrub beautifully scented but the foliage often turns red to give good autumn colour, too.
The borders around the lawn nearest to the bungalow have a structure of shrubs, but there is plenty of ground cover. Symphytum, or comfrey, is used to good effect; being probably one of the least fussy of perennials when it comes to soil and position, it is apt to take over if given the slightest encouragement. It was once used as a herbal remedy known as knitbone: “The slimie substance of the roote made in a posset of ale, and given to drinke against the paine in the backe, gotten by any violent motion, such as wrestling, or over much use of women, doth in fower or five daies perfectly cure the same………..”! Symphytum is now listed as a poisonous plant; not to be avoided, but definitely not ingested. This evidently does not apply to bees, who absolutely love it. There are clumps of sedums and epimediums, too; these are two of Angela’s favourites.
A meandering stepping-stone path leads on down the garden where a small diversion curves between a bed of shrubs surrounded by hellebores. There is a lovely double peach japonica on the fence, a climbing rose and a scramble of akebia, the chocolate vine. A trellis obelisk supports clematis while C. ‘Bill MacKenzie’ makes use of a nearby tree for support. This is a late-flowering climber with a mass of small yellow flowers that accentuate the dashes of golden foliage and decorative grasses nearby. Even the contents of a small sink garden show contrast in shape and colour.
A neat central bed contains an interesting driftwood bird. It has to be a heron, given the name of the bungalow and the fact that the sculpture is reflected in a tiny pond. The yellow flowers of evergreen mahonia team with yellow tulips and another spiraea, which is brilliant in spring sunshine. A dark fir has a foreground of scarlet tulips, vivid wallflowers, dicentra and euphorbia. A lovely old sundial stands in a paved circle, with alpines crowding around the base. Paeonies push through spikes of variegated iris, the chalet – which is a welcome refuge in a sudden downpour – has another small pond outside it which is filled by a spouting salamander.
The old spreading walnut tree is central to an area with a handful of fruit trees, apple and plum, which blossom prettily in the spring. The path leads on to the kitchen garden where a particularly well-dressed scarecrow had even donned her necklace before coming on duty. The greenhouse holds a good collection of cacti, many of which are in flower. Beyond, a silver pear shelters poppies, purple sage, primroses, forget-me-nots and wallflowers. A small arbour, smothered in climbers, is yet another place to stop and review what you’ve seen. Viburnum ‘Chesapeake’ has been planted nearby, a semi-evergreen that is possibly going to outgrow this space once it gets going.
Beyond, just when I thought I really must be coming to the end, two large herbaceous beds fill the width of the garden each side of the path, wherein can be found: shrub roses including deep, dark ‘Tuscany Superb’, clumps of tall grasses, day lilies, catmint, more cranesbills – indeed all the reliable perennials that can transform a space very quickly once they start to grow can be found and, what is more, they can all be divided. Why grow one when you can perhaps split it into two or three? You may have smaller plants to start with, but they’ll soon make roots and spread. When you have as much garden as this, division is an economical – and much more satisfying – way to fill the space. Late summer dahlias fill in here, too.
At the bottom of the garden, beyond a beech hedge, is a small woodland dwarfed by two huge eucalyptus and silver birches. A bark path with timber edging encircles the area where ground cover has been allowed to run riot. Bluebells poke up through silver-blotched lamium among spikes of fiery euphorbia and the graceful arches of Solomon’s seal. An unexpected flash of pinky-red had me treading carefully in to investigate. Angela was sought for advice and she was pleased to see that Rubus spectabilis, an ornamental bramble, had survived the winter.
If you could start all over again, I asked Angela, is there anything you would change? She told me that Ron often says the large cherry tree is in quite the wrong place – but to fell it would have been such a pity. Instead, they have worked round what they had and produced a garden that is interesting and unique.
• Heron’s Mead was open under the National Gardens Scheme and, if it does so again, details will be found in the Yellow Book published each spring. Not all gardens open every year. If the owners are ‘resting’, please respect their privacy.