Wednesday 18th September 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the August 2019 issue

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Steffie Shields finds inspiration for an August palette from a hillside garden in Woolsthorpe.

Is your garden looking weary, with boring patches, or spots of desiccation? Those lush, spring and early summer delights a distant memory? Are temperatures too extreme? Do you, and your all too ‘green rooms’, need a lift? One solution is to get out and about to visit other gardens.

Designer Toby Woods, who won RHS Chelsea 2018 Gold and ‘Best in Category’ with his ‘Space to Grow’ garden admitted recently that, besides obvious national treasures, such as Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, he likes to visit National Garden Scheme open gardens. Even RHS Chelsea Gold winners need inspiration!

I agree. One warm, August Sunday afternoon, a couple of years ago, I took myself off to Neil and Lucienne Bennett’s garden, Ashcroft House, in Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth. A cool, shady passage at the side of the house framed a perky palette of plants, packed in bright borders beyond, glorying in sunshine and far from wilting. Lucienne has a gift for horticultural upkeep, and a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Touches of quirky interest here, change of texture there, and everywhere engaging plant combinations gave a distinct balmy and relaxed flow to the garden.

Lucienne was born in the Hague in Holland and is descended from tulip importers. Hence the famously Dutch passion for bulb-growing is in her blood. A committee member of Colsterworth and District Garden and Allotments Holders’ Association, her garden was a surprising masterclass in establishing high summer colour, especially later-flowering bulbs.

They moved to Woolsthorpe in 2011. The long back garden, simply a pony paddock on the site of an old, filled-in ironstone quarry on the edge of the village, needed careful planning. The first task was to solve the ground sloping away from the house. Terracing, a must, began in 2012. Another complication, they had discovered natural springs running down one side. Consequently, the hollow at the bottom of the garden was desperately boggy, and an area of deep shade, with a backdrop of high trees screening the hill beyond, difficult to plant.

What has been achieved in five years is nothing short of splendid! Well-made, low stone walls ensured the garden began with good bones. These contain curving borders in marked tiers, with level areas of lawn in between edged with bricks to control the pleasing line, occasionally broken by low perennials spilling over. Ornamental small trees, including silver birch ‘Jacquemontii’ and fruit trees lend year-round height and structure to the design, together with a contemporary arch imported from the Netherlands, supporting a climbing hybrid musk white rose ‘Guirlande d’Amour’.

Uppermost, beyond a tall espalier vine, a dessert grape Vitis ‘Boskoop Glory’, clothing the end elevation of the L-shaped house, a wide veranda, stretches the width of the garden. Besides tables and chairs, here are many containers, full of plants of various heights, cleverly, closely grouped, as if one single border. I remember wondering if, every spring, Lucienne treated herself to new specimens to enjoy from the windows of the house. Then, after contemplating and nurturing them over the weeks, having familiarised herself with their characteristic habit and principal tone, come the autumn, does she find each hardy newcomer a permanent home lower down the garden?

I found Lucienne standing on this top patio, tea mug in hand, surrounded by a huddle of gardeners keen to have queries answered about uncommon plants, especially the tender Streptocarpella dripping with dainty, lavender flowers set off to advantage in a royal blue pot.

She told me: “I had to completely re-learn gardening on moving here. We lived in the Brecon Beacons in Wales for nearly 25 years. My soil there was acidic to neutral, so plants and trees were in a different group from what I must plant here.”

A veritable Dutch dynamo! This caring enthusiast shares advice and knowledge avidly. She enjoys a challenge and, come winter, has fun researching in choosing limestone tolerant plants to complement or contrast, and is blessed with an intuitive, creative eye for colour.

A few steps down below the patio, the upper terrace, a small oval of lawn, inhabited by a benevolent, stone tortoise, was ‘embraced’ by a sweeping curving low wall, retaining a border overflowing with whites, cool blues, purples, punctuated with three pink David Austin ‘The Mayflower’ roses. One shrub rose, ‘Darcey Bussell’, covered in fragrant, deep crimson-pink blooms struck a dazzling pose centre-stage. Nearby, Dutch Semi-Dwarf gladioli: ‘Glamourglad Waris’ (held erect by wire rings), introduced rich purple drama. The velvet flowers were like fireworks, their white throats flashing amongst airy palest pink and white florets of Nicotiana Sylvestris floating in the breeze. Planting, supported by discreet metal plant-holders, progressed seamlessly to darker hues receding towards the right hand corner: attractive blue spires, Veronicastrum virginicum, jostling for space with various pink dahlias, white cosmos daisies and purple phlox.

The next terrace, also in full sun but warmer in tone, and weighted towards the left, was given more height from a variety of small shrubs towards the back, fronted by bold perennials: the other end of the rainbow spectrum, apricots, reds and yellows of every hue. Three pairs of clogs, clues to, and reminders of, the owner’s heartfelt native origins, were pinned to the black fence near an appropriately orange haze of trailing begonias. More dahlias, these brilliant red, partnered yellow ‘black-eyed Susan’ daisies. Light, creamy hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ partnered a contrasting coppery mound, Cotinus coggyria. Every possible leaf shape, size, and colour, from lime-green to russet, bronze to maroon, all controlled, without looking too clipped or contrived, or too domineering.

Many other visitors, equally enthralled, explored each gentle terrace, pausing to survey exotic foliage and flower. They meandered down to what was once a boggy glade at the bottom level, now a large pond fed by springs. In the process of digging it out, the Bennetts found a rusted old Ford 8 car, dumped long ago by a farmer who owned the land! Giant Gunnera leaves lent more suitable sculptural spectacle amongst Lucienne’s favourite plants, all suited to shade and wet ground: a variety of large-leafed hostas, Kirengeshoma, Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’, Phytolacca, Amsonia ciliata, and Chelone obliqua. Then, looking back, everyone admired another treat: the kaleidoscope, a complete, living tapestry, weaving up the hillside.

Go garden visiting! You will be invigorated by new places, and exercise coupled with cup of tea and scrummy homemade cake. I drove away with a lingering memory of the velvet sheen of those glamorous gladioli, vowing to plant more summer bulbs in future. Once home, I rushed outside to peruse my borders afresh, buzzing with fresh ideas to fill gaps while attracting more bees and butterflies, when an amusing thought occurred, considering the “picture of well-ordered profusion” effect Lucienne was aiming for. Just imagine how Vincent Van Gogh would have responded to the genius of their artful, vibrant, energizing garden?

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