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Mary Keen's Winter garden

PUBLISHED: 10:19 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Snowdrops are a winter highlight

Snowdrops are a winter highlight

Garden writer and designer Mary Keen's Cotswold garden sparkles even in winter. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Creating a good winter garden is full of pitfalls for the unwary. Fill your plot with attention-grabbing rarities and you run the risk of making a garden with an all too brief sparkle, while relying on design tricks can result in something wooden and artificial. The Old Rectory neatly sidesteps these traps, beautifully illustrating how restrained design and commonly grown plants used well make a winning combination.



Created by designer and writer Mary Keen over the past 13 years, the garden has been carved out of what at first appeared to be an unpromising site. Set on a slope in a tranquil part of Duntisbourne Rous, the original garden was unappealing, with cars parked up to the front door and conifers dominating the planting. What is now the Kitchen Garden was a wilderness, the Summer Garden was home to a bright blue swimming pool and a slope near the house was planted with heathers and hypericum, culminating in a formal rose bed.



"I thought it was going to be difficult to make a garden here," admits Mary. "I did it fairly gradually - not the way I work for other people. I wanted to slowly get a garden."



Today, the two-and-a-half-acre plot is divided into separate areas, either by clipped yew hedges, or by changes in level. Arches cut into the hedges give views of the garden beyond, while glimpses of upper terraces entice you to explore.



The first hint of something special is the sight of drifts of cyclamen, aconites and snowdrops alongside the gravel drive, which neatly sweeps cars away to a hidden parking area, leaving the front of the house open. Here, there are now long views over lawn to distant fields.



Indeed, the key to the garden is its setting, surrounded by open countryside and alongside a beautiful listed church. There is enough clipped formality to give good winter structure, but not enough to destroy the essentially rural atmosphere of the plot.



"I am interested in what a place feels like rather than what it looks like," explains Mary. "I try to make a garden be itself. I want it to fee comfortable, as though it's always been there.



"I do get crazes for plants but I'm not into high horticulture."



So, rather than a high-maintenance, carefully crafted 'potager', The Old Vicarage boasts an informal Kitchen Garden. Grass paths surround wide beds of beans, raspberries and rhubarb, and snowdrops stud the grass under old fruit trees. The area is also home to the family's chickens - the subject of several of Mary's Telegraph newspaper articles - which scratch around among the fruit and vegetables.



"They are completely delightful but not helpful in a garden whatever people say. They are unbelievably mess by but I love them."



The orchard, a favourite place to eat during the summer, has a similarly restful feel. A rambler rose scrambles through one tree and the early season brings Crocus tommasinianus and snowdrops.



"I've put in doubles as where you've got a big long view and you're not looking closely, they are better."



Later, narcissi will replace these early performers.



Successional planting also underpins the Wild Garden - one of Mary's favourite areas. Here, there is a sense of enclosure as species malus and crataegus and shrubs encircle a grassy hollow. The early part of the year sees limey green hellebores, aconites, leucojum, ferns and naturalised Galanthus gracilis, with its twisted petals.



Spring belongs to anemones and pale yellow primroses, summer to species roses, such as R. webbiana, while autumn brings hips and berries.



The danger in creating a rural garden is allowing informality to descend into a general untidiness. It is something Mary is determined to avoid and great attention is paid to detail: hedges are kept clipped; borders are regularly forked over.



She is disdainful of those who believe the dead stems of perennials should be kept for winter interest.



"I cannot believe people say they love dead asters. We never have a frost and it's always sopping wet and nothing but brown."



Her borders are ruthlessly cut back - even more delicate specimens, such as Salvia 'Blue Enigma'.



"In a garden like this you cannot leave dead stuff standing," she explains. "I take masses of cuttings and it will come from the bottom."



Likewise, she spends a lot of time in January and February, 'dewhiskering' the borders, removing dead and dying foliage from perennials and from around emerging bulbs.



"I think in winter you can be very tidy, it's the only time when you can really keep on top of things."



Yet, some things escape the secateurs: buddleia is left unpruned for as long as possible so that the new silver foliage can be enjoyed.



"I don't prune it when everybody says you should as I just love seeing the leaves now, it is such a bonus at this time of year."



Indeed, many of her plants are chosen because they offer more than one season of interest. The sheltered gravel area at the front of the house provides ideal conditions for romneya, as good now for its foliage as for its poached egg flowers in summer, while nearby Phlomis chrysophylla is equally handsome.



Clematis orientalis 'Sherriffii' growing against the old schoolhouse has beautiful fluffy seedheads and the crisp emerging foliage of hemerocallis in the bed below is the perfect partner for snowdrops, cyclamen, pulmonaria and winter jasmine.



Throughout the garden there are similar easy to copy plant combinations. A difficult bank becomes a spring star with drifts of the scented snowdrop G. 'S Arnott' mingling with ferns and periwinkle - the latter is cut back hard each year to allow the snowdrops to be seen. Once the show is over, the area reverts to cool gloom.



Elsewhere, a path ends in clouds of scent - thanks to winter honeysuckle, daphne and mahonia - and a view of the neighbouring church.



Meanwhile, a simple combination of grass and clipped yew near the house is enlivened in spring by hundreds of Crocus 'Vanguard' and Tulipa sylvestris.



There are also individual 'treasures' to spot: the early daffodil N. Rijnveld's Early Sensation', Ribes laurifolium, with its striking green racemes of flowers, and the red-berried Sarcococca ruscifolia, growing opposite the more commonly seen black variety.



And it is this thought-provoking nature that Mary wants to cultivate: "I want people to go on thinking about the garden after they leave."



