Perfectly formed

PUBLISHED: 14:29 13 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:51 20 February 2013

Perfectly formed

Perfectly formed

Humour underlies one of the Cotswolds' more creative gardens<br/><br/>Words and photography by Mandy Bradshaw

Perfectly formed

Humour underlies one of the Cotswolds more creative gardens

Words and photography by Mandy Bradshaw

With features that include a woodland walk and boathouse, it would be easy to picture Frogs Nest as a typical large English garden of rolling lawns and long herbaceous borders. In fact it is one of the National Gardens Schemes smaller members. Yet what it lacks in size it makes up for in innovative design, providing inspiration on a scale that is comfortable for most NGS visitors.

The gardens Yellow Book entry admits to a tongue-in-cheek view of its attractions and this sense of fun is apparent throughout the Honeybourne plot. Namesake frogs poke out of foliage or lounge atop gateposts, and many of the garden structures are little more than tricks, designed to give the illusion of greater space.

This determination to overcome the limitations of size underpins the garden and has been the driving force behind its creation over the past 34 years by Nina and Steven Bullen. Much of it has been inspired by visiting other gardens, although that can have its drawbacks: The problem is when you go to big gardens you come back with big ideas, admits Steve.

The skill lies in scaling that down to the proportions of what is a small garden, keeping the big idea but making it workable within a confined space.

The couple started with a more or less blank canvas: grass, a few conifers and two chestnuts, one in the front garden and one in the back. The front chestnut was quickly removed as they felt it was too close to the road and this area has now been banked and planted with shrubs and perennials, such as sedum and pyracantha.

It gives us privacy and stops vehicles driving onto the garden, explains Steve.

To begin with the garden was designed as a playground for their two children: stout gates provided security and there was mainly grass with just a few borders.

We gradually ate away at the lawn and reduced the size of it.

Today, although the two front areas of grass are referred to as the long lawn and the small lawn both are in reality little more than foils to the planting, which has a relaxed feel this is a garden that tolerates self-seeding and even the occasional wild flower.

We allow what many people call weeds to grow. We allow them to do what they want until theyre doing it too much or in the wrong place.

A pair of herbaceous beds flanks the long lawn, with shrubs and trees, including acers, euonymus and cotinus, giving year-round structure and obelisks covered in roses and clematis adding height.

Copper beech hedges frame the entrance to the garden and a pair of yews, which are being gradually shaped into cubes, give a touch of formality.

Not an inch is wasted: hedges and shrubs are pruned high to allow shade-tolerant plants, such as geraniums and euphorbia, to grow underneath, climbers, such as Rosa Seagull, cascade out of trees; paths are squeezed between plants that are kept clipped to allow access and everywhere there are bulbs for spring colour.

The Woodland Walk is in reality a small collection of trees fringing a rustic brick path. Woven hurdles screening the neighbouring garden add to the rural feel and shade-lovers are used as ground cover.

Meanwhile, the boathouse, named after the building in a large Sussex garden that inspired it, is actually an enclosed seat, not unlike one end of a boat in shape. The A-frame shape not only provides privacy from the nearby road but also helps to support the weight of shrubs that form a shelterbelt. Inside, a mirror reflects the garden, giving the impression of more space.

Indeed, the use of mirrors a seat in the rear garden also has one and a third is set into a fence behind a false window are one of the more straightforward tricks the garden employs. By far the most audacious is the shed that appears to run alongside the house. In fact it is little more than a pair of doors, leaded windows and a shingled roof attached to the fence. Just like a stage flat it gives the impression of something more substantial, the deception made even more effective by old tins and bottles placed inside the windows. It has even fooled a family friend who tried to open the door to leave a parcel inside.

It was constructed as a means of hiding a real shed in a neighbours garden: It was driven by the need to do something, says Steve.

Trellis would have been obvious thing to do but I wanted to create something different and give privacy.

Major projects like this are Steves main contribution to the garden: Nina is the soul of the garden. She chooses the plants. Im responsible for overall design, trees and lawns and the structural side of it. When Ive done something Nina softens it with plants.

One of his most recent projects is a playhouse for their granddaughters that cleverly combines fairytale house with tool shed and somewhere to overwinter the couples tandem. Old-fashioned pinks and pots of bright dahlias add to the spectacle.

Its nice to be able to create something a bit magical in the garden.

The back garden was a challenging northeast-facing site, cold, dark and wet in the winter and bone dry in summer. These obstacles have been overcome by turning a large area over to two pools, constructed to look as though they are one. The ponds are softened by marginal planting, including iris, carex and the cultivated mares tail, Equisetum scirpoides.

Around them, mixed beds including sedum, heuchera, geranium, euphorbia and helianthus add to the lush feel. Its an area that is used year-round as a deep, sheltered porch offers protection from the weather.

Again, care has been taken to increase the feeling of space. Graceful silver birch screen overhead lines without overcrowding the plot; paving slabs have been set on the diagonal emphasising the gardens longest axis.

In one corner stands the surviving chestnut, now a magnificent specimen and at one time home to a tree house for the couples son. Thats the nice thing about being in the same house for some time, you accumulate memories.

Yet, this feeling of shared history does not mean they are stuck in the past and the garden is constantly changing as things need repairing I never believe in just repainting something without thinking about what I would do if I started again or new ideas are incorporated. In recent months the Woodland Walk has been revamped with the addition of several new trees, including liquidambar and a weeping Himalayan cedar, the collection of silver birch has been extended and the gazebo rebuilt.

Theres always a major project going on admits Steve. Major, but perfectly in proportion.

Frogs Nest, Honeybourne, near Evesham, is open on September 30 from 11-5pm for the National Gardens Scheme. Admission is 3; children enter free.

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