Garden of the month: Stoneacre in Otham
PUBLISHED: 10:56 17 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:56 17 April 2015
Take a stroll through the lush gardens of this half-timbered yeoman's hall house, first created by Rosemary Alexander, founder and principal of the English Gardening School, back in the 1990s
Stoneacre first came into my life in the 1990s when Rosemary Alexander, founder and principal of the English Gardening School, held the tenancy.
Memories still linger of chatting to Rosemary while taking tea with toast and home-made marmalade on the terrace overlooking the garden after I had spent a wonderful morning immersed in the surroundings and photographing the beauty of the garden.
I thought a return visit to see how the garden had evolved was definitely due as it had been on my to-do list since starting my column in Kent Life 10 years ago.
With a history dating back to Tudor times, this half-timbered yeoman’s hall house has seen an array of custodians. Home to the Ellys family until 1725 when it was sold and occupied by tenants.
In 1920 the house, which was then in a poor state, was purchased by Aymer Vallance, a 19th-century aesthete who restored the house to his vision, incorporating Arts and Crafts features influenced by his friends William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley, before the Vallances handed over the property to the National Trust in 1928.
Stoneacre has an influential position in gardening as it was here that Rosemary worked out her ideas and demonstrated to students her principles of design and planting, “marrying the practical with the romantic”, as she created the garden over her 11-year tenancy.
When Rosemary came to the property in 1989 the house had been empty for a while and needed lots of work, there was virtually no garden and it was overgrown with weeds.
However, the structure of original walls and paths remained and would become the framework for the planting scheme of a densely planted cottage garden style, punctuated with clipped form, extending into wildflower meadows and fields beyond. Where National Trust visitors had focused previously on the house, Rosemary increased the garden’s profile.
The next tenants, Richard Nott and Graham Fraser, came to gardening from the fashion world and incorporated their passion for dark, subtle colour and textures by planting ideas such as combining ephemeral grasses with shrubs.
They also softened the formal lines at the entrance by putting in curves and replacing the wall in the back garden to blend into the meadow of paths cut through wafting, ethereal cow parsley.
Through experimentation and developing a knowledge of plants and their needs, they learnt to look closely at varieties both at their peak as well as flowing into beautiful associations throughout the year. Just as they took a critical eye at the components of fashion, their artistic eye observed both the detail and the overall effects in the garden.
Continuing that evolution is the latest tenant, Phil Smith, who arrived in 2010 and lives there now with his partner Louise. With an interest in gardening since childhood, as well as a background in agriculture and landscaping, Phil embraces the task of caring for such a special place and the sense of long-term planting for generations to come.
He places equal emphasis on the design and planting of the garden, selecting different varieties of plants that do really well in the conditions to add to the garden.
As with any garden there are always adjustments and refreshing of plants needed. There has been some replanting in the hot border with extra orange tones from geums, dahlias and crocosmias, and a new walkway of lavender is being trialled in the purple area.
To keep costs down, seeds are collected and plants propagated, while regular visits to nurseries, such as Madrona in Bethersden, are sources of inspiration.
Today the resulting palette is mature and needs careful maintenance to retain the balance between the formal, clipped structure, foliage plants and softer floral infill.
“What we look for are tight edges but with romantic, loose planting,” Phil explains. Jobs abound, from clipping the topiary to collecting cow parsley seed and spreading it around when it is cut back at the end of July.
Five part-time volunteers help Phil with the garden, getting it ready for visitors, but more are always welcome. “When my nose is taken off the grindstone and look up, every day I stop and stare and look at the house and garden, and I love it,” he says.
If you haven’t discovered this little gem for yourself or it’s been a while since you visited, pop it on your ‘to-do’ list, especially if you live in Maidstone which is so close by.
As Phil says: “This is a garden you can dip in and out of, read a book, sit in the meadow. It’s smaller than Sissinghurst or Great Dixter, so you can nip in for an hour or two and just soak up the atmosphere.”
I’d add, time your visit for afternoon tea and enjoy the relaxing, casual environment with a slice of Louise’s delicious home-made cakes and a cup of tea.
Apparently even the postman counts down the days until ‘tea day’ on Saturday and the local doctor pops in each week to buy some cake for his wife, so clearly the word’s out to the locals!
GET IN TOUCH
Stoneacre, Otham, Maidstone ME15 8RS
Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays April to Oct (11am-5.30pm)
Admission £5.10, children £2.40 (National Trust members free)
Home-made cake and teas by the old stable on fine days
Plant of the month
Clematis Haku Ookan
Flowers late spring to late summer
Suitable as a cut flower
Ideal also for containers
Full sun or part shade
Fertile, moist but well-drained soil
Likes cool roots
Mulch February to March
Feed with liquid fertiliser during the growing season
Water during hot, dry periods
Jobs to be done
Plant hanging baskets and window boxes for a beautiful display by summer Reliable choices include lobelia, campanula, fuchsias, pelargoniums and petunias
In the garden finish sowing hardy annuals such as nasturtium and calendula, and divide perennials that you want to propagate
Summer bedding is now available in your local garden centre ready to plant out
Wherever possible collect rainwater in containers such as a water butt or recycle grey water to keep plants well watered
Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia after they have finished flowering
Giving your lavender a trim now, taking about 2.5 cm off the current year’s growth, will help to encourage bushiness
Have you entered our Kent Life garden competition yet? We are eagerly looking forward to finding our amateur garden and Primary School winners for 2015. You have to be in it to win it! Visit: www.kentgardenawards.co.uk.
Visit the array of lovely gardens supporting the Heart of Kent Hospice Open Gardens. From grand 18th landscapes to a safari of village gardens, there is a range to delight. For full details see their website, wwwhokh.org/events.