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The pursuit of perfection

PUBLISHED: 14:56 07 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013

The treehouse is one of the most striking features of Paulmead

The treehouse is one of the most striking features of Paulmead

Design is at the root of any successful garden, as Paulmead beautifully illustrates. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Plants are not always the most important element in a successful garden. Without good structure the most exciting horticultural collection falls flat, while a strong framework adds interest to the most mundane planting. At Paulmead there's nothing rare about the plants used, but the design puts the garden into a class of its own. There are long vistas, subtle changes in mood and a clever use of the sloping site.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that the garden is built upon such a solid foundation, as it has been created by a garden designer with more than 30 years' experience. Now retired, Philip Howard was the founder of well-known Bisley firm Graduate Gardeners, who were responsible for the building, and sometimes the design, of around 18 Chelsea gardens, winning seven gold medals. Starting with just one partner, by the time he sold the business in 2003, it employed 32 people and had hundreds of clients.

At Paulmead he started with essentially a blank canvas, as nothing remains of the garden he and his wife, Judy, took over 25 years ago. Not only has it been completely redesigned, he has extended the cultivated area into the fields that surround the property on two sides and which form part of the grounds.

"I had to completely start again," he recalls.

Like a true professional he had a clear plan for the garden from the outset, although it was built gradually in four phases due to time and money constraints. It is based upon two main axes, one running from the doors at the back of the house across the plot, and the other leading the eye from the top patio, down through the garden and out into the countryside beyond. Each vista is carefully defined by strategically placed box topiary and stone pillars, curved borders or arches cut into hedges. At the end is a focal point - the countryside view on one axis, an arbour and seat on the other.

The first phase of the garden's evolution saw the most dramatic change. Originally there was no vehicle access to the house and entry was via a steep and dangerous path from the road down to the house. Today, a curving gravel drive leads to the house, framed by a yew hedge and immaculately kept grass, and a garage runs alongside the house. The resulting bank is held in place by a rock garden, using enormous rocks, some weighing as much as two tons.

"There's no fiddly stuff," comments Philip.

The yew hedge curves around a group of silver birch and the 'rockery' is planted with spiraea, berberis, ferns and oregano, its limey foliage lightening the combination. Around the drive, clipped box and ballota look as though they are growing out of the gravel but are in fact in tubs due to the lack of soil. Meanwhile, the house sits in a sea of nepeta, its flowing shape a contrast to neatly shaped box.

"I think it makes the house sit rather well," observes Philip.

From here there is the first enticement to explore: twin rhamnus sit in pots either side of an arch in the yew hedge through which a well can be glimpsed. Once just an underground tank for collecting rainwater from the house, this has become an elegant feature with an oak and thatch shelter and a hand pump added. It also forms the endpoint of a beautifully planted pergola, with white wisteria teamed with alliums and pink geranium, which leads you into the main garden.

Box pyramids frame doors into the house, while a geometric arrangement of a clipped 'slab' of box topped with a box ball is curved to match the sweep of the patio on one side, straight to sit alongside the lawn on the other. It is this attention to detail that underpins Paulmead's success.

At the garden's highest point, Philip has built a circular patio, designed to make the most of the view. The planting behind is in tiers - lonicera, roses, dogwood, prunus and ash - which form a sheltering screen from houses behind. The lonicera is being shaped to form a back and arms around a stone bench - just one of many places to sit and linger in the garden.

Step through arch in the beech hedge and the mood changes. Here the area is enclosed by hedges and kept simple. Yew pyramids frame the entrance, a low box border runs along the yew hedge and a Portuguese urn, originally used for olives, sits in the middle of the grass. The yew forms an arbour over and curves around a rustic seat, made by the couple's architect son Tom from old fencing posts. Sit inside and you enter a cool, green oasis.

This part of the garden was once field but Philip moved the boundary to incorporate it into the cultivated area. Once little more than a water-filled ditch, the stream that runs through it is now channelled from the field into concrete pipes under the lawn and emerges as a tumbling mass of water that moves down the garden to a pool.

