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Barn House near Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 15:02 07 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Borders at Barn House are crammed with plants

Borders at Barn House are crammed with plants

Once a market garden, Barn House is now a plant-filled paradise. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Sometimes successful gardens come about almost by accident. Rather than following the perceived wisdom of a carefully constructed plan they evolve piecemeal with no final goal in sight. At Barn House, near Cheltenham, not only was there no design plan, its creator never even intended to make a garden.



When Shirley Sills and her husband Gordon took over the two-and-a-half acre walled plot 24 years ago, she visualised little more than a field for her two boys to play in and even today she is not sure what made her begin to garden.



"Something grabbed me," she says. "I don't know what."



She inherited a site that would have deterred many. A former market garden, it had 100 young apple trees and around 3,500 sq feet of asparagus. Realising she would never cope they were all removed and she began by making a small border.



"Then I decided to come out at right angles one day and it just went from there."



What has evolved is an intricate pattern of interlocking garden rooms, separated by hornbeam hedges or pergolas, the only remnant of the need to make a family space the 'Cricket Pitch' that still occupies the centre.



Around the house the emphasis is on late colour. Helenium, rudbeckia and melianthus are combined with euphorbia, astrantia, inula and geraniums. Grasses, including pennisetum and miscanthus are a recent introduction designed to carry the scheme on into autumn.



More mixed borders are found in the 'Rose Garden', named for the beautifully fragrant R. spinosissima and the area where Shirley started. Deep magenta Geranium psilostemon weaves its way through other plants including rich blue delphiniums and Iris 'Gerald Darby' with its purple stems. She is happy to let Euphorbia fens run through one border, allowing it to self-seed and pulling up what is not wanted.



"I cannot stand bare earth," she explains. "You always get a weed."



As expected with someone who cannot resist a new plant, the borders have been enlarged several times and, despite the size of the garden, she is always running out of space for new purchases.



She has learnt a lot by visiting other gardens and reading widely, particularly Rosemary Verey and Beth Chatto, who stressed the importance of foliage.



"It's why I've ended up with so many different colours as I did tend to plant things only for their form.



Thus one long border sees red lupins, yellow hemerocallis, and lemon Cephalaria gigantea, all held together by the formality of repeated box balls.



It is part of the design skill that sees this long rectangular space broken by the '45 degree pergola', so called because of the angle at which it is set, and the fact that the planting comes out into the lawn in a series of right angles.



"It gives movement through and a bit of formality. A wiggly border would not give the same effect."



Echoing this angular pattern is a raised L-shaped pool, known as the Frog Pond due to the frog sculpture at one end. The walls of the pond are decorated with old wine, gin and champagne bottles and pieces of ornamental stonework given to them by neighbours. It gives the pond individuality and injects some humour into the garden, something Shirley believes is essential.



"Once gardens were fun places but we've lost the humour in them. If you really want to make a good garden, put personality into it and make it something different."



Elsewhere she has place a stone apple under an old fruit tree, ornamental snails crawling around a bubbling urn fountain and replica ammonites in a path. Meanwhile, an otherwise dull Lonicera nitida has been sculpted into a face.



If the long borders are a riot of colour, the Yellow Garden is a far more restrained affair. Here, golden tones are mixed with white and silver, with little bits of red or blue just to break it up. The circular shape is divided into four beds and filled with honeysuckle, phlomis, hostas, iris, veronicastrum and roses. At the centre an arching metal sculpture is used as a support for climbing plants.



Tucked away behind tall hedges, the Scented Garden is a fragrant retreat. In early summer the display is predominantly white with night scented stocks, and Elaeagnus 'Quicksilver' almost overpowering with their perfume. There are roses, deep purple iris, lilies, pink and white lamium, self-sown verbascum, Viburnum carlesii and Daphne odora for winter. The formality of the clipped hedge is echoed in box balls that line the narrow paths.



Shirley is blessed with natural water in the garden, which has enabled her to make a bog garden. Once little more than a ditch, she has dug out the stream and filled the sides with moisture-loving plants, including candelabra primulas in ice cream shades, Persicaria bistorta, Darmera peltata, hostas, iris and lysimachia. There is gunnera, tiny mimulus, the false Solomon's Seal, Smilacina racemosa, and the tiny pool at one end is filled with water hawthorn. The water level in the blue clay-lined stream fluctuates and can flood in winter.



A recent addition to the garden was the result of needing to alter access for visitors. Deciding the entrance required more impact, Shirley has built raised beds from old railway sleepers and filled them with achillea, salvias and alliums in a loose pink, blue and pale yellow theme. Old Victorian paving echoes the colour of the walls.



Move on and you encounter 'Wood Henge', a circular arrangement of wooden posts encircling an urn. Despite encouragement to enter, many visitors carefully walk around it.



Indeed everywhere at Barn House you are encouraged to explore. Windows are cut into hedges to give glimpses of other areas and paths are deliberately placed to slightly obscure the view beyond. It is the work of someone with design skill, much of it learnt on the garden and landscape design degree course she completed a few years ago.



Now working as a garden designer, Shirley uses her garden as a trial ground, testing new plants, planting combinations or ways of building features. Many of them, while looking expensive, have been done cheaply, using sale items or by building them herself - she has completed a brick-laying course.



Although she maintains most of the structural work in the garden is now done, borders are constantly being revamped.



"It's never finished. Plants grow and need sorting, or you see a better combination."



It is hard work as the couple maintain the garden themselves and often work between six and eight hours a day during the summer, but it is something she adores.



"It satisfies my creative urge and I just love it."



