This month our garden expert, Margaux Speirs, takes a break from her own garden to draw inspiration from garden designers of the past

Gardeners traditionally take time off from work in the garden in August and September in order to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labours. It’s a great time to visit other people’s gardens too, not just for the sheer pleasure of it but to get ideas for your own garden.

Hestercombe Garden near Taunton is one of my favourite gardens to visit and for me it’s a masterclass in design techniques. It is actually three gardens in one: an eighteenth century romantic landscape (it has the feel of visiting a Georgian painting with shady dells, streams and ornamental lakes and lovely vistas which you come upon unexpectedly); a Victorian terrace laid out with annual bedding plants using Victorian plants and patterns which is completely dug up and changed twice a year; and the best part – an Edwardian formal garden laid out by the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll. It’s the only garden Lutyens designed without also being the architect for the adjacent house and the story about this made me smile: apparently he was not successful in his tender to re-design the house.

Consequently, in his own design your eye is not drawn to the house at all from the garden, which entailed massive earthworks to sink the garden below the terrace, diagonal paths and large water features at the end of the rills so you focus on those rather than the house. However did he persuade the home owner to finance the outworkings of his strop like this?

The garden came close to being tarmacked over in the 1970s: it was owned by Somerset County Council and used as the headquarters for the Somerset fire brigade who wanted to use the area as a training ground. Luckily a local man with a vision to restore the gardens came along and for the past 25 years he has devoted himself to making it beautiful again. Since May this year the house is also open to the public and is used as a restaurant, book shop and contemporary art gallery. Lutyens worked on the hard landscape designs – ornamental ponds, fountains, arbours, rills, steps, terraces and an exquisite pergola – while Miss Jekyll worked on the planting schemes. We take for granted a combination of shrubs, grasses, annuals and perennials in gardens but this style of gardening was pioneered by her. Another legacy was her use of limited colour palettes in particular areas of the garden, the best example being the grey walk, which is looking particularly lovely in September. I especially like her combination of Echinops bannaticus – a gorgeous blue-grey globe thistle, planted with Eryngiums which have spiny, silvery white bracts. (Both these plants will continue looking good over the winter as their dry seed heads have such appealing shapes.) The structural planting in the grey walk includes lots of Santolina whose foliage makes soft, feathery balls (most gardeners cut off the yellow flowers and just keep the plants for their shape and leaf colour), lavender and Artemisia ‘ludoviciana’ to continue the misty blue-grey theme.

One of Miss Jekyll’s gardening tricks was to put plants grown in pots into the gaps left by perennials which had finished their show – so when the delphiniums had gone over, for example, she nestled pots of Gypsophila into the border to disguise the gaps. Another lesson to learn from Miss Jekyll is her use of plants for edging borders and under planting roses. At Hestercombe you can see masses of Bergenia (huge, leathery green ‘Elephants’ Ears’) edging a number of the large, formal beds. These plants are easy to grow and will thrive in any soil, in sun or shade. Once established they make dense ground cover, especially if grown in a group. The leaves take on purple tints in winter. Miss Jekyll used them in combination with lush planting in strong, bright colours, including Gladioli and Canna, where more flimsy border plants would have been overwhelmed. Along the front of some of the herbaceous borders are large groups of Saxifraga × urbium (known as ‘London Pride’). This is an evergreen perennial with pretty rosettes of scalloped edged leaves, growing in time into dense mats which also suppress weeds. Small, pink-flushed white flowers are borne on airy stems from early summer. This is much more romantic plant than the Bergenia and goes well with the Old English roses.

Other beds in Hestercombe have Stachys byzantina for edging and under shrubs. Well deserving its nick name ‘Lambs’ ears’ this is now a well-known ground-covering perennial, popular for its soft, fluffy foliage. It goes especially well with purples and whites. The leaves are often retained quite late into autumn or winter in mild areas, but the plant is not properly evergreen. If you don’t want it to flower buy the sterile cultivar, ‘Silver Carpet’. The plant nursery at Hestercombe is not very big but has a really nice selection of plants to buy, including many of the things you will have seen growing in the garden.

In November and May when the Victorian terrace is re done those perennial plants which the gardeners don’t want to store over winter are sold off. This year there will be lots of gorgeous Sedum lydium for sale.

Margaux Speirs is a pre-registered member of the Society of Garden Designers and runs her business, Margaux Speirs Garden Design, from her home in Bristol. Tel: 07903 779910 or visit: www.margauxspeirsgardendesign.co.uk

PLANT OF THE MONTH:

P1010972Eryngium x. oliveranum flowers from July to September and then its dry seed heads continue to look good in the winter. It is one of the most useful sea hollies for a sunny border, having large vivid blue flowers with dark green, clearly veined leaves forming a loose rosette at the base of the plant. It survives in a wider range of soil types than many more difficult Eryngiums, and can even cope with poor gravelly soil and heavier ground provided it never becomes waterlogged. The flowers attract bees and other insects, and are good for cutting or drying. It has the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM).