Eastcombe, Bussage and Brownshill Open Gardens

 Garden design tricks transform plot

There’s something about a well designed garden that shouts out the minute you enter. Maybe it’s the choice of plants whose colour and form blend perfectly. Perhaps it’s the structure that draws you in and moves you around the space seamlessly. For me, it’s the tiny details: the way a path is made; the attention paid to corners and the edges of borders. At Hawkley Cottage, which is part of Eastcombe, Bussage and Brownshill open gardens, there are all these features and a lot of clever garden design that is not so obvious but which underpins the whole thing.

The skilful way the plot has been tackled is not surprising given that owner Helen Westendorp once ran a successful garden design company. Yet, turning what was a neglected three quarters of an acre into a country garden with style was not an overnight transformation. Helen and her husband, Gerwin, bought the cottage in Eastcombe 11 years ago but did not start properly on the garden until three years ago.

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Borders along the brook are filled with colour

“The garden design had been sitting on my drawing board for absolutely ages,” admits Helen. “But it always went to the bottom of the pile because clients’ work always goes to the top.”

No longer working as a designer and with a young family wanting to use the space, her vision for the garden finally began to take shape.

Several things defined her approach: the wish to have planting that wrapped around the house and the main rooms; the realisation that something had to be done about the deep and dangerous brook that ran through the plot; the need to keep access to the garage, inconveniently sited halfway down the long, narrow space.

garden design
Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’ is a favourite

Helen’s solution to that problem is the most ingenious and, at first glance, the least obvious of her garden design tricks. What appears to be a fairly normal arrangement of garden ‘rooms’ alongside the dining room and kitchen are actually part of the drive.

Yew hedges that form divisions are kept wide enough to allow a car through, while planting in the centre has been kept low with thyme and Erigeron karvinskianus. There’s a water feature in one section but it’s a low-lying bubble fountain while paving in the ‘outdoor dining room’ has been underpinned with sufficient concrete to take the weight of vehicles; the couple have also planned ahead and run service cables and pipes to the garage so that it could be converted at a future date.

garden design
Cushions tone with the magnolia flowers

The brook, which used to run along the boundary, has been widened and diverted to sweep into the garden, allowing wide borders on each side. Meanwhile, what was a silted up pond is now a raised outdoor living area with a permanent awning. Rubble from the building work was used to fill in the space, part of Helen’s determination to make the garden landfill neutral.

“The only thing that was sent to landfill was a bit of plastic packaging.”

garden design
An old pond has been turned into another seating area

The garden’s lack of width has been disguised with the hard landscaping – slabs run across rather than down the space – and planting. Paths crisscross, creating oval-shaped borders and lawn that draw the eye across rather than down the space. Within the borders, plants are grouped in repeated smaller ovals, while the paths’ sinewy shape is echoed in trees and shrubs, including hornbeam and choisya, that sweep through the space.

Plants have been chosen to give year-round interest: golden liriope dotted through with daffodils for early colour; Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’, whose pink blooms are a contrast to purple sage, lavender and Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’, whose young foliage has a purple tinge.

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Planting follows the sweep of paths

“I love it when a plan comes together,” smiles Helen.

Outside the dining room, she decided to use circles and around the circular bubble fountain there are domes of hebe and rosettes of sempervivum tumbling out of a pot. Stipa gigantea, carefully positioned at the ‘doors’ to this space, form a transparent screen later in the year, helping to create a feeling of privacy despite the proximity of the front door and road.

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The low bubble fountain can still be driven over

And what of those tiny details? The main patio has smaller slabs laid as an enclosing outer border that subconsciously make you slow your stride and linger while drainage slits point to the practicality underpinning this garden. Meanwhile, what would often be a forgotten area under the yew hedge is planted up with cyclamen, providing an attractive weed suppressant, and the angular corners of beds by the house are softened with mats of Stachys byzantina. Details that are so easily overlooked but which mark this garden as different.

Hawkley Cottage is open on Sunday May 1 and Monday May 2 as part of Eastcombe, Bussage and Brownshill open gardens for the National Gardens Scheme. A total of 13 gardens will be open from 2-6pm and combined admission is £6, children’s entry is free.

There will be a plant sale in Eastcombe Village Hall and homemade teas available.

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Treetop walkway opens

A bird’s eye view of Westonbirt

It’s well known in my family that I don’t do heights. I was the child who had to be rescued from the playground slide and the only pupil not to ascend the Eiffel Tower on a school trip. So saying I was going to try the new Westonbirt treetop walkway was met with wry amusement. Would I cope, they wondered, or would it be embarrassing for all concerned?

I must confess to some nervousness as I drew up for the official opening by BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison. After all, at its highest point the new Stihl treetop walkway is a dizzying 13.5m, or more than 44ft, off the ground with a crow’s nest encircling a black pine, a wire mesh section and wobbly rope bridge. All well outside my comfort zone.

treetop walkway
BBC presenter Ellie Harrison opened the walkway

In the end, I needn’t have worried. Such is the design of this latest addition to the National Arboretum that even I was barely aware I had left ground level.

This is achieved by the clever use of the ground’s topography, taking it over a natural dip in the land, and the way the wooden structure gradually slopes upwards, a factor that makes it easily accessible to all and not just the fully mobile.

Fittingly, it’s made of wood – larch and Douglas fir – and held up by 57 wooden legs, the highest 14m.

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Lettering on the crow’s nest stairs

There’s attention to detail: the handrails are high enough to give a feeling of safety yet low enough for those below 6ft to see, while the railings underneath are designed to give a good view through for children or those in wheelchairs.

“You go on so many other features like this and you can only see if you are tall enough to see over the handrail,” comments arboretum director Andrew Smith.

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An Atlas Cedar is one of the first trees you encounter

He and the rest of the team are delighted with the result of what has been a long project. It includes the welcome building, which opened in 2014, and the Wolfson Tree Management Centre, which opened this week with the walkway; the Friends of the Arboretum raised £1.9m to fund this second phase.

“For several years people have been looking at visuals and the visuals don’t live up to the reality. It exceeds expectations.”

What took me by surprise was the sheer beauty of the thing. The lines are sleek and sinewy, the Siberian larch handrails have a tactile quality and the shape has an organic feel. True, the ground beneath still shows the scars of building but given time that will repair and once newly planted trees grow up the structure will sit comfortably in the landscape.

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The rope bridge is designed to wobble

At 300m long – almost the length of the Millennium Bridge – the Westonbirt treetop walkway is believed to be the longest of its type in the UK yet because it snakes into Silk Wood with generous curves you can’t see more than about 50m at any one time. It’s a factor, believes Andrew, which fits well with the picturesque style of Westonbirt, started in the 1850s by Robert Holford.

“One of the features of the arboretum is its snaking paths. This has a ‘what’s round the corner’ type of feeling.”

In contrast, the start of the walkway, designed by Glenn Howells Architects, gives an unparalleled 360 degree view of the arboretum and the historic downs, now restored thanks to the relocation of the entrance and car park.

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Education is a key part of the new development

It also gives an unprecedented view of part of the arboretum’s world class collection. One of the first close-up encounters is with a magnificent Atlas Cedar.

“On that sort of tree the cones sit on the top of the branches so you don’t normally get to see them at ground level, unless they fall off,” says Andrew with a smile.

Westonbirt’s dendrologist Dan Crowley explains that more trees have been planted along the route, including walnuts, maples, alders and a hemlock.

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There are lots of facts about trees along the route

“We’ve planted a black walnut, which will provide really strong autumn colour, and a big leaved maple from the West Coast, which will become a really big tree in the landscape.”

Yet, while these mature there is still plenty to see, not least from the information points with facts and figures about trees; I learned that elm is used for coffins, boat-building and furniture, grey poplar for matchsticks and European box in violin fittings.

It promises to be a huge draw but one that Andrew is confident Westonbirt can cope with; staff will be monitoring numbers for the first few days to ensure the walkway doesn’t get too crowded and it is designed to accommodate more than 270 people.

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The walkway is designed to hold nearly 300 people

And what of the scary bits? Well comfortingly, the 10m-long mesh walkway is made of Elefant mesh and is narrow enough so that you can avoid it, although looking down on a tree below is an experience not to be missed. The rope bridge does wobble but has slats rather than being purely rope and was short enough for me to brave. I even ventured up onto the crow’s nest, which moves somewhat alarmingly in the wind giving a real sense of the trees swaying, and I didn’t need rescuing. In fact, driving away, I decided I had actually rather enjoyed the whole experience.

The Stihl Treetop Walkway is open to the public from Wednesday April 27. Admission is included in the normal entry price. For details, visit Westonbirt Arboretum

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RHS gets Cotswold help

The RHS has launched a new range of garden accessories designed by a Cotswold company.

Cheltenham-based MeldHome used original designs from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library as the inspiration for the range, which includes plant pots, a gardener’s notebook, a bird box, china mugs and a gardener’s flask.

The designs are inspired by originals in the Lindley Library

“We’re particularly proud to be working with the RHS. It’s a great English society,” said marketing manager Michael Byrd.

“These products look good in the garden and look good in the home. It’s a very versatile range.”

The wooden nesting box

The firm, which employs around 50 people, is also behind a gift range for Mary Berry, who was recently appointed as an RHS ambassador. The baking queen was closely involved in the design of many of the items, which include cake forks, oven gloves, ramekins and the best-selling service bell.

The new range is available from the Royal Horticultural Society website and also from High Street retailers.

For more information, visit the RHS

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Blockley open gardens

Views, water and some surprises

Contradictions abound at The Manor House. Part of Blockley open gardens, it is far bigger than the cottage plots visitors expect to see in this picturesque Cotswold village. It also has a designed feel with carefully thought out vistas and focal points yet it’s the result not of careful planning but evolution.

“It just happened, one step at a time,” says Zoe Thompson, who, with her husband, George, took over the house and garden 20 years ago.

It’s an evolution that has seen significant changes. When the couple moved in, the top part of the garden had grass up to the house, a few elderly cherry and holly trees and some overgrown shrubs.

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The water feature was commissioned from a local artist

Lower down, nature had taken over – “It was like a jungle of brambles and nettles” – and what is now an orchard was criss-crossed with dead trees and almost impenetrable.

The three-acre site was originally landscaped in the 18th century, with a retaining wall used to create a level area close to the house. Today, this is the formal part of the garden with views out over the village and surrounding countryside.

At first glance, it’s easy to think this is the whole plot, as such is the drop the lower garden cannot be seen until you get close to the wall.

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Strong structure underpins the garden

A generous terrace borders the back of the house, leading out into a small rose garden, edged in lavender and planted in shades of pink, with obelisks festooned with white roses and blue clematis adding height.

“A rose garden was always going to be a must,” says Zoe.

Another essential for her was a generously proportioned pergola, inspired by a picture of one in Gertrude Jeykll’s garden, with the wood running lengthways to enhance the sense of movement from one end to the other. It has been carefully sited to give a view from the orangery down to a seat.

Blockley open gardens
The pergola is generously proportioned

Climbers are chosen for scent, including honeysuckle and white wisteria, and there’s a long season of interest with roses, vines and clematis. Underneath, borders are planted with perennials, such as nepeta – a replacement for lavender which didn’t thrive – perovskia, pink and white peonies, penstemon and salvias.

“They all very normal sorts of plants,” says Zoe. “I go for structure and colour.”

Tucked away behind clipped yew hedges is the white garden where tulips and osmanthus give early colour, followed by roses, choysia, astrantia, and penstemon. Nearby, more spring colour comes from hellebores massed under a prunus that was just on the verge of bursting into flower when I visited, and borders thickly planted with daffodils.

Blockley open gardens
Hellebores are still giving a good show

At this time of year the chance to see the bones of a garden is almost as interesting as flowers and The Manor has some interesting ideas. Wrapped around a corner of the house is an ancient pear tree, beautifully trained to follow the wall. What variety it is or how long it has been there are a mystery, although old photographs dating back around 100 years show a second tree further along the house.

A more recent addition is a double row of Catalpa ‘Nana’, pollarded to give an umbrella shape. Planting them, recalls Zoe, was a tough job thanks to the original landscaping of that area.

“It’s full of rough stone so the lawn drains beautifully but it’s difficult to dig.”

blockley open gardens
An ancient pear tree is wrapped around the house

More trained trees are found on the next level of the garden where espaliered apples and pears form a screen that divides the space yet still allows views through.

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Espaliered fruit trees frame the view beyond

Below, ‘rays’ of yew – a recent replacement for blight-hit box – radiate out from steps leading down to the lowest part of the garden and drifts of daffodils alongside the brook. Originally, the couple intended this to be the only water in this area but earth-moving to contour the ground uncovered a spring and building a pond seemed the best way forward. It is now home to fish and aquatic plants while one side has a small rockery.

