This Dorset garden is an atmospheric showcase for grasses in autumn, says Louise Curley
For many gardens November is the tipping point into hibernation as flowers and foliage fade. At Knoll Gardens in Dorset it’s a different story. Home to thousands of grasses, the renowned naturalistic planting is reaching its crescendo right now. The four-acre garden had its beginnings in the early 1970s when the first nursery on the site was established on a carrot field and a scrubby patch of land. In 1994 Neil Lucas came to the garden and nursery and has since established one of the country’s most extensive collections of grasses.
‘Right plant, right place’ is very much the approach at Knoll, where planting is dictated by the soil and climate, rather than trying to grow unsuitable plants that will never thrive. The garden is also the perfect showcase for plants on sale in its award-winning nursery, and offers visitors the chance to see these plants growing in a garden setting, with inspiring ideas for planting combinations.
Although primarily known for its grasses, Knoll used to be a private botanic garden and as a result it also has an impressive range of trees and shrubs. The delicate white, bell-shaped blooms of the Australian snowdrop tree (black sassafras) announce the arrival of spring as their delicate scent fills the air. Summer highlights include herbaceous perennials and hydrangeas, but it’s late summer when Knoll hits its stride, with herbaceous perennials such as sedums, asters and the wafty stems of Verbena bonariensis forming drifts of colour.
Spectacular autumn hues from trees such as Gingko biloba and shrubs like Hydrangea quercifolia light up the gardens with a fiery glow. The collection of spindle trees (euonymus), which thrive on the free-draining sandy soil, put on an eye-catching display of vivid crimson and scarlet. Impressive specimen trees include one of the best willow oaks in the country, cork oaks and a collection of magnificent eucalyptus.
The Dragon Garden consisted of bedding plants, formal hedges and lawn when owner Neil Lucas first came to the site more than 20 years ago. It’s now been transformed so that a single path weaves through a swathe of grasses and perennials, which create a tall meadow effect. At this time of year, late autumn sunshine enhances the warm browns, golden honey and bleached blonde tones of the grasses and early morning frosts highlight the structural shapes and seedheads.
The vast range of grasses includes low-growing pennisetums that tumble over paths to towering miscanthus and calamagrostis. One of the most effective planting combinations here is the native grass Molinia caerulea planted in drifts along with perennials such as persicaria, scabious and sanguisorba.
Although grasses are mostly associated with large-scale naturalistic planting schemes, such as those created by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, smaller easy-care beds have been created at Knoll to show that they can be used in a more modestly sized plot.
Knoll Gardens is an impressive place to visit whatever the season, but at this time of year, with the seedheads and skeletons of the grasses and perennials catching the sunlight, it’s a place that shows how there can be beauty even in the dying embers of a garden.
Five minutes with... Knoll Gardens' owner Neil Lucas
Neil Lucas has been the owner of Dorset-based Knoll Gardens and its award-winning nursery since 1994. His passion and knowledge for a naturalistic planting style and ornamental grasses has led to multiple gold medals from RHS Chelsea
Q. How did you come to be at Knoll? I was working and living down in Devon, and we saw an advert that said the gardens were for sale. So we – my mum, dad and myself – decided to buy it. Horticulture has always been important in the family. My grandfather, in particular, was very much into plants and especially his delphiniums. Some of my earliest memories come from summer holidays with him in his garden and watching him exhibit at the RHS Halls in London.
Q. How big is the team? We have one full-time gardener, so we practice what we preach with low maintenance. We do also have half a dozen or so volunteers who come in on a Friday morning.
Q. What are the main seasonal jobs? We’re a late-season garden, so we peak in interest in the second half of the year. This means we cut down in early to mid-spring and do a spring clean preparing the borders, doing any maintenance and mulching. We weed in summer and then do any structural projects later in the year.
Q. In November what are you working on? November is still our peak time in the garden, so we won’t be doing a lot to the borders. But what we do try and do before Christmas is to complete one or two planting jobs. If things haven’t worked so well, there’s a gap in a border or we’ve decided to do something in a different way, we’ll take up the plants, move them around and replant.
