Natural Fabric - The garden of Stoke Ferry's Claire Smith
Colour and texture have always played an important role in Claire Smith's life, and never more so than in her half-acre garden in West Norfolk. As a student at Art School, Claire specialised in textiles and weaving. From there she went on to teach art, and then diversified into textile technology and design.
It is small wonder then that her garden should reflect these influences. Its colour-themed beds are densely planted with careful and imaginative juxtapositions of foliage; broad-leafed and feathery, spiky and rounded, felted and glossy. Flowers also play a prominent role with brassy, Oriental poppies in plum, crimson and vermilion, lime-green euphorbias, and the biscuit coloured plumes of grasses all combining to turn a modest plot surrounding a modern suburban house into a garden of drama and inspiration.
"I go for colour first and foremost", explains Claire, "then texture and shape and size. I'm always very aware of repeat patterns, which were an important part of my textiles training. In nature, flowers of the same plant obviously repeat themselves, but you can also place plants together that have echoing shapes or colours. For example, a daisy like the osteospermum fits very well with Hebe 'Red Edge', as its oval petals echo the shape of the Hebe's foliage." Circles and pompoms are among Claire's favourite shapes, the latter often translated into what she dubs "the cushion effect", where a planting starts low around the edges, billowing up to form a central mound that is tactile as well as visual.
Quick to see which plantings are working and which are not, Claire adopts a pragmatic approach, uprooting and recombining until she is happy with the result. "The border next to the front door evolved because I was interested in the new wave of grass planting that started a few years ago with Piet Oudolf", she says. "I grew a lot of grasses from seed, dug out the border and put in swathes that I thought would be really spectacular." The result was far from what Claire had hoped. "It looked like a field. It was terrible; there was no structure and the grasses just disappeared into each other." She decided to get rid of about three-quarters of the grasses, leaving strategic clumps, and then added more perennials, including big-leaved, textured plants like the ligularias. "I love them for their depth of foliage colour and the way their leaves have dark undersides and lighter tops," she explains.
Some of the grasses in the garden remain all year, while those that get tatty or die down in the winter are cut back in the spring. Claire combs through some of the grasses with her hands to get rid of the dead foliage. "Just pull," she advises, "and any dead bits come away, and the green stays put. But don't attempt this on any grass that could cut your fingers."
With a splash from the scarlet poppy Papaver orientale Goliath Group 'Beauty of Livermere' and carmine Lychnis viscaria, the border is now a striking series of contrasts, held together by continuity of colour in both foliage and flower.
It's hard to believe that just five years ago, when Claire and her husband David moved here with their teenage children, Simon and Chloe, all that existed in the garden was a row of young windbreak trees, a large patch of lawn and a wide gravel driveway. All the borders are island beds were designed and laid out using hosepipe and pieces of string, and dug out by David. "We looked down on the garden from the upstairs windows and decided what we liked and what we didn't, and went from there," remembers Claire. "It was an awful struggle to put in borders near the house because it's built on a chalk ridge. The ground is very chalky and flinty, and full of builders' rubble. Even now when I dig a planting hole, out comes half a brick. I take the rubbish out as I find it and replace it with as much manure and leaf-mould as possible."
Borders surrounding the house and terrace are complemented by deep beds adjoining the boundaries, including a boggy area that grew from their discovery of an overgrown and derelict pond at the bottom of the garden. "The lining was punctured," Claire recalls, "but that didn't matter. We carried on puncturing it, filled it up with good soil and it became a bog garden."
The "good soil" came from those areas of the plot further from the house that were found to contain a rich fen silt, in particular from a little sunken garden we made next to the driveway. This was originally planned to be part of one continuous border, running the length of the garden. But after some discussion and much pondering from upstairs windows, Claire and David decided that such a large bed would be unmanageable and instead amended their design to include paths that ramble down and across, leading to the sunken garden in the centre.
The sunken garden was duly dug out by hand and enclosed by plants to transform it into a secret place. "The only trouble was that it worked too well," Claire reveals with a smile. "People just weren't finding their way into the sunken part, as it was too secret. Now we've cut it back so that it invites you in, and when you're sitting there you still feel that you're hidden away."