The sides of the stream are richly planted with ligularia, Rheum palmatum, pampas grass, bamboo, Polygonum bistorta, flag iris and hosta. Cow parsley is tolerated for the natural feel it creates and cistus and astrantia add colour.

Dominating this area is a truly magnificent tree house, so big it needed planning permission. It was designed and built by Tom using an oak that, despite the attentions of tree surgeons, proved impossible to save. Some of the branches, clad in Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate', now form a frame from which a swing hangs, while a curved stairway leads to a platform that gives a bird's eye view of the garden. Indeed, from here it is possible to fully appreciate the framework that underpins Paulmead.

Further down the stream is a summerhouse - again built by Tom - alongside a carp-filled pool. Mature shrubs, including hebe, elaeagnus, hydrangea and Portuguese laurel, form a thick hedge to one side, hiding the summerhouse.

"I wanted to give the feeling of a curving path, slightly secluding the summerhouse," explains Philip.

At the end of the garden there's an area of wild flowers and longer grass, designed to 'blur' the cultivated part with the neighbouring field.

"I think it looks quite nice as a contrast to everything else."

And it is this desire to keep changing moods, catching the visitor by surprise, which is behind the green oasis that comes next. Formal steps, flanked by stone walls and pillars lead to a box hedge-enclosed lawn and a false ha-ha. The box is being carefully shaped to follow the slope of the walls and the area is a calm retreat after the flower-filled areas around it.

"I like to have lots of surprises around the garden."

Formality dominates the kitchen garden with geometric beds, edged with step-over apples and lavender, filled with a range of fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, the centre of the garden is home to double herbaceous borders, each set around a rose-covered trellis. Here a mixture of thalictrum, iris, nepeta, peonies, hesperis, lychnis and acanthus provide a long season of colour.

Yet the mark of the true professional is in the detail: lawn edges are ramrod straight, thanks to metal edging, borders are finished with brick mowing strips to stop billowing plants spoiling the grass, hedges are neatly clipped and there's not a weed in sight. It is a desire for perfection that Philip admits characterised his professional life.

"I like everything spot on."

Paulmead, Bisley, is open with nearby Wells Cottage for the National Gardens Scheme on June 21 from 2-6pm. Admission is £3.50, combined admission is 4.50.

Plants are not always the most important element in a successful garden. Without good structure the most exciting horticultural collection falls flat, while a strong framework adds interest to the most mundane planting. At Paulmead there's nothing rare about the plants used, but the design puts the garden into a class of its own. There are long vistas, subtle changes in mood and a clever use of the sloping site.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that the garden is built upon such a solid foundation, as it has been created by a garden designer with more than 30 years' experience. Now retired, Philip Howard was the founder of well-known Bisley firm Graduate Gardeners, who were responsible for the building, and sometimes the design, of around 18 Chelsea gardens, winning seven gold medals. Starting with just one partner, by the time he sold the business in 2003, it employed 32 people and had hundreds of clients.

At Paulmead he started with essentially a blank canvas, as nothing remains of the garden he and his wife, Judy, took over 25 years ago. Not only has it been completely redesigned, he has extended the cultivated area into the fields that surround the property on two sides and which form part of the grounds.

"I had to completely start again," he recalls.

Like a true professional he had a clear plan for the garden from the outset, although it was built gradually in four phases due to time and money constraints. It is based upon two main axes, one running from the doors at the back of the house across the plot, and the other leading the eye from the top patio, down through the garden and out into the countryside beyond. Each vista is carefully defined by strategically placed box topiary and stone pillars, curved borders or arches cut into hedges. At the end is a focal point - the countryside view on one axis, an arbour and seat on the other.

The first phase of the garden's evolution saw the most dramatic change. Originally there was no vehicle access to the house and entry was via a steep and dangerous path from the road down to the house. Today, a curving gravel drive leads to the house, framed by a yew hedge and immaculately kept grass, and a garage runs alongside the house. The resulting bank is held in place by a rock garden, using enormous rocks, some weighing as much as two tons.

"There's no fiddly stuff," comments Philip.

