With subtle tones and smooth curves, an Essex garden quietly bursts into life.
Down a country lane, past wooded glades and heathland, sits a garden brimming with unfurling foliage and pristine spring flowers. In the crystal clear sunlight of early morning, a myriad of tulips shimmer from beds and borders. All are carefully colour-themed and blended with ornamental grasses, burgeoning perennials and evergreen shrubs.
Furzelea, a Victorian house, lies outside the village of Danbury, Essex, on a south-facing hillside. As one of the highest points in the county, the incline is regularly brushed by cold easterly winds. The surrounding woodland, however, forms a natural shelter-belt that allows tender plants to survive winter. The soil is a mix of sand and clay that, combined with the typically low rainfall of this area, creates dry conditions. As a result, regular mulches of compost are needed to increase water retention, while watering in prolonged warm spells is vital for the plants to thrive.
Welcoming the tulips
Owners Avril and Roger Cole-Jones have gardened on this plot for 36 years. They greet each spring with keen anticipation.
“I love to see the garden coming to life again after winter, with
new shoots breaking through the earth, fresh leaves emerging
on the trees, and a succession of bulbs,” says Avril. “I am no lover of yellow, and big golden daffodils are my pet hate. So
after the snowdrops and dainty white narcissi, tulips are what
I look forward to.”
When the couple first arrived in 1980, the one-and-a-half-acre garden showed little promise. “It was a jungle of self-seeded birch, oak and blackthorn. We could not even see the boundaries,” recalls Avril. Roger hacked a tunnel through the undergrowth, their two young daughters closely bringing up the rear, until he reached the thatched summer house at the end of the plot. He set himself a target of removing seven tree roots a weekend – an antidote to his job as an electrical engineer. Over several years the garden was cleared. “He unearthed much of the Victorian brick edging. We incorporated it into the new garden, laid on end at 45-degree angles to edge beds, paths and borders,” says Avril.
In the early years, one half of the garden was used as a paddock for the children’s ponies, while the remainder was laid largely to lawn. “We built several arches and pergolas from timber that came from the felled trees,” says Avril. The ponies left in 1991 and strips of the original garden were sold for development a few years later. She could finally realise her dream of developing the remaining two-thirds-of-an-acre plot. “The time had come to divide the garden into separate rooms,” she says. “I wanted to do this, not by creating dense screens from formal hedges, but with informal plantings of shrubs and small trees. That means there’s still a hint of what’s round the corner.”
Dividing the garden
Initially, Roger was horrified at the thought of no longer being able to see all the way from the sitting room window to the back hedge, but Avril prevailed. “I wanted a garden that you couldn’t see all in a glance, with hidden areas that would entice us outside, however bad the weather.”
Together, they started planting trees and shrubs to create partial, informal divisions between different areas. The lawn was stripped back to form beds. “Before we start a new project,
I always sketch out my ideas to scale, and then translate them onto the ground to check that they will work,” she explains. “I can’t draw so they’re little more than doodles on paper, but
I do have an eye for colour.” From the start of work in 1997, the garden is an ongoing project, continually developing.
The layout is based on circles and curves. This creates a continuous flow from one area to another, as opposed to a staccato series of beginnings and ends. “There’s something very pleasing about curves,” she says. The main view is from a raised stone terrace that lies immediately outside the kitchen. This directs the eye down the sloping garden. There are tantalising glimpses of a pond, arches, a thatched roof and shapely trees.
From the terrace, eight brick steps descend to a lawn, each side bordered by stepped box hedges. “I wanted some sort of barrier alongside the steps, but nothing as permanent as brickwork. Box hedging was ideal,” explains Avril. More box hedging edges an island bed to the right, encircling a willow standard. Just a few steps away is a large circular bed, edged in some of the original Victorian bricks. This is planted with a soft blend of buttermilk violas, wallflowers, narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ and yellow tulip ‘Fringed Elegance’. “I prefer the pale primrose yellow of this tulip to deeper golden shades,” she says.
Past the pond
A grassy path leads from the circular bed down the garden, straddled by a wooden pergola bearing the double blue Clematis macropetala ‘Maidwell Hall’. To the right lies a pond, once
home to the family’s ducks. This was enlarged five years ago, excavated to a depth of 24in (60cm), and relined. “The ducks had pecked away the original grassy edges, so we built straight-sided walls topped with bricks. This helps deter the heron from eating the goldfish.”
The grassy path continues southwards, passing camellias, a purple-leaved cherry and flowering Magnolia soulangeana. It arrives at a rustic arch covered in Akebia quinata, the chocolate vine. This produces clusters of wine red, chocolate-scented flowers in spring. “Wherever a path provides a natural passage to another part of the garden, it lends itself to an arch for climbing plants,” says Avril. “I like the idea of structures in the garden not only being features, but also having a purpose and being used.”
