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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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