The yew hedge curves around a group of silver birch and the 'rockery' is planted with spiraea, berberis, ferns and oregano, its limey foliage lightening the combination. Around the drive, clipped box and ballota look as though they are growing out of the gravel but are in fact in tubs due to the lack of soil. Meanwhile, the house sits in a sea of nepeta, its flowing shape a contrast to neatly shaped box.

"I think it makes the house sit rather well," observes Philip.

From here there is the first enticement to explore: twin rhamnus sit in pots either side of an arch in the yew hedge through which a well can be glimpsed. Once just an underground tank for collecting rainwater from the house, this has become an elegant feature with an oak and thatch shelter and a hand pump added. It also forms the endpoint of a beautifully planted pergola, with white wisteria teamed with alliums and pink geranium, which leads you into the main garden.

Box pyramids frame doors into the house, while a geometric arrangement of a clipped 'slab' of box topped with a box ball is curved to match the sweep of the patio on one side, straight to sit alongside the lawn on the other. It is this attention to detail that underpins Paulmead's success.

At the garden's highest point, Philip has built a circular patio, designed to make the most of the view. The planting behind is in tiers - lonicera, roses, dogwood, prunus and ash - which form a sheltering screen from houses behind. The lonicera is being shaped to form a back and arms around a stone bench - just one of many places to sit and linger in the garden.

Step through arch in the beech hedge and the mood changes. Here the area is enclosed by hedges and kept simple. Yew pyramids frame the entrance, a low box border runs along the yew hedge and a Portuguese urn, originally used for olives, sits in the middle of the grass. The yew forms an arbour over and curves around a rustic seat, made by the couple's architect son Tom from old fencing posts. Sit inside and you enter a cool, green oasis.

This part of the garden was once field but Philip moved the boundary to incorporate it into the cultivated area. Once little more than a water-filled ditch, the stream that runs through it is now channelled from the field into concrete pipes under the lawn and emerges as a tumbling mass of water that moves down the garden to a pool.

The sides of the stream are richly planted with ligularia, Rheum palmatum, pampas grass, bamboo, Polygonum bistorta, flag iris and hosta. Cow parsley is tolerated for the natural feel it creates and cistus and astrantia add colour.

Dominating this area is a truly magnificent tree house, so big it needed planning permission. It was designed and built by Tom using an oak that, despite the attentions of tree surgeons, proved impossible to save. Some of the branches, clad in Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate', now form a frame from which a swing hangs, while a curved stairway leads to a platform that gives a bird's eye view of the garden. Indeed, from here it is possible to fully appreciate the framework that underpins Paulmead.

Further down the stream is a summerhouse - again built by Tom - alongside a carp-filled pool. Mature shrubs, including hebe, elaeagnus, hydrangea and Portuguese laurel, form a thick hedge to one side, hiding the summerhouse.

"I wanted to give the feeling of a curving path, slightly secluding the summerhouse," explains Philip.

At the end of the garden there's an area of wild flowers and longer grass, designed to 'blur' the cultivated part with the neighbouring field.

"I think it looks quite nice as a contrast to everything else."

And it is this desire to keep changing moods, catching the visitor by surprise, which is behind the green oasis that comes next. Formal steps, flanked by stone walls and pillars lead to a box hedge-enclosed lawn and a false ha-ha. The box is being carefully shaped to follow the slope of the walls and the area is a calm retreat after the flower-filled areas around it.

"I like to have lots of surprises around the garden."

Formality dominates the kitchen garden with geometric beds, edged with step-over apples and lavender, filled with a range of fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, the centre of the garden is home to double herbaceous borders, each set around a rose-covered trellis. Here a mixture of thalictrum, iris, nepeta, peonies, hesperis, lychnis and acanthus provide a long season of colour.

Yet the mark of the true professional is in the detail: lawn edges are ramrod straight, thanks to metal edging, borders are finished with brick mowing strips to stop billowing plants spoiling the grass, hedges are neatly clipped and there's not a weed in sight. It is a desire for perfection that Philip admits characterised his professional life.

"I like everything spot on."

Paulmead, Bisley, is open with nearby Wells Cottage for the National Gardens Scheme on June 21 from 2-6pm. Admission is 3.50, combined admission is 4.50.

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