Blockley open gardens
Blossom adds colour to the spring garden

Meanwhile, the once-neglected orchard has been cleared of weed and new plantings of medlar, walnut, fig, quince, Asian pear and mulberry have been used to plug gaps. With primroses studding the grass and blossom just appearing, it’s hard to believe it was once a jungle.

Blockley open gardens will be held on April 24 when The Manor House and four other gardens will be open from 2-6pm for the National Gardens Scheme. Combined admission is £6, children’s entry is free. Homemade teas are available.

Details of more Gloucestershire National Gardens Scheme open gardens can be found here http://www.ngs.org.uk/

Gardening for butterflies talk

gardening for butterflies

Gardeners can learn how to encourage butterflies into their gardens at a talk in Cheltenham.

Sue Smith, from the Gloucestershire branch of Butterfly Conservation, and Sue Dodd will explain which plants to grow to provide the right nectar for butterflies and moths.

The Gardening for Butterflies and Moths talk, hosted by Charlton Kings in Bloom, is on Thursday April 28 at 7pm in The Stanton Room, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham. Admission is £6, to include refreshments. Tickets are available from The Forge newsagent in Charlton Kings and from 01242 521917.

Charlton Kings in Bloom will host its annual plant fair on May 14 outside the King’s Hall in Charlton Kings, Cheltenham.

Perennials, vegetables, herbs and bags of mushroom compost will be available at the event, which runs from 9am to 1pm.

Sweet Corn Shoots product review

I’m always a sucker for a new pack of seeds, particularly anything edible, so when Suttons Seeds suggested I try their ‘Sweet Corn Shoots’ I didn’t need asking twice.

New this season, they are billed as “a totally new flavour experience” and it’s a claim that seems justified.

Unsurprisingly, the seed resembles ordinary sweetcorn seed, a dessicated version of the corn you get from a can. However, growing them is completely different to the outdoor variety.

Sweet corn shoots are new this season

These need a dark, warm place to germinate – a cupboard is ideal and I used the bottom of the airing cupboard. Spread them evenly over seed compost, making sure the seeds don’t touch, which is easy given their size. Cover and leave to shoot.

Germination is speedy; I sowed and had harvestable shoots a week later.

At first glance, the crop is not particularly appealing: long, yellow shoots that resemble a beansprout. However, the taste is far from ordinary. Suttons describe them as a beansprout flavour but I thought it was more like pea shoots, those bits of a pea plant made fashionable by chefs. What I did agree with was the sweetness, which lingers in the mouth.

Sweet corn shoots
The seeds are easy to handle

They need eating freshly harvested and, given the need to grow in a cupboard, I can’t imagine producing enough to make a meal out of them. However, as an addition to a salad or possibly a stir fry they are ideal. They can also be grown year-round.

‘Sweet Corn Shoots’ would also be ideal for young growers: the seeds are easy to handle; cultivation is quick and easy with no need for fancy equipment; the taste would be a winner.

‘Sweet Corn Shoots’ are £2.99 for a packet of 200 seeds, available from Suttons Seeds Suttons Seeds

Snowshill learns from past

Every gardener knows that when you take on a new plot it’s best to wait before making any drastic changes. Only with time can you fully assess what you’ve inherited, what’s good, what needs replacing and how things can be improved. One year into her new job running the National Trust’s Snowshill Manor Garden, Vicky Cody is starting to put some of her ideas into action.

She’s no stranger to working in a garden with history, having previously been at Hidcote Manor Garden, and is busy researching notes from previous gardeners, old photographs and documents to make the best choices about new plants and designs.

Replanting is planned in Elder Grove

One discovery was that the area known as Well Court was used by Charles Wade, who created the Arts and Crafts garden in the 1920s, to showcase a collection of lupins.

“I came across some old black-and-white photographs that showed lots of lupins but we don’t have any now,” says Vicky.

That has now been rectified and masses of dark purple lupins are going to be added to the existing planting.

Snowshill has long views over countryside

“I want to weave them through like tapestry,” explains Vicky, who manages the garden with her colleague James Evans and a team of volunteers. “I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

In the Armillary Court, she is hoping to achieve a more unified feel: one side has tall asters and hemerocallis while the other is more low-growing with nepeta and Lathyrus vernus.

“There are some nice plants in here but no continuity.”


Again, Vicky is planning to research what was there in the past before planning a new planting regime.

