Creating a Garden at The Watch House

 In Garden Design, News

I have always wanted to live and garden by the sea. There is something liberating about the sense of space, wonderful light and heightened awareness of the seasons at the coast. This, plus the relative ease of access to London, is what brought me to the small town of Broadstairs, on the eastern tip of Kent. Here I garden in two small courtyards, one measuring 20ft by 20ft and the other 20ft by 30ft. The larger courtyard is east-facing and the smaller one is west-facing, although other buildings block the evening sun. When I came here in 2006, the garden I inherited consisted of a bomb shelter, an outdoor toilet block, some crazy paving and a trio of trees: a sycamore, a lilac and a forsythia. I spent two years making the best of the situation before I took the plunge and had a new garden built.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

The outdoor kitchen in July 2020. I don’t have names for those hostas which are both ‘rescues’. The Banana is Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’. There are several bromeliads on the kitchen worktop as well as brugmanias. The one that’s flowering in the background is B. sanguinea. The paint colour is Farrow and Ball ‘Vert de Terre’ (I’m always asked about that).

There are many peculiarities of the site here at The Watch House. I shall avoid referring to them as challenges or problems because they are both a fact of life and instrumental in making the garden what it is. The larger courtyard, which we refer to as the Jungle Garden, is situated above two vaulted under-crofts. The consequence is that there is no soil to grow in and restrictions on how much weight can be loaded onto the structure beneath. It is effectively a roof garden. There are rumours, that tunnels run from the under-crofts, through the chalk to the beach. Since this was originally a fisherman’s cottage, it could feasibly have been involved in smuggling, which was once rife in these parts.

Although both courtyards benefit from sun during a good part of the day, there are buildings of different heights on almost every side. Brick and flint walls are helpful for trapping heat and creating a healthy microclimate, but they also funnel wind in unpredictable directions, increasing its velocity to damaging levels. Solid walls also bounce sound around, which in the centre of a busy town can be a nuisance. Rendered and painted walls, which we have at the front of the house and on one side, are fantastic for reflecting light back into the garden, but can also make it dazzlingly bright on sunny days. Being on a little chalk promontory between the English Channel and the Thames Estuary, The Isle of Thanet is extremely exposed, benefitting from one of the brightest and driest climates in the UK, but also experiencing salt-laden gales from the north, east and south. Wind, sun, microclimate, noise, rainfall, ground conditions, aspect and access need to be taken into account in any garden design, but here, where their impact is so amplified, they need to be addressed head-on.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

Image of me from spring 2020 with the start of my lockdown hair! But less about me. Look at the pink flowering Geranium Maderense and the Beschorneria yuccoides producing not one but two flower stalks.

The smaller courtyard, known affectionately as the Gin & Tonic Garden, came with the purchase of a second cottage backing on to the main house. There are no vaults here, but the ground is solid, white chalk. In both gardens the only option is to grow in raised beds, troughs or pots, except in a few cases where we have dug out planting holes for climbers and backfilled them with topsoil. It goes without saying that acid-loving plants are not at home here, although many will grow successfully in pots filled with ericaceous compost. We have a small greenhouse in the Gin & Tonic Garden, used for overwintering tender plants and for growing flower and vegetable plants for our allotment.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

The view from the passageway leading into the Jungle Garden featuring caladiums (‘Florida Elise’ in foreground), coleus (Solenostemon), Fuchsia fulgens, Fuchsia ‘Rosemary Highham’ (variegated), banana as above. August 2020.

In the new design for the Jungle Garden, I wanted a number of practical things, including privacy and space for entertaining. The Watch House had plenty of rooms, none of them very large. So, the garden was to be the largest room in the house, where we would socialise with our friends and family. Our kitchen is downstairs in the basement, a long way from any guests, so I decided to incorporate a second, outdoor kitchen in the new layout. Thirteen years ago, an outdoor kitchen was an exceptionally novel idea, to the extent that I struggled to find anyone to design or build it. We made many mistakes. The first worktop was pieced together with the same slate slabs we had used for the terrace. These had an uneven surface and required several joins to create the desired L shape. Water found its way into the cupboards beneath, slowly rotting the timber framework. The surface was replaced a few years later with two pieces of polished black granite; this does the job perfectly and looks incredibly smart. The Fire Magic barbecue, made in the USA but sourced from a local Kent company, has just had its first service in thirteen years and passed with flying colours. I believe very firmly in buying the best you can afford, and this fabulous piece of kit is testament to the benefits of investing in quality. In constant use, winter and summer, the barbecue has paid for itself many times over.

The Gin & Tonic Garden in summer 2020. Plants in foreground – Anisodontea ‘El Royo’, Lobelia tupa, Tulbaghia ‘Purple Eye’ AGM and Kniphofia ‘Papaya Popsicle’.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

Quite how I have managed to get this far without mentioning plants I do not know. You see, plants are my thing, more so than garden design and maybe even gardening. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by their extraordinary diversity and beauty. I am a collector by nature and so I love to gather interesting plants around me, to study and appreciate them. I have also been fortunate to have travelled extensively in parts of the world generally warmer and sunnier than the UK. This inspiration, combined with almost fifty years of visiting Cornish gardens, has fostered an interest in tropical and subtropical plants that are often borderline hardy, even in Southern England. We are fortunate to experience frosts at The Watch House perhaps once in every four years, so many of the plants I love are worth risking here. Perhaps the most successful of these is Geranium maderense, the giant herb Robert from Madeira. You may have seen this unusual geranium growing in sheltered gardens in Cornwall, or perhaps in a cool greenhouse, but it also thrives here, seeding itself everywhere. It’s a titan of a plant, often producing emerald-green leaves over 12 inches across from a single rosette measuring 6-7ft across. It supports itself on a scaffold of older leaf stems which bend towards the ground, before producing a vast cloud of pink or white flowers (the white form is sold as ‘Guernsey White’). Geranium maderense is exceptionally easy to grow from seed and is either biennial or triennial, in the same way as Echium pininana, which also thrives here. Alas, frost is the enemy and any degree below zero sustained for a time will kill this geranium outright, or slowly over a period of months. It’s always worth a try, especially if you have a greenhouse or conservatory in which to overwinter your plants.

