Gardening: Eloquence in a green shade

Ryl Nowell doesn't believe in instant planting plans; her approach to garden design is rooted in the landscape, writes Ursula Buchan
IT IS an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless, that designing a garden is difficult. To do it really well requires a mix of qualities - practicality, artistry and horticultural craft - not given to everyone. Most of us need help, if we are not to waste our time, money and energy on unrealistic or half-baked schemes.

Although she may not put it quite so bluntly, this is essentially the opinion of Ryl Nowell, a professional garden designer of long standing, and a past chairman of the Society of Garden Designers. Should you be tempted to mutter, "well, she would think that wouldn't she?" it must be said at once that she has developed a "Centre of Garden Design" in her garden, in an attempt to give positive help to gardeners.

The rather charmingly-named Cabbages and Kings (or Wilderness Farm) is to be found on the slope of Hadlow Down, in East Sussex. Here, out of a single acre, next to a jumble of old farm buildings, Ryl Nowell has created an appealing garden, attractive in itself and highly instructive for the sharp-eyed visitor.

The garden is fortunate in its situation: it is set apart from other gardens and there are lovely views from it across the High Weald. But there the luck runs out. It is situated on an east-facing slope and is buffeted by cold winds in winter. The soil is thin and, although a spring rises in the garden, much of the land remains resolutely dry. And, until 1990, it was a farmyard. Among the many enormous tasks that faced Ryl, when she took it on, was the necessity of digging up the concrete yard and laying soil on top of the rubble to make the lawn, as the concrete was too expensive to cart away. One barn had to be removed to reveal the view, while another was so ugly that it needed to be radically changed.

The only attractive feature of the whole place, Ryl says, was a small brick stable at the top of the slope; beside it, she has made what she calls the Cottage Garden, a space no larger than the average small garden, where many of the design principles by which she works can be seen realised. This is the highest of seven terraces, cut into the slope, each individual in nature, yet linked to the one above.

"I built the garden very much with people walking through it, and gleaning ideas, in mind." The garden has proved invaluable for showing her work to her private clients, as well as other visitors. She has allowed the paving, wall, pool, statues, seats, topiary and planting to speak so much more eloquently than words, or even photographs. That said she has written an illuminating booklet for visitors.

Ryl is adamant that visitors to the garden should not simply copy her ideas; rather, they should feel free to copy them to their own individual sites and requirements, having absorbed the basic principles that guide her work. Her catch-phrase, she says, is "people, place and landscape".

"People", she explains, refers to the ways people will want to use the garden; "place" refers to what the site offers, in the form of soil, aspect, and outlook; and "landscape" is how the place fits into its broader context. "If you ignore any one of these, you are missing out on a great opportunity."

Cabbages and Kings may have been founded as an exercise in didacticism, but it also provides a tranquil and visually satisfying experience. It is tangible proof that Ryl's basic principles work.

The garden is also unfussily modern and forward-looking. Ryl uses tall, statuesque grasses, such as Stipa gigantea, in place of hedges, to screen one area from another and to prevent all from being revealed at a glance. And she cleverly employs recurring plant species, together with directional paths and steps, to give the garden the appearance of flowing from one level to the next. "If gardens are divided by rigid enclosures, they will appear even smaller," she maintains. "The answer is to make rooms that feel enclosed, yet are sufficiently open to also feel part of the whole garden. The walls may be a clump of tall grass, a tree trunk or a few bushes, in fact anything that interrupts the vision. The ceiling is the sky, and if you are lucky it may include overhanging branches of a large tree."

Ryl Nowell has thought long and hard about these matters. Her training was more rigorous than is usual in a field where anyone can put a brass plaque on the door and call themselves a "garden designer". After a first degree in horticulture at the University of London at Wye College, in the early Sixties, she joined a landscape architect's practice and studied part time for four years for a landscape architecture degree. She has had her own practice for 20 years.

"You need several lifetimes, really, because in choosing to go down the design route I have left horticulture and plants behind," she says. On the evidence of the garden at Wilderness Farm she emphatically has not done so, but this is perhaps why she does not suffer from the debilitating British disease of plant mania. When designing for a client, she leaves the planting plan until everything else is settled, and works with larger numbers of the same plant than we might, in order to make strong, unfussy plantings.

Ryl's desire to initiate us into the mysteries of good garden design is almost evangelistic. Her conversation is exhilarating because she is so little bound by conventional ideas of how the perfect garden should look, while remaining wedded to notions of simple and strong design, using good quality (though not necessarily expensive) materials and plants.

Back at home, with the mantra of "people, place and landscape" running in my head, I found myself looking at my garden in a new way. That is what a trip to Wilderness Farm will do for you.

Cabbages and Kings, Hadlow Down, is five-and-a-half miles north east of Uckfield, half a mile south of Hadlow Down, beside Wilderness Lane. It is open to visitors from Easter to September, on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and bank holiday Mondays, from 10am to 6pm. Admission costs pounds 2.50, concessions pounds 2.