This arch is used to frame the view of the lowest third of the garden. Here a circular lawn is overlooked by a thatched summer house, flanked to each side by twin topiary shapes. “They started out as boring potted balls, so I gradually clipped two cottage loaf-style layers. Since then, we’ve kept adding layers.” The curving lawn is enclosed by borders filled with late-flowering tulips, primarily chosen for their colours and differing heights. “I leave tulips in from one year to the next. The deeper they are planted, the greater the chance they will return, largely because there’s less chance I will inadvertently put a fork through them,” she adds. Avril only digs deeply when planting anew. Otherwise she does little more than use a small hand fork to weed, or break the crust of the earth allowing rain to penetrate.
The palette of tulip colours changes subtly, creating an informal effect. Pinks and mauves flow down the eastern border, beneath a pink blossoming prunus ‘Kiku Shidare Zakura’. They pass a clump of blue Muscari armeniacum that originated from Roger’s mother’s garden. In the bottom border, there is an old camellia, Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ and a shrimp-pink Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’. Here, yellow and orange tulips start to dominate, changing to reds, oranges and creams along the western border. “There are no sharp contrasts, just
a gradual change of colour,” says Avril. Among the many tulips she grows, a particular favourite is the scented orange tulip ‘Ballerina’. This returns annually, each year a little shorter than the one before. She covets it for its lily shape, beautiful clear colour and fresh, strong but sweet fragrance. “I always add new bulbs to the existing clumps, so that there are different heights. It looks much more natural.”
No fan of the municipal-style massed planting, her preference is to mix tulips in with other plants. “I hate the idea of serried ranks of tulips standing over forget-me-nots or pansies,” she says. Instead, she favours specific pairings, such as red ‘Abu Hassan’ tulips with variegated sisyrinchium, and burnt orange ‘Cairo’ with Euphorbia polychroma. Other combinations include pink ‘Caravelle’ with honesty, and ‘Ballerina’ with either rusty-coloured Carex testacea or Carex elata ‘Bowles’ Golden’. “Carex are reasonably evergreen and there are eight varieties that look good in spring,” says Avril. “Grasses go well with tulips, creating a lovely informal look.”
Letting the sky in
Among the other ornamental grasses she grows are Anemanthele lessoniana, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and Deschampsia flexuosa. These are interspersed among tulips in various shades of pink that drift through the large island bed in the centre of the circular lawn. Shaped in the manner of a three-leaf clover, this bed was formed just two years ago after being marked out and stripped of turf. “We hired a rotovator to excavate down, and added our own compost. With undernourished soil like ours, you can never have enough.” Now well established, it is a very different picture from the huge old red-flowered chestnut that stood there until 2008 when it was felled by a mini tornado.
That occurred two weeks prior to a charity opening of the garden. The rotten stump was quickly dug out, then the hole backfilled with topsoil and turfed over. “We finished the day before the first visitors arrived,” recalls Avril. She now prefers to see the sky and cloud formations rather than a dense tree canopy. “Big trees hide the sky, and the grass beneath struggles to grow,” she points out. “Even when a tree is used to block an unsightly view, it often grows too tall, and hides something you’d otherwise choose to see.”
As a result, she prefers shrubs and bamboos with a finite height, or small trees that will not rob the garden of light. For example, in the island bed stands a Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the katsura tree. This is a deciduous tree with beautiful heart-shaped leaves that open a soft bronze before turning green and colouring up in autumn. Beneath it are tulips in various shades of peach and coral. Threaded through them are silver clumps of leafy Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ and Astelia chathamica. A variety of heucheras, including ‘Mocha’, ‘Brass Lantern’ and ‘Marmalade’ with leaves in shades of bronze, coral and caramel sit with bronze fennel.
An outcrop of Euphorbia mellifera adds height, while there are
a number of spiky phormiums. Among them are pink-striped ‘Maori Queen’, gracefully arching ‘Jester’, and compact, brightly coloured ‘Flamingo’. “The old-fashioned Phormium tenax grow too big, but most modern varieties are smaller. They come in
a range of eye-catching colours and, being more arching in habit than upright, blend easily into the planting.” By mid spring, Avril’s phormiums are immaculate thanks to tough treatment earlier in the season. “I hack back any damaged leaves and they look so much better after being thinned out.”
Different phormium varieties punctuate the borders enclosing the circular lawn. They culminate at the top of the western border with a magnificent Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’. This provides a dramatic, dusky backdrop to orange ‘Ballerina’ and caramel-coloured ‘Cairo’ tulips. To the right is a second archway that frames a view of the White Garden, sitting in a quiet corner bordered by the boundary fence, house and, to the east, the pond. A white metal bench is surrounded by a border of tulips ‘White Triumphator’ and ‘Queen of Night’, narcissi, spirea, alyssum and self-seeding honesty. “It’s a lovely quiet place to sit with a cup of tea, when I find the time,” adds Avril.
Time is in short supply because maintaining a garden ofmsuch interest is almost a full-time job from spring until autumn. But Avril would have it no other way. “I’ve always gardened, helping my mother sow seeds from a very young age. I can’t imagine life without a garden. It is forever stimulating and, with the unpredictability of the climate, is never dull, even if the outcome is not always what you expect.”
Furzelea, Bicknacre Road, Danbury, Essex CM3 4JR.
Tel 01245 225726.
Words and photography: Nicola Stocken