Gardens Illustrated
The sheltered Gravel Garden where owners Nick and Louise Killen can sit among mounds of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and the floating heads of Cenolophium denudatum and enjoy a view to the church where they married. The stone Farrowing House is now Nick’s office.

Creating the perfect Somerset family garden

Published: July 27, 2021 at 5:08 pm

Garden designer Alison Jenkins has created a welcoming and cleverly planned family garden from an exposed site in the Mendip Hills. Words Non Morris. Photographs Eva Nemeth.

In brief

What Private family garden. Where Somerset. Size Half an acre. Soil Heavy clay. Climate Temperate climate, typical of southwest England, generally wetter and milder than the rest of England. Exposed to the wind. Hardiness zone USDA 9.

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Transforming a Bare Plot

There was nothing here except for the new house we had built on the footprint of an old milking parlour and some lovely stone outbuildings. The entire site was concrete: there were no hedges, not even a tree.” Louise Killen is setting the scene for the elegant, cleverly planned family garden that wraps so comfortably around the house today. “It felt so new. There was no context in which to bed itself in, just open farmland,” adds garden designer Alison Jenkins.“It badly needed structure and a sense of hunkering down.”

The sheltered Gravel Garden where owners Nick and Louise Killen can sit among mounds of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and the floating heads of Cenolophium denudatum and enjoy a view to the church where they married. The stone Farrowing House is now Nick’s office.
The sheltered Gravel Garden filled with mounds of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and the floating heads of Cenolophium denudatum.

The brief was to create simple, natural-looking spaces that would look good throughout the year and act as a relaxed extension of the airy, uncluttered house. “The site felt potentially complicated,” explains Alison,“because the house is in the middle of the plot with no clear sense of back or front.” In the end, the fluid 360-degree connection between the interior and the exterior and the ease with which each part of the garden flows so comfortably through to the next is the scheme’s great triumph. Connections needed to be established between the main house and the boxy Farrowing House, which is now clad in the delicate, blush rose ‘Princess Louise’ and used as an office by Louise’s husband, Nick. The design also needed to link the wonderful, long, low Calf House, which became one side of the Vegetable Garden, and the open-sided Store, which frames an area known as The Meadows. This deliberately simple space, with mown paths through long grass and stands of the rosy-fruited crabapple Malus ‘Evereste’, has become the favourite place to play for the couple’s two young sons.

Planting Plan

The exquisitely planted Gravel Garden feels particularly welcoming and sheltered. Alison cleverly concentrated the intensive planting here so that the maintenance of the garden as a whole would never overwhelm. Louise’s parents-in-law recycled stone from the site and hand-built the wall that runs along one side of this garden and Alison added a yew hedge for further protection. Generous quantities of evergreen mounding shrubs – Phillyrea angustifolia, Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana ‘Edward Bowles’ and Teucrium x lucidrys – underpin a cool palette of blues and whites and contrast with the airy Stipa lessingiana – a particularly tactile and long-lasting feather grass – and the honey-yellow Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku-jima’– “a really good one because it’s quite short; the space isn’t huge so it was important that all the elements were in proportion.”

The path leading to the Gravel Garden, with the Farrowing House on the right and a wall made from recycled stone on the left. A corrugated iron silage barn provides protection from the wind. One of four field maples planted for shelter frames the view beyond.
The path leading to the Gravel Garden, between the Farrowing House and a recycled stone wall. A corrugated iron silage barn provides protection from the wind.

Alison selected robust plants to cope with the clay soil, including Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Diane’ for its “elegant spires and because it is so reliably long-lived”, and the dependable Salvianemorosa ‘Caradonna’. “The uprights set up the horizontal heads of the umbellifer Cenolophium denudatum, which lasts so well and has great seedheads.” Louise still marvels at the effect: “Sitting in the Gravel Garden surrounded by planting is too amazing to imagine. Everything just pops up, one thing after another, it’s like a cascade.”

Gardening with the family

Alison fondly remembers the whole family – including Nick’s parents – joining in with the planting, and once the Vegetable Garden had been laid out, Louise asked her father-in-law to teach her how to grow vegetables. It has been the beginning of a new passion. Louise has loved collecting hazel and learning how to make plump teepees for sweet peas and criss-cross ‘baskets’ for peas – “it’s a great design because they can’t fall over” – and has begun studying for an RHS certificate.

A plump teepee made by Louise from hazel pea sticks, collected from nearby woodland, supports sweet peas. Behind the teepee, figs are trained against the south-facing wall of the Farrowing House.
A plump teepee made by Louise from hazel pea sticks, collected from nearby woodland, supports sweet peas.

Beyond the Vegetable Garden is the Willow Garden (named for the family dog), a beautiful, hazy grid of slightly shaggy yew domes set in long grass with an enticing bench that catches the evening sun. For Louise, this is perhaps the cleverest aspect of the design. “It is so simple but so beautiful. It looks as lovely in winter as it does in summer.” There is a view through to it from the front door and another tantalising glimpse through the garden door that leads from the Gravel Garden to the Willow Garden. “If you come up the drive and the garden door is open, you feel an incredible pull to get out there.”

The long, low Calf House, used for storing tools, and the Farrowing House, now a home office, frame the Vegetable Garden. Alison recommended keeping the vegetable beds simple and adaptable, with no additional edging, so that the family could experiment with what they would really like to grow and eat.
Alison recommended keeping the vegetable beds simple and adaptable so that the family could experiment with what they would really like to grow and eat.

Subtle additions – ox-eye daisies in the Willow Garden, camassias in The Meadows – are planned for this imaginative and much-loved garden, which looks so happily settled after only five years. It will surely get better and better.

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Useful information

Find out more about Alison’s work at alisonjenkins.co.uk

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