FLOWER-FILLED HAVEN FULL OF COLOUR AND FRAGRANCE
All summer long, a garden nestling in the valley of the River Pang in Berkshire resonates to the sound of bees. From a small wildflower meadow at the front of the house to a formal walled garden at the rear, the plot is filled with nectar- and pollen-rich blooms. Since starting to keep honeybees eight years ago, owner Fran Wakefield has filled her quarter-acre plot with plants that provide these essential foods for her two hives.
“Nearly everything I plant now is with bees in mind,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see them in the air at this time of year. They are always so busy and even when you can’t see them, you can hear them. They make a lovely noise.”
Making a bee-friendly plot
Tithe Barn and its garden are in Tidmarsh, an ancient village surrounded by low-lying flower-filled meadows. The soil is rich loam with chalk from the river. The 18th century barn sits almost in the centre of the 28½sq yd (24sq m) plot. When Fran moved here more than 30 years ago, the garden was bounded by leylandii and saw very little sun. The sloping plot was mainly lawn with an old acacia tree in the centre and a few containers to provide colour. Then eight years ago, the neighbouring manor house was pulled down and redeveloped. As a result of the work, Fran lost hedges and the acacia tree, although she gained a new wall to match her existing two 10ft (3m) high red brick walls.
“The changes let the sunshine in,” she says. “I thought, I need to make the most of this.” She decided to strip the garden out and start anew. At the same time, she wanted to keep bees, something she used to do. She got two hives, which are each home to between 45,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer.
“I wanted to create a classical walled garden to complement the 1760s brick and flint barn,” she says. “There is a formal framework of low hedges, straight paths and box-edges borders filled with flowers in soft pastel shades.”
This scheme provides the backdrop for her bee-orientated planting in the rear garden, where one of the hives is located. The other sits in a small wildflower garden at the front of the barn. It all combines to create a haven for both Fran and her bees.
Abundance of flowers
The wildflower meadow replaced an area of lawn to the left of the drive and courtyard area. “It’s a favourite bee haunt,” says Fran. The hive here is surrounded by corn poppies, white field chamomile and purple toadflax. Rich in pollen and nectar, these are magnets for the bees.
From the front of the barn, a path leads down the side, past a small patio with pots of hostas, to a gate into the walled garden.
In summer, this is a riot of colour with roses, peonies, clematis, delphiniums and other herbaceous perennials in full bloom. Flowers tumble over antique terracotta pots, fill the beds, line paths or climb arches and walls. This abundance of flowering plants is ideal for Fran’s honeybees, as it is easy for them to work their way across the borders. They do not have to fly far from their hives in the garden to find sufficient pollen and nectar. Each colony needs to collect 66lbs (30kg) of pollen and 264lbs (120kg) of nectar simply to survive. To provide a store of honey, they need to gather more than this.
“The bees have plenty of choice for their foraging,” says Fran. “They like single, simple flowers such as geraniums that give them easy access to their pollen or nectar.
“I avoid hybrids or double flowering plants, as the bees struggle with these. However, if there is something I want that the bees don’t like, such as a rose or peony, I still plant it. There is enough in the garden for the bees to feed on.”
To the right of the gate is a border of lavender ‘Hidcote’. Every single stem on this plant has multiple flowers, so the bees can work it easily, moving from one to the next with little expense of energy. Lavender also has the ability to release its nectar gradually, to keep the bees coming back.
To the left, a climbing rose, ‘Goldfinch’, covers the walls of the nearest corner. This restrained rambling rose is ideal for a small space. Its button-like, fruit-scented blooms are covered with golden anthers, loved by the pollen-gathering bees. The petals fall onto the square brick courtyard below. Here, square Victorian seed pans are filled with succulents and thyme. These tiny, low-growing plants are ideal for the bees, flowering even when a lack of water affects other plants.
“They all shrug off drought, and are virtually maintenance free,” says Fran. “The only thing I do is add crocks and pea gravel to the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage because waterlogging will kill the succulents.”
Fran’s second beehive sits in a quiet and sheltered spot between two herbaceous beds along the east wall. Creamy white rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ standards and allium ‘Globemaster’ are planted here. The bees swarm to the alliums’ starry clusters of violet-purple flowers. Flourishing alongside them are valerian, hardy geraniums, catmint and delphiniums. All are popular with the bees, particularly the open-cupped geraniums, which allow easy access to their nectar to the short-tongued honeybees. The open flowers of delphiniums are visited for their pollen, rather than nectar. Valerian and catmint both have clusters of small flowers that are easy for the bees to work. Flowering through the summer into autumn, they provide a long-lasting food source.
