One of the most lovely and unexpected results of writing The Cut Flower Patch has been the people I have met as a result. I had no idea when I started out on the whole process of creating a book that people would take the time and trouble to send me lovely emails once they had read it. Last September one such email came from a lady saying she loved growing grasses too and would I like to visit her garden. It turned out that Kate didn’t live too far away from me, in the stunning Wye Valley, so a few days later Wellyman and I found ourselves discovering the most fabulous garden, tucked away in the lush countryside of Gloucestershire. We arrived and found a note on the door telling us to find her in the back garden, along with a map and sheet of paper describing the garden. We found Kate, trowel in hand, weeding. I felt a little guilty when we left three hours later that we’d taken up valuable gardening time, but Kate was a delight to talk to – passionate, knowledgeable and generous with her time. Now I’m partial to including grasses in my garden and quite a few pop up on the cut flower patch too, but I’m the first to admit my small number of grasses don’t really do the plants justice. For true drama grasses need some space and to be planted in quantity and this is what Kate has done at the Barn House Garden where a variety of grasses have been planted en masse to create a bold and dramatic impact.
I love grasses despite the fact that I’m allergic to their pollen. As Kate says, ‘isn’t a love of wild grasses/cornfields innate? To me, grasses sing of woodland margins and meadows.’ I’m very much with her on this. Her first experiences of growing grasses on an ornamental scale came when she lived near Kew Gardens where she was fascinated by their grassery and watched the Bamboo Grove being renovated. ‘These were lessons on how to tame the biggest grasses of all’, she says. Kate’s love of grasses grew when she spent time in the Far East. ‘The best thing about Taiwan is the hilly walking country and the miscanthus grasses. Then there’s the miscanthus which lines the rail-side of the bullet train in Tokyo and the bamboos colonising hillsides in Thailand. We grew bamboo on balcony gardens in Bangkok (several) and then London (hundreds!), to screen out unsightly views, noise, pollution’, Kate explains. After years on the move and then tending a small London plot. Kate and her husband Hitesh settled in the Wye Valley. ‘Never mind the nice house, we were looking for the right garden’, she says. They moved to the Barn House nine years ago and the house and garden have been transformed in that time. It’s been an epic undertaking. It took over five years to complete the landscaping of the main parts of the garden. Storm drainage has been installed, and to create level planting areas over 100 tonnes of red sandstone were removed. It’s incredible to think that what now looks like such an established garden is one where much of the planting is only three years old. This was one of the reasons behind Kate’s choice of grasses to create the structure and interest in the planting scheme – grasses tend to be quick to produce a mature look to a garden.
The back garden – an area which wraps around one side of the house – was tackled first. This gave Kate the chance to work out what they wanted from the rest of the garden. It’s a space which has an exotic feel to it, inspired by Kate and her husband’s time in the Far East. Towering bamboo and lush planting thrive with shots of vibrant colour from plants such as crocosmia and cannas. I love this sort of planting which envelops you and transports you to another place.
One of my favourite spots was the terracing which leads down to the main aspect of the house and a seating area. Using local red sandstone terraced beds were created allowing Kate to plant in what had previously been a rocky part of land with little soil depth. The grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ looks fabulous. Planted in clumps along the terrace beds they look like rockets or fireworks shooting up towards the sky. Kate has also used Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ as a dramatic 70 metre long hedge and the smaller Miscanthus sinensis ‘Starlight’ to screen a seating area.
Kate uses grasses in the way many of us use shrubs as a foil to other plants, most notably herbaceous perennials like rudbeckias, persicarias and veronicastrums. Most of us imagine a garden planted with grasses only has a short season of interest and that a garden based around grasses would be at its peak in September but these photos show how stunning Kate’s garden looked for her midsummer NGS open day last weekend.
Kate has discovered that there are grasses which come into their own early in the year and has cleverly planted bulbs, evergreen grasses, multi-coloured cornus and beautiful specimen trees to provide year-round interest.
It’s not a surprise to discover Piet Oudolf has inspired Kate. Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham’s garden Veddw, just down the valley and Roger Grounds, an early pioneer of using ornamental grasses, have influenced Kate’s ideas too. One of the joys of growing grasses is discovering how easy they are to propagate. Kate grows many of her own plants from seed. And her next project – a stylised meadow – has been planted with home-grown deschampsia and molinia interplanted with perennial flowers. I can’t wait to see this come to fruition. If you’d like to see Kate’s garden the Barn House Garden is open by appointment from June to September with money from the openings going to the NGS. There’s no minimum group size and teas and plants are available to buy. It’s a stunning part of Britain if you fancy combining a visit with a weekend away. (I’m not on commission from the tourist board!! I just feel very lucky to live in this beautiful, somewhat undiscovered part of the world.) For more details you can visit Kate’s website. I can heartily recommend a visit to her website anyway as Kate is writing an online journal about growing and the changes to the garden, which makes a fascinating read and there are some gorgeous photos to drool over. Her next post, I’m reliably informed, is to be about the bamboos she saw growing alongside the Thai – Burma railway’s notorious Hellfire Pass & the incredible Australian Museum. And whilst you’re on her site have a look at the page about the history of the Barn House to discover more about this intriguing place.