Solenostemon ‘City of Sunderland’, S. ‘Burgundy Wedding Train’ and Begonia luxurians – on outdoor kitchen worktop last summer.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

I mentioned noise reverberation earlier on. We live on a back street that runs parallel with the High Street, often used as a cut-through by holidaymakers and locals coming home from a night out. Neither have much volume control. When I first moved here, I found the noise from the street so disturbing that I could not leave the bedroom window open at night. The answer, although I did not know it at the time, was trees. The degree to which trees deaden or muffle noise and stop it bouncing around between the buildings is remarkable. There will, of course, be some science behind this, but I can best liken it to the difference between being in a room with hard floors and no textiles, and a room with carpet and curtains: the acoustics are entirely different. All of our trees bar one, a fig, are evergreen and therefore effective in reducing noise all year round. Planted in a raised bed are the willow-leaved bay (Laurus nobilis f. angustifolia), green olive (Phillyrea latifolia), and Chatham Island lancewood, (Pseudopanax chathamicus). We lost the garden’s most distinctive tree, a Santa-Cruz ironwood, (Lyonothamnus floribundus subsp. aspleniifolius) three years ago during a ferocious storm. Whilst a devastating loss, it was hardly surprising that a tree that had grown to over 30ft from a narrow, raised bed might be a little unstable! The Santa-Cruz ironwood is a fantastic tree for a mild, coastal garden, growing quickly and producing wonderful, ferny foliage from trunks and branches netted with brick-red bark. If that’s not sufficient, mature trees produce flat heads of creamy-white flowers resembling an achillea during the summer. I loved it and the birds loved it, but our relationship was to be short-lived. We have still yet to plant a replacement to reduce the wind from the north, which is especially harsh in winter.

The Jungle Garden in Spring 2021 – Tulip ‘Albert Heijn’ is the main event in this picture. We have over 100 pots in this arrangement, all planted up in the autumn.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

From above, the Jungle Garden looks like the urban equivalent of a desert oasis. Very few properties in town have a garden large enough for even a single, small tree. One might argue that our garden doesn’t either, but the atmosphere I wanted to create was that of a Moroccan Riad; an enclosed, almost invisible garden, surrounded by high walls and filled with lush vegetation and chattering birds. All that’s missing from the design is a water feature, the one element I would incorporate if I were ever to begin again. For now, an outdoor sink will have to suffice. The gardens that have most inspired me are those that play with the contrast between light and shade, heat and cool, which is why I am so drawn to Moroccan gardens. From the searing, dusty streets, one enters a world of cool and calm which feels so decadent and private. Although we don’t enjoy the same kind of heat here as in Marrakesh, on a summer’s day in Broadstairs there is a big difference in temperature and ambience either side of our high front gate. After a baking hot day at the beach, it’s such a relief to be submerged in the cool luxuriance of the garden.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

The Gin & Tonic Garden from above, I think this is 2018. Our 6ft x 8ft greenhouse is top right.

Initially The Watch House was my weekend home, but in recent years I have lived here permanently. The planting has evolved according to the time I have available and the way the trees have matured. They now create a nice amount of shade, but also draw a lot of water from the raised beds, meaning that irrigation is now a necessity. Most of the original planting in the raised beds has died out and I will shortly be replanting with selections better adapted to dry shade. Meanwhile the number of plants in pots has grown exponentially. I started with a handful of containers clustered at the foot of the steps leading to the front door. These have slowly spread to fill the entire length of the garden, on both sides. In spring terracotta pots are planted with bulbs – mainly tulips, narcissi and hyacinths – after which lilies fill the gap until the tender plants get going. I have a growing collection of gingers, cannas, coleus (solenostemon), brugmansias, roscoeas and bananas which come outside every May for their summer sojourn. Packed closely together with barely any room to pass between them come September, this density is why the Jungle Garden is so-called. The Gin & Tonic Garden is hotter and drier, so I try to focus on drought-tolerant plants here, including succulents and species from South Africa and the Mediterranean. However, it’s always a bit of a mishmash due to my complete lack of self-control when it comes to buying plants. Some people might be critical of my lack of restraint, but I think that’s what makes my garden what it is – bold, exuberant and a little over the top. Gardens can only be deemed successful if they please their owners; attempting to appeal to everyone is utterly futile. The garden is constantly evolving to make me and my partner happy. I make no apology for that. I accept that at some stage I will either need to start again or to move on. Our dream is to find one of those blessed Cornish valleys where the wind rarely blows, frosts never settle, a stream flows and the soil is acidic – almost the complete opposite of the conditions we have here, but we’ll never, ever, be far from the sea.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

Aerial view of the Jungle Garden from 2018 to show layout. The mass of foliage at the bottom is Hedychium ‘Stephen’. The trees at the top are Phillyrea latifolia and Laurus nobilis f. angustifolia.

Daniel Cooper
Aka ‘The Frustrated Gardener’

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