To create an area full of interesting planting and hidden corners, Keith Dixon and Pam Bryning worked hard to transform their outdoor space.
The owners: Keith Dixon and his partner Pam Bryning, who are both retired
When we moved into our house, we were faced with an unusual problem,’ recalls Keith. ‘We were overun with dozens of toads! There was a large pond in the garden, and while I’m all for encouraging wildlife, frogs and toads were running riot.’
Eventually Keith decided to fill in the pond and turn it into a sheltered seating area, but not before he had completely transformed the rest of the garden from an uninspiring layout of over-sized patio and dry lawn into a sanctuary of secret corners, pathways and layered planting.
The garden transformation would be a long-term labour of love for Keith and partner Pam, who moved to their home in 1998. Although encompassed by birch trees and conifers, the garden seemed at odds with its surroundings. ‘It all felt a bit haphazard,’ says Keith. The aim was to create a garden that would complement its setting close to a park and woodland.
After drawing up a rough design, the first thing to go was the large patio area, which looked out of proportion next to the house. ‘It looked like a runway,’ says Keith. ‘We only needed enough room for a small table and chairs and a few potted plants, so we decided to halve the size of the patio.’
Keith then extended the lawn and broke up the discarded patio stones, which he would later use to build raised beds around the garden periphery. Keith didn’t want to be able to see the entire garden from any corner, so he created curved borders and broke up the lawn with smaller beds. ‘I pieced together the broken flagstones like a jigsaw puzzle,’ says Keith. ‘I then filled the beds with top soil, plus 30 trailer loads of horse manure from a local riding stable, which I rotted down before spreading.’
At this point the pond featured a huge pampas grass that dominated the garden. Keith decided to remove it and develop the pond area by creating more raised borders and planting evergreen shrubs. This way he would be able to create a central focal point while dividing the garden into two very distinct sections.
As the garden began to take shape, Keith created winding paths to link the areas and built wooden arches for climbers to trail over to frame the pathways. ‘Once the basic structure of the garden was established, we started to develop the planting,’ says Keith. ‘The aim was to have colour throughout the summer and layers of green throughout the winter. We wanted the garden to be low-maintenance, but there will always be something to dig, prune or plant. It’s constantly evolving.’
Keith has been a keen gardener most of his life, and believes it was his upbringing that inspired him. ‘Growing up in the countryside, I learnt a lot from my father, who was a keen gardener. During the war we grew a lot of our own vegetables – there was nothing quite like harvesting potatoes we had grown ourselves and then eating them fresh that day,’ he says.
Keith admits that he still has plenty to learn and a lot of his success has been down to trial and error. ‘I still plant things that grow too big for their location, or try to grow things that don’t take,’ he confesses. ‘I move plants around if they don’t work.’
Some plantings have actually proved too successful – a Rambling Rector climbing rose is so rampant that it has spread to trees that line a footpath beyond the couple’s garden. Keith also recently dug up a whole bed of rose bushes that had become too old and woody to salvage. In its place is a cottage garden filled with foxgloves, African marigolds, Sweet Williams, busy Lizzies, petunias, dahlias, geraniums, Verbascum, Penstomen and Michelmas daisies.
The garden is largely made up of layers of evergreens, from ground-covering plants to shrubs, climbers and trees, which gives the design architectural form, as well as privacy and year-round colour. Keith and Pam have made some huge savings by cultivating most plants from seeds or cuttings. ‘I like variety, without it looking too contrived,’ says Keith. ‘I never plant things in straight rows. Everything is packed in and encouraged to find its own level so that it looks as natural as possible.’
Two years ago, Keith decided to drain and fill the pond and create a small water feature and sunken seating area in its place, sheltered from the the winds and the midday sun. Keith makes his own wooden benches and structures, including the summerhouse that is tucked away in one corner. ‘Pam and I tried to grow all kinds of things in that corner but it doesn’t receive enough sunlight, so in the end I built a summerhouse around some old windows we already had,’ says Keith. ‘It’s lovely to sit on the little veranda and enjoy breakfast or a cup of coffee in the summer.’
The couple have limited space for growing vegetables, so they bought a small greenhouse to grow tomatoes and peppers in, and Keith has made wooden containers for growing potatoes and runner beans.
‘It’s not a huge garden,’ says Keith, ‘but there is plenty to look at. Even when we are not gardening, we spend a lot of time just enjoying the views. The best thing about the garden is that it’s always evolving, yet there’s always a balance of colour, shape and structure. It brings us closer to nature and reminds me of everything I enjoyed about growing up in the countryside.’