Behind the beds, espaliered apple and pear trees, their varieties now forgotten, grow along the east wall. Planted as part of the redesign, they burst into a mass of blossom in spring. On warm days, they are covered in bees seeking nectar and in turn helping to pollinate the trees.
A place to drink
A path leads past these herbaceous beds, to a corner where an arbour is tucked away beneath trees. This is an area of dry shade where pachysandra, ivy, and periwinkles grow. Flowering from March, pachysandra and periwinkles provide food for bees early in the season when other flowers have yet to bloom. The late-flowering ivy is an important source of nectar later in the year when the bees build up their store of food to see the colony through the winter.
A shady stumpery spills over with ferns and hostas, one of Fran’s favourite plants.
“I’m passionate about hostas, growing 20 different varieties. The leaves are like an embroidery. The bees do go to the spike-shaped blooms, but they prefer flowers they can work and work, such as the verbena,” she says.
Access to water is essential for the honeybees. As well as drinking it, they carry water back to the hive where it is used to regulate the temperature. They also use it to break down nectar from plants such as oil seed rape, which crystallises in the hive. The rape grows in the countryside beyond the garden, and Fran often watches her bees travel out to work it. Under the arbour is a rescued animal feeder perched on brick pillars. Planted with waterlilies, it is an important place for the bees.
A path continues along the back wall, where a border is planted with more hostas and frothy yellow alchemilla. This is another plant whose myriad tiny flowers are covered with foraging bees. The foxgloves planted here are another of Fran’s favourites.
The south and west boundary walls support clematis ‘Montana’ and climbing roses. Covered with big, open flowers, clematis are ideal for bees. Climbing rose ‘Perennial Blue’, is a mass of bluish purple blooms each July. Its open flowers are good for the bees who can get into them easily and take pollen.
A central pathway connects the back wall with the barn’s terrace. It widens in the middle of the walled garden to create a square that encloses a still, round pool. “I love watching the honeybees sit on the edge of the pool to drink, before flying off in search of more nectar,” she says.
Fran puts as much energy into her garden as the bees that work the flowers. She is rewarded not only by the beautiful plants but also the honey from her bees. “The garden gives me a deep connection with nature. This comes from the fact that the flowers I grow are to attract insects, not only for their beauty,” she says. “I’m giving nature’s cycle a helping hand.”
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about Fran's bee garden originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape.
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A DEVON PLOT is filled with a variety of tall grasses that tumble onto curving paths
Autumn brings silver grasses and golden leaves to a Devon garden that tumbles in terraces down the Blackdown Hills near the hamlet of Dalwood. To the south, just seven miles as the crow flies, lies the sea. Below, the gently undulating landscape of the Yarty Valley stretches eastwards as far as the eye can see. Wooded hills, grazed pastures and fertile fields are bounded by ancient hedgerows, a living reminder of the generations of farmers who have worked this land.
It is now more than half a century since Mary and John Benger settled at Burrow Farm and, bit by bit, turned the fields surrounding their farmhouse into a 10-acre garden and woodland. The hillside lies mostly on heavy clay, but John ran a dairy farm on the land, so there was no shortage of well-rotted manure to improve the soil.
In the early days, all the pasture was needed to feed the cows. The only unused land was a derelict former Roman clay pit. “I was so desperate to create a garden that I started there,” recalls Mary. Slowly, with help from their four small children, she cleared the brambles in the old clay pit, revealing an ancient field maple. This still stands today in the Woodland Garden, a tranquil shady oasis filled with birdsong.
Initially, there was no money to spare for planting, but some informal bartering with a local nurseryman resulted in milk being exchanged for plants. “After that I just kept planting, planting and planting,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, John retired and the cows left. “For ages, I had been quietly stealing little bits of field to turn into garden, but now I had all the pasture to choose from,” says Mary.
Since then, she has created new areas including a Terraced Garden, Millennium Garden and, five years ago, the Anniversary Grasses Garden. Each section is allowed to mature before work starts on the next. “The garden has evolved slowly, and a few years have always passed between establishing one area and designing a new one. This means each has a very distinct character,” she explains.
Separating each area are mature oaks, maples, ash, magnolias, birches and cherries, that frame distant vistas, shrub borders and sweeping lawns. “Broad expanses of lawn are like a sorbet between courses, cleansing the palate before you encounter a different style of garden,” says Mary. The lawns not only separate, but also serve to bind the variety of styles together. They link naturalistic planting with formal, colour-themed areas, cottage style with rose pergola, woodland with herbaceous or terraces with courtyard.
