Courtyard planting is still courting affection
A few years ago, I wrote about the making of a courtyard garden in Kent, a very generous 40th birthday present from Jonathon Ringer to his wife, Vanessa. That piece centred on the contractors doing the work and the kind of problems that are likely to arise in a space such as this.
At the time I first went to the Ringers' place, drains were top of the agenda. That's likely to be the case with any courtyard garden. By its very nature, it will have to take account of all the water pouring off the roof of the house, as well as any subterranean pipes or electricity cables leading from the house itself.
The Ringers' courtyard is a square of roughly nine metres, surrounded by the house on three sides and by the drive on the fourth. As Vanessa pointed out at the time, it's an important space because you look into it from so many places inside the house. When I was there back in late 2011, the groundwork had been done and the drains conquered, and the contractors were beginning to lay the Yorkstone paving.
But at that stage, of course, there wasn't a plant to be seen. The design for the garden had been commissioned from Sarah Price, who, at the time, was heavily involved in the planning of planting for the London Olympics. Vanessa knew she wanted some kind of water feature in the courtyard, a tree - there'd only be space for one, so it would have to be the right one - and a general sense of lush leafiness. She's become a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, while Sarah has established a name for producing sensitive, painterly plantings. So I was keen to see how the courtyard had turned out, now that the planting has had some time to settle in.
Given a square courtyard in which to garden, most of us would probably work round the edges first, then plonk something in the middle. But if you start at the centre and work outwards, you are likely to find a much more interesting way of dividing up the space. It's always instructive to see how a professional designer sorts out a space - and I think Sarah has done a brilliant job.
From the gravelled drive at the open end of the courtyard, you look straight across at the water feature installed against the far wall of the house. A tank of Corten steel (almost 6ms long, but only 60cms wide) stretches across the wall with a flat, tray-like lip above, about one metre wide, that delivers a fine sheet of water into the tank. Corten steel is robust, it lasts a long time, and the colour and texture of the material make a sympathetic backdrop for plants.
The biggest planting area is a square bed, roughly three metres across, aligned with a bay jutting out from the kitchen. This is where the one tree would go. Deciding which tree was almost the hardest decision Vanessa had to make. Magnolia wilsonii? Amelanchier? She finally went for an autumn flowering cherry, Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis', an elegant, delicate tree that starts to flower in November and keeps going, intermittently, until late April.
The cherry is underplanted with a lovely mix of plants: an excellent, deep purple violet; shiny-leaved asarum; plenty of ferns (the bed is shady) such as polypodys and hart's-tongues; autumn-flowering cyclamen; ground-covering woodruff, enchanting at this time of year with fresh foliage of a particularly bright green; feathery clumps of Selinum wallichianum (cow parsley given a designer makeover); and a very handsome cut-leaved hellebore, H. multifidus. Around the edges, mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii) spills on to the stone paving, softening the edges of the bed. Three uplighters are set under the tree, giving dramatic shadows at night.
Two further beds, each about a metre and a half wide, stretch across the courtyard, parallel with and in front of the big square bed. One is slightly raised within an edging, about 15cms tall, of Corten steel, the other separates the courtyard from the gravel drive. Both are packed with plants that have excellent foliage: big clumps of Valeriana officinalis, thalictrum, gorgeous freckled hellebores, Iris 'Gerald Derby', its sword leaves streaked with purple. Clumps of snowdrops and narcissi come and go with the seasons.
The house, like many on this Kent/Sussex border, is clap-boarded with long planks of oak, weathered now to a soft grey. The courtyard has only one climber, a handsome self-clinging hydrangea, H. seemannii, which has white flowers in summer. It's less well-known than H. petiolaris, which also climbs, but H. seemannii is evergreen.
Big billows of box dominate the planting round the edges of the courtyard, some clipped into shapes, others left shaggy. They anchor the house into the space and give the place that lush, generous air that Vanessa had been hoping for. Lusty evergreen myrtles are planted either side of the back door - just the right place for a shrub that smells so good. I love the courtyard. So, more importantly, does Vanessa. Is there anything she'd change, I asked? "Not a thing," she replied.