Q. Do you have a favourite part of the garden? This year I do rather love the Dragon Garden. We took out a hedge about a year or so ago and did a lot of new planting, so it’s much more expansive now. It’s a bit reminiscent of a prairie.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? Running a small business is always highly demanding of personal time. Actually finding time to do all the necessary jobs and to be able to leave a little bit for the one or two jobs we might like to do, such as planting new areas, is always tricky.
Q. What’s the best bit of your job? Playing with plants, seeing new combinations and seeing them grow and develop. It’s a real thrill to see a plant that’s happy and successful and settled into the garden.
Q. Do you have any future projects that you’re planning to carry out? Our eucalyptus lawn is relatively old, the trees have got too big and are casting a lot of shade, so we’re going to redevelop that over the next few years, which will be quite a big project for us.
Location: Knoll Gardens, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (4pm Nov-Mar). Closed from 22 Dec 2017, reopens 1 Feb 2018
Contact: 01202 873931; www.knollgardens.co.uk
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Want to create your own ‘Zen’ courtyard?
It's no wonder the Japanese style of gardening is so popular in Britain. It’s a style that can be adapted to suit even the smallest outdoor space and most of the plants are quite happy in our temperate, often drizzly climate. The preponderance of shade-lovers creates a soothing green palette too – the perfect antidote to our stressful lives, with seasonal highlights offered by delicate spring blossom and flamboyant acers in autumn.
Though the style is steeped in tradition and ancient symbolism, its simple, ‘less is more’ philosophy keeps it looking up to date. Modern urban gardeners will love the clean lines, emphasis on textures and overriding sense of calm.
Traditionally, Japanese gardens are miniature recreations of the natural landscape, with water represented by sand (raked into ripples), and rocks representing mountains such as Mount Horai. These two elements are the essential ‘yin and yang’ of the design and, in landscaping terms, are a good place to start.
Stone lanterns and water basins are further key ingredients. The water basin was traditionally a place to wash before taking tea at a traditional tea house.
Team elegant acer foliage with evergreen boxand choisyafor this bold oriental border
Autumn is a fabulous time to have acers in the garden. Their flamboyant colours, slow growth and elegant layers of branches make them a popular choice in even the smallest of courtyard gardens.
If you’re looking for partner plants to help their bonfire colours glow, it’s worth taking inspiration from the Orient. Japanese gardens have a serene atmosphere that comes in part from a calm, simplified plant palette – often just gentle greens and blues. These allow the vivid acers to take centre stage as their foliage changes colour.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) grow best with a bit of shade and shelter. Treat them as woodland edge or ‘understorey’ plants out of direct sun – a lightly shaded corner would be ideal.
All the shrubs here will pretty much look after themselves in time, making this an easy-care planting scheme perfect for a front garden, bringing you a sense of calm every time you arrive home as well as joy to passers-by.
THIS ELEGANT FORMAL garden is packed with colourful plants and inspiring artefacts. “Being former art teachers has definitely had an influence on how we created the garden,” says Barbara. “We’re both interested in architecture, travel and design history, and Marek is interested in classical history and its influence on architecture.”
The classical influence is revealed in the garden structures and ornaments. “There’s a pavilion with classical architrave and columns (now with mosaic inside), an elaborate red brick wall fountain, Pompeii-style frescos and decorative urns. Marek built all the architectural elements himself.”
The garden is a rectangular plot that Barbara says is large by London standards. “It was once part of a large estate that was subdivided into generous plots. The garden is where the manor’s orchard used to be and still contains old pear trees, now covered with scrambling roses ‘Kiftsgate’ and ‘Rambling Rector’.
“When we moved here 15 years ago the garden was simply a large lawn surrounded by established trees,” says Barbara. “I was keen to keep a large area of grass, so the first job was to set out the main feature of the garden – a small parterre – about three-quarters of the way down the lawn. I created lots of box topiary to go with it – pyramids, balls and cylinders – and planted a bay tree in the centre.”