In autumn, it is the grasses garden that takes pride of place. Delicate wafting fronds mingle with rich perennials such as asters and sedums. Sited on the westerly boundary, it was created in 2010 to celebrate the family’s 50 years at the farm. It consists of twin, prairie-style borders that run downhill, from north to south. “The idea was to make a garden that, at its autumn peak, feels enclosed with the plants towering up to either side,” Mary explains. This was achieved by lowering the level of a central, winding path and building up the borders. The result is that the planting appears to be tiered. “Then the path twists and turns, obscuring what’s ahead, which gives a feeling of mystery in a relatively small space.”
The grasses garden
The grasses garden was created in a field on the farm’s westerly boundary, down the hillside from the house. The start of the path through the garden is flanked by the first of many clumps of Miscanthus sinensis grasses. These include variegated ‘Cosmopolitan’, and diminutive ‘Yakushima Dwarf’. Its pink-tinged spikelets grow to just 24in (60cm) high, turning silver with age.
“Miscanthus are repeated along the borders’ length. They are the key to the design. Their height ensures that, once the first corner is turned, you cannot see out in any direction,” explains Mary. By chance, when she was planning the beds, a local nursery was closing down. She bought the entire stock of miscanthus for £200.
As the path winds deeper between the borders, the towering clumps of miscanthus and pampas grass become ever more deeply interspersed with flowering herbaceous perennials. There are pink sedum, bistort, purple Verbena bonariensis, pink and purple asters. “I plant them in conjunction with later-flowering plants for extra interest,” says Mary. “The borders are densely packed so that the plants hold each other up. This removes the need for staking.”
She originally planned a mauve and pink colour scheme, but there are also some yellow nasturtiums that have spread far and wide. “When I first planted the borders, I wanted to echo the yellow of the buttercups in the neighbouring field, so I planted nasturtiums. They did so well I have been pulling them out ever since,’’ she says.
The yellow flowers tumble onto the path as it narrows round the first corner, intermingling with foliage of Lathyrus tuberosus, a perennial sweet pea. Nearby is the first of many clumps of geranium ‘Rozanne’, a great favourite. “It’s so vigorous that it almost climbs up other plants,” marvels Mary. It is a wonderful filler that binds the planting together, as well as spilling into the path. This reinforces the seamless transition between path and border, created by an all-embracing mulch of wood chippings.
When planning the borders, Mary first marked out the path that curves between them so that neither end is fully visible from the other. With the path being countersunk, any excavated top soil could be piled onto the borders each side to create gentle slopes for planting. “Then I laid the pots of ornamental grasses onto the soil, arranged according to height. This is so that the eventual effect will be graduated from path-side to back, with see-through grasses near the front edge,” she explains.
Prior to planting, compost was added to each hole and every potted plant was soaked in water for a couple of hours. “After that, the borders were only watered as needed during dry spells, until well established,” she says.
Once the grasses were planted, they were interspersed with Michaelmas daisies. “I repeated the same varieties at least twice along the length of each border, in order to create a sense of rhythm,” she adds. Finally, any gaps were filled with lower-growing plants such as persicarias, salvias and sedums. These quickly spread into their allotted spaces. “The great advantage of grasses and herbaceous plants, as opposed to shrubs, is that they reach their ultimate height in the first year, filling out in subsequent years.”
With its all-embracing mulch of wood chippings, the border is low maintenance. The only work is in late winter when that year’s flowerheads are cut back. To prevent the borders looking bare after this happens, several columnar evergreen Thuja occidentalis emerge as the path winds downhill.
At this point, the border on the left side parts to reveal a wooden bench, edged in a low box hedge. “I like seats where you can sit and contemplate the plants. Otherwise, you just walk straight through, without pausing,” says Mary. From the bench, the tiered planting of the border opposite can be fully appreciated. It ranges from sedums, asters and hardy geranium, past clumps of Miscanthus sinensis and Verbena bonariensis, to the highest point where pampas grasses stand tall. Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ is a great success, a compact variety with silky, silver-yellow plumes.
To the right of the bench stands a clump of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’, a shimmering golden mass when caught in the evening light. Nearby are clumps of Verbena bonariensis and pink Aster amellus ‘Brilliant’, a magnet to tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.
“So many of the later flowering plants are rich in nectar,” adds Mary. There is also an unusually restrained, pink bistort. “Both bistort and sedum are grazed by the deer that wander in from the countryside,” she explains. Nowadays, when cutting back the previous year’s sedum heads, she leaves the long stalks to protect the new foliage from being eaten.
With its blend of autumn-flowering perennials and ornamental grasses, this garden changes in mood according to the light. As dawn breaks above the distant hills and valleys of the Devon landscape, the grasses take on a cool silvery sheen. At sunset, they bask in a warm, golden glow, blending into the surrounding landscape with deceptive ease and great beauty.
Words and Photographs: Nicola Stocken
The full feature on the garden at Burrow Farm appeared in the Sept / Oct 2015 issue of LandScape.