Some areas have already undergone changes, most notably in the kitchen garden. Once an allotment-style single planting area, it has now been turned into a series of raised beds, cleverly designed to cope with the sloping site while a new second entrance means there is now a better route around the space for visitors.

Borders around the outside will be filled with different climbing beans, rhubarb for structure, and flowers including dark dahlias and sunflowers; cut flower posies are going to be sold alongside surplus fruit and veg.

Snowshill’s sloping site is a series of terraced gardens

As well as being easier to manage, Vicky is hoping that the raised beds will make what is already one of the most popular parts of the garden more appealing.

“It’s pretty much the only place in the garden where people stop and talk,” she says. “Vegetables can be attractive and productive.”

Other alterations include introducing wild flowers, such as red campion and scabious, to Piper’s Path that runs to the restaurant, and introducing more to the orchard, where the number of mown paths has also been increased.

In the long borders that run next to the orchard a giant cardoon, Cephalaria gigantea and achillea are among the plants that have been divided and replanted to give more cohesion and drumstick alliums and cerise Byzantine gladioli have been introduced.

There’s an informality to the planting at Snowshill

“When it is all grown up, it’s pretty wild. It’s not a contrived border. With the orchard and the hills in the background, it’s quite natural looking.”

Some of her plans are more long term. Elder Grove, long replanted with viburnums, is again in need of rejuvenating and Vicky is hoping to return to elders underplanted with hellebores and ferns. Wolf’s Cove, a miniature fishing village, awaits the rebuilding of its walls before restoration work can continue on the tiny buildings. Pointing to thick box hedges at the back of the village, Vicky comments that they would have originally been bonsai-style and will need replacing.

And it’s this knowledge of the past that underpins the changes at Snowshill Manor Garden.

“The history is always in the back of your mind. It’s not your garden. You’re just looking after it for a very small period.”

For details of Snowshill Manor Gardens opening times and admission prices visit Snowshill Manor

Be creative with shrubs

Gardeners are missing out on interesting shrubs because they are not easy to sell in a garden centre, says horticultural expert Andy McIndoe.

Plants that don’t have immediate pot appeal or won’t fit into a Dutch trolley are being sidelined, giving growers restricted choice.

“As gardeners we need to ask ‘What are those plants that are really good garden plants, rather than good garden centre plants?’” he says.

He cites Cornus ‘Porlock’ as an example of a garden worthy shrub with a long season of interest that is difficult to find because it looks insignificant when young.

“It shows how influenced we are by the appearance of plants.”

Rosemary is another underrated plant that is rarely sold outside the herb section and which he believes is better than lavender as a long term plant.

Rosemary is a good substitute for lavender

The former managing director of Hillier Nurseries, who led the firm to 25 consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, was speaking at the first lecture hosted by Allomorphic in Stroud. The talk was based on his book, The Creative Shrub Garden, and set out to show how shrubs could be used effectively.

“Shrubs are incredibly versatile plants and can shape and influence in a much greater way than any other type of plant material,” he said.

“Shrubs can provide colour and interest in all layers of the planting picture.”

When it comes to putting shrubs together, Andy advises keeping it simple and starting with the foliage.

“We’re all very much bewitched by flowers but they are very much an ephemeral pleasure.”

He outlined planting trios covering a green-and-white theme, one in sunset colours and another in classic pastels.


Different seasons were also covered with autumn tints and shrubs grown for colourful winter stems.

“You can have just as much colour in winter, if you choose the right subjects.”

Woven through the good-humoured and lively talk were snippets of horticultural advice: using vinca or ivy under Cornus sanguinea as a foil to the stems; planting lavender slightly higher on heavy soil; feeding container-grown box, if it is turning coppery.

Pruning, topiary, what to grow in a pot and how to balance colour in a border were all covered and gardeners were urged to forget the idea that shrubs were something “that gets far too big for the space and challenging because you constantly have to cut it back”.

Allomorphic is hosting a series of gardening lectures

“It’s the bed that’s too narrow not the shrub that’s too big,” he observed.

Gardeners, he believes should be adventurous and not be afraid to replace or move things.

“If it pleases you, it’s right. If it doesn’t, do something about it and change it.”

The next Allomorphic lecture, The Working Garden, will be a practical look at gardening by Benjamin William Pope, head gardener at the privately owned Trotton Place in Hampshire. Details: Allomorphic

The Creative Shrub Garden by Andy McIndoe is published by Timber Press, priced £20.