Garden case study: a colourful small garden

Julie and Tony Peckham have spent 16 years creating a vibrant outside space for their rural home

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Julie and Tony Peckham have spent 16 years creating a vibrant garden for their rural home. 

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Secluded garden area with seating

The first major job centred around the main path that leads from the patio doors at the back of the house to a focal point – an arbour built by Tony – on the opposite boundary. ‘Near the house, I wanted a formal feel with paths that were straight and wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side,’ Julie explains.

Further away, on the other side of an arch leading through a trellis divider, there’s a more informal, organic feel, with narrow, curving paths that lead around ponds. ‘I love the sound and sight of water,’ she adds.

Practical corner with wooden bridge

Originally the paths were grass, which proved hard to maintain. So, in 2008, they were replaced with block paving, a project that was like doing a three-dimensional jigsaw: Tony fetched and carried the blocks, and Julie laid them.

‘It was a challenge to create smooth curves, and Tony had to cut a lot of the paving blocks to fit — it was very time-consuming, but we are delighted with the end result,’ says Julie.

The soil is a rich, well-cultivated loam that was once farmland, and the plants thrive in it. Flowers feature throughout the garden, sometimes in collections – such as the blue grape hyacinths planted in terracotta pots beneath an old Bramley apple tree – or in combination. ‘I love the way the blue *macropetala clematis is scrambling through a white exochorda beside the house,’ says Julie.

Summerhouse painted blue

Her original scale drawings did not include planting plans. ‘I prefer to let things evolve, and move plants if necessary,’ she explains. ‘I’ve never been afraid to redo a border if it’s not working, or if the plants have outgrown their allotted space.’

This flexible approach works well, and as her interest in alpine plants has grown, two rock gardens have been added to accommodate them. Come spring, these feature pink aubretia, blue speedwell, primulas, diminutive phlox and saxifrage. ‘I like to grow early spring flowers,’ she says.

There are no fruits or vegetables in evidence, but the couple have an allotment nearby. ‘Julie’s philosophy is to grow plants that look nice,’ points out Tony, ‘whereas mine is to grow produce to eat or ferment — we make a fine raspberry vodka and grow blackcurrants for a liqueur.’

Shaped yew arch in garden

The smaller south-facing side garden measures eight by five metres. Originally it contained herbaceous plants, but it was blasted by winds. ‘We replanted it with a small parterre of low box hedging and created a water feature,’ says Julie.

Separated from the parterre by a wide entrance path, a shady spring border rests in the shelter of a privet hedge. It is planted with tough, low-growing spring- flowering plants, such as erythroniums, hepaticas, hellebores, windflowers and snowdrops, sheltered beneath trees and shrubs, such as star magnolia, contorted hazel, holly, viburnum, purple elder and a large flowering currant.

Project notes

Julie Peckham shares her experience of creating a character-filled garden

What I’ve learnt

‘Plan ahead. I am always thinking about different ways to improve the garden’s planting and structure, be it new bulbs for spring or hard landscaping projects. I’ve also discovered that you can’t fight nature, or the weather!’

My planting advice

‘As the garden has evolved, it has become more shaded, lending itself to a woodland style of planting. This suits me as my favourite season is spring, when many woodland plants are at their best. Spring also suits my interest in alpine plants, and I have designed specific areas for them. Beth Chatto’s philosophy of “right plant, right place” is good sense, but sometimes it’s worth giving things a try — you need to be prepared to lose them, though.’

My best buy

‘The summerhouse has really enhanced our enjoyment of the garden. We bought the basic shell in a sale as we liked the style, then customised it by replacing the original plain felt roof with felt shingles. Tony clad the interior with basic tongue-and-groove panelling and I painted it.’

My gardening tip

‘The best time to prune is when you have time — if the ideal time isn’t practical, near enough will do. Plants are very forgiving.’

I couldn’t live without…

‘…my Felco secateurs. After spending a long day in the garden, they almost need to be surgically removed from my hands.’

My favourite spot

‘Sitting in the summerhouse, sipping wine while watching the birds feeding in the apple tree. I also love the arbour, which gets the last of the evening sun.’

The costs

Summerhouse£3,000
Brick paving blocks£800
Fencing framework£500
Blubs£250
Metal wire bench£120
Wooden trellis timber£100
Stone bird bath£25
Wooden slatted chair and table£25
TOTAL£4,820

The contacts

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