Growing plants in conditions as close as possible to their natural habitat has created a garden for all seasons, full of texture and colour.
Situated on the corner of a tree-lined street in East Molesey, Surrey, Esme and Peter Auers’ tall Victorian house is enclosed on three sides by an eighth-of- an-acre plot. Over the past 12 years, they have transformed the land into an abundant and colourful garden, overcoming several problems along the way.
On the eastern boundary a line of huge chestnuts and cobnuts overshadows a long, deep border. With roots extending far into the plot, the trees create that most difficult of gardening situations – dry shade. ‘When we first arrived, this area was so riddled with roots that we had to take a pickaxe to the ground to excavate a planting hole,’ recalls Esme. Since then she’s added tonnes of compost to the poor, stony soil and has now successfully established key specimens such as a Japanese maple, camellia, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ and Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’. ‘I spent a lot of time improving and preparing the soil and resisted the desire to rush and plant,’ she adds.
Peter, a retired surveyor, designed and built the wooden obelisks, contemporary-style planters, a zinc-topped table and the star turn – a reproduction lead cistern. ‘It’s a lovely feature in a difficult, shady passageway,’ explains Esme. ‘And the sound of water makes a nice distraction from the traffic noise beyond the trellis screens.’
The original garden had few flowerbeds and the lawn sloped down from the back terrace. ‘I used a hosepipe to mark out the outlines of the curving beds on the ground,’ says Esme. To one side of the lawn rises a mounded bed of roses and perennials, at its centre is a multi- stemmed birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii.
‘I wanted something eye-catching, so we bought a mature tree, which cost a fortune,’ she recalls. As the garden’s main feature plant it has more than fulfilled its early promise – fast-growing, healthy and easily kept in shape with an annual prune. I think a lot about texture and contrast, but in the end it’s all about growing plants where they’re happiest.’
Back in the seventies Esme discovered garden designer Beth Chatto’s stand at a show. ‘Her plants were beautifully arranged according to the different habitats they suited,’ she says. Beth’s emphasis on the ‘right plant, right place’ was not wasted on Esme. ‘Growing plants in conditions as close to their natural habitat as possible really does work,’ she insists. While finding the right plants, Esme has discovered some magical planting combinations. ‘I tend to use big-leaved plants to break up the fluffiness and I think a lot about texture and contrast, but in the end it’s all about growing plants where they’re happiest.’ She carefully balances size and scale, with an eye on the overall tapestry effect. ‘I always ensure there are plants that look good all summer long – in shady borders it’s hostas, while I thread silver-leaved plants through sunny beds.’
Fragrant sweet peas are a favourite, and each November Esme sows seeds in her greenhouse. By the following spring the seedlings can be planted out, ready to scramble up the obelisks. Esme also starts summer vegetables and fruits off in the greenhouse, then transplants them to her miniature vegetable patch.
The garden is at its best in summer, but there is plenty of interest each season. In winter the front corner garden comes alive with snowdrops and winter aconites. By mid-spring, around 500 tulips come to the fore and pots of white ‘Casablanca’ or regal lilies show signs of life.
‘I use pots of lilies to fill any gaps that appear in the borders during summer,’ says Esme. Autumn is different again, the airiness of midsummer replaced by solid patches of colour from late flowers such as dahlias, salvias and agastache to keep things going a bit longer. Each year there is something different – a new plant to settle in or an exciting planting combination to discover. ‘The fun involved in creating and making improvements each year is what gives us most pleasure,’ says Esme.