Dorset gardens: Marren, Holworth
Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a sloping garden above Ringstead Bay
Published in July ’14
There is gardening on a slope and then there is gardening at Marren. Here, four acres provide spectacular views of the coast from the upper levels and descend to wooded depths which deer and badgers make their own.
Peter and Wendy Cartwright have lived at Marren for 15 years, moving into a property that had been empty for 18 months and with a garden that was completely overgrown. Large sycamore trees grew to the south of the house and one of the first jobs was to fell and lop to open up the coastal panorama that can now be enjoyed. The loss of some sycamores has been more than made good as new native trees such as oak, ash, hornbeam, mountain ash and beech are gradually being planted to reinforce the woodland that still clothes the upper slopes.
Directions given when Marren is opened for the National Gardens Scheme lead visitors on a steep and tricky walk from the ridge above Ringstead Bay. There are many steps to be negotiated on the sometimes rough path, the first of well over one hundred that have been cut into the garden to make it more accessible. At intervals, small mown terraces provide the opportunity to pause for breath and take stock, wondering when the ‘garden proper’ will be revealed. It won’t, or at least this is the garden proper. Paths twist, turn and intersect; sculpted trees stand in patches of sunlight then suddenly you’re ‘there’. A welcome cup of tea already set out on the terrace beneath a pergola gradually being shaded by hornbeam.
Wendy is a garden designer and revealed that at Marren she has tried to keep the natural feel of the garden while necessarily adding structure and accessibility. Steps and terracing were essential but neither has imposed formality, creating the option of several different ways to enjoy the layout. Wendy has also had to plan for a heavy clay subsoil, leaning towards acid, and the south-westerly salt-laden winds that are often such a feature of the coast. Evergreens therefore feature widely, tough leathery leaved shrubs, which are able to withstand the elements. Much use is made of Elaeagnus ebbingei with its metallic-sheened leaves. Wendy has chosen to cloud prune – a Japanese introduction that has become very popular – so the view down from the house terrace is across a sea of rounded foliage off which the sun glints silver. Also catching the sun beautifully is a large clump of stipa (feather grass), adding gold to the glimmer of the hedging. It takes a while to become established, Wendy warns, but the end result is worth the wait.
The pretty path of pebbles and paviours along the terrace leads round to the front entrance, which Wendy has laid out in Italianate style. Water spills gently into a trough and the area is dotted with colourfully-planted terracotta pots. A small fig tree soaks up the sun in this sheltered position and tiny daisies have self-seeded, a contrast with the clipped spiral yews. Curved stone steps lead up between hedging that has been shaped just enough to give it a touch of formality. Blue iris, day lilies, rosemary, all line the route to a timber seat with yet another splendid view. Colour by the house terrace is provided by magenta geraniums and lime euphorbia, tree lupins and tall daisies. A grass path drops steeply between blue sage, fennel, acanthus.
Wendy said she has gardened on a shoe-string and Marren is proof that you don’t need to fill borders with expensive exotics. Hardy garden favourites come into their own when mixed and planted in quantity, with an eye to the overall effect. Frequently they self-seed, or can be divided, which is an added incentive when there are large spaces to fill.
Lower down the slope, large white shrub roses and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) combine well. This latter is a hardy Mediterranean shrub that forms dense mounds of grey foliage. It needs cutting back regularly to stop it becoming leggy, but is almost indestructible. The retaining wall here is of timber, with a seat cleverly perched on top and a back-rest of dwarf box hedge. White cistus has grown large, its flowers centred in deep maroon. Two drimys are more unusual shrubs, their clusters of small white flowers lighting up the surrounding greenery. Usually more at home in rain forests, they have settled in very happily on the Dorset coast.
The garden slopes ever further down; ferns and banks of comfrey take over, with hellebores growing in between. Below, there is a small grass clearing, overlooked by some lovely acers, which can be reached down narrow timber and pebbled steps. This lawn is surrounded by white hydrangeas, partially protected by a privet hedge. There is a bay tree nearby and viburnums, with tough pink bistort beneath – an ideal ground cover plant for partial shade.
