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Before & After: An Airy Gravel Garden for a Midcentury British House in West Dorset

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Before & After: An Airy Gravel Garden for a Midcentury British House in West Dorset

February 14, 2018

When Vanessa Barlow and Jethro Marshall bought their midcentury house in the British coastal town of West Dorset 11 years ago, the existing large lawn (which was surrounded by mature trees, shrubs, and beech and laurel hedging) and newer bamboos to the east of the house provided the perfect sheltered play area for their three children.

But three years ago when the couple decided to significantly extend the single-story property, it created an opportunity to create the landscape that Vanessa had always dreamed of—and to reinvent the neglected east side of the garden.

The remodel carefully respected the design and materials of the original house, and it was important to have a garden that worked harmoniously with the architecture too. What they’ve created, working with garden designer Alice Meacham, is a beautiful, airy gravel garden with billowy, layered planting that looks good year-round.

Photography by Jethro Marshall.

In the winter the established grasses hold their structure while Cornus ‘Winter Beauty’ acts as a striking backdrop to Stipa tenuissima and pheasant’s tail grass (Stipa arundinacea). Evergreen shrubs including Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ and Hebe ‘Sutherlandii’ add additional winter color.
Above: In the winter the established grasses hold their structure while Cornus ‘Winter Beauty’ acts as a striking backdrop to Stipa tenuissima and pheasant’s tail grass (Stipa arundinacea). Evergreen shrubs including Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ and Hebe ‘Sutherlandii’ add additional winter color.

It’s a stunning garden that draws the garden into the house and vice versa. “It has changed the whole focus of how we use the house,” Barlow says. “It feels private yet has open views into the Lym valley. I love how it changes seasonally and the subtle colors that come and go. The garden performs all year and it has given us more joy than we could have imagined.”

Ornamental grasses, euphorbias, and alliums border a wooden deck.
Above: Ornamental grasses, euphorbias, and alliums border a wooden deck.

“The new extension emphasized the Californian feel of the house and so a gravel garden seemed like a particularly good fit,” Barlow says. “We also like simplicity. Our house is midcentury so the garden feels like an echo of the interiors; we wanted to keep it clean with highlights of white and purple, and not much else.”

 Verbena bonariensis adds a purple accent.
Above: Verbena bonariensis adds a purple accent.

The couple had been particularly inspired by Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex and the soft informality of its dry Mediterranean planting, but the conditions here—with high rainfall and heavy clay soil—were the exact opposite to Chatto’s dry East Anglian climate. So Meacham created a scheme that included lots of the airiness of Chatto’s planting but using plants that are able to cope with the soggy conditions.

 “We made sure that a good proportion of the plants would be robust enough to cope with the retentive soil, while still providing the Mediterranean feel,” Meacham says. “Phormiums, junipers, cornus, and miscanthus have all done well here. But, perhaps surprisingly, the stipas and euphorbias have also performed consistently, probably due to the warm sheltered conditions.”
Above:  “We made sure that a good proportion of the plants would be robust enough to cope with the retentive soil, while still providing the Mediterranean feel,” Meacham says. “Phormiums, junipers, cornus, and miscanthus have all done well here. But, perhaps surprisingly, the stipas and euphorbias have also performed consistently, probably due to the warm sheltered conditions.”

There is so much texture from the grasses and shrubs that only occasional strong pops of color are required. In spring alliums provide dots of purple followed by Verbena bonariensis and agapanthus in summer.

 The German biergarten table and benches on the terrace were painted white and perfectly echo the feel of the house, the couple bought the furniture at Bridport Antiques Market.
Above: The German biergarten table and benches on the terrace were painted white and perfectly echo the feel of the house, the couple bought the furniture at Bridport Antiques Market.
 The overall look, Meacham says, is as much &#8\2\20;prairie&#8\2\2\1; as &#8\2\20;gravel&#8\2\2\1; garden, with striking grasses, such as cortaderia, repeated through the space.
Above: The overall look, Meacham says, is as much “prairie” as “gravel” garden, with striking grasses, such as cortaderia, repeated through the space.
Ornamental grasses planted in drifts are reminiscent of Midwestern prairies.
Above: Ornamental grasses planted in drifts are reminiscent of Midwestern prairies.

See more ideas for designing billowy, airy drifts in 10 Ideas to Steal from Prairie-Style Gardens.

Before

 Because of the heavy soil, lots of work was put into ground preparation.
Above: Because of the heavy soil, lots of work was put into ground preparation.

At the heart of the garden is a large deck with surrounding terracing that links the house extension to the planting beyond. The terracing helps drain the heavy clay soil and land drains were also installed in the sub soil.

 Eight tons of new topsoil was bought in and the land was sculpted along the terracing to form slightly raised sides along a central depression, which would become a &#8\2\20;dry river bed&#8\2\2\1; and also the central walkway though the garden. The whole area was then covered in a couple of inches of gravel.
Above: Eight tons of new topsoil was bought in and the land was sculpted along the terracing to form slightly raised sides along a central depression, which would become a “dry river bed” and also the central walkway though the garden. The whole area was then covered in a couple of inches of gravel.

After

 The central walk is occasionally broken up with specimen plantings of Pinus mugo ‘Mughus’ or Skyrocket juniper, with the new planting slightly raised on both sides. The clever scheme means that year round there is always something of interest: phormiums ‘Yellow Wave’ and ‘Red Sensation’ provide a bold vibrancy against the airy texture of the stipas.
Above: The central walk is occasionally broken up with specimen plantings of Pinus mugo ‘Mughus’ or Skyrocket juniper, with the new planting slightly raised on both sides. The clever scheme means that year round there is always something of interest: phormiums ‘Yellow Wave’ and ‘Red Sensation’ provide a bold vibrancy against the airy texture of the stipas.

Bergenia, lavenders, prostrate junipers, and rosemary all provide a lower tier of planting around the edges.

The best news for the rest of us is that anyone can stay in this garden too. Tucked away on the grounds is The Garden House Studio, a small rental that echoes the midcentury style and decor of Jethro and Vanessa’s house and offers a perch from which to explore a gorgeous corner of England.

Whether you’re designing a new landscape or planning a project to improve your existing garden, get started with our Garden 101 design guides, including Gravel 101 and Decks & Patios 101. For inspiration, see our favorite Before & After projects, including:

Finally, learn how to successfully use gravel in a hardscape project with our Hardscaping 101: Gravel guide.

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