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Visiting Stonehealed Farm gardens in Streat

PUBLISHED: 12:04 12 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:04 12 April 2016

Massed alliums create quite an impact

Massed alliums create quite an impact

Archant

Leigh Clapp enjoys the beautifully planted gardens at Stonehealed Farm in Streat, East Sussex

The gardens at Stonehealed Farm have been designed to complement the surrounding countryside while also providing secluded outdoor living areas. Created since 1995 from a blank canvas, they stretch out from the house with a series of loosely linked ‘rooms’. When Fiona and Lance Smith bought the property with its charming 17th century house and lovely views of the South Downs, they knew they had some challenges ahead with the garden, which was little more than a pony paddock. “The heavy clay was pickaxe territory, quite disconcerting,” recalls Fiona.

Today the one-and-a-half-acre garden has a very relaxed, welcoming atmosphere with harmonious planting and detailing that has just the right cohesive balance between formal and informal country style. This was achieved slowly, working from the house outwards, with the garden evolving into areas designed for outdoor living and year-round visual interest under Fiona’s talented care. “It is good to have little pockets of seclusion,” adds Fiona. A sense of division has been created by planting trees, shrubs and dense borders, sometimes enclosing internal views and at other times looking out to the surrounding countryside.

Fiona came late to gardening after the children had grown up and left home. “I did a simple garden design course, got hooked and followed it with an OCA garden design course (part of the Open University) and ended up tutoring and helping others when it ended. My garden is my tool and creating it has been a steep learning curve,” explains Fiona. The first priority was to establish a paved path to the house, edged with densely planted borders. Breaking up the soil, applying mulch and generous amounts of mushroom compost has allowed abundant planting to establish and thrive. Bordering the path on one side is loose meadow planting of grasses and a ‘family’ path of named stepping-stones, while on the other side is a hedged circle of massed Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’. As you wander up the path you know you are entering a special place. In spring the scene is of fresh green foliage and splashes of colour from bulbs and early perennials.

The small front garden was gravelled and then laid out with circular hedged beds of box with yew used for the perimeter and topiary accents, including clipped spheres and a bird atop a large urn. It creates pretty vignettes from the windows or wandering outside in the space. Infill softens the formality, with Wisteria floribunda ‘Alba’ draped on the house, scent from the roses, honeysuckle and delicate lilac filling the air and the signature alliums ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Globemaster’ popping up amongst the profusion.

Close to the house are paved and gravel terraces, softened with relaxed plantings, ready to be enjoyed at different times of the day. At the entrance of the house, comfortable wicker chairs are an ideal spot for a morning break. Groups of pots and a small rectangular pond add to the atmosphere. Pale yellow Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’ scrambles up the house and moving around to the side of the house you come to the barbecue area, the main focus for al fresco dining. A mature oak gives shade to a large weathered dining table and also supports a treehouse platform suspended high in its branches. “It gives wonderful views of the Downs and overlooks most of the garden and is also a lovely place on a summer evening to catch the cool breezes. Here we are not tempted to do anything in the garden and just relax,” adds Fiona.

Underfoot a blend of paving and gravel lends a sense of being in the Mediterranean, as do artful arrangements of terracotta pots brimming with drought-tolerant plants such as pelargoniums and succulents. A timber shed, actually the dogs’ barn and painted in dusky blue, also draws the eye. Eclectic objects have been placed along its veranda. An array of jars and watering cans and even strings of drying onions become ‘found sculpture’. “It changes all the time depending on what takes my fancy,” adds Fiona.

Adjoining the barbecue area, gravel paths lead through cool, shady plantings abundant with ferns and hosta to a tranquil pond. It is set off by a timber serpentine bridge, which appears to be nearly floating on the surface of the water. Deceptively simple, this curving platform was actually quite a challenge to install, taking hours to lay out the timber planks to form the effect. “It echoes both the shape of the Downs and also the spiral staircase to the tree platform,” says Fiona. A double-facing seat next to the pond, Vietnamese lanterns amongst the foliage, the scent from the creamy-white flowers of Smilacena racemosa (false Solomon’s seal) and sculptural birds from Zimbabwe, invite the visitor to take time to contemplate the mood before moving further into the more open areas.

From the pond and up a few steps, wilder planting, set in long grass and a maturing lime walk, blends into the fields beyond. Heading back to the garden, lawns spread out and lead to other sections, including densely planted borders punctuated with painted obelisks, quiet seating areas and a quintessential vegetable garden in raised beds, completed with Fiona’s artistic arrangement of rustic containers. Continuity through the whole garden is achieved with attention to planting choices. “Texture and foliage is my priority, colour is a bonus. I use different shades of green, and then colour is like the icing on the cake. I don’t want colours that distract from the views. I use hotter colours in internal sections, where there are no external vistas.”

To know

Stonehealed Farm, Streat, BN6 8SA | Visitors welcome by arrangement April to October for groups of 10+ | Adm £5, children free | www.ngs.org.uk

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