Mellowed In Time
Landscape|September/October 2017

At the foot of the South Downs sits an East Sussex garden where grasses wave in the wind and flowers thread through ribbons of foliage

Caroline Wheater

STEEP AND CHALKY, the Sussex South Downs rear up above the quiet hamlet of Southerham, near Lewes. Here, several buildings, including a former granary and stable block, once belonged to a large downland farm. All are constructed from local brick and flint and picture-postcard pretty. The site is sheltered and south facing, with free-draining chalk soil.

Encircling the granary and stables is half an acre of abundant garden created over 10 years ago by Alison Grint and her husband Steve. In late summer, it glows with the jewel colours of seasonal flowers, berries and fruits. All are set against a luscious backdrop of shrubs, small trees and feathery grasses. It is a scene that the new owners, Sara Callerman and Girish Patel, are thrilled to have inherited since buying the two-storey granary cottage last year when the Grints decided to downsize. “The longer we’ve been here, the more enticing the garden becomes,” says Sara. A novice gardener, she has embraced Alison’s dream design. “Now we don’t want to go away in case we miss things blooming.”

The cottage and the adjacent self-contained, single-storey stables were originally converted in the mid 1970s. When the Grints bought the property in September 2005, the back garden was virtually empty, bisected by an ugly concrete drive flanked by fencing. “When we came to view the house, there was nothing noteworthy here except three large Bramley apple trees, a damson and a walnut, once part of the farm orchard. But I knew I could do something with it,” says Alison, a retired garden designer. “The cottage had an east-west aspect, with the garden wrapped around. It had lovely views, good light and potential.”

Having grown up in Sussex, she knew the South Downs well and wanted to enhance the downland setting of the cottage. “Although I’m a garden designer by training, I didn’t have a huge plan to start with,” she says. “I wanted my own garden to be more of an organic evolution. But, from the outset, I knew I wanted to keep the look very naturalistic within the landscape, while making the flat space more interesting to walk around. So I decided to take the classic approach of dividing the garden up into ‘rooms’, with little pathways leading from area to area.”

Disguising the drive

The first thing she and Steve did that autumn was to tackle the concrete drive. It led from the lane outside to the back door, which at one stage had been the front door. “I didn’t want cars coming into my back garden,” says Alison. However, it was so solid and thick that it would cost too much to remove it completely. Instead, she decided to make it the main garden path, softened by a covering of gravel.

Before the gravel was raked over, she and Steve bashed at the concrete surface. This created a series of little cracks and grooves, which were filled with topsoil. Alison then planted up these tiny ‘flower beds’ with seeds to break up the hard landscaping even more. “I chose plants such as Verbena bonariensis, hardy geraniums and Crambe maritima, or sea kale, that can take root in very little soil and thrive,” she explains. “Over the subsequent seasons, wild yellow verbascum seeds floated over from the Downs. Somehow, they always put themselves in the right places, along with some self-seeded grasses.”

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