The bay was a small standard 14 years ago, but it’s grown into a large tree. “It’s actually two trees tied together; over time they’ve grown into one another,” says Barbara. “We trimmed out the lower branches then let it come out in an umbrella shape at the top.”
The iron pagoda is a more recent introduction. “We often visit reclamation yards to hunt for architectural treasures and on one visit saw a similar but more expensive piece,” says Barbara. “It inspired us to search online to find something more affordable, and that’s how we found this one at a salvage yard in Suffolk. It was covered in rust and dismantled for transport so we had to piece it back together by hand.
“We guessed it would kind of fit, but when we put it up in situ over the parterre it’s brilliant – as if it was meant to be. I was thrilled because I’d seen ironwork against quite formal box up in Kensington and thought it looked really beautiful.”
Though Barbara initially wanted to keep the large formal lawn, she says she ‘weakened’ and decided to have more flowers instead. “I added two mirror-image beds in front of the parterre and filled them with soft purple and pink flowers that look so lovely in early summer,” she says. “These are followed by hot, bright late summer flowers such as heleniums and crocosmia, chosen by Marek. We’ve also created another bright flower bed nearer the house and filled it with trailing bedding plants. There’s a further formal raised pool behind the parterre, where we grow a huge gunnera flankedby two tall cypress-like conifers. We’ve planted it all symmetrically to go with the formal theme.”
The final few metres of the garden are more relaxed and shady, given over to plantings with a woodland feel. “This area is filled with moss, hostas and ferns,” says Barbara. “Though the garden is south facing, it backs on to a tree-lined railway embankment, which throws deep shade here. It’s a wonderful backdrop but at certain times of day it just doesn’t get any sun – it’s one of the difficult things about the garden.”
Barbara likes to experiment with planting styles and adores the variety offered by plants. “It’s been a challenge but I’ve really tried to stick to a theme. I just wish we had a bigger garden. Or, perhaps I need three!”
FOR SARAH BEART gardening has always been a family affair. Her garden in north Norfolk reflects a gardening talent that has been fine-tuned since childhood.
“My granddad used to grow sweet peas and when I was young I had my own small plot and little tools. Both my maternal grandparents’ fathers were head gardeners, so I’m sure it’s in the genes!” says Sarah.
Her great-grandfathers oversaw gardens on large estates in Norfolk, where Sarah and her family still live, in a small village near the market town of King’s Lynn. It’s a rural idyll complete with a 13th-century church that looks over the garden.
“Our house was the former rectory, where Admiral Lord Nelson’s second cousin once lived, as rector,” says Sarah. “When we moved in nine years ago, we found that our overgrown plot harboured a secret garden. Under the brambles and bindweed we uncovered the beds, planting areas and lovely old roses that a former gardener had created. We even found a pond. In fact it was all so overgrown that we didn’t discover a huge statue of an owl until three years later... I weeded and weeded and dug and dug, exploring the space gradually to see what other treasures were hidden in the undergrowth.”
Sarah’s exploring and digging revealed the bare bones of an excellent garden that, through a process of evolution, became the framework of the bright and charming cottage garden we see today – the perfect partner for Sarah’s historic cottage.
“The boundary is lined with tall trees, which give the garden a sense of seclusion and create shade,” she says. “I try to make a feature of the shady areas – for example one contains a 35m (115ft) long stumpery made from a local tree surgeon’s offcuts and filled with ferns and hostas.”
“I’ve also created a woodland walk containing the garden’s 64 trees, whereI’ve planted violets, primroses, thalictrum and Japanese anemones.”
To help organise the space, the large plot is divided into three distinct areas: the main garden with its dramatic herbaceous borders, sweeping lawns and pond; a gravel garden and rockery for sun-loving alpines; and a relaxed wild flower area that’s humming with bees and butterflies.
Throughout the garden are unusual elements to draw the eye. “The dovecote has been home to a flock of white doves since before we moved in, and we have a small group of bantam hens that roam free in the garden. The birds bring character to the garden too; they drink from the large pond and roost in our bay tree.”
