Blockley gardens: a lesson in colour at Church Gates

Blockley gardens are one of the most popular village openings in the National Garden Scheme’s Cotswold calendar. I’ve been admiring the tulips at Church Gates.

Visiting gardens can be a dangerous pastime. I rarely leave without at least one more ‘must-have’ plant on an ever-growing list. And Brenda Salmon’s cottage garden is particularly perilous.

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The ‘polite garden’ is a mix of pink, purple and white

Although it’s one of the smaller plots in the Blockley gardens group, it is stuffed with envy-inducing plants, including one of my favourites: tulips.

Name a colour and she has an example, from yellow, white and orange through to deep crimson, pink and lilac. There are slender tulip-shaped blooms, blousy doubles, tall, stately varieties and others that squat low to the ground.

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Lavender Tulipa ‘Candy Prince’ is one of Brenda’s favourites

What makes it stand-out thought is her skill in putting a border together, proving that you don’t need acres of space to make a real impact.

The garden, in the shadow of the village church, divides into what she laughingly refers to as “my polite and my impolite gardens”.

Visitors, who encounter the polite version first, are lulled into a sense of traditional English charm. Shades of purple, pink and lavender dominate a long border that runs most of the length of the cottage garden.

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Wallflowers in shades of mauve partner the tulips

Backed by one of the beautiful old Cotswold walls for which the village is known, it is a harmonious mix with just enough white – mainly from Tulipa ‘Purissima’ – to stop it becoming bland.

Just some of the tulips that have crept onto my list for next year are the double purple ‘Showcase’, lavender ‘Candy Prince’ and the dark ‘Negrita’. I also fell in love with ‘Flaming Flag’, a pale lavender white with darker purple feathering and ‘Vanilla Cream’, which has a hint of green to its creamy petals.

Woven through the display is a striking purple-flowered honesty with dark stems, which has self-seeded along the border.

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In a small space even the compost bin must look good

“As I was planting, I just pulled out what I didn’t want,” says Brenda, “so it appears random, which is quite nice.”

Big clumps of wallflowers in chintzy shades echo the colours of the tulips, there’s more purple from a recently added cut-leafed elder, and the promise of later colour with geraniums, phlox, aconitums, astrantias and masses of alliums.

Like many of the Blockley gardens, the layout of Brenda’s plot isn’t a regular shape and a second part of the garden is hidden from immediate view behind a wall.

This element of surprise has been used to the full with little to prepare you for the blast of colour that awaits. Tulips in fiery shades of orange, yellow and scarlet, narcissi in gold and lemon, yellow and orange wallflowers, and scarlet ranunculus dominate the ‘impolite garden’.

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The ‘impolite garden’ has fiery colours

It should be a jarring clash of colours but it works thanks to the copious amounts of green from still-to-flower herbaceous and the acid green of Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’, which threads its way through the beds.

“What I want is for people to come around the corner and say ‘Oh! That’s different,” she says.

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Lots of green helps to bind the bright colours

While it’s easy to be dazzled by the immediate display, what both gardens have in common is the need for closer inspection. Tucked in at the feet of the tulips are smaller delights: named varieties of primula and dainty muscari among them.

Step-over apples form a pretty, low ‘hedge’ alongside the greenhouse, there’s a collection of planted ‘pails’ on the tiny patio and a small rockery filling an otherwise awkward space by steps.

Despite its size, the garden has numerous clematis and more than 50 roses, most draped over the boundary walls.

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Step-over apples make a low hedge

Each plant is carefully labelled and the main borders are divided into lettered blocks, a trick learned in her previous Cornish garden, which included a 90ft by 10ft border.

“It helped to know where to go to look for things,” explains Brenda, who moved to Blockley with her husband, Graham, six years ago.

Now, on a smaller scale, the grid system means she can organise her planting more easily: “I spend hours doing plans beforehand but things don’t always go exactly where I planned.”

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Pails are planted with a mix of spring bedding

She usually leaves the tulips in the ground and just adds to the display but fed up with too many ‘blind’ bulbs this year she is intending to lift them all and start again.

Despite the well-stocked beds, she, like me, has a growing ‘must-buy’ plant list and when we met had just been scouring the local market for new things.

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Brenda is planning to replace the tulips for next season

“Because I do plant so close things get overtaken sometimes and I have to move it or lose it,” she says. “It depends what’s the most important.”

Church Gates is one of seven Blockley gardens open for the NGS from 2-6pm on Sunday April 23, 2017. Combined admission is £6. For more details, visit the NGS website

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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.”

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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.

blockley open gardens
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