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A revitalised Oxfordshire garden with the help of Mark Griffiths

My beautiful Oxfordshire garden was revitalised with the help of Mark Griffiths. Sheltered by old walls and high fences, the garden that surrounds my North Oxford home covers about 750 square metres.

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Much of the plot receives direct sunlight, but there are also dark corners, and one substantial area, flanking the northeast side of the house, is permanently in full or dappled shade. The soil is predominantly silty-stony with lenses of sandy-silty clay and overall mildly alkaline and free-draining (although I’ve managed to lower its pH and change its composition in various places). Apart from woodland acid beds and paved areas, the entire plot is top-dressed with locally-sourced limestone gravel, which harmonises with the house and its rural environs and gives surprising coherence to my eclectic and informal plantings.

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The garden is on different levels. In front of the house, there’s a wide courtyard accessed by the driveway. Behind and around the house, the land rises and expands into the main planting area, which slopes gently upwards to the boundary. On the shady side, this change in level takes the form of a long deep bank. On the sunny side, the land is cut-into and retained with a waist-high wall that borders a paved terrace at the rear of the house. Midway along it, a broad flight of steps leads from the terrace up into the plantings.

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But navigating the plot visually is just as important. Because it sits higher than the ground floor, the garden seems remarkably present, close and enclosing, when one is inside the house. The shady bank, for example, runs directly alongside the drawing room, filling its windows with an extraordinarily intimate prospect of tree ferns, azaleas and woodland treasures. From my dining room, the gaze fixes first on the alpines that tumble over the terrace wall and then lifts, travelling over the sea of gravel through archipelagos of sun-loving perennials and shrubs, via cypress spires, tamarisk’s soft haze and the spiky solidity of yuccas and palms, before arriving at the perimeter. Here, in one corner, a bamboo grove backs a circular pond; in another, there’s a mysterious arbour of Prunus lusitanica. Along the boundary between them, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ is paired with Rhamnus alaternus ‘Argenteovariegata’ to give me, in the dark months, a vista of delicate pink blossom contrasted with white-edged silver-grey foliage.

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Much of the hard landscaping was installed in 1984, as were some notable trees. But by 2000, when I acquired the property, the garden had lost its way, becoming overgrown in some areas and desolate in others. A complete rethink was needed. I mentioned the problem to a firm friend I’d made in my local pub, the horticulturist and botanist Mark Griffiths. He is best-known for his books such as the multi-volume New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening (1992) and The Lotus Quest (2009), and for his journalism - back then for The Times and now for Country Life magazine. But he is also a practical garden consultant and designer: for example, he planned and planted the celebrated medicinal garden of the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park.

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When he saw my plot, Mark was gripped by its potential. He was intrigued, too, by the fact that, having been interested in gardening since boyhood and helped maintain various family gardens, I now wanted to go much further, to create a green space that was something special, an environment that would occupy, challenge and fascinate me and where I could happily live and work. I should add that Mark’s own Oxford garden was full at the time. He relished the prospect of using mine to try out ideas, to give a home to the plants that he and his life partner, the Japanese garden expert Yoko Otsuki, were introducing to British cultivation, and to work off his excess gardening energy.

Robert and Mark member profile plant lover and shoot member 

And so, instead of sitting in the pub, we met to raid nurseries and remake the garden - not on a client-consultant basis, but in friendship and mutually beneficial collaboration.

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The first step was to decide what to keep and how. Perhaps influenced by Yoko and Japan, Mark was an early UK proponent of pruning mature trees and shrubs to enhance their sculptural value, clearing their stems and shaping their canopies. In this way, we made striking new features of old and overgrown specimens of Viburnum tinus, Mahonia x media, Malus, Cotoneaster and various others. Next we looked to Nature for guidance, deciding what would grow where by assessing different areas of the garden in terms of habitat. For example, with its soil improved, made dark, humusy and damp, the gloomy bank that I’ve mentioned turned from an unloved problem spot into one of the garden’s greatest assets: a green vault of large specimens of Dicksonia antarctica punctuated by the bizarre lancewoods Pseudopanax crassifolius and P. ferox, and the towering lily Cardiocrinum giganteum, illuminated by Kurume azaleas, Kirengeshoma palmata and Deinanthe caerulea, and carpeted by smaller ferns and hostas.

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We determined the garden’s other planting zones by the same method. Lighter and drier shade was given over to winter-decorative shrubs such as Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’, Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ and underplanted with hellebores, Epimedium and Pulmonaria. The pond’s environs were turned into a jungle of Fatsia japonica, bamboos, Trachycarpus fortunei and hydrangeas. With summer-flowering perennials and ornamental grasses, we painted the garden’s sunny mid-ground in pastels. To the hottest spots of all – the courtyard, for example – we introduced the palm Chamaerops humilis var. argentea and other silvery natives of the Mediterranean and Southern Hemisphere. 

