‘The mark of a good plant, in my view, is one that could appear as a baddy in an episode of Doctor Who,” says David Morrison with a chuckle.
We are standing in his remarkable Wiltshire garden, on a broad gravelled path beside a long, deep border crammed with textured and unusual plants. Many of them display an exotic flavour and several could clearly audition for such a part. One such is the oriental “rice paper” plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’, which has ambitions (partly realised) to take over the path, via its numerous suckering shoots. Rex has been termed “a Fatsia japonica on steroids” which just about sums it up, although its huge hands of leaves are rough and downy.
Another contender for the Time Lord’s long-running series is Euphorbia x pasteurii ‘Phrampton Phatty’. This mound-forming hybrid, along with nearly all of the plants in the exotic border, is from Nick Macer, of the esteemed Pan Global Plants nursery in Gloucestershire. Its volcano-derived parents – Euphorbia mellifera, a substantial native of Madeira and the Canary Islands, and E. stygiana, an endemic of another Atlantic archipelago – the Azores – have produced in ‘Phrampton Phatty’ a muscular foliage plant with colonial ambitions. “It was hacked right back last spring, but it’s huge again,” says Morrison.
Hacking back huge euphorbias is not a job for the faint-hearted (you need to be well covered up to avoid being squirted with their highly irritant, milky sap), but Morrison’s head gardener, Carol Blood, is game for tackling most things. Usually they both agree on a more laissez-faire approach.
“Carol and I have a saying, ‘hand of God’,” says Morrison. “Which means we want the garden to look as if God has been here, but nobody else… And as God can be quite messy at times, I think we’ve achieved that!”
As we move from summer to autumn, Morrison prefers many of his plants – such as low hedges of catmint edging a terrace – to retain their spent flowers, instead of being neatly shorn back, as many of us would do. “The colour gradually fades out of them, but I like to see the seasons in the garden.”
The garden itself has not seen many seasons yet. It was only begun from scratch in 2010, after the Morrisons’ new Palladian house had been built on the site of a former dairy farm. What has been achieved in such a short time seems incredible, but when Morrison produces the photo albums showing “before” and “after”, it’s clear that only steel-framed cattle barns and a concrete yard existed in 2006, where the house and garden stand today.
From the entrance courtyard, a tour of the garden leads southwards, through timber gates into a tunnelled walk of oak arches, to which hornbeam trees have been trained. “We describe it as a berceau,” says Morrison, who had been inspired by something similar he saw long ago, at Het Loo, the baroque royal gardens in the Netherlands. “At Het Loo, the hornbeams completely cover the tunnel, making it very dark, but here we have cut lots of openings in it, to enjoy the play of light and shadow.”
The openings westwards look into a small, walled kitchen and cutting garden; eastwards they provide windows over a square, sunk garden aligned with the south elevation of the house, where the beds are filled with white roses and ‘Honorine Jobert’ anemones. There should also have been pure white swamp lilies out now but, Morrison points out: “The Crinum x powellii ‘Alba’, when they flowered, turned out to be not ‘Alba’ at all, but knicker-pink – not that they bothered to flower much at all!” Never mind; they are established now and their rosy trumpets neatly pick up the pink hues running through low clouds of erigeron daisies, so all appears to be “on purpose”.
The house was designed for Morrison and his wife, Venetia, by the classical architect George Saumarez Smith and the main garden rolls away from its east side. The above-mentioned exotic border lies to the south of a great lawn, and a corresponding border, filled with hard-working perennials and shrubs, balances the opposite side. You don’t get to see everything at once, owing to Morrison’s introduction of offset rows of pyramidal clipped hornbeams which margin the lawn, controlling and filtering the views.
The lawn’s far end leads to views of old oak trees in pasture and the summit of Martinsell Hill, an Iron Age fort on the surrounding chalky downs. The lawn itself is not terminated by a ha-ha, as might be expected, but instead, its curved edge is fringed with the tall, purple moor grass Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Dauerstrahl’. This is another of Morrison’s inspired ideas, for the molinia enjoys the soaking it gets from a shallow moat/lily pond that serves to drain the substantial lawn. It also hints at the vision of “wilderness” that comes into view, via the two-acre wild flower meadow.
Every garden needs its meadow these days, or so it seems, and while some people adhere to a strict diet of native flowers, others opt for “meadow-ish” wildernesses which owe more of their inspiration to the species found in overseas prairies and steppes. Morrison called in the maestro of meadows, James Hitchmough, a celebrated plant ecologist based at Sheffield University, to devise a plan for his, which was planted from seed as recently as 2014.
Herbicide dealt with existing weeds at the outset, then the curved paths that snake through it were laid. A sand surface was laid before sowing the seeds, helping to lower the nutrient levels to give the seedlings a chance.
Early in the year there are eruptions of primroses but the meadow builds up steam so by high summer and through August-September it is spangled with butterflies and bees, feasting on its fusion food of fancy foreigners including tall yellow Silphium terebinthinaceum, magenta spires of Liatris pycnostachya, steelywhite pincushions of Eryngium yuccifolium, wild American aster Eurybia spectabilis and much else besides.
The meadow is Morrison’s pride and joy, but so is the arboretum beyond it, covering some 12 acres. “At the moment there are about 650 trees and shrubs which are alive; of those I would think about 25 per cent are from wild-sourced material, a lot of stuff collected by Nick [Macer] but various other people, too”, advises Morrison. The rest are “just good things, trees I like and modern cultivars – magnolias and so on.”
It used to be said that a plantsman’s garden is a very different thing from that of a designer. Here is that very rare exception: a garden designed with meticulous thought and consideration of proportions, that will also satisfy and intrigue the most demanding of plant connoisseurs among its visitors.
- Wudston House, High Street, Wedhampton, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 3QE. Open for NGS by appointment for groups of 10 or more, until Sept 30. Admission £10 (01380 840965; Email [email protected]; visit ngs.org.uk).
- Kathryn Bradley-Hole’s latest book is: English Gardens: From the Archives of Country Life (Rizzoli). Visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.