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Mary Keen’s greenhouse is cleverly positioned to form part of the circuit around the garden; you can admire her collection of pelargoniums by walking right through it. The path here is lined with jewel-coloured dahlias and the tall, luminous-blue Salvia patens ‘Guanajuato’ emerging from clouds of Erigeron annuus.

Inside Mary Keen’s immersive, atmospheric, compact garden

It is hard to believe that you can feel so delightfully lost in the middle of a pretty country town. Writer and garden designer Mary Keen’s stunning garden defies the size of its plot. Words Non Morris. Photographs Jason Ingram.

In brief

What Private garden of garden designer, gardener and writer Mary Keen. Where South Gloucestershire. Soil Stony Cotswold brash. Size 850 square metres, including a 6m x 6m courtyard. Climate Temperate, cold and windy in winter. Hardiness zone USDA 9.

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The garden

Dianthus carthusianorum is everything I like best in a plant. It is a clear colour, delicate, unimproved and see-through.”

We are walking along the mown path in Mary Keen’s new Cotswold garden, enveloped by the radiant, high-summer haze that has become its seductive heart. Although this part of the garden has the advantage of being wider than the neighbours’ gardens, it is hard to believe that you can feel so delightfully lost in the middle of a pretty country town.

The borders shimmer with lacy, white Erigeron annuus and the feathery grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’, the haze punctuated by tiny dashes of the electric-pink dianthus or the clear sky-blue of wild chicory. There are stands of carmine hollyhocks, radiant single dahlias and soft mounds of smoky-purple asters.

Stands of towering hollyhocks, some planted right up against the boundary wall, help the garden feel more spacious than it is. In high summer the hollyhocks are combined with much-loved dahlias – “always single and open-faced to encourage pollinating” – such as ‘Winston Churchill’, ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ and ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.
Stands of towering hollyhocks, some planted right up against the boundary wall, help the garden feel more spacious than it is. In high summer the hollyhocks are combined with much-loved dahlias – “always single and open-faced to encourage pollinating” – such as ‘Winston Churchill’, ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ and ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.

Planting

To create the feeling of a garden without borders, Mary removed the inherited stretches of heavy Leyland cypress (x Cuprocyparis leylandii) hedging and set about planting a covetable cast of trees and shrubs to draw the eye away from the boundaries. There is a fleet of gently self-seeding Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii (“I would never be without it, such a good structural plant”), the crab apple Malus hupehensis, chosen for its cloud of white blossom and long-lasting red fruits, and the weeping evergreen Azara microphylla, with its tiny, vanilla-scented flowers in spring to clothe one of the newly revealed walls.

A tantalising glimpse of Mary’s husband’s study – a pretty stone building that frames the courtyard garden beyond. A winter-flowering cherry rises from a sea of perennials, annuals and grasses, with Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold’ for year-round structure and in the foreground the yellow-green heads of Euphorbia pseudosikkimensis ‘Amjillasa’, which flowers all summer.
A tantalising glimpse of Mary’s husband’s study – a pretty stone building that frames the courtyard garden beyond. A winter-flowering cherry rises from a sea of perennials, annuals and grasses.

There are 20 different roses too, each of which has been quietly absorbed into the garden to add texture, colour or scent. There is Rosa ‘Scharlachglut’ emerging from long grass, with its “big, big crimson flowers – almost vulgar” – and both R. x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ and R. x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’ in the sheltered courtyard next to the house where they flower from spring until Christmas. The mown path continues through a stretch of wildflower meadow to a small orchard. “I couldn’t make a garden without an apple tree,” says Mary. “We had room for just three trees so I chose apples we like to eat. ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ is a really delicious Gloucestershire cultivar and we have ‘Discovery’ and ‘Egremont Russet’.

The meadow

There are three pear trees too including ‘Concorde’, which is the pear you must grow if you have room for only one.” The meadow began by “just letting the grass grow long”. Mary was delighted to find an established colony of the orange-flowered Pilosella aurantiaca and has been avidly adding layers with plug plants and bulbs. The meadow is particularly exciting in May and June when hundreds of Narcissus poeticus give way to the clear-pink form of Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus, and the elegant, sky-blue Camassia cusickii. As you make your way around the garden, there are inviting places to sit – always in the shade of a tree or under a bower of roses – or you might want to investigate the stone Wendy House, a perfect, miniature house built in the 1970s, a dream for a young child but perfect for stowing away agapanthus in the winter too.

The mown path leads from the garden into the wildflower meadow. The meadow started by letting the grass grow long but now dances with favourite, delicate plants such as the tiny, pink heads of Dianthus carthusianorum (Mary grows a preferred tall form from seed) and the pale-mauve field scabious Knautia arvensis.
The mown path leads from the garden into the wildflower meadow. The meadow started by letting the grass grow long but now dances with favourite, delicate plants such as the tiny, pink heads of Dianthus carthusianorum (Mary grows a preferred tall form from seed) and the pale-mauve field scabious Knautia arvensis.

The greenhouse and courtyard

The path loops around compost bins discreetly hidden behind some plump box (Buxus sempervirens ‘Rotundifolia’) and travels, rather brilliantly, right through the traditional wooden Woodpecker Joinery greenhouse (pictured as our heading). “I think in a small garden walking through the greenhouse is key – otherwise it’s a dead end.” On to the working area, the existing breeze-block potting shed now attractively reboarded and retiled. Collections of pea sticks stand in open-mouthed jars and industrial shelves are neatly stacked with terracotta pots. Working with sympathetic builders Danny and Alan White – who dug the greenhouse foundations by hand and converted the old woodstore into an auricula theatre with a glass roof, decorative lead flashing and neat, scalloped edging – made the development of the garden a pleasure. Back through the rose arches to the small, walled courtyard, which fills the view from the kitchen window.

Mary relishes the shelter afforded by her courtyard garden and the year-round abundance of choice plants visible from the kitchen windows. Having replaced the York stone paving with light-reflecting gravel and painted the garden doors a luminous blue, she filled the enlarged beds with an intense mix of blues “with a dash of salmon that makes the blues sing”.
Mary relishes the shelter afforded by her courtyard garden and the year-round abundance of choice plants visible from the kitchen windows. Having replaced the York stone paving with light-reflecting gravel and painted the garden doors a luminous blue, she filled the enlarged beds with an intense mix of blues “with a dash of salmon that makes the blues sing”.

This sheltered space has been transformed from a plain and orderly terrace to a luminous, painterly garden, spilling over with colour and scent throughout the year. The York stone paving has been replaced with sandy Cotswold hoggin, “which makes it feel bigger and lighter”, and filled with a succession of delights: scented wands of lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), rich, dangling heads of Fuchsia ‘Lady Boothby’, the elegant, salmon glow of Kniphofia thomsonii.

Mary wanted to create an inviting and atmospheric garden – with a sense of surprise – and she has succeeded entirely. Her approach is both practical and deeply intuitive and her individual plant choices are the gloriously colourful result
of a life spent observing, tending and growing.