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So ordered, the garden became a world of plants. It allowed me to grow pretty much everything that took my fancy or which Mark urged upon me (a great many species and cultivars indeed). Among them were plants that a certain kind of genteel English gardener might find distasteful. The smaller conifers, for example, have been invaluable in bringing permanent structure and colour to my garden (the trick is not lump them together but to combine them with other kinds of plants). My taste for flamboyant exotics also used to upset visitors of more conservative tastes, although fashion seems to have declared it respectable since. 

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At the start, we settled on a policy of no bars to planting ambitions. This involved becoming adept at irrigation, changing the soil conditions and protecting against winter cold. The last of these measures applies most obviously to the many containerized cannas, bananas, Citrus and succulents that adorn the terrace and other paved areas. In some cases, plants said to be too tender for my location have proved tougher than I could ever have hoped. For example, emboldened by my early success with Camellia sasanqua, I recently planted a magnificent row of them, three metres tall, thirteen metres long and trained as a single espalier along the southwest boundary of the courtyard. It is still flourishing after some cruel winters.

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Over the past seventeen years, the garden has grown ever more important to me. Indeed, my business base is now set there in a specially-constructed two-storey building. During my long career in industry, I have travelled to, and lived in, many faraway places. These have influenced the different looks and atmospheres that I’ve tried to create.

Robert and Mark member profile plant lover and shoot member

At the same time, my garden is itself a perennially and wonderfully foreign place, endlessly surprising. Every day spent in it is an exploration. As the great 14th Century Japanese landscape designer Muso Soseki wrote, ‘we make a garden instead of a journey.’

Robert and Mark member profile plant lover and shoot member

p.s. I like to keep a low profile - here I am with Mark Griffiths at the left (please find Mark on Twitter @griffithsgarden here). Creating this wonderful garden continues to be a journey and a collaboration of great friends.

Plant list

There are over 500 plant varities in my garden. Here are just a few:

Bog loving plants

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'
Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'
Typha minima
Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'
Equisetum hyemale
Dodecatheon pulchellum 'Red Wings'
Anemopsis californica

Fern plants

Asplenium scolopendrium
Dryopteris erythrosora
Asplenium trichomanes
Adiantum venustum
Dicksonia antarctica
Polypodium vulgare
Osmunda regalis
Blechnum spicant
Polystichum polyblepharum
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum
Cyrtomium fortunei
Adiantum pedatum
Polystichum aculeatum
Asplenium scolopendrium 'Undulata'
Polystichum munitum
Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum 'Burgundy Lace'
Asplenium scolopendrium Cristatum Group
Athyrium filix-femina subsp. angustum f. rubellum 'Lady in Red'
Arachniodes simplicior
Dryopteris filix-mas 'Linearis Polydactyla'
Dryopteris affinis 'Crispa Gracilis'
Dryopteris sieboldii
Onychium japonicum
Polystichum setiferum Plumosomultilobum Group
Dryopteris dilatata
Pteris cretica 'Wimsettii'
Arachniodes aristata

Herbaceous perennial plants

Primula denticulata
Crambe cordifolia
Aster x frikartii 'Monch'
Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
Oenothera speciosa 'Siskiyou'
Thalictrum delavayi 'Hewitt's Double'
Verbena 'Peaches and Cream'
Potentilla 'Gibson's Scarlet'
Geum 'Mrs J. Bradshaw'
Dahlia 'Moonfire'
Iris x hollandica
Hosta 'Wide Brim'
Eryngium agavifolium
Hosta 'June'
Hedychium coccineum 'Tara'
Tricyrtis hirta
Anemone x hybrida 'Whirlwind'
Dicentra 'King of Hearts'
Aster novi-belgii 'Lady in Blue'
Centaurea montana 'Gold Bullion'
Helichrysum 'Ruby Cluster'
Iris pallida 'Aurea Variegata'
Scabiosa 'Butterfly Blue'
Geum coccineum 'Cooky'
Geum 'Borisii'
Cosmos 'Chocamocha'
Hosta 'Krossa Regal'
Euphorbia seguieriana subsp. niciciana
Acanthus mollis Latifolius Group 'Rue Ledan'
Iris versicolor
Coreopsis rosea 'American Dream'
Knautia macedonica 'Red Knight'
Hosta 'White Feather'
Hosta 'First Frost'
Eryngium x zabelii 'Jos Eijking'
Veronica spicata 'Ulster Blue Dwarf'
Potentilla 'Monarchs Velvet'
Kalimeris incisa
Hosta 'Hands Up'
Hedychium densiflorum 'Assam Orange'
Lavandula x intermedia 'Gros Bleu'
Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora 'Bampton'
Hedychium flavum