When Donald and Charlotte Molesworth first arrived at their small Kent cottage more than three decades ago, there was a derelict house and an almost totally blank canvas. The plot was on the edge of an estate that once belonged to “Cherry” Ingram, the great Victorian plant hunter. It had also once been the estate’s kitchen garden; it may have looked like a wasteland but it was one with fertile soil, that had been improved over centuries.
What the couple have created since then is nothing short of extraordinary, a flourishing garden that centers around Charlotte’s awe-inspiring topiary and a cluster of small buildings (including a holiday cottage to rent) in the beautiful Kent landscape. On a rainy day we joined Charlotte for a tour:
Photography by Clare Coulson for Gardenista.
Charlotte insists there was no masterplan when they began the garden. They requested yew seedlings as their wedding gifts and they planted them all before transplanting them at a later date.
Charlotte’s horticultural talent is in her blood. Her father was a farmer on the nearby North Downs and her mother was a plantswoman who grew and sold primulas and had a love of yew. It was her aunt, another talented gardener, who first planted the seed, of training topiary. Charlotte’s skills and her garden have grown organically.
Almost everything here has been grown, recycled or rescued (“We are great scavengers,” admits Charlotte). The greenhouses have been built using unwanted materials destined for the scrap heap; the polytunnels were rescued. Even some of the garden’s most beautiful trees (including some stunning Malus Huphensis) were picked up as tiny seedlings on walks on the next door estate many years ago. The large pinus radiata and Scot’s pine that edge the garden also contribute to a wonderful borrowed landscape.
She’s very picky about plant hygiene as her garden is currently untouched by the ravages of box blight. She uses an organic treatment of effective microorganisms to keep the plants healthy and she is fanatical when pruning, sterilizing tools as she trims with a bleach solution. When she works on other people’s gardens, she will not only sterilize all her tools when she gets home, she also will wash all her clothes and take a shower, to ensure that no disease or harmful blight spores can travel with her.
The garden would be enough to keep any gardener occupied full-time but Charlotte is now in great demand to design topiary for other gardens too and regularly works on estates and grand gardens. In one commission she added her signature wit to a Luciano Giubbilei designed garden by topping off the perimeter hedge around a pool with a flotilla of topiary ducks.
Charlotte has occasional help in trimming the hedges from Modern Mint’s Darren Lerigo and will use an electric hedge trimmer for the hedges but uses Japanese clips for topiary work. And, just as crucially, she has three Niwaki ladders to make the job safer and easier.
A few years ago Charlotte and Donald began renting out a little cottage in the garden. The Potting Shed (which as its name suggests was once an outbuilding when the site was a kitchen garden) is a one-bedroom timber framed cottage for two enclosed with its own private garden, summer house, and nosy sheep from the pasture next door. It’s also the perfect base for visiting other gardens too – it’s a few miles from Sissinghurst Castle and close to many other gardens to visit including Great Dixter and Pashley Manor.
For more topiary ideas, see:
- On the Street: 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Paris.
- Topiary with a Softer Side.
- A Secret Garden: Fanciful Topiary in the Berkshires.