Summer breeze

PUBLISHED: 11:54 14 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013

Hardy, silver-foliaged, sun-loving plants edge a path

Hardy, silver-foliaged, sun-loving plants edge a path

This hillside Ulcombe garden with its series of 'rooms' and open vistas is the perfect place to enjoy the sweet scents and sights of heady June

Massed roses and billowing lavender greet the visitor at Knowle Hill Farm. Dancing in the breeze, the sweet scents are released as you brush past into the garden. On entering through an arch in a protective high hedge that borders the garden, the views open up with expanses of a sloping lawn looking over the North Downs.

Once you can draw your eyes from the vista, the details of the garden can also be fully appreciated. "The view is especially enjoyed by everyone and I hope we have created a beautiful frame through which to admire it," explains owner, Elizabeth Cairns.

When Elizabeth and her husband, Andrew, arrived at Knowle Hill 25 years ago, they were enchanted by the position of the house, although there was very little in the garden.

Two immediate challenges were that being on a warm south-western slope 450 feet above sea level, the soil is dry, mainly light sand and the garden is very open to the prevailing south-westerly winds.

Consideration had to be given to providing shelter and choosing plants that would flourish here. The process of creating a garden involved removing several old hedges that were planted around the house, obscuring those views, and clearing many dead or dying trees and shrubs.

Ancient yew and box
Fortunately, there was a magnificent yew tree and an ancient box hedge around the plot boundary that has formed "a wonderful billowing cloud hedge with only a little help from us, before cloud pruning became fashionable," laughs Elizabeth.

Over the years, areas have been created that sit comfortably into the hillside. Retaining walls, paved terraces around the house, sitting out areas and flowerbeds make useable and decorative spaces. Many Mediterranean and South African plants along with hardy shrubs do well in the conditions. Plants aren't mollycoddled here; they are selected for their reliability as well as their beauty, and not over-watered.

"In a dry garden like ours, it is important not to spoil plants by watering them too much early on. It encourages them to put their roots down which will help them to survive dry summers later on. Mulching also helps and is good for weed control," explains Elizabeth.

Around the house, the layout is quite informal with easy-care planting, while a level area at the rear of the house takes on a more formal air. Two long borders with massed roses and herbaceous planting terminate in box topiary and there is also a semi-circular yew hedge enclosing a sculpture.

Another garden room with a more structural theme is an enclosed side garden. "I am very fond of this little walled garden we have with a pond and a little rill running into it. I love the soothing sound of the water. It's planted with white and blue plants and in the late summer a white solanum exuberantly covers the wall.

"The heron breakfasted on the goldfish last year, which was sad, but recently I saw one or two tiny survivors hiding under the water lilies so perhaps they soon will multiply again," says Elizabeth.

To the west side of the house there is a fairly new, small potager that has seen mixed success. "I am not a very good vegetable gardener and pigeons and slugs have taken their toll. A visit to the Jardin Plume in Normandy has re-inspired me and I now have a picture in my head of a riotous mix of herbs, salad leaves and flowers all mingled together!" adds Elizabeth.

Therapeutic effect
The vast array of plants throughout the garden is a testament to Elizabeth's obvious passion for gardening. "All your worries disappear when you are on your hands and knees tweaking out weeds or bent double pruning a favourite rose," she smiles.

And she happily admits to finding it hard to leave a nursery or plant stall without buying something new, but knows she must exercise some self discipline, as the garden is getting full.

"I adore growing and propagating plants and planning associations of colour, shape and leaf texture. I am not really a collector of plants, but I do have a few favourites and succumb to the temptation to acquire several varieties," she says.

"I love the tiny differences between the various species and varieties of snowdrop, I dote on hellebores and now have a wide colour range, and roses are a great passion though our soil is not ideal for them.

"I use lavender a lot and I particularly like the more tender species. Agapanthus provide a wonderful show in August and there is a wide range of shades of blue and white."

Opening times
Knowle Hill Farm, Ulcombe
Evening opening Sat 27 June (5pm to 8pm), wine.
Sunday 20 Sept (12pm to 6pm), home-made teas.
Visitors also welcome by appointment May to September.
Tel: 01622850240
The National Gardens Scheme

Also this month

Chiddingstone Gardens Tour
Sunday 14 June
Nine gardens open (2pm to 6pm)

Celebrate the 25th anniversary of this event at an historic village in the Weald. An opportunity to visit private gardens rarely open to the public. £6, children free, maps from village and Causeway shop, proceeds to St Mary's and St Luke's churches.

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