I visit quite a few gardens for work and for fun, and I’m often surprised, occasionally pleased but rarely astounded by their beauty. But a few weekends ago a friend suggested a garden near Ramsgate that was opening for the National Garden Scheme, so clutching our yellow books we sped off to Kent’s eastern extremity, to a spot modestly described as “an arts and crafts-style garden within flint and brick walls with orchard and vegetable garden. Teas served from granary by horse pond.” Oh, and with a 13th-century chapel attached.
We found a stunningly atmospheric garden set in undulating farmland with the sea to both sides – a sheltered, frost-free pocket. The various rooms surrounding a jewel of a chapel are home to giant hummocks of carefully chosen plants, varied in texture, bold in colour and form, with trees elegantly pruned to lift their canopies above the planting. There is also a topiary garden, an orchard with meadow looking out over sheep pasture and a well stocked edible garden with integrated chicken run.
And it’s for sale. How could anyone leave such an idyllic spot? The owner, Andrew Montgomery, was busy, concentrating on his 400-plus visitors, probably all asking exactly the same question. He was happy to chat briefly (as any NGS garden owner always is) but I needed to know more.
The farm was bought by Montgomery’s grandfather, who grew winter cauliflowers in this balmy spot. Andrew moved to the chapel from the family house aged 24, with dreams of gardens from books and paintings and a collection of York stone paving he’d been amassing since his early teens.
“I was faced with a forest of forsythia and two huge concrete rockeries, so I cleared away then planted yew hedges; I just wanted shelter and to define the space.” He slowly learned the sort of plants that would do well in the chalky soil (the white cliffs of Dover aren’t so far away) and over the next 30 years he created one garden after another. Obviously a designer manqué, why hadn’t he gone to art school or trained to be a garden designer? “I’ve been planning gardens in my head since I was five”, he replied, “but had no idea one could make gardening a career. It just didn’t seem possible.”
Impressed by gardens at nearby Goodnestone and the neighbouring Updown Park, he experimented with the Arcadian, the formal and the Italianate, but this current interpretation probably owes most to Great Dixter, with a loosening of style, incorporating grasses and shrubs, following Christopher Lloyd’s dictum to “Mix it all together”. “I was also seduced by Angus White’s Architectural Plants to buy large, imposing cannas and agaves,” Montgomery adds. “Then joining the local NGS committee made me realise I had to get my act together.”
We walk the garden, through an exotic oasis with trachycarpus palms at each corner, huge shrublike salvias, arching Miscanthus nepalensis dipping into a lily pond surrounded by hummocks of hakonechloa grass and soaring Eryngium pandanifolium that all thrive in the light dry chalky soil, and move through to a spiritual shaded courtyard where ferns surround an ancient font.
In another garden room, formal topiary yews punctuate beds crammed with strongly coloured tithonia and dahlias, tetrapanax and cannas that stay in situ all year. In one of the driest parts of a dry south-east, Montgomery admits his garden needs constant watering and he mulches with manure in autumn, but nothing looks starved or parched.
On through a wrought iron gate into the heritage apple orchard flanked by two Magnolia sieboldii with fabulous scarlet seed heads, then past more apples, ‘Violette’ and ‘Api’, with dark red fruits. We step down into the sunken vegetable garden, with woven bee skeps in alcoves in the walls, and admire a flock of giant Brahma hens and their consort. These are rich man’s fowl: huge feed bills with not much return in eggs, but, looking cool in their Armani plumage, they shelter against the flint wall enjoying the windfalls. Chosen because, as a breed, they’re unlikely to jump over the low yew hedge that separates them from tempting herbs, vegetables and fruit.
I’m impressed. “I’ve finally got it looking the best I can, and I hope someone else will carry on. It matters I find the right person,” says Montgomery. What will he miss? “The trees I planted 30 years ago that are just beginning to look a little like they will when they’re mature. The swallows that nest in the granary by the horse pond and the barn owls that make their way across the garden at dusk, but perhaps they could be persuaded to make a detour to the new garden once their habitat is improved.”
Montgomery is not moving far. Just over the farm wall, back to the family home. “The garden is on a larger scale, semi-derelict and hasn’t been gardened properly for a long time.” I asked about his future plans. “I’m not going to repeat this garden, apart perhaps from the some of the plant combinations that have taken me ages, through trial and error, to perfect.
“I love the Yucca rostrata with Penstemon ‘Raven’ growing through it, Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ in front and Rosa glauca close by. Also Dahlia ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ with Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’ and Eryngium bourgatii ‘Picos Blue’.
About 20 years ago he planted yew hedging in the old garden that’s luckily still in place, and he is having a 23 x 3m formal pond dug. “There are great views with the sea and marshes that are barely visible at the moment. I intend to put in a ha-ha to open it up, and take down trees: mostly the Scots pines my father planted in rows, but I’ll plant beech and hornbeam in their place.
“This is a farm, and I’d like to achieve something gentle, convincingly agricultural and Kentish, along Palladian lines where garden and farm meet. I’m fascinated by images of Fernando Caruncho’s garden at Mas de les Voltes where blocks of wheat line a view.” Will he re-open for the NGS? Of course. Like all gardeners, he’s an optimist and imagines it’ll take just four years. I’ll be first in the queue.
Chapel House and Granary near Minster, Ramsgate, is for sale, with its six acres of paddock and pasture. Visit Finn’s.