The borders of this Worcestershire garden are filled with old-fashioned flowers
Sitting on a Worcestershire hilltop, Highfield Cottage's borders are filled with the scents and colours of flowers grown in English cottage gardens for centuries. Behind high hedges, that protect from the winds, an abundance of roses bloom, here against a backdrop of birdsong, and softly buzzing bees. They scramble over trellis, sheds and rustic arches framing views of billowing borders filled with fragrant flowers.
Owner Valerie Mills moved here 40 years ago with her husband David and two daughters.Then the plot was open to the countryside and was completely over grown. Today it is a beautiful garden where paths meander past clematis, foxgloves, lavender and campanula to name but a few of the beautiful plants that flourish here. Majestic delphiniums line up, tall and stately. Around their tall blue spies, other colours flow freely in every direction. The main border is mainly creams, pinks, whites, blues and purples.
Many of the plants are allowed to self-seed, such as Verbena bonariensis and aquilegias. As well as allowing plants to self-esteem Valerie exchanges plants with other keen gardeners. One of the first she got this was was hardy Geranium x magnificum, with pretty blue flowers. This was joined by Geranium psilostemon, a rampant perennial with shocking-pink flowers. Valerie describes her geraniums as the glue that holds the borders together.
Photographs: Nicola Stocken
The full feature on Highfield Cottage appeared in the May / June 2016 issue of LandScape.
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FRESH TURF BRINGS NEW LIFE TO A SPRING GARDEN
Large or small, a lawn provides a splash of colour in the garden all year round. It also gives a backdrop to set off colourful border plants and shrubs. Whether starting a lawn from scratch, or replacing a tired-looking patch of grass, laying good quality turf creates an immediate effect. Spring is the ideal time to do this, as the grass will start growing in the warmer weather.
For the best results, the ground needs first to be carefully prepared. Existing turf is removed. If this is severely compacted, a turf cutter can be hired. Perennial weeds such as docks and dandelions are eradicated either by digging out by hand, or with a specially formulated herbicide. Sufficient leaves need to be showing to soak up the chemicals, while time is allowed for weeds to die prior to laying the turf. If digging out by hand, care is taken to remove the long tap root, which can be more than 18in (45cm) in length.
The soil is then dug to a minimum depth of 6in (15cm), either using a fork or rotovator. The soil is broken down to a fine tilth using a rake, with new top soil or compost added to give the new lawn the best possible start.
Laying the turf
The ground is levelled with a rake, and then firmed either by treading the area several times in different directions on foot or using a roller. The longer the ground can now be left to settle, the more level the lawn will be.
Lawn turf varies according to the mixture of grass species used, so it is important to choose the correct turf for the situation. Fine-leaved grass creates a velvety but delicate putting green effect. Tougher, broader-leaved varieties create a resilient, hard-wearing lawn. At least five per cent more turf than required is ordered, to allow for cutting and shaping. The turf should be laid within 24 hours of delivery, but if work is delayed, laying the turves flat and watering will avoid discolouring.
Using a wide board to stand or kneel on when laying turves avoids indenting the soil. Starting from one corner of the area, as each new roll is unrolled, it is closely butted to the previous one. No gaps are left. To conceal the joins, they are staggered on each subsequent row, so that the grass knits together. The turf is pushed into the joins, never pulled or stretched as this damages the root structure. If unevenness is apparent while laying the turves, soil is added or removed. At regular intervals during laying, it is important to ensure that the underside of each turf is in firm contact with the soil. A scaffold board is laid over the surface, and walked evenly along to press down the turves.
Wherever the lawn finishes, the edges are finished neatly. In instances where the turf runs directly up to a brick wall or wooden decking, the turf is draped over the hard surface. It is patted down and carefully cut to fit with a kitchen knife. Once the excess turf is removed, the edge is pressed down on the inside. Matching the level of the edge and turf allows a mower to run over it easily, creating a clean edge. If the turf finishes at a flower bed, top soil is piled up to cover the bare edges. This prevents them drying out, curling up and dying. Once the turf has taken, a new clean edge can be cut with a turf cutter.
When laying is complete, the turf is watered thoroughly in the early morning or evening. It is kept moist for several weeks, until firmly established. Thereafter, the grass only needs watering during dry periods, with an occasional thorough soaking. Watering little and often only encourages shallow rooting.
Two weeks after laying, the turf is ready for its first cut. The mower blades are set high so as not to remove more than one quarter of the grass blade length. Thereafter, it is cut weekly, removing one third of the blade length. The direction of cut is varied, alternating straight with diagonal stripes on different occasions. This avoids ruts being created by the mower going over old ground every time. Finally, crisp, straight edges are cut using a string line and turf cutter.
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about creating a lawn originally appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
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