The Old Vicarage, Duntisbourne Rous has its first opening of 2009 for the National Gardens Scheme on Monday February 9 from 11am to 5pm. Admission is 3.50.


Creating a good winter garden is full of pitfalls for the unwary. Fill your plot with attention-grabbing rarities and you run the risk of making a garden with an all too brief sparkle, while relying on design tricks can result in something wooden and artificial. The Old Rectory neatly sidesteps these traps, beautifully illustrating how restrained design and commonly grown plants used well make a winning combination.



Created by designer and writer Mary Keen over the past 13 years, the garden has been carved out of what at first appeared to be an unpromising site. Set on a slope in a tranquil part of Duntisbourne Rous, the original garden was unappealing, with cars parked up to the front door and conifers dominating the planting. What is now the Kitchen Garden was a wilderness, the Summer Garden was home to a bright blue swimming pool and a slope near the house was planted with heathers and hypericum, culminating in a formal rose bed.



"I thought it was going to be difficult to make a garden here," admits Mary. "I did it fairly gradually - not the way I work for other people. I wanted to slowly get a garden."



Today, the two-and-a-half-acre plot is divided into separate areas, either by clipped yew hedges, or by changes in level. Arches cut into the hedges give views of the garden beyond, while glimpses of upper terraces entice you to explore.



The first hint of something special is the sight of drifts of cyclamen, aconites and snowdrops alongside the gravel drive, which neatly sweeps cars away to a hidden parking area, leaving the front of the house open. Here, there are now long views over lawn to distant fields.



Indeed, the key to the garden is its setting, surrounded by open countryside and alongside a beautiful listed church. There is enough clipped formality to give good winter structure, but not enough to destroy the essentially rural atmosphere of the plot.



"I am interested in what a place feels like rather than what it looks like," explains Mary. "I try to make a garden be itself. I want it to fee comfortable, as though it's always been there.



"I do get crazes for plants but I'm not into high horticulture."



So, rather than a high-maintenance, carefully crafted 'potager', The Old Vicarage boasts an informal Kitchen Garden. Grass paths surround wide beds of beans, raspberries and rhubarb, and snowdrops stud the grass under old fruit trees. The area is also home to the family's chickens - the subject of several of Mary's Telegraph newspaper articles - which scratch around among the fruit and vegetables.



"They are completely delightful but not helpful in a garden whatever people say. They are unbelievably mess by but I love them."



The orchard, a favourite place to eat during the summer, has a similarly restful feel. A rambler rose scrambles through one tree and the early season brings Crocus tommasinianus and snowdrops.



"I've put in doubles as where you've got a big long view and you're not looking closely, they are better."



Later, narcissi will replace these early performers.



Successional planting also underpins the Wild Garden - one of Mary's favourite areas. Here, there is a sense of enclosure as species malus and crataegus and shrubs encircle a grassy hollow. The early part of the year sees limey green hellebores, aconites, leucojum, ferns and naturalised Galanthus gracilis, with its twisted petals.



Spring belongs to anemones and pale yellow primroses, summer to species roses, such as R. webbiana, while autumn brings hips and berries.



The danger in creating a rural garden is allowing informality to descend into a general untidiness. It is something Mary is determined to avoid and great attention is paid to detail: hedges are kept clipped; borders are regularly forked over.



She is disdainful of those who believe the dead stems of perennials should be kept for winter interest.



"I cannot believe people say they love dead asters. We never have a frost and it's always sopping wet and nothing but brown."



Her borders are ruthlessly cut back - even more delicate specimens, such as Salvia 'Blue Enigma'.



"In a garden like this you cannot leave dead stuff standing," she explains. "I take masses of cuttings and it will come from the bottom."



Likewise, she spends a lot of time in January and February, 'dewhiskering' the borders, removing dead and dying foliage from perennials and from around emerging bulbs.



"I think in winter you can be very tidy, it's the only time when you can really keep on top of things."



Yet, some things escape the secateurs: buddleia is left unpruned for as long as possible so that the new silver foliage can be enjoyed.



"I don't prune it when everybody says you should as I just love seeing the leaves now, it is such a bonus at this time of year."



Indeed, many of her plants are chosen because they offer more than one season of interest. The sheltered gravel area at the front of the house provides ideal conditions for romneya, as good now for its foliage as for its poached egg flowers in summer, while nearby Phlomis chrysophylla is equally handsome.



Clematis orientalis 'Sherriffii' growing against the old schoolhouse has beautiful fluffy seedheads and the crisp emerging foliage of hemerocallis in the bed below is the perfect partner for snowdrops, cyclamen, pulmonaria and winter jasmine.



Throughout the garden there are similar easy to copy plant combinations. A difficult bank becomes a spring star with drifts of the scented snowdrop G. 'S Arnott' mingling with ferns and periwinkle - the latter is cut back hard each year to allow the snowdrops to be seen. Once the show is over, the area reverts to cool gloom.



Elsewhere, a path ends in clouds of scent - thanks to winter honeysuckle, daphne and mahonia - and a view of the neighbouring church.



Meanwhile, a simple combination of grass and clipped yew near the house is enlivened in spring by hundreds of Crocus 'Vanguard' and Tulipa sylvestris.



There are also individual 'treasures' to spot: the early daffodil N. Rijnveld's Early Sensation', Ribes laurifolium, with its striking green racemes of flowers, and the red-berried Sarcococca ruscifolia, growing opposite the more commonly seen black variety.



And it is this thought-provoking nature that Mary wants to cultivate: "I want people to go on thinking about the garden after they leave."



The Old Vicarage, Duntisbourne Rous has its first opening of 2009 for the National Gardens Scheme on Monday February 9 from 11am to 5pm. Admission is 3.50.


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