Gardens Illustrated
A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph
© Richard Bloom

A suburban Suffolk retreat by Colm Joseph

Published: June 16, 2022 at 8:05 am
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In this once-overlooked suburban plot, designer Colm Joseph has created a modern gravel garden that offers a relaxing green retreat. Words Kate Jacobs Photographs Richard Bloom

Small gardens are all too often defined by their boundaries, but, by paying attention to this garden’s perimeters and carefully shaping the space within, garden designer Colm Joseph has brought the focus into the heart of this garden. Here a restrained yet naturalistic planting scheme has created a relaxed and harmonious place to spend time in.

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The owners of this garden, in the suburbs of historic market town Bury St Edmunds, are keen gardeners, but were saddled with too many challenges to tackle a redesign themselves, dating back to when the house was built in the 1990s.

IN BRIEF

What Small suburban garden. 

Where Suffolk.

Size 15m x 11m.

Soil Free-draining, lime-rich loam.

Climate Temperate.

Hardiness zone USDA 8.

The principal challenge faced by Colm was the fact that this garden was overlooked by neighbouring properties on all sides – hardly conducive to relaxation. In order to deliver a garden with a truly immersive feel, Colm had to rethink its boundaries.

“Unless there’s a characterful old wall or the budget to build something beautiful, I like to green up the perimeters, to soften them and give them a much more natural feel. Using the same boundary treatment throughout also creates a sense of coherence, which is so important in a small garden and means that your eye settles within the space and isn’t drawn to the fence.”

The house opens on to the garden via two sets of French doors and the owners asked for two seating areas, to serve as lounging and dining spaces. But rather than place these adjacent to the house, Colm has sited them in the middle of the garden.

“In a smaller plot, I avoid leaving a central void. Instead I like to bring mass into the garden to shape the space, which, again, actually makes the garden feel bigger.”

Colm likes to anchor his gardens in the wider landscape, so for this design, he drew on the genius loci of the Suffolk countryside – a tapestry of arable fields and hedgerows, studded with pockets of woodland that frequently combine deciduous trees with pines. “For me it’s an important design principle for gardens to resonate with their wider setting.”

This garden is a deft balancing act, between classic and modern, formal and informal, the manicured and the naturalistic. Now screened and private, the owners have little more to do than sit back and enjoy the new-found sense of harmony.

A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph
© Richard Bloom

The unified boundary treatment of Carpinus betulus as both hedge and pleached trees provides the garden with privacy and coherence, and creates a formal framework for the more naturalistic planting to play against. Hummocks of Pinus mugo ‘Gnom’ and Sesleria autumnalis help to build up a palette of greens, interspersed with drifts of colour, enveloping the inviting seating areas.

A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph
© Richard Bloom

The pale-grey finish of the simple, reflective water bowl complements the limestone slabs and gravel; together they are an attractive foil for the intense hues of Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’. The budget-friendly water feature is cleverly sited between the two seating zones, bringing a sense of tranquillity to both areas. The large-format limestone paving creates a minimalist contrast with the naturalistic planting, while the staggered, asymmetric layout and planted paving joints seamlessly integrate the hard and soft elements of the garden.

A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph
© Richard Bloom

The seating areas are positioned in the heart of the garden, immersed in the planting. Carpinus betulus has been repeated in three different forms, ranging from clipped formality to the sinuously sculptural. Four multi-stemmed trees bring definition to the centre of the garden, introducing an element of height without blocking sightlines, while tactile mounds of vivid-green Sesleria autumnalis bring a sense of movement to the planting.

A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph
© Richard Bloom

Loose, naturalistic mounds of dwarf pine, Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ and Pinus mugo ‘Gnom’, are a nod to the woods that punctuate the Suffolk landscape and contrast with the more static, formal elements of the garden. A restrained colour palette of pinks, purples and whites is tempered by an emphasis on contrasting shades of green. The planting features carefully considered variations in the texture, form and colour of flowering perennials, and grasses add long seasonal interest in this coherent and restful space.

A gravel garden designed by Colm Joseph

Once overlooked, the garden is now pleasingly secluded, allowing its owners to relax and potter in privacy. Designed as a low-maintenance gravel garden, the gravel acts as a mulch to suppress weeds and reduce the need for irrigation. The plant selections combine year-round interest in form, colour and texture, with gentle seasonal transitions to create the desired relaxing space.

8 key plants in this suburban gravel garden

Alchemilla mollis

Alchemilla mollis
© Richard Bloom

Scallop-edged foliage contributes to the layers of green in this garden, while the yellow-green flowers add a subtle lift to the planting. 60cm x 75cm. AGM*.

Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’

Thymus serpyllum 'Pink Chintz'
© Richard Bloom

This evergreen ground cover adds drifts of pink in early summer and softens the lines of the limestone paving. The flowers are edible, and pretty in salads and drinks. 10cm x 50cm. AGM.

Selinum wallichianum

Selinum wallichianum
© Richard Bloom

The fine, frond-like foliage and white umbels bring variation in texture and form, while the claret-tinted stems echo the colours at play in this garden. 1.2m x 90cm. AGM.

Oenothera lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’

Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies'
© Richard Bloom

A short-lived perennial worth including for the long flowering season of hazy spires of pink-white flowers. 75cm x 50cm.

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’

Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna'
© Richard Bloom

A compact, bee-friendly plant that thrives in a sunny gravel garden. Drifts of purple racemes provide a contrasting form within the planting scheme here. 50cm x 30cm. AGM.

Pinus mugo ‘Mops’

Pinus mugo ‘Gnom’
© Richard Bloom

Provides evergreen structure within the naturalistic planting. 4m x 8m. AGM.

Sesleria autumnalis

Sesleria autumnalis
© Richard Bloom

Semi-evergreen grass with long-lasting, silver-white panicles and beautiful autumn colour. 50cm x 50cm. AGM.

Euphorbia myrsinites

Euphorbia myrsinites
© Richard Bloom

A low-lying plant with glaucous leaves and acid-yellow flowers in spring and early summer. 15cm x 30cm. AGM.

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*Holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Authors

Richard Bloom travels widely, photographing gardens, plants and people. He was the Garden Photographer of the Year in 2016 and Garden Media Guild Features Photographer of the Year 2018.

Writer and editor, lifestyle, interiors and gardens. Working across editorial, commercial, digital and social. Always on the lookout for interesting homes to write about...

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