The deep herbaceous borders are Sarah’s pride and joy. “I love cutting flowers for indoors, particularly traditional English flowers, which I like to paint in watercolours. I love the process of growing them from seed, cutting them and then painting them.”
Sarah has filled her deep flower beds with vibrant, but always well-co-ordinated, colours – yellows, pinks, reds and blues, softened with cool white flowers. They also provide cut blooms for Sarah’s mum, who’s a keen flower arranger.
Sarah has strung a rope swag through the main border. “It’s a lovely feature that adds height and, in places, makes a support for climbing roses. My grandmother used this technique in her garden and I always wanted to recreate it here.”
THERE'S BARELY A FLOWER in sight in Patrick de Nangle’s London garden. Instead this astounding urban jungle is packed with foliage plants and towering tree ferns, which is all the more astonishing when you consider the modest size of his compact back garden.
Patrick first saw tree ferns growing at some botanical gardens in Hawaii, but it wasn’t until a trip to Bali that he realised he wanted to grow them himself at home. “They’d planted tree ferns with moss underneath, and I decided to create something similar here,” says Patrick.
“I buy them direct from a specialist importer, Lyndon Osborn, who designed the fernery at the Royal College of Art. They arrive as stumps so I dig a hole 40cm (15in) wide, mix in some compost and bark chips then sit the stump on the ground. Then I put a stake beside it and tie it to the stake. The stump will take root and start growing in a few weeks.”
Patrick has chosen two main types of tree fern to vary the visual effect. “There’s the Australian Cyathea australis, which is seldom grown in the UK, and the more familiar Dicksonia antarctica. Cyathea australis has a scalier trunk than the dicksonia, and I prefer that textured look. My rarest specimens are the black tree fern Cyathea medullaris, the elegant Dicksonia squarrosa, and the Norfolk tree fern, Cyathea brownii, which is massive and grows to more than 30 metres (98ft).
“Tree ferns are like a sponge – they need lots of water. You have to water them once a week in summer. I spray the whole trunk then hold the hose over the top of the plant and count for 50 seconds! I also feed them every six weeks, with a special tree fern food, and fish, blood and bone.”
The garden was just a lawn, weeds and astraggly lilac shrub when Patrick arrived here 12 years ago. “Rather than have grass struggling under the trees I took up the lawn and planted mind your own business (Soleirolia soleirolii) instead,” he says. “It makes a fine green carpet of tiny leaves that helps to frame the tree ferns, making the garden feel much more jungly.”
Patrick planted the soleirolia at 45cm (18in) intervals around the garden. “Within a year all the plants had joined up. It looked lush and green last winter because of the mild weather, but it can get crushed if you walk on it too much, which is why I’ve laid a path of paving stones.”
Besides all the exotics, a few traditional favourites help boost the leafy effect. “I’ve used hostas and ivies around the patio to create a sense of leafy abundance. I’ve used hardy, native dryopteris ferns under the tree ferns and glossy-leaved evergreen shrubs such as aucuba and fatsia.”
Because this fabulous city garden is so sheltered, none of the plants needs to be protected from frost – apart from the young tree ferns. “I don’t take any risks if they have soft young shoots,” says Patrick, “so I wrap them in fleece. But otherwise I’m able to leave the tender plants to their own devices. Last winter two bird of paradise plants (strelizia) even survived.”
Patrick dreams of one day taking the tree ferns back to his native Ireland to create a garden there. “The warm, balmy climate would be perfect for them,” he says. In the meantime he’s keen to spread his enthusaism for jungle plants by sharing any spares with his neighbours. “There are echiums and a tree fern in the garden at number 9, a big cordyline in number 7 and a row of Paulownia tomentosa along the back of the gardens,” he says. “They help to create a screen that gives us all a bit of extra privacy.”
