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The Roundhouse: Fearless Shingle Gardening at Dungeness on the Coast of England


The Roundhouse: Fearless Shingle Gardening at Dungeness on the Coast of England

June 7, 2023

How to describe Dungeness on the south coast of England? Let’s start with the weather: “Wild, extreme, elemental… salt wind, predominantly from the south-west, cold Easterