Myriad early flowers and blossom fill a riverside garden in Kent, its planting a legacy of one woman’s vision.
On the outskirts of the ancient Kentish village of Yalding, a narrow lane leads across the floodplain of the River Medway to the daffodil-flanked drive of a former oast house. This is Parsonage Oasts, the home of Edward and Jennifer Raikes. In spring, the garden erupts into a haze of flowering trees and shrubs. White magnolia and Ribes sanguineum compete and blend with red and pink Japanese quince and camellias. All are under-planted with more than 30 types of daffodil, fritillaria, hellebores, lime green euphorbia and tiny tulips.
The early 19th century red brick and timber-clad oast house, originally designed to dry hops, occupies an idyllic position at the water’s edge. There are sweeping views in both directions of the Medway. “The river is a great asset. I like seeing the people and the birds on it,” says Jennifer. “It keeps the garden a bit warmer. But it also means that the soil is very light and full of gravel. It dries out a lot, so needs plenty of watering to encourage plants such as grape hyacinths and geraniums to get going.”
To this end, seven water butts are dotted around the ¾ acre plot to collect water from various roofs. Jennifer also relies on plentiful supplies of spring water pumped up from a small well. This is situated behind the house on a patch of lawn. Sometimes the river contributes too. Yalding hit the national news over Christmas 2013 when it was flooded after a deluge of rain. Parsonage Oasts did not escape and the garden was doused. The floodwater disappeared as quickly as it came and left no lasting damage to the plants, trees and shrubs. The main victims were the beehives Edward has kept for 30 years, although these have been replaced now.
The Raikeses are used to the river’s moods, having lived at Parsonage Oasts since 1968. They moved in to help look after Edward’s grandmother, Gladys, in her very old age. “It was Gladys who made the garden when she came here in 1954,” says Jennifer. “She bought the derelict oast and a parcel of land from Parsonage Farm and, with the help of her architect, turned it into a home. Aided by a local man with the lovely name of Mr Startup, she started to create the garden out of the farmyard, which was a complete bramble patch, all overgrown.”
Although Gladys was well into her 70s, she planted magnolias and apple trees. She also put in hedges of yew, box and shrubby honeysuckle. Lawns were laid out and low brick walls built, with gravel pathways that flowed around the garden. She put in a small rose garden and a variety of shrubs. “It was already a very nice garden when we came here,” remembers Jennifer. “But, as we spent most of our time looking after our three small children, it got quite overgrown and weedy. It was only after they got a bit bigger that we began to garden in a more serious way, at the end of the ’70s.”
An outside dining room
One of their first major additions was an arbour on the sun terrace outside the drawing room. This was created for a young strawberry vine, Vitis vinifera ‘Rembrandt’, to clamber over. “The vine is a cutting taken from an original planted by Gladys. That had died in 1971, the same year as Gladys died. We got some old water pipes from a junkyard and put them up.”
In spring, this wonderful old vine starts sending out new shoots, which result in masses of edible, bronze-coloured grapes in late summer. With its snug position against the house, the sun terrace is one of the Raikes’ favourite places to sit. As soon as the weather is good enough, they take their meals out here, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tucked into one corner is a favourite garden ornament, an armillary sphere. A pidgin Latin inscription translates as: “This garden is the fruit of the wisdom of Gladys Raikes.” It was made for them in 1975 to commemorate Granny’s creation of the garden.
To the left of the terrace is a low brick wall, beyond which is the river. Beneath it, a well-stocked herbaceous border is brightly lit with bold, orange-flowered crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis. Its large bulbs are planted between the burgeoning lilies, geraniums and tulips. “Granny put some in to start with, but I do keep them topped up, and they carry on year to year,” says Jennifer. “They are scene-stealers, very dramatic.” There is a great deal of foliage as well, because Jennifer loves the soothing qualities of the colour green. “I like white, silver and green together, and contrasting leaf shapes,” she says. “These range from pointy such as fritillaria, and palmate, geraniums for example, to big sheaves of leaves such as tulips and daffodils.”
From the terrace, there is a picture-postcard view onto one of Granny’s best legacies. On the far side of the well-kept lawn, a huge Magnolia x soulangeana, or saucer magnolia, is covered in lightly scented flowers. “The magnolia comes in March,” says Jennifer. “It is at its best at the beginning of April, then has a second flowering in July. We mulch it every autumn with its own leaves and a bit of fertiliser, perhaps some hoof and horn.”
Next to the magnolia, and helping to set it off, is the tiny, snowy blossom of a delicate white flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. Jennifer planted this to increase the visual interest in that corner of the garden. Beneath both trees are swathes of purple hellebores Helleborus purpurascens, white windflowers Anemone nemorosa, and drifts of daffodils. This underplanting seems to anchor the nut-brown trunks in a sea of gentle colour that enhances all the varieties of green Jennifer adores.
Another of Granny’s stars lies across the lawn to the right of the arbour. This is a large and prolifically fruiting ‘Gascoyne’s Scarlet’ apple tree. “It has the most gorgeous blossom,” says Jennifer. “Despite its age, last year we had 130 bottles of juice from it. Edward prunes it very severely in February or early March to keep that parasol shape. It’s quite a big job and takes a couple of days to do properly.” Approximately three decades ago, Edward attached a swing to one of the tree’s sturdy branches for their grandsons to use. It is still being enjoyed now by their youngest granddaughter, Etta.
Spheres of box
One of Granny’s introductions that did not stay the course was her rose garden. This originally led out from a back door, bisecting the lawn, in front of the apple tree. “By the late 1970s the beds were full of bindweed and the roses weren’t doing well. We took the whole thing out to replace it with something less high maintenance,” says Jennifer. In its place, they put down a simple gravel path, flanked by two rows of hardwearing Tunbridge Wells paviours, interspersed with box balls to create a focal point. “Each ball is made up of up to 30 plants that have grown together to form a mound. Edward always trims them on Derby Day [the first Saturday in June],” says Jennifer. The magnificent spheres are now 3ft (1m) in girth. They are teamed with pots of abelia ‘Sunshine Daydream’ and ‘Confetti’, chosen for their contrasting pale pink-green-yellow foliage.
At the end of the lawn, through a gate and down a few steps, is the wild garden. This is dotted with all manner of trees, including ash, oak, pine, willow, crab apple, alder and hornbeam. In 1999, they dug a pond on the side of the wild garden nearest the river to encourage frogs, though none have yet colonised it. “We bought a pocket of woodland in 1996 with the idea of having a managed wildness. This area is full of old-fashioned daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops, white Anemone blanda and hybrid whitebells. Someone gave me a sack of them, so I planted them all here.”
A hawthorn that was taking light from the area has been cut down. Instead, they have started to plant camellias, which like the shady, slightly damp conditions. On the little path above that looks into the wild area from the main garden, camellias in pots are putting their roots down to get established. So far, the collection has approximately 15 varieties.
Returning to the formal garden, beyond the apple tree, the flower beds running next to the house are punctuated with a variety of scented shrubs. There are wintersweet Chimonanthus praecox, and winter honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima. “You can’t beat natural fragrances,” says Jennifer. She is delighted to add another sensory element to her spring garden with shrubs such as sweet box Sarcococca confusa, and the deliciously scented daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’.
A host of daffodils
On the far right of the garden is a storage area in the shape of ‘the little barn’. Growing next to this former bullock shed is a striking Japanese quince, Chaenomeles speciosa, creating spring impact with its intense red flowers. In front of the bothy, the kitchen garden is now starting to burst into life.
From here, the path meanders through a gate round to the front of the house, past drifts of more daffodils. “We started putting in the daffodil bulbs about 20 years ago and now have over 30 varieties,” says Jennifer. They start flowering in December with ‘Rijnveld Early Sensation’ and finish in May with ‘Pheasant’s Eye’. Some of her favourites include the heritage variety ‘Baths Flame’, bred pre-1913, and the modern white daffodil ‘Thalia’. Other favourites include scented narcissi such as bright yellow ‘Little Witch’ and white and yellow ‘Jack Snipe’. “We don’t replenish the daffies because they last forever. We do get a few extra varieties every year from our local bulb specialist, de Jager,” she adds.
The Raikeses work in the garden all year round, planting, weeding, pruning, clipping, mowing, edging and mulching. Tasks include growing on cuttings from favourite plants such as Jennifer’s collection of pelargoniums.
The spring season, however, is a time of enormous pleasure and anticipation of good things to come. “The garden delights both of us,” says Jennifer. “It’s our hobby like other people play golf or have a yacht, and we’re out in it most days. But we don’t spend huge amounts of money on it. We have lots of plants given by friends, and I give away cuttings and bulbs too.”
Her favourite time in this season is between 4pm and 5pm. This is when she potters round to see what needs a bit of attention, such as feeding or tying in or deadheading. “Plants need help, of course they do, and the garden is very much a work in progress,” she says.
Words: Caroline Wheater Photography: Abigail Rex
Parsonage Oasts, Hampstead Lane, Yalding, Kent, ME18 6HG. Tel 01622 814272.