Our current weather may be cold, but it does make normally busy spring gardens so quiet that — on a weekday at least — you can feel like you are wandering around your own private paradise. Early spring is one of my favourite times for garden visits: Plants are new and healthy looking, and you have space to explore without being hemmed in by crowds. You can also appreciate the bare bones of the garden, which, come summer, will be hidden under abundant foliage and flowers, masking the true skills of the creator.
So, what of The Garden House? Well, it’s a very beautiful garden with two distinct themes….. both of which reflect the nearby wild landscape of Dartmoor. It’s carved out of the side of a valley, so much of it is on sloping ground; but rather than formal terracing, the terrain is dealt with in a largely naturalistic manner, echoing the undulating Dartmoor scenery. And stone is used to create these shapes, reflecting natural rocky outcrops. In fact stone is what this garden is all about.
If you want to learn how to use this material outside, then I urge you to visit this garden. From walls to standing stones, to making use of ruined buildings, this garden has it all. Beautifully constructed or adapted, it’s then effortlessly colonised by the very best garden plants — those that arrive of their own accord, are maintenance free, and look better than they would have done if you had spent hours choosing them yourself!
The 10 acre site is on the side of a north-facing valley slope, with a 152m (500ft) elevation, and is mainly acid shale. At it’s heart is a Georgian mansion, built in the 1830s. Both house and garden have been looked after by a charitable trust since the 1980s, but the second major phase of work began just before this, in 1978, when Keith Wiley was appointed head gardener by the then owner, Lionel Fortescue.
In the 1990s, Keith started an expansion of the 4 acre garden. Over 10 years, and in a further 6 acres, Keith developed a style he termed New Naturalism. This involved major earthworks to sculpt the landscape, then adding carefully selected plants to both complement these forms and mimic nature.
Keith left The Garden House in 2003, to develop his own garden half a mile down the road. Ideally I would suggest you combine a trip to The Garden House with a visit to Wildside Nursery, to see how Keith’s ideas have evolved, but bear in mind that the latter is only open on the first four days of the month, April- Sept.
The garden meanders throughout the 10 acres, with one area seamlessly blending into the next, and I spent 6 hours happily exploring (including a break for lunch!) It has a cohesive feel, whilst having enough distinct sections to provide interest — and, on occasions, surprise. Generally, it is defined by the undulating, sculpted landforms, hoggin paths, sublime use of stone, and naturalistic planting. Within this are sprinkled enough little design gems to keep it fresh and exciting.
See Garden Visit: The Garden House, Devon (Part 2) to explore some of the highlights in detail.