Thirty years ago when we viewed Hazelwood Farm as potential purchasers, my husband Dan’s first comment was, “Well it ticks a lot of boxes but it hasn’t got a garden and what’s more, there isn’t anywhere to put a garden.” We both stared up at a limestone cliff covered with impenetrable scrub; he wore a frown, and I a very large grin. All my life I had been piling together rocks in the most unsuitable gardens, this at last felt like the challenge I had been preparing for.
The farm was my opportunity to work from home, and be there for our two small boys, then aged one and two and a half. The neglected boundary walls of the fields were the first rock I had to deal with. Add in equally crumbling house and farm buildings. A large mortgage and spiralling inflation meant it was a very long time before I achieved any sort of bed of roses!
There had been some attempt at landscaping, or stock proofing, around the front of the house, a three foot wall had been built in front of the cliff and endless rubbish had been thrown in behind it, and a Chamaecyparis planted on top. It is still with us on account of its shade value and, now clad with ivy, is a great retreat for the birds. The area was under planted with Scilla hispanica; I banished the pink and learned to live with the blue and white. Such a shame when the wild ones grow in our woodland. A Picea abies was growing a little higher up the bank and is now strewn with bird feeders providing endless interest from our upstairs windows. Several native trees were left as a ‘wild garden area’, this is now being developed into a spring and shade garden, incorporating a dedicated Hepatica bed to display part of my ‘National Collection’ more informatively, and accessed by a new flight of steps. The wild Twayblade Orchids and violets will be carefully maintained.
The focal point in the garden was and still is a very statuesque Corsican Pine standing at the highest point, which we were advised when we moved here was towards the end of its life. I planted a Cedrus deodara close by in the early years, which I hope will look suitably imposing as a replacement when the sad day comes.
Most of my early landscaping projects have since been replaced. I demolished an outside loo and its back to back pig sty which was blocking the light from Dan’s study window, reusing the dressed stone to build a semicircular raised bed and my first set of steps. The bed, which was at the foot of the cliff, contained a lot of grey-green and silver plants. The dressed stone was again reused to face an extension to the back of the house. Seventy tons of earth was removed including the semicircular bed, revealing more natural rockery and letting the foundations of the house breathe. Huge stones unearthed were repositioned to make an angled and more gradually sloping path to the upper levels. This is the only path a wheel barrow can be pushed up. The newly flattened area was stone flagged to form a patio and a path around the side of the house. A pond I dug out of the rock at the top of the cliff, with a crow bar, was very successful for many years, until bigger and better ponds stole the limelight.
Next to our front gate I built a raised bed, edged with stone and filled with farm manure, on top of the concrete base of an old roof water collecting tank. This bed has provided me with a more moisture retentive place in which to grow Filipendula and Primula japonica. Another sunken but leaking tank against the wall of the barn adjoining the house was planted with climbing roses, old fashioned roses, and under planted with bulbs and Hepatica transsilvanica.
Old roses have always been great favourites of mine, and many of those planted in the early years have set the style, and formed the framework of the original part of the garden. Along with many Clematis and Kiwi fruits they have completely covered some of the old farm buildings, albeit to the detriment of roofs, gutters and anything else that stood in their path. Trees were also planted to provide structure and colour: Amelanchier canadensis, Sorbus hupehensis var.obtusa, and Sorbus latifolia croceocarpa (a bird sown specimen I rescued from our wood) and a few Euonymus europaeus (a great favourite of mine) and Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ loved by the birds. A lot of junipers, shrub roses and pendulous flowering shrubs formed an attractive barrier along the edge of the top of the cliff, which is vertical in some places. A large part of the upper level had gradually been hacked, cut and strimmed into a grass area – it would be pretentious to call it a lawn – with large areas left long until the glorious wild flowers had seeded. At the far side of the upper level against our boundary wall there is the only significant depth of soil in the garden, about a foot or eighteen inches, in a strip about three feet wide, allowing us to plant with ease in front of the wall to form a mixed tree, shrub and perennials border, recently widened.
Our favourite part of the early garden was the less steep continuation of the cliff below the wall of a small paddock, all south west facing rock and grikes, until it tailed off into our wood. A wonderful natural rock garden, but rather too heavily grazed by rabbits, four warrens full in fact. First Dutch elm disease and then heavy gales had opened up the thin tip of our wood nearest the house creating opportunities! The paddock was originally just scrub with two very old apple trees. We attempted to use it as a kitchen garden and orchard for a few years but lack of time forced us to abandon it to sheep and rabbits.
