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  • Helen@Moreton

Garden school

Updated: Jan 2

My family has its fair share of gardeners. My parents have a fabulous garden and mum has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the latin names of plants. I have very fond memories of my grandad’s allotment as a kid, where we picked fruit, harvested veg, shelled peas and thought the nice man next door bred baby rabbits as pets. Grandad and his father both grew prize Chrysanthemums. My sister’s got the bug and some amazing borders, and is surprisingly animated when slugs are mentioned.

Plastic plants do best in my house, but I have started to get the bug at our old place.

I can’t take any credit for designing this garden, but it isn’t dead yet! And the pleached lime hedge brings out an obsessive-compulsive side I never knew I had. I was really keen to have a go at a grand plan for the ‘new’ garden.

I signed up for an online course at My Garden School, called ‘Design your own large Garden’, with garden design legend, John Brookes. He’s amazing. In his 80s, yet he still jets around the world almost every week to his various projects.

The course began with a site survey and client brief, outlining what was there and what was needed. The key, according to John, is not to concentrate on the land or house or plants, but on the people who will use the garden.

The course went through the basics of site surveying, but for something this big they recommended getting professional help. This we had already done. Here’s the simplified plan with the trees, grass and the large dark green rhododendron and grey tarmac.

The boundary to the south and west is newly created, with the old formal gardens beyond. The eastern boundary is with a school sports field, and the access drive comes in from the north, past a new housing estate.

I won’t give away all the design tips from the course, but the principle was simple, just something I never really thought about before. The difference between what we find aesthetically pleasing or displeasing depends to a large extent on whether we can subconsciously recognize patterns and structure within it. I guess the best designers naturally create just the right amount of structure so it doesn’t look rigid, but does look pleasing. The course gave a few simple design tips to create a framework or structure.

The online course had a chat room, where you got to discuss the assignments with the tutor and other student(s). One of the big ideas to come out of this discussion was a secret garden. I was puzzling over whether to try to tame the rhododendron in any way, and spotted on one of John’s example gardens a secret area cut inside a patch of bushes. I quizzed him on whether I might do that here, and we drew up a plan. So the kids are going to get a play area hidden in a clearing in the middle of the patch, accessed through a tunnel.

Here’s the draft design.

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The feedback also included some ideas for a better entrance shape than I’ve come up with here, but I haven’t followed that idea through yet. It involves quite a bit of earth moving changing the slopes to do it, but would create something more symmetrical and grand.

So the point of the exercise was to get after some of the things that might take a few years to establish, and that included some boundary hedge planting and attacking the rhododendrons. I chose yew in the line of sight from the house beyond the formal squares of lawn to east and south, and holly for the rest, as these seemed to fit with the period. There’s already yew to the east, so I had that cut to start taming it to a formal rectangular profile and the gaps filled in. The rhododendron was a big job, which needed a digger. It’s going to look pretty sad for a while, but hopefully by the time we get anything really going at the house, it will have recovered.

Next season we’ll probably plant some bulbs, get the grass reinforcement down, turf the bare bits and establish some areas where the lawn can be left a little longer. There’ll be some more tree work – maintenance and weeding out the diseased trees and branches – and a bit of tree planting. And a really fun part – a kids’ playground to design. I have a 12 meter diameter circle to fill. I’m thinking a ship to tie in with the house’s maritime history.

Might need to start saving up…or ask Grandad very nicely!

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Moreton House, Abbotsham Road, Bideford, Devon, EX39 3QW

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