Planting under trees is something that defeats many gardeners. The ground is often poor, generally in shade for a large part of the year and tree roots can make it nigh-on impossible to dig. Yet, get it right and the results can be magical, as Trench Hill garden proves.
It’s a display that for once fully justifies the cliché ‘a tapestry of colour’. Hellebores sport blooms of every shade, there are clumps of mauve and purple crocus, a few remaining snowdrop flowers, blue hyacinths, cerise cyclamen, pulmonaria in pink and blue, and flashes of yellow from narcissi, all bordering a long path beneath trees. What makes it more remarkable is that it has been created out of what was little more than scrub.
The project, like so many in this varied garden of nearly three acres, began modestly.
“I thought it would be nice to have about a metre of garden near the patio, just a few flowers there,” explains Celia Hargrave, who has been developing Trench Hill for the past 23 years. “It was a mix of weeds and scrub.”
That was 10 years ago and the ‘few flowers’ now spread for some distance on either side of a chipped bark path.
Clearing the weeds, including ivy and nettles, was one problem, the stony soil was quite another: “Once you dig down there’s a huge amount of stone. It’s a big issue.”
The bigger pieces are now used to edge the two borders, giving an informality that suits the setting high up above Sheepscombe.
She was luckier with the soil itself as decades of falling leaves had left it in pretty good shape, and this has been further improved over the years with the addition of homemade leaf mould.
Much of the success of this area is down to the careful choice of plants. Not only will they cope with shade once the trees are in full leaf, they also flower early when light levels are at their best.
The borders start quietly in February with the white and yellow of snowdrops and aconites, are in full flower through March and early April before finishing softly with bluebells and wood anemones. A few fuchsias, lilies and cornus give interest at other times but it is really spring when the display demands attention.
It is particularly good this year after the addition of 1,000 ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Pickwick’ crocus, whose deep purple and lilac striped petals add a real zing to the show. Already, Celia is planning to plant hundreds more in the autumn.
The recent felling of some larch and a mature beech that had become unsafe has allowed her to extend the garden behind the woodland walk. Here, she has planted hundreds of bulbs, more cornus and a mix of trees, including lime, sorbus, red oak and another beech. Choosing smaller trees will, she hopes, keep the improved light levels. Meanwhile, the old beech has been transformed into a dragon seat that allows you to linger and enjoy the beautiful view across Cotswold countryside.
Elsewhere, a large ash that also had to be felled was in the process of being carved when I visited. The exact finish had not been decided but a green man and lizard were possibilities, yet another addition to the artwork and carvings that enhance this stalwart of the National Gardens Scheme – it has just celebrated 20 years of opening.
It sits alongside another recently redeveloped area of small ponds, which have been enlarged, while curtailing a pair of nearby borders has allowed the creation of a better seating area.
Some alterations are less radical: removing an overlarge conifer in one of the foliage beds has given room for new plants, such as pittosporum and white hydrangeas; cowslips, primroses and fritillaries have been added to grass under the fruit trees.
It’s typical of a garden where nothing is allowed to stagnate.
“Sometimes things just need refreshing,” comments Celia. “You say to yourself ‘It’s been brilliant but it’s had its day’.”
Trench Hill is a long way from being in that position.
• Trench Hill, Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire, is open from 11-6 for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday March 27 and Monday March 28, 2016. Admission is £4 for adults, children enter free. For details of other open dates, visit http://www.ngs.org.uk/