The trees at the bottom of the garden are large and wilderness takes over. Ivy carpets the ground with evidence of spring flowers. There are plenty of nettles, too, and piles of logs, all part of Wendy’s bid to attract more wildlife, especially butterflies. Tree trunks are gnarled and twisted in the filtered light which, together with a small willow arbour, suggest an ideal meeting place for one or two characters from The Hobbit.
At this bottom point of the garden, one really has to tilt the head back to look up at the house far above. Whilst much of the garden is still ‘wild’, it must be kept under control. It is a daunting task but one which Peter and Wendy are obviously very happy to pursue. They decided not to fence against wildlife and so are able to enjoy the visits by badgers, deer, rabbits and squirrels – even if the small arbour is constantly having to be rebuilt when these visitors prove too energetic for its flimsy structure.
Clambering up to the house again, using a side path beneath a stand of sycamore trees, where dense hedging included yew and mahonia, there are tender plants here and there, including melianthus, whose beautiful blue leaves are noteworthy in any border. In our climate it usually needs a sheltered sunny spot to survive the winter. At Marren it has made a large clump so – deer willing – it may prove a surprising success. Wendy has provided a hardy envelope for the garden, filtering out sea gales and creating what a pocket of calm amid the storm.
There is a warning in the Yellow Book that this garden is not suitable for the unfit as there are many steps. If you have the necessary legs and lungs, though, why not spend a Sunday afternoon enjoying something a little different?
Any gardener ideally plans a garden bearing in mind the location of their own plot, taking into consideration the soil, the amount of light and shade and the availability of shelter. This is especially important if you garden at or near the seaside, where plants must be hardy enough to withstand coastal winds and a salt-laden atmosphere. Fortunately it is often the well-known trees, shrubs and perennials that do best in such a situation; those that are readily available and often not expensive compared with an exciting new introduction straight out of Chelsea.
To give some shelter, a wind-break may be necessary. Trees or hedges can either be dense enough to block the wind, or stand as a filter to reduce the impact. Leathery-leaved evergreens are ideal, such as holly. Holly comes in many forms, some even without sharp-edged leaves, and can be variegated, too. Colourful berries in the winter are an added attraction but, as most hollies are unisexual, you need to ensure you have planted both male and female plants. The eucalypts are fast-growing trees often with blue-green foliage and attractive, colourful peeling bark. E. gunnii is a monster, but there are now species much more suitable for smaller gardens which will not take many years to reach a useful size. E. pauciflora subsp. niphophila has received the RHS Award of Garden Merit and hardily throws off salt gales.
Sturdy evergreen shrubs, too, are readily available. Escallonia with its glossy foliage and masses of small flowers in white, pink or red can often be seen grown as a seaside hedge. Cut it back after flowering to keep it in shape or it will become very leggy. Add a splash of colour with Fuchsia riccartonii, a hardy plant with scarlet and purple flowers that looks striking when grown as a hedge. The Japanese spindle, Euonymus japonicus, can be kept as a medium-sized shrub or small tree, with leathery mid-green leaves and small white flowers. A good variegated shrub is Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata’, the dark green of its leaves reduced to a narrow edge around a golden centre. Various forms of hebe can be any height from 6” to 6’, the spikes of flowers appearing in many shades of pink, purple or white.
Silver foliage seems to love the seaside, too. Well-loved lavender forms a good, small hedge with ‘Hidcote’ remaining a tried and tested favourite. Fine-cut leaves smother artemisia, while the sea-hollies, eryngiums, bear bold leaves with wicked spines around their thistle-like flowers. Senecio has masses of yellow daisy-like flowers and can be cut back if it starts to get too big.
In the border echinacea faces the weather with equanimity, its deep brown centres surrounded by rosy-pink petals or the flowers white with an orange centre. Bold clumps can be achieved with red-hot pokers or phormiums, the New Zealand flax. Both can reach generous proportions, so give them room to expand. The pokers, kniphofia, are no longer just red-hot orange but are also grown in yellow variety. The sword-shaped leaves of phormiums can be colourfully-striped.
Gardening close to the sea need not be a series of sad deaths in your planting scheme. Choose wisely and create a haven in which you can relax and enjoy the sea air.