A nearby roundabout is now home to one of Patrick’s Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) and the road outside has a tropical twist too. “I planted a row of agapanthus along the street, where I saw the council about to put an area down to grass. They flowered for more than six weeks! Wherever I see a vacant spot of ground I wonder why people don’t do something interesting with it. It could be beautiful.” ___
THIS CHARACTERFUL COTTAGE is packed with green-fingered ideas. “I’m always experimenting,” says owner Louise Bateman. “No garden is ever finished, so whenever I have a new idea, I’ll go for it. If a plant doesn’t thrive or meet my expectations, I’ll try something else.”
Whether it’s building a wildlife pond, planting a stipa spiral or putting up some homemade fencing, Louise loves turning her artistic ideas into reality. Nowadays her garden is a picturesque retreat with bags of character and a billowing, natural look.
It’s a far cry from the scene that confronted Louise 11 years ago. “The house is a cedar bungalow built in the 1950s and had two previous owners, but neither of them was very passionate about plants. The garden wasn’t neglected as such, but there was about 30 years of plant growth to take in hand, and lots of conifers and overgrown trees and shrubs which took a team of professional tree surgeons a week to remove. We did the rest ourselves.”
Renovating the garden was far harder than Louise had anticipated. “We kept on finding concrete buried under the soil, which we’ve dug out and used to make the driveway wider. We prefer to recycle when we can – I’d rather not send anything to landfill if I can avoid it.”
Resourceful to the last, Louise is a devoted propagator of plants. “If I want a plant I tend to want a lot of it, as I like to plant things en masse for more impact. So, I’ll propagate new or interesting plants to make a fresh planting scheme. It takes time but I’m a great believer in growing plants from seed or cuttings whenever possible. It opens up the potential to plant on a grander scale and to experiment with plants without blowing your budget.”
Louise is a long time member of the Hardy Plant Society and the Royal Horticultural Society and takes part in their national seed distribution schemes, which helps her get hold of unusual plant varieties to grow from seed. “Some tender plants, such as my 13-year-old cannas are overwintered in my conservatory, and in the spring when I sow seeds every inch is packed with plants, so you can hardly get inside to water. There’s no space for any furniture and I dread cleaning it in June!”
Self-seeders are a good source of free plants, too. “I planted 100 allium bulbs in our front garden a few years back and now there’s about 1,000. Alliums grow so easily from seed. If you’ve got a plant that loves your soil, it makes sense to grow a lot of it.”
Louise also uses division to create more of the same plant. “A friend gave me a little piece of Carex comans and I divided it to plant individual clumps around the garden. Then, when they were big enough, I moved them to create edging for a path. I like their informal style and they’re evergreen too. I’ve paired the grasses with arctotis ‘Orange Prince’ – it’s the perfect colour to complement the carex’s dusty brown.”
The garden has a formal layout that belies Louise’s relaxed approach to self-seeders. “But within the formal structure I have plants spilling over border edges to create more interesting shapes.
“I decided to open my garden for the NGS one September,” she says, “and ended up introducing more late-summer flowering perennials such as dahlias, crinums, rudbeckias, kniphofia and heleniums – the perfect recipe for a hot border. They keep the borders bursting with colour right into the tail end of summer.”
Filling the garden with plants like this helps to keep weeds down. “I also avoid turning the soil. Digging gives annual weed seeds a chance to germinate,” she explains.
Louise has some secret allies when it comes to improving her loamy clay soil. “I have two ponies which keep me supplied with fertiliser and soil conditioner,” she says. “But instead of digging it in, I find that mulching with manure gets the garden off to a good start each year. But it has to be done before the soil dries out in spring because this is such a dry part of the country. The rain gets as far as Nottingham but then goes off up the river Trent and we don’t seem to get any of it!”
With little rainfall to rely on, Louise has wisely chosen plants that can cope with a bit of drought – silvery-leaved dianthus and artemisia keep her borders looking fresh. Soft-leaved Phlomis ruselliana has also proved a great architectural plant for sun or shade. “I’ve taken a leaf from Beth Chatto’s book, creator of the famous dry garden in Essex,” says Louise. “Her motto was ‘right plant, right place’. She’s absolutely right.”