Pauline and Brian Clark’s steep hillside garden has evolved slowly, as time, money and hard work has brought each new idea to fruition.
The owners: Brian and Pauline Clark (right0, a retired insurance claims broker and hairdresser respectively.
When visitors see our front garden, they’ve no idea what lies behind, and it’s always a surprise when they come through our side alley and see the back garden for the first time,’ says Pauline. ‘Running down to a terrace immediately outside the back of the house, the plot is steep and narrow. We’ve designed the paths to go across the space, rather than in a straight line, and that makes the garden seem wider and more spacious than it is.’
With its paths meandering through the flowerbeds, seating areas and imaginative containers, the garden packs in plenty of interesting features, and the steep plot has been turned into an advantage. ‘It brings the garden nearer the house, where it’s framed by the kitchen window, so every day I can see how the plants change with the seasons,’ explains Pauline. ‘However, it means we can’t plant large trees or shrubs in case they overshadow other plants. The greatest difficulty gardening on a plot with such a steep slope is that we can’t use a wheelbarrow – everything has to be carried by hand.’
This made the task of improving the impenetrable clay ground especially hard, because countless bags of manure and compost have had to be carried up the steep steps since 1980, when the couple moved in. ‘At that time, the garden was a blank canvas, and we’ve since developed it in phases – I’d never have come up with all the ideas in one go,’ says Pauline.
The couple’s first job was to level an area outside the back door for a terrace, then build retaining walls and steps up to the south-west-facing garden. It then developed slowly until their children had left home and Brian had retired, so could devote time to the heavy labour involved. ‘By then, I had gathered lots of ideas from garden visits and a folder of pictures from magazines, so we could really focus on the garden,’ says Pauline.
There are now four distinct areas in the space. Steps ascend from the back terrace to a level courtyard that is designed as three interlinking circles, made from paving, tiles, brick and gravel – an idea adapted from a picture Pauline saved from a magazine. ‘I thought it would be interesting to use brick around the perimeter, with gravel to lighten the colour. Then we added the inner circle, made by laying tiles on edge,’ she explains.
The paving is edged in Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Rosa Mundi, hardy geraniums ‘Nimbus’ and ‘Rozanne’, box balls and golden oats (Stipa gigantea). Pink opium poppies self-seed in the gravel, returning every year without fail. The courtyard is overlooked by a stone seat on squirrel bases at one side and, on the opposite side, an arbour covered in the climbing roses ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Golden Showers’.
Beside the arbour, the cow parsley-type pink flowers of Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’ partially veil the views to the house. ‘It’s a useful plant and self-seeds everywhere,’ says Pauline. It stands at the heart of a carefully arranged planting scheme including roses, foxgloves, bamboo and Verbena bonariensis. ‘I’m very careful with plant heights, preferring standards, half-standards and low edging plants,’ Pauline adds
The pink colouring is echoed at the centre of one of the circles by a clump of sea pinks (Armeria Joystick Series) next to an antique urn. ‘One ornament can lift an entire area of the garden,’ says Pauline. The sea pinks overshadow succulents spilling out of a ceramic cup and saucer resting among the small daisy-like flowers of Erigeron karvinskianus. Some of the plants come from garden centres, while others were swapped with fellow members of the Hardy Plant Society.
From the courtyard, an archway leads to an area of herbaceous and rose beds around a lawn. Pauline has planted climbing roses ‘Iceberg’, ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘Queen Mother’ along the right-hand fence, drawing the eye upwards. Between the fence and lawn, a drought-tolerant gravel bed is planted with Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, Carex comans ‘Bronze Form’, liatris, sedum, scabious, Lambs’ Ears, Sisyrinchium and opium poppies. A three-tiered, topiary shape expertly clipped from buckthorn is a reminder of Pauline’s hairdressing skills.
The pathway leads to the top of the plot, where an ivy-clad arbour screens a shed. Below this, the rockery and wildlife pond proved a nightmare to dig out. ‘We had to carry the solid clay down the garden in bags and dump it in the tip,’ recalls Pauline.
A summerhouse on the opposite side catches the morning sun and offers views over the rooftops into St Leonard’s Forest. Installing it was a huge task, with the slabs and building (in sections) being brought through the narrow alley beside the house, and up the slope. ‘It was worth the effort,’ says Pauline. It’s a lovely spot for sitting and watching the birds that feed in our garden.
‘On our charity open days, we’ll have up to 18 people sitting in the garden at any one time,’ she continues. ‘We’ve enjoyed creating this garden, and it’s lovely to share it.’
The garden at Ben’s Acre, Horsham, Sussex opens in aid of the National Gardens Scheme (Ngs.org.uk) on 28 June and 23 August 2014 (1-5pm), admission £3.50 (children free).