This section is planted with mainly pink and silver plants, although true to form, Claire has modified her initial design to include purples and plums as she felt an exclusively pink border looked boring. "I am constantly changing things," she admits. "There is always something I'm not happy with. But I think that if you reach the stage when you think everything's just right, then you've switched off. You're not seeing it afresh."
Although Claire still does some teaching during the winter months, the garden takes over her time completely during spring and summer. A naturally patient person, as all good teachers are, she enjoys growing things from seed, and, as well as growing for the garden, she has now started a small nursery specialising in hardy perennials. "I love seeing seeds come to life, watching them develop and progress. Then I love putting it all together in the garden, immersing myself in the tranquillity of it all. Its very therapeutic and very fulfilling."
SEDUM TELEPHIUM 'MATRONA' With big fleshy leaves edged in maroon, this stonecrop looks as if it has been dipped in pink paint. Claire says, "I love the serrated edges of the leaves and it stays fresh-looking for so long."
LIGULARIA DENTATA 'DESDEMONA' Each bold, burgundy leaf is the size of a dinner-plate. Spires of orange, daisy-like flowers appear in July and August.
HELLEBOROUS HYBRIDUS "They have foliage like opened-out umbrellas, which make you feel as if you could walk across them to the spiky grasses," says Claire.
RHEUM PALMATUM This ornamental rhubarb makes a bold display with its giant, divided leaves and tall, stately flower spikes.
HEUCHERAS "With these plants you get two in one," says Claire, "beautiful mounded leaves and then lovely spikes with dainty little flowers." Heuchera 'Chocolate Ruffles' has deep maroon foliage and delicate flower spires while Heuchera cylindrical 'Greenfinch' has shiny green leaves and large, strong flowers, like ears of wheat. It has the added bonus of flower stalks that occasionally take it into their heads to grow sideways for a single day, giving the stems attractive kinks.
GUNNERA MANICATA This statuesque plant has prickly stems the size of young tree trunks and huge leaves that can reach 1.5m (5ft) across. It needs a boggy spot, but be sure not to submerge the crown of the plant.
DARMERA PELTATA For a smaller version of the gunnera, try this umbrella-like plant, which grows to 1 - 1.5m (3 1/2 -5ft) tall and had rounded, bright green leaves. Like the gunnera, it needs moist soil, so it's good for planting by a pond,
"I love the texture of grasses and the way they blow in the wind." Says Claire. "Many are multi-coloured and I think the way they change through the seasons is wonderful. By August, great flower-heads make them twice as tall and give them a shimmering haze that lasts right through the autumn."
MILIUM EFFUSUM 'AUREM' Bowles golden grass is a lower-growing plant with gold foliage and delicate flower spikes. It makes a useful see-through plant for the front of the border.
DESCHAMPSIA CESPITOSA This carries graceful, arching, feathery flowers early in the season, and thrives in light shade.
MISCANTHUS TRANSMORRISONENIS Green ribbons of foliage are joined by big plumes in the autumn. "I think it's the best grass there is, because it stays evergreen as well," explains Claire.
STIPA GIGANTEA With oat-like spires over 1.8m (6ft) tall in summer, this grass glows golden when the sun is behind it.
CALAMAGROSTIS ARUNDINACEA Both this and the smaller Stipa tenuissima produce soft mounds of fine foliage, which give an attractive fluffy effect.
LUZULU SYLVATICA For Claire, this spike-leaved plant, which flowers early in the season, signals the start of spring in the garden. It is ideal for dry shade.
MELICA ALTISSIMA 'ATROPURPUREA' A perennial grass with spiky purple flowers, which appear in early summer alongside the narrow, bright green foliage.
PLEIOBLASTUS AURICOMUS A bamboo rather than a grass, this has vibrant green and yellow variegation.
Melicia altissima 'Atropurpurea', Miscanthus sinensis, Panicum virgatum