A report by Jenny Gibb on our garden visit in May to Churchfield in Postling.
On an overcast but dry afternoon, 13 HPS members met at the house and garden of Chris and Nikki Clark, next to Postling’s 11th century church. The Clarks had graciously agreed to show us around prior to their NGS Open Garden weekend, with their neighbour Malliet, our Kent HPS Chairman, as an additional guide.
Chris explained that the house and garden cover nearly six acres – much of it water! – on land that had been a pick-your-own fruit farm prior to their arrival 18 years ago. They planted a cobnut platt when they moved in, which is still going strong and produced 1,000lbs of nuts, handpicked last autumn; apparently the Turkish are very keen on cobnuts. Chris recommended ‘Hall’s Giant’ as an excellent variety.
The Clarks’ unique house was built 15 years ago and sits near the bottom of a steep slope overlooking a pair of spring-fed lakes. These were originally stocked with fish by the farmer, who unfortunately also planted Crassula helmsii (New Zealand pigmyweed) to oxygenate the water. This is highly invasive and is a notifiable weed, so they have to drag out masses of it from the lakes every year using a digger. This forms great heaps on their boundary farthest from the house, where it breaks down over three years to make superb compost (which can be used under the notification scheme). The plot is surrounded by ash trees, but Chris pointed out visible signs of Chalara ash dieback, so he is resigned to losing many of them in the future. One had recently fallen across the road at the top of the steep hill above their house and had taken huge effort to cut up and clear.
From the drive lined with glossy-leaved Tilia euchlora, Chris led us to the rear of the house across a terrace and pergola with pots of grasses and immaculate hostas, climbing Trachelospermum jasminoides and a Chilean lantern tree (Crinodendron hookerianum), which has red bud-like flowers. Several people asked about an unusual plant with large silver-white leaves, which Chris said was a new purchase, Senecio candicans. The island bed opposite had Eryngium giganteum (Miss Willmott’s Ghost), tall Miscanthus sacchariflorus and an enormous and striking umbellifer, black parsley (Melanoselinum decipiens). Chris said their soil is clay with flints, which washes down from the surrounding hills.
We reached the first lake, which was surrounded by lush planting of rodgersias, bistort, yellow iris, umbrella-like Darmera peltata, candelabra primroses, hostas and epimediums (of which more later). The Clarks had recently added astilbes from Marwood Hill Gardens (a National Collection). Climbing up the house wall behind us were coral vine, Berberidopsis corallina, and an attractive variegated kiwi, Actinidia pilosula, which has pink, scented flowers and white leaf tips.
The house has a wonderful view over the second lake, which has a bridge at the far end and could almost have been from Monet’s garden – a beautiful and tranquil spot. Lakeside planting here included zantedeschias well in flower, sarcococca, ligularias and brunnera, which Chris said seeds around nicely. He pointed out Lysichiton americanus, Western skunkcabbage, another non-native invasive plant now prohibited from sale.
A lovely area at the back of the lake contained a range of mainly blue flowers – meconopsis, Corydalis ‘Craigton Blue’, cream-flowered Epimedium ‘Spinners’, dark blue agapanthus with Persicaria ‘Golden Arrow’, which is very pale and good in shade (it may bleach if in direct sun). We all admired the spectacular spike of an echium in full flower, which Nikki said had taken three years to appear. As we walked up and down paths through woodland beyond the lake, generous planting surrounded us, with yellow asphodelines, orange geums, red lysimachia and others mixed in with native cow parsley and wood avens. A steep bank below the road where the ash tree fell was covered with hart’s tongue fern and red campion. More dappled shade at the top of the slopes had Thalictrum aquilegifolium, Veronica gentianoides and a range of hardy geraniums mixed with foxgloves.
Returning across the lake bridge, we enjoyed the diverse and cleverly combined planting on the banks around the house. There were many more plants and pairings than I have space to mention, but I found lots of inspiration and interest. Silene fimbriata was thriving, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ was over 5ft high, and the delicate grass Melica uniflora (wood melick) was much admired. An orange honeysuckle romped up a neighbouring tree, and Phlomis russeliana sheltered a maidenhair fern. Chris said that their romneya (tree poppy) had taken a while to get going but was now doing well. In deep shade by a house wall, pachysandra and Lamium orvala grew with Azara dentata (apparently good for goldfinches) and vanilla-scented A. microphylla.
Chris led us out between the lakes and up the rear slope to ash woodland edging the garden at the top. Here was space for bigger and more vigorous shrubs such as Clerodendrum bungei, with symphytum, lamium, euphorbia, more foxgloves and hardy geraniums (including Geranium x magnificum covered in flower), and groundcover such as Waldsteinia ternata.
Chris has a particular passion for epimediums and has over 120 types. Some of these are in pots in a separate building, but many are planted in this area of the garden. He has good connections with a National Collection holder for the genus in Essex.
We descended the bank, crossed the spring outflow, and walked through a wilder area of comfrey, wood avens and hedge garlic to the edge of the cobnut platt. This spot is a sort of ‘communal garden’; Nikki and Malliet plant the ‘spares’ they have from their own gardens, and others in the village bring along their plants to add to the mix. It all made for a colourful and diverse display.
While Nikki and Chris prepared refreshments, we had a ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ bonus, as Malliet kindly gave us a tour of her own garden next door. Although different in character to the Clarks’ garden, this was equally lovely. Colour-coordinated borders and island beds, immaculately kept lawns and clipped shrubs, a tranquil courtyard with water, a summerhouse and pond, and a range of unusual plants as might be expected from our group chairman. Even her sweatshirt was colour-matched to an orange rose! Malliet was happy to let us roam around and enjoy her garden, but was ready with plant names when asked, especially for her numerous roses. A few anecdotes were also shared!
Returning to Churchfield, we enjoyed tea and cake with the Clarks and admired their wonderful planting and the glorious waterside view from the house. Chris had some of his diverse epimedium collection in large pots on the terrace, and was happy to talk about them.
I would like to thank Chris and Nikki Clark for their hospitality, and also Malliet; we all enjoyed an excellent afternoon.