The Old Vicarage at Great Doddington in Northants rises from the village street with the kind of steady grace that suggests it's been there a very long time. It was built in 1510, in local creamy stone and, apart from a makeover in the 1860s, has been little disturbed since. For the past 10 years it's been home to Richard and Rosie Humphreys and their three children, Imogen (13), Lewis (11) and Laura (7). While they have been there, they have made some changes in the garden, but recently felt they were ready for some new ideas. They wanted to give the garden more interest, while at the same time making it easier to manage. So they made a generous bid for my advice in The Independent's charity auction last Christmas and asked if I'd delay my visit until this summer, when I could see the place in full, rampageous flowering.
The garden flows round the house on three sides, with some fine old trees, particularly on the boundary that is shared with the churchyard beyond. A few bits of garden have been nipped off in the past, to provide a pavement for the village street and a building plot for a new vicarage, but the Humphreys family still have about an acre to play with - which is more than enough when you have three children swilling about underfoot. I remember what that's like and the way that days and days race by with never a second to pull a weed or plant a cabbage.
The soil is alkaline and well drained and the general exuberance of the plants shows that it must also be fertile. Old gardens such as this generally are, since generations of gardeners will have carted muck from the stables to keep the ground in good heart. The family's greatest gift to the garden will be to continue to mulch every spring, which will maintain fertility, suppress annual weeds and conserve moisture. The time spent mulching in spring can be recouped in summer, as they won't have to water so much.
The present (new) entrance brings you direct from the village street through double wooden gates to the gravel forecourt, right by the front door. Arriving there for the first time, I felt the sense of privacy in this part of the garden would be greatly enhanced if the Humphreys family could revert to the original, more circuitous entrance along their western boundary. Then the house could reveal its charms slowly, which is always the best way. The old drive now leads to the new vicarage, but Richard Humphreys, a barrister who specialises in planning law, is exactly the right man to investigate rights of access along this original route.
The south-facing entrance front is the house's best face, and looks out over the gravel forecourt to a big lawn. In design terms, there is more that could be done with this very large area. There are frills of planting all the way round and several of the borders are too narrow to contain more than a single row of plants. It seemed to me that the family could cut down on maintenance if they got rid of some of these slightly unsatisfactory borders. It would introduce a change of pace in the area, give it variety.
The most important border should be the fine thick shrubbery along the boundary with the village street. This is excellent, but looked as though it might run out of steam later in the summer. I suggested adding a few big hydrangeas, such as Hydrangea villosa or Hydrangea sargentiana. Hydrangea quercifolia is also handsome, but trickier to please. There was a gap at the bottom that very much needed to be filled, to blot out an electricity transformer and some unlovely modern roofs. The Humphreys family had lost a tree here and had planted a Sorbus cashmiriana in its place. This is a beautiful thing, but light-limbed and deciduous. On its own, it will not be able to give sufficient cover. My instinct would be to first plug the gap with some hard-working evergreens, then to front the evergreen backdrop with pretty things such as the Sorbus. The garden already has quite a strong Victorian overlay, which is part of its history and evolution. The family could build on this by using bay ( Laurus nobilis) and Portugal laurel ( Prunus lusitanica) in the gap. They are both handsome evergreens in a quiet way. They are also the best possible defence against traffic noise.
We talked about stripping the other walls of ivy - there is too much of it. The boundaries are handsomely built of stone and do not need to be totally disguised. The west wall could be lined with parallel wires, set about 18in apart and planted with wisteria trained out along the wires in parallel tramlines. It looks wonderful grown that way and, once in position, is very little trouble to keep. The white-flowered wisteria I trained on a wall of our new house already stretches its arms across 26ft of wall. Rosie Humphreys and I perhaps share a rather blurry, romantic vision of what a garden should be, but the blur and the romance (as I have learned the hard way) is much enhanced if contained within an ordered framework.
The adjoining wall is shaded by a huge sycamore and, stripped of its too-narrow border, could be left plain, though I would be very tempted to plant columns of Irish yew at regular intervals to make, as it were, green buttresses. It would provide a contrast to the other walls without requiring much maintenance. Either way, the Humphreys family could give a crisper look to the lawn by edging it with board or metal strips. It would make a huge difference to the overall impression of the garden.
The family's biggest concern is the area lying directly in front of the terrace by the kitchen. It's very much in view. Entranced by the memory of a Suffolk meadow, seen in late spring, they seeded the area with a wildflower mix, but after two years, were left with little except cow parsley. This is charming until early June, and then looks a bedraggled mess.
It's a biggish area, with an arc of mature trees all round the boundaries with the new vicarage and the churchyard. Given the lie of the land, it's mostly in shade, so I'm not entirely surprised it didn't work as a meadow. The ground is uneven and stony and Richard Humphreys thinks builders have used it as a rubbish dump.
But though it's failed as a meadow, there could be a rather wonderful small wood here: a shady, mysterious area, with clumps of coppiced hazel and box bushes, unclipped and free-ranging. The long-term aim should be to ivy-carpet the floor, which will keep it clean from weeds and make it easy to look after. Foxgloves. Ferns. Vast pools of autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium. This is an easy look, once established, and has the slightly wildish edge that Rosie Humphreys might like. Snowdrops, primroses, bluebells can all be part of it. Cow parsley too, though not so much as at present.
How do they bring it about? They could start by creating a more pleasing background than the Leyland cypress that screens them from the new vicarage beyond. The hedge could be grubbed out, but it is doing an important screening job and, on balance, it may be better to leave it and place a yew screen 10 feet or so in front to make a new backdrop, which need not be so high. The area between leylandii and yew then becomes a secret alley.
The Humphreys family could either try to work with what they have got, or get rid of it entirely and start again. Either is possible. If they want to start with a clean slate, they should trim down the existing growth, wait for the leaf cover to develop again and then treat it with Roundup. By this time, the rosettes of primrose leaves should have shrivelled up and gone. This autumn, they could get in the structural planting (yew hedge, hazel clumps, box, plus some white-flowered shrubs such as Viburnum opulus and Rubus Tridel 'Benenden') and start nurturing any ivy that exists there (or plant more, but only ordinary English ivy, Hedera helix, not fancy kinds).
They could also sow foxglove seed in the kitchen garden (white flowered ones, or 'Sutton's Apricot') so that they can grow on a good number of plants to set in the new wood. Once established, the foxgloves should seed themselves about. Planting of ferns, foxgloves and cyclamen should be in big patches, so that they can join hands and fight off intruders. Then the planting will look strong and meaningful, rather than spotty and dotty. Ferns should be English natives such as hart's tongue ( Asplenium scolopendrium), the male fern ( Dryopteris filix-mas) and the lady fern ( Athyrium filix-femina), which will love this soil. If this area develops as it should, given the conditions, it will have quite a different feeling to other parts of the garden. I rather envy the Humphreys family. All they need is time.Reuse content