Barn House, near Whittington, is open for the National Gardens Scheme on June 7 and 21 from 11-5pm. The neighbouring Garden Cottage will also be open. Combined admission is 4.


Sometimes successful gardens come about almost by accident. Rather than following the perceived wisdom of a carefully constructed plan they evolve piecemeal with no final goal in sight. At Barn House, near Cheltenham, not only was there no design plan, its creator never even intended to make a garden.



When Shirley Sills and her husband Gordon took over the two-and-a-half acre walled plot 24 years ago, she visualised little more than a field for her two boys to play in and even today she is not sure what made her begin to garden.



"Something grabbed me," she says. "I don't know what."



She inherited a site that would have deterred many. A former market garden, it had 100 young apple trees and around 3,500 sq feet of asparagus. Realising she would never cope they were all removed and she began by making a small border.



"Then I decided to come out at right angles one day and it just went from there."



What has evolved is an intricate pattern of interlocking garden rooms, separated by hornbeam hedges or pergolas, the only remnant of the need to make a family space the 'Cricket Pitch' that still occupies the centre.



Around the house the emphasis is on late colour. Helenium, rudbeckia and melianthus are combined with euphorbia, astrantia, inula and geraniums. Grasses, including pennisetum and miscanthus are a recent introduction designed to carry the scheme on into autumn.



More mixed borders are found in the 'Rose Garden', named for the beautifully fragrant R. spinosissima and the area where Shirley started. Deep magenta Geranium psilostemon weaves its way through other plants including rich blue delphiniums and Iris 'Gerald Darby' with its purple stems. She is happy to let Euphorbia fens run through one border, allowing it to self-seed and pulling up what is not wanted.



"I cannot stand bare earth," she explains. "You always get a weed."



As expected with someone who cannot resist a new plant, the borders have been enlarged several times and, despite the size of the garden, she is always running out of space for new purchases.



She has learnt a lot by visiting other gardens and reading widely, particularly Rosemary Verey and Beth Chatto, who stressed the importance of foliage.



"It's why I've ended up with so many different colours as I did tend to plant things only for their form.



Thus one long border sees red lupins, yellow hemerocallis, and lemon Cephalaria gigantea, all held together by the formality of repeated box balls.



It is part of the design skill that sees this long rectangular space broken by the '45 degree pergola', so called because of the angle at which it is set, and the fact that the planting comes out into the lawn in a series of right angles.



"It gives movement through and a bit of formality. A wiggly border would not give the same effect."



Echoing this angular pattern is a raised L-shaped pool, known as the Frog Pond due to the frog sculpture at one end. The walls of the pond are decorated with old wine, gin and champagne bottles and pieces of ornamental stonework given to them by neighbours. It gives the pond individuality and injects some humour into the garden, something Shirley believes is essential.



"Once gardens were fun places but we've lost the humour in them. If you really want to make a good garden, put personality into it and make it something different."



Elsewhere she has place a stone apple under an old fruit tree, ornamental snails crawling around a bubbling urn fountain and replica ammonites in a path. Meanwhile, an otherwise dull Lonicera nitida has been sculpted into a face.



If the long borders are a riot of colour, the Yellow Garden is a far more restrained affair. Here, golden tones are mixed with white and silver, with little bits of red or blue just to break it up. The circular shape is divided into four beds and filled with honeysuckle, phlomis, hostas, iris, veronicastrum and roses. At the centre an arching metal sculpture is used as a support for climbing plants.



Tucked away behind tall hedges, the Scented Garden is a fragrant retreat. In early summer the display is predominantly white with night scented stocks, and Elaeagnus 'Quicksilver' almost overpowering with their perfume. There are roses, deep purple iris, lilies, pink and white lamium, self-sown verbascum, Viburnum carlesii and Daphne odora for winter. The formality of the clipped hedge is echoed in box balls that line the narrow paths.



Shirley is blessed with natural water in the garden, which has enabled her to make a bog garden. Once little more than a ditch, she has dug out the stream and filled the sides with moisture-loving plants, including candelabra primulas in ice cream shades, Persicaria bistorta, Darmera peltata, hostas, iris and lysimachia. There is gunnera, tiny mimulus, the false Solomon's Seal, Smilacina racemosa, and the tiny pool at one end is filled with water hawthorn. The water level in the blue clay-lined stream fluctuates and can flood in winter.



A recent addition to the garden was the result of needing to alter access for visitors. Deciding the entrance required more impact, Shirley has built raised beds from old railway sleepers and filled them with achillea, salvias and alliums in a loose pink, blue and pale yellow theme. Old Victorian paving echoes the colour of the walls.



Move on and you encounter 'Wood Henge', a circular arrangement of wooden posts encircling an urn. Despite encouragement to enter, many visitors carefully walk around it.



Indeed everywhere at Barn House you are encouraged to explore. Windows are cut into hedges to give glimpses of other areas and paths are deliberately placed to slightly obscure the view beyond. It is the work of someone with design skill, much of it learnt on the garden and landscape design degree course she completed a few years ago.



Now working as a garden designer, Shirley uses her garden as a trial ground, testing new plants, planting combinations or ways of building features. Many of them, while looking expensive, have been done cheaply, using sale items or by building them herself - she has completed a brick-laying course.



Although she maintains most of the structural work in the garden is now done, borders are constantly being revamped.



"It's never finished. Plants grow and need sorting, or you see a better combination."



It is hard work as the couple maintain the garden themselves and often work between six and eight hours a day during the summer, but it is something she adores.



"It satisfies my creative urge and I just love it."



Barn House, near Whittington, is open for the National Gardens Scheme on June 7 and 21 from 11-5pm. The neighbouring Garden Cottage will also be open. Combined admission is 4.

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