The creation of a new garden that feels like it's been there for decades
Tiffany Daneff visits a recently built property in the Home Counties, which proves that, with forethought, a new garden needn’t look new. Photographs by Marianne Majerus.
How do you make an imposing new house sit easily in its setting, not to mention look comfortable in the landscape? This was the key question for the designer Libby Russell, when she and Emma Mazzullo of Mazullo + Russell took on this project in the Home Counties in 2017.
Builders were still working on the house itself, so the team initially focused on the boundaries. The plot is shaped like a slightly squashed bell, with neighbouring gardens on either side and a long border with the road at its base. The view, which is considerable, extends beyond the crown of the bell as the garden opens out into the landscape.
The previous house had been knocked down to make way for the new one, but many trees and shrubs from its garden remained — mature Scots pines, beeches, horse chestnuts and oaks, although a handsome red oak proved to be diseased and had to be cut down. The many rhododendrons that thrive on the acidic soil include the almost-too-successful, mauve-flowering Victorian import R. ponticum, as well as several red varieties. This was all good news as, ‘the client wanted trees, the whammy of the rhododendrons and colour’. Privacy was also important.
The existing trees and shrubs were mostly gathered around the boundaries and, with a bit of shaping, many have been successfully integrated into a new woodland walk around the perimeter of the garden.
Screening the house from the road needed to be effective, but subtle. ‘We didn’t want the hedge on the boundary with the road to feel too claustrophobic, so we did tiers of yew and hornbeam, which are kept tightly clipped,’ says Mrs Russell. This works very well, with the fresh greenery of the hornbeam lightening the Styx-dark yew, and the double thickness muffles the noise of passing cars. On the other side, yew cubes, small trees and roses nicely break up the long evergreen hedge.
Work on improving the woodland continued over the next two years as existing trees and shrubs were brought back and many new woodlanders were planted. Magnolias, including M. loebneri, and blossomy cherries were positioned to create rhythms in the heights of the trees, as well as bright spots of colour in spring and autumn. Below the leaf canopy, new planting beds alongside a mown grass path were filled with ferns and the useful Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa macra, bulbs, little spring woodlanders and shade lovers, mainly in blues, pinks and whites, providing interest throughout the year.
Work on the garden gradually moved closer to the house, as the builders released the space. Here, the design, in keeping with the Classical-style house, is more formal. The area between the southern boundary with the road and the front door doesn’t allow much room for invention, but feels far bigger, thanks to the combined effects of immaculate hard landscaping and effusive planting. The beds along the front are a froth of white panicles of the understandably popular Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and young clematis and jasmine are making their way up the walls, softening the new brick.
A semi-formal courtyard leads on through rooms of broken hedges. Eight multi-stem Malus baccata ‘Street Parade’, arranged in two rows of four, announce the transition from cars and journeys to the beginning of the garden. ‘It’s a great plant,’ Mrs Russell adds. ‘Tough, with a very good flower followed by small red berries that it holds onto very well.’
Planted on a grid beneath the crab apples are the blues of geraniums, iris, scillas and chionodoxa. Gravel and tumbled Yorkstone setts of the forecourt give way to knapped stone flags and, through another room, where square planting beds are anchored by Phlomis italica, to a semi-formal terrace outside the big picture windows of the kitchen. ‘I like to use this phlomis to anchor beds, as it has long-lasting structure, but in a lovely soft grey.’
The kitchen looks across a rectangle of lawn towards a semi-circular water platt backed with a semi-circle of yew hedge, which acts as a focal point and stops the eye from looking to the boundary. ‘It’s a very calm area,’ says Mrs Russell, ‘with whites, soft pinks and deep reds from the rhododendrons the main colours visible from the kitchen.’ One day, they hope, the client might put statues in the alcoves, as Geoffrey Jellicoe did at Sutton Place in Surrey. For now, all is perfectly framed by five pink and white magnolias and white cherries.
Strict geometry is everywhere tempered by billowing plantings. Sightlines sharp as a Savile Row suit line up the centres of the water platt, kitchen and the garage on one axis, with the front door, drawing-room window and the gate into the landscape on the other. The mind acknowledges this subliminally, being distracted by the taffeta frills of the planting, the echoing repeats of magnolia and cherry, of a fine acer at the edge of the woodland and the semi-formal romantic rose gardens back towards the house. There’s more phlomis in these herbaceous beds and, together with yew cubes, they anchor the soft, billowy planting, which contains a mixture of semi-formal and more cultivated plants.
Outside the drawing room, the dimensions of the semi-circular terrace perfectly repeat those of the water platt with two broad and shallow semi-circular mown grass steps inviting one to step onto the lawn.
Although the planting is more formal by the house, it is — in trademark Mazzullo + Russell style — wonderfully generous, visually thrilling and full of interesting varieties. Clumps of glaucous-leaved hostas spread onto the path; little Mexican daisies will soon make themselves at home in every nook and cranny. Salvias, a favourite because they flower for so long, are everywhere, as that all-important sense of rhythm is achieved not only through echoes of colours (greys, blues, greens), but also through leaf shape and texture. A delicate tracery of Thalictrum delavayi ‘Hewitt’s Double’ continues the purples of two different lavenders. Deep-blue agapanthus are planted with gauzy Gaura lindheimeri under the drawing-room windowsill. On the kitchen terrace are Rosa ‘Darcey Bussell’, ‘Lady Salisbury’ and paler pinks that don’t clash with the brick; beneath are little treasures, such as scillas, primula and chionodoxa.
Although the garden is still young, huge terracotta pots on the terraces lift the planting. ‘We do at least two, sometimes three, passes a year: apricot and white tulips, gaura — which I love for its airiness and structure — verbena, salvias.’ Outside the kitchen extension, which is surrounded by garden on three sides, the planters are more herby, with a mixture of oreganos, thymes and so forth.
The impression in early summer, a year or so after planting, is one of abundance and, although there is plenty of work ahead keeping plants within their bounds as they put down their roots and settle, already the garden feels at ease both with itself and with the house.
To create layers of height and respond to the levels of the house, some beds are raised and, in the formal beds by the house, clematis has been grown up pillars. ‘Camellias are great because you can prune to open them up and they have that double whammy of glossy evergreen leaves followed by the flowers.’ Here, they are white, which picks up on the whites of the cherries and magnolias beyond.
Achieving this kind of finish is a testament to planning and preparation, but what takes this new garden to another level is the attention given to the plants. ‘I walk around in January, in February, in March… I do the same thing in my own garden, asking myself “what’s out each month?”,’ says Mrs Russell. It’s something every garden owner should ask themselves.
How to create a new garden that feels mature
- Make the most of any existing trees and shrubs, pruning or reshaping as needed
- Provide height in borders with climbers up pergolas and pillars
- Use reclaimed or natural materials for the hard landscaping and take inspiration from local materials
- Be generous with the planting and use plenty of perennials with variety in structure and habit
- Borrow the landscape
- A few larger specimens can help that sense of maturity
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