Explore the magical gardens of Balmoral Cottage in Benenden
PUBLISHED: 17:03 03 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:03 03 November 2020
Balmoral Cottage in Benenden showcases how topiary can create a fantasy landscape in talented hands | Words: Leigh Clapp - Photos: Leigh Clapp
Topiary is an ancient art and here in Kent we have one of the most charming examples in the country. It’s a real privilege to enter artist, topiary expert and flower arranger Charlotte Molesworth’s creative world.
Once through a weathered old gate at Balmoral Cottage in Benenden, you are immediately drawn into a magical landscape as you pass along the narrow front path, edged in lollipop topiaries protruding from tall buxus hedges and on to her characterful cottage.
A group of containers and collection of vintage watering cans nestles by the door and as the scene slowly unfolds and you spot fanciful topiary creatures atop organically shaped hedging, you feel as if you have journeyed with Alice into Wonderland.
Originally the Edwardian gardener’s cottage for the Collingwood Ingram estate, Charlotte and her husband Donald, a professional gardener, bought the property in 1983 and created a romantic paradise.
“Eclectic and eccentric are words I use to describe the garden, I don’t have a deliberate style, it has very much evolved, with no initial plan,” says Charlotte.
With an artist’s eye, instinctive knowledge of gardening honed since childhood and a nimble speed with the clippers, Charlotte has transformed the land into a series of flowing and hidden areas, united by evergreen topiary and uncontrived rustic ornamentation.
While a haven for the two of them, it also has wildlife very much in mind, in particular the needs of nesting birds and small mammals.
It’s difficult to imagine from the maturity on show today that this garden was made almost entirely from cuttings and seedlings from friends and family, along with recycled, unwanted items.
“When we moved here we brought with us all sorts of plants in pots, including lots of hedging specimens of box and yew given to us by friends.
“We put the cuttings in any sort of container, from old dustbins to buckets, to make sure we would get them out of their pots as soon as possible,” says Charlotte.
After clearing an area of weeds, the cuttings were planted out in rows as a nursery bed that would then provide the evergreen framework of the garden.
The site was once the kitchen garden for the neighbouring manor house owned by the renowned plant collector Collingwood Ingram, known as ‘Cherry’ due to his passion for Japanese flowering cherries.
Despite being infested with weeds and broken cold-frame glass, the soil had been well worked over the years and although the neat rows of vegetables had long gone, the remnants of old apples trees and flowering leeks made quite a romantic scene beside the almost-derelict gardener’s cottage.
The inventive couple also gathered ancient farming implements, building material and even old unwanted sheds. Over the years they have restored or built everything themselves, from a patio using stones from the garden to a studio for Charlotte’s painting and printing.
The garden evolved over time as both were busy working, Charlotte as an art teacher and Donald as a gardener. Friends helped, including early on by digging the large pond at the bottom of the garden as a wedding gift.
“Doing the garden in a piecemeal fashion was actually a good way as I’m a bit of a mind changer,” admits Charlotte. Very gradually decisions were made, areas cleared and prepared.
A vegetable garden was started, the chicken run built very early on and outdoor eating areas created.
Topiary was always in the plan and once buxus cuttings and yew seedlings were large enough to handle, hedge planting began.
“Topiary always appeared in my mother’s and aunt’s gardens in the form of box and yew hedges, punctuated by clipped yew forms. As a child, I was taken on visits to many gardens. Topiary made a big impression on me,” adds Charlotte.
It took imagination to see how the tiny cuttings placed in informal rows and patterns would become hedges. “It did look a bit like a rag bag at first when the hollies, hornbeam, beech, buxus and yew seedlings were first put out.”
“As the hedges grew I began curving them and they became organic, punctuated with sculpted creatures and shapes.”
Both yew and buxus hedges have been transformed into spirals, spheres, pyramids, past dogs, peacocks, wedding cakes and geometric shapes.
“I love working with individual specimens, observing the structure and inherent characteristics, training pliable young branches, removing excess material, standing back and constantly looking at it from all around and then waiting and watching the form mature over the years.
“Today I’m astonished by the vertical element, some have now reached their maximum height; it’s become a 3D landscape now.”
This passion for topiary has led to Charlotte becoming an inaugural member of the European Boxwood and Topiary Society. She is also in great demand to design topiary for other gardens, including Penshurst Place and Goodnestone Park in Kent.
This is not a garden of all evergreens; there are mature deciduous trees, including crab apples and Acer senkaki ‘Aureum’, creating dappled woodland walks.
Protected by the hedging, an infill of borders and beds billow with seasonal highlights. Charlotte is fond of old-fashioned hardy cottage garden perennials and plants in dense layers, preferring species plants that ‘haven’t been meddled with.’
“There are no hot borders here, autumn exemplifies the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” adds Charlotte, explaining that the ongoing task now that the garden has matured is one of editing.
“I look with a critical eye. I need to cut-back, re-jig or it will quickly all become a shady forest. Some perennials need starting again as they have got too big and a few old roses simply removed, such as Charles de Mills and Tuscany, because they have become too rampant.”
“There are no plans for a grand change, just to constantly edit,” smiles Charlotte.
FIND OUT MORE
Balmoral Cottage, Benenden TN17 4DL - open on specific dates through the National Garden Scheme
There is a delightful self-contained holiday cottage, The Potting Shed, on site and access to the garden for guests, thepottingshedholidaylet.com