Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex

A garden drawn on Modernist principles by Emma Burrill in East Sussex

Drawing on Modernist principles of sharp, clean lines, a strong visual relationship between house, landscape and garden, and just the right amount of prairie-style planting, Emma Burrill has created a perfectly proportionate whole in a quiet corner of East Sussex. Photographs Claire Takacs

An early morning autumn mist hangs atmospherically over the lawns and meadows of Emma Burrill’s garden near Rye in East Sussex, softening the contrast between the areas of planting and the wide, open spaces. Later, as the sun banishes the mist, a Modernist-style layout is revealed. Behind the house, wide, double borders, richly planted with perennials and grasses, frame the central grass path that leads the eye to the gently upward-sloping meadow and the woodland beyond. On the far side of the studio, where Emma works, is a prairie garden planted predominantly with North American native plants, all grown or propagated by Emma. Previous owners had used this area as a sand school for their horses, so once Emma had removed the underlying membrane she had a ready-made, low-fertility sand bed – perfect for prairie plants. Alongside there is an extensive, recently planted orchard and a traditional Kentish cobnut plat (the local phrase for a cobnut orchard, an important landscape characteristic of the neighbouring Kent Downs).

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Seven years ago, when Emma and her graphic artist husband Anthony bought the house, there was no garden to speak of, just a mass of willow seedlings, paddocks and a lot of blackthorn scrub. “We spent the first two years clearing the site and rebuilding the house,” says Emma. “The old stables were demolished and we built our studio on the same footprint. I drew an overall plan of the garden when we began the project. Each year we add a new element as we slowly build the larger picture. In our first year we planted 550 native tree whips as part of a Woodland Trust scheme as well as the cobnut plat, laid out on a traditional, offset grid. In order to divide up the space and make sense of the huge, open area, I began to plant a series of hedges using the sight lines of the house and existing landmarks to connect the indoor space with the garden and wider landscape. Over the past four years we have added the borders and orchard.”

Discover more about the garden below.

In brief

What Modernist-style country garden. Where East Sussex. Size Seven acres. Soil Slightly acidic but base is a rich loam and clay. Climate Mild winters and warm, dry summers with fairly low rainfall. Hardiness zone USDA 9.

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

In the L-shaped area of the garden between the house and the studio, three-metre-wide, double borders line the grass path that leads to the meadow beyond. The borders are planted with a mixture of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses.

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Perennials including Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ and Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’, and grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Flamingo’ are chosen for their long season and because they stand well through the winter.

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Phlomis, bronze fennel, Panicum virgatum ‘Warrior’ and Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ frame the view through to the attractive, peeling stem of Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis.

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

The dense planting of the prairie provides an ever-changing view from the studio; the wiry whorls and spires of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ seedheads are eye-catching in autumn.

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and Hylotelephium ‘Matrona’ provide autumnal colour among the pale grasses, including Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’, in the borders.

I love the point where order meets disorder. I relish the appearance of uninvited plants; by allowing wild plants to creep in, the whole garden softens and connects me to the landscape beyond

12 key plants from Emma Burrill’s garden

1

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

An architectural deciduous grass with strong, vertical flower stems bearing feathery, bronze flowers that fade to an attractive
straw colour in the autumn. 1.5m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.

2

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Rich, red-brown, daisy-shaped flowers that fade to burnt orange with brown centres; the stiffly upright stems carry long, mid-green leaves that form an attractive, upright clump. 75cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.

3

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Very slender spires of small, soft-lilac flowers are carried on stiff stems with whorls of long, pointed, mid-green leaves; forms a neat, upright clump. Earlier to flower than other veronicastrums. 2m. AGM. RHS H7.

4

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Smaller-growing than some Deschampsia cespitosa with dark-green leaves ageing to golden brown; long-lasting flower plumes are silvery brown and green, turning warm gold as they mature, giving a shimmering effect. 75cm. AGM. RHS H6.

5

Hylotelephium ‘Matrona’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

An upright, deciduous perennial with large, ovate, grey-green leaves tinged purple near the margins, and dense clusters of pale-pink flowers in summer and early autumn; much loved by insects. 60cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 3a-9b.

6

Amsonia hubrichtii

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

An erect, clump-forming plant that bears terminal panicles of blue flowers in spring, the feathery, lance-shaped leaves are bright green in summer but turn beautifully golden in autumn. 90cm. RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b.

7

Rudbeckia triloba

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

A short-lived perennial that bears small, daisy-like flowerheads with dark, conical centres and broad, reflexed yellow petals on wiry stems; the display is long lasting from late summer. 90cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.

8

Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

A tall, herbaceous perennial. Leaves bear oval leaflets with jagged edges; dark, purplish-red, drumstick flowers are carried on wiry, see-through stems from late summer into autumn; dead stems remain a feature in winter. 2m. RHS H7.

9

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

Bears large, deep rosy-purple flowers with a prominent orange centre on stiff, upright stems over a long flowering season; the petals are held horizontally rather than drooping like many echinaceas. 90cm. RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.

10

Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Blackfield’

Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Black Field'
© Claire Takacs

A clump-forming perennial with intense, blood-red flower spikes from midsummer to mid-autumn; eye-catching, brilliantly coloured, fluffy flowers open from near-black buds and attract beneficial insects. 80cm. RHS H7.

11

Laser trilobum

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs

An unusual umbellifer with an aromatic scent. It will grow in shade or partial shade, bearing airy, white umbels with aquilegia-like, glaucous leaves. 1.2m.

12

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’

Emma Burrill's garden in East Sussex
© Claire Takacs
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Forms a compact clump of arching, narrow leaves with white midribs, and tall, feathery, reddish flowerheads in late summer, soon turning pale brown and lasting well into winter. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H6.