‘Previously, we had moved every two or three years, but in 2002 we were looking for our long-term home,’ says Eileen. ‘When we saw this cottage nestled behind a church, we knew it was the one immediately. There was no garden really – just a lollipop bay tree by the front door, and a hebe – but we could see the potential.’
The setting of Candlemass Cottage, on an unmade lane, is quintessentially English. An ivy-clad arched gate leads into the garden, where roses drape over supports and an assortment of cottage favourites meet the eye, including lupins, daisies, foxgloves and delphiniums, as the view of the picturesque brick and tile-hung property unfolds. ‘We wanted the cottage to look nestled in, as if the surrounding garden had always been there,’ Eileen says.
Having retired from the antiques trade, Eileen and Phil have an eye for pieces that give personality to a space. Add to this Eileen’s love of working with textiles, from samplers to patchwork quilts, and a passion for gardening since childhood, and you see how this eclectic garden came into being.
- The owners: Eileen and Phil Prosser, who are both retired from the antiques busines
- The property: A 17th-century cottage on a third-of-an-acre plot with Edwardian garden sections
- The location: Kingsnorth, Kent
- What they spent: The couple’s garden project cost around £18,000
Created from a blank canvas, the garden surrounds the house on three sides, with a cottage style to the front and a more formal layout to the back. With the church on the west side where the winds usually come from, and the placement of laurel hedging, the site is quite protected. The various aspects, including the south-facing rear garden and manageable loamy soil, have allowed a variety of different plants to thrive.
Spending most days out in the garden whatever the weather, the couple work as a team, indulging in their shared interest.
‘We are not great at planning; the garden has just evolved. When you have a creative eye, each time you do something it leads on to seeing another potential,’ says Eileen. ‘Between us the ideas keep flowing. Phil tends to have a more formal idea and likes wooded areas, while I am more “country cottage” and love an array of flowers.’
Although it is a relatively small plot of just under a third-of-an-acre, a journey has been created through the garden with the planting and structural elements, change of textures underfoot, and clipped hedging and topiary. There are even secret areas to be discovered beyond archways smothered with climbers.
Starting with hard landscaping to give shape to the layout, Phil built a series of pergolas, arches, supports, fencing and a potting shed. ‘He also laid a winding path using bricks sourced from the local salvage yard. It goes from the gate to the front door and continues around the house so we don’t have to walk on the grass. In addition, he used reclaimed bricks to form a terrace at the rear,’ says Eileen. The couple also used slabs of reconstituted Yorkstone as pavers.
Seating is incorporated throughout. ‘We sit in the front garden to have afternoon tea, when the sun streams across at its hottest and brings out the fragrance of the cottage flowers. The back terrace is our place for morning coffee, and we have our final cup of tea of the day in the gravel garden, where we get the last of the sun,’ says Eileen.
‘In the far right-hand corner of the rear garden is the summerhouse, which we built 10 years ago. I wanted one that wasn’t too enclosed, with lots of windows to see the garden; somewhere to do my sewing and to go and relax,’ she continues. ‘We painted it green and filled it with an old sofa and wicker chairs, then hung botanical pictures on the walls. It’s lovely sitting outside it on a Sunday morning, listening to the choir singing in the church.’
Planting is extensive, generally sourced from local garden centres. The couple are loyal customers of Hancocks Nursery, also set in a cottage garden down a country lane. ‘We mostly buy small plants rather than seed, as I am fairly impatient. I have probably spent £12,000 on plants over the last 12 years. I know that sounds a lot, but roughly £20 a week goes on some plant or shrub, or something that catches the eye,’ says Eileen. ‘For us, visiting the garden centre is like being a child in a sweet shop.’
As befitting the cottage style, the garden has an abundant feel. Graceful acers draw the eye, as does a tiered Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ and a number of wonderful viburnums, including the more unusual davidii, carlesii and burkwoodii.
Over 50 roses and 25 clematis feature through the garden, covering the cottage walls, supports and arches. Some of the loveliest roses include wine-purple ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’, scented ‘Albertine’, clear pink ‘Perpetue’, the vigorous old favourite ‘Ena Harkness’, ‘Rambling Rosie’, which is still in flower into November, and the creamy white ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’.
‘I love all the perennials, especially geums that stand tall with their little bobbing flowers – and every cottage garden must have foxgloves,’ Eileen adds.
Plants are also propagated from cuttings, such as Erysimum (perennial wallflowers), which get woody and need replacing regularly, to increase stock, and then grown on drainpipes and containers out of sight beside the house, before a spot is found to display them.
Detailing is eclectic, with vintage painted watering cans dangling from a pergola by the house; containers are of various kinds; and peeping out of a border is a topiary teddy bear. ‘We have grown most of the topiary ourselves out of our shrubs,’ says Eileen. ‘A Viburnum tinus is now a teapot; Lonicera forms a chicken and teddy bear, and we have some balls of box. Statuary and other pieces are sourced from antiques shops, garden centres or online.’
Keeping the garden looking good is a never-ending task for the couple. ‘Every evening we walk around together, secateurs in hand — we don’t get very far before seeing something to snip,’ says Eileen.
‘It took until its fifth year for the garden to begin to look like the picture we had in our mind’s eye,’ she adds. ‘The whole space has our personality on it — from the arched gate and the winding paths to vistas and secret shady areas. It’s an oasis of tranquility and the place where I am happiest.’
Eileen Prosser shares her experience of creating an eclectic cottage garden
What I’ve learnt
‘Phil and I work well together as a team, not necessarily planning the garden, but just evolving it together. Combining his formal ideas with my creative eye and love of exuberant cottage garden plants, each time we do something it leads to the next idea. We wanted to create a garden where the cottage looks as if it belongs. A garden should make you feel as though you’ve entered a privileged space and I think we have achieved that.’
My planting advice
‘Propagate some of your own flowers. We take cuttings from perennial wallflowers and clematis, for example, and use biodegradable cardboard pots that we can plant directly into the garden. Use some grit in the potting compost, because as you push the cutting in it slightly scores the stem and makes it strike easier. Plug plants can be used to fill gaps in the borders.’
‘We have added detail with found objects and statuary to create an eclectic scheme. Due to our background in the antiques market, we enjoy finding interesting pieces sourced from antiques shops, garden centres and online. We found inspiration for using colour boldly from visiting Great Dixter in Sussex. The formal low hedges and topiary add some structure to the loose cottage planting. To get a more natural effect and greater impact, we plant in odd numbers — threes or fives of something. Don’t be afraid to plant some taller plants to pop up in the front and middle of the border, not just at the back.’
My best buy
‘Our much-loved summerhouse, which we bought 10 years ago, is our best structural purchase. It has lots of windows to see the garden, isn’t too enclosed and is somewhere to go and relax. We furnished it with old Lloyd Loom chairs, textiles and botanical prints. It’s lovely sitting inside or outside.’
My go-to stores
‘Aside from our local nursery, Hancocks, we like to visit Symonds Salvage in Bethersden. It’s a real treasure trove for reclaimed building materials and collectibles.’
My top tip
‘Don’t make a cottage garden too uniform. A garden is a personal thing and is forever evolving – it’s never really finished and you are always finding out new things. No matter how much you plan, you will make mistakes; that is how you learn. ’
|Hard landscaping materials||£2,000|
|Pots and planters||£400|
|Pergolas and arches||£400|