In 2001 we decided to go ahead with a long dreamed of project, to move the dry stone walls and include more than half the paddock into the garden, leaving access for sheep through the other half. A big digger arrived and spent days moving walls and excavating a very big hole in the rock for a pond. It all looked horrendous. Dan was quite sure we had made a huge mistake. The site for the pond was chosen to use natural grikes in the rock to form a cascading rill to a lower small pond. We got rather ‘bogged down’ in the technicalities of this part and needed to call in an expert. He pointed out, ‘’ You should have had Lake Windermere at the bottom and the tarn at the top.’’
There was not room to reverse them, and the large top pond is everyone’s favourite place to be. The walls were stabilised with concrete and lined with butyl hidden by cobbles. We dig up huge quantities of cobbles here, deposited on top of the limestone as the glaciers melted. The smaller pebble sized ones were used on the path surrounding the pond. Endless hours were spent sorting the different categories of stone for various purposes; it always looks so much more in keeping if you use the materials to hand. The rill had to be pointed carefully, and needs to be kept well sealed if the water is not to disappear through the limestone. It is well worth the effort to maintain. The sound of running water really brings the garden to life, and the ponds have remained healthy and very popular with the wild life.
My biggest aim with the new garden was to let in the light. In fact it has become a theatre of light, the rocky staging and the elevated position allows the light to shimmer through my cliff top prairie from sun rise until sun set. The earlier part of the garden is mostly shady. We have a back drop of woodland around three sides, so I craved a complete contrast within. I was also wary of losing the shape of the rocks with my enthusiasm for planting. So much of our special limestone habitat in Silverdale has been lost to woodland; I wanted this area to celebrate the plants which love it open, sunny and well drained.
There is a ha-ha effect looking down into the field across the cliff from the seat behind the pond. I originally achieved an instantly dramatic ‘architectural’ effect by planting Cordyline and Phormium in the bed between the pond and the cliff top, with linking plants in the hot colours border. They did look stunning, especially from the house. It was possibly my hardest removal decision, but with nagging connotations of seaside roundabouts, blocking the ha-ha effect, and after I tripped myself up on the leaves a few times narrowly escaping tumbling into the deep end of the pond, I decided to evict them while I still could. Dwarf conifers have replaced them.
Desiring a hot colours border is an ‘age thing’, all my life I had preferred soft cool colours and subtle muted tones, but as our eyesight begins to deteriorate it is time for a change! Early August is a drab time for our backdrop of mostly deciduous woodland and the rockeries look a little tired as you clamber up through them – then suddenly you are confronted by a complete riot of outrageous summer colour. No matter which path you take around the garden it takes you completely by surprise, skirting the prairie or crossing the lawn it always takes my breath away. You can even see it from space on Google Earth. To form it we scraped up soil and built a low stone wall curving behind the pond into a raised bed, beneath our newly moved rabbit proof south facing stone wall. Prime location!
The prairie is the next player to take centre stage. Just as the rest of the garden is winding down for the year, Stipa gigantea, Miscanthus sinensis and my preferred smaller types of Cortaderia (deeply unfashionable at the time of planting) burst into their full glory, and fascinate us dancing in the wind, lit by the low winter sun or glazed with frost. Prairie style planting is sold as an easy option but I actually found it quite difficult to establish, and rather labour intensive to maintain. The grasses, sedges, rushes and suitably tall flowers, like many of the plants in this garden, were mostly grown from seed in pots, and planted out adding compost to get them started in our shallow stony soil. Self seeding is definitely encouraged but it all needs very strict selection and a lot of weeding to maintain a balance. I spend two or three long heavy days in early March working my way through, cutting down carefully with secateurs to preserve the new shoots, and scratching out the dead grass from large clumps with my roughest gloves. Finally, thorough weeding avoiding emerging bulbs which are key to maintaining interest while the new growth struggles to make an impact.
A rabbit proof fruit and vegetable garden, with raised beds and a greenhouse, occupies the top corner of the new garden. It is partly hidden by an English rose circle, wrapped around by a border containing pinks, blues, whites and purples. A wide green grass path snakes through between this border and the prairie to merge into the lawn of the old garden.
I always wanted the old and new gardens to remain completely different in style but I am only now beginning to feel that they are starting to knit together pleasingly. Removing a huge Juniper ‘Sky Rocket’ which lined up too well with the Corsican Pine has helped greatly. Changing the line of paths to follow the rock strata across, and distinctive crossover plants, have helped. Recently I have taken a chunk out of the lawn to extend the curving line of the grass path around to my earliest set of steps. This brings me full circle to my first love, the natural rockery, wrapped around two sides of the house and stuffed full of precious gems, especially in spring. There is never a dull moment.
We enjoyed our village open day so much last summer, we have decided to open under the National Garden Scheme, at varying times each year to take advantage of this garden’s ‘all year interest’.