Maximising a sloping garden

Maximise a sloping garden by planning different zones to make the plot a success

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‘We chose our bungalow because of its wide third-of-an-acre plot, as we didn’t want a long, narrow garden,’ recalls Margaret. ‘The garden was a bit of a mess, with a large clump of dead bamboo, some old apple trees, an awful lawn and an old vegetable patch at the top, but it had potential.’

When Margaret and her partner Terry – both former cabin crew who had met and worked on Concorde – moved to Surrey in 1988, they were looking for a large garden. Set on a south-facing slope with sandy soil and a sunny aspect, the plot was a blank canvas ready for them to put their stamp on.

After living with the space as it was for a few years, the garden that Margaret had in mind began to evolve, and the couple knew this was a project they could do themselves, without help from designers or contractors.

‘I have a passion for gardening, inspired by my parents,’ says Margaret. ‘I have wonderful memories of visits to the tiny parterre at Hampton Court Palace, which was just perfect to a small child. Terry, on the other hand, has come to like gardening as we worked on this project.’

Fact file

  • The owners:  Margaret Arnott and Terry Bartholomew, who are retired
  • The property: A bungalow, built in 1955, with a third-of-an-acre garden
  • The location: Cobham, Surrey
  • What they spent: The couple’s garden project cost around £16,000

Planning the design

The design of the garden took shape gradually over several years, with Margaret keeping a journal of the process. ‘We planned it bit by bit, working from the bottom up,’ she explains. ‘I knew what features I wanted to incorporate and tried to plan it out in detail on paper.’

First, the existing grass was removed and the garden rotavated. Large areas of soil were moved to create terraced levels, and retaining walls were then built to form different areas, including herbaceous, woodland and formal sections.

Terry added paving throughout the garden, in particular widening the existing terrace behind the house. Generous curved steps were created, leading up to the garden, as well as new pathways made from reconstituted Cotswold stone.

Dividing the garden

With the basic framework in place, the garden could then be divided up into areas, which included marking out curvaceous beds, designating the woodland area and realising Margaret’s longed-for parterre. ‘We worked on the layout gradually so we had time to think things through,’ she says.

The formal parterre, a highlight of the garden, was laid out with four beds edged with clipped box, set around a tiny central brick-edged bed complete with a sundial and interlinking gravel and stone paths. Terry also built two small circular ponds and a summerhouse of his own design by recycling materials from an existing shed and summerhouse, as well as using pressure-treated timber for the roof and to add a deck.

Planting for structure

The only plants that remained in the garden were an Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree), an amelanchier, a holly and a laurel, so the couple had the challenge of planting the whole space. The aim was to create a garden of year-round interest, with exuberant planting mixed with formality, and to be economical by using young plants, growing on seeds, as well as using cuttings from friends and family – ‘a total experiment of trial and error,’ admits Margaret.

To provide structure, the couple planted lots of evergreens, such as Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ and ‘Irene Paterson’, Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’, Choisya ternata, pyracanthas and yew. ‘When we moved in, I wanted every plant on the planet, but I have learnt to be selective and not to fight the soil and site conditions,’ says Margaret. Early mistakes included planting ivy to disguise fence panels, as it soon got out of control and had to be removed. Lots of plants have been added over time, many of which are easy to maintain, such as daisies, phlox, rudbeckias, hardy geraniums and poppies. ‘We started with purple poppies, then added red ones, and over time these hardy annuals keep coming up and have interbred, creating a mix of vibrant colour,’ she adds.

Summer outdoor space

Herbaceous perennials are in abundance in summer, along with roses and carefully placed arrangements of urns brimming with hostas, colourful begonias and pelargoniums. There are also sculptural details dotted throughout, and several seating areas to take in the views. ‘We love the summerhouse for morning coffee, then follow the sun to the stone circle for afternoon tea and the patio for dinner.’

Since retiring, Margaret and Terry have had even more time to dedicate to their passion. ‘After careers working as cabin crew, with lots of people and no fresh air, we now have lots of fresh air and no people!’ says Margaret. After entering BBC Gardener of the Year in 2000 and being selected as a regional finalist, the couple decided to open the garden through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), and now welcome visitors to share their outdoor space. ‘We really enjoy meeting garden lovers and most people can’t believe that we have done everything ourselves,’ says Margaret. ‘It was hard work, but our garden now looks beautiful every day.’

Heathside is open as part of the NGS ( and visitors are also welcome by appointment. Call 01372 842459 or email for details.

The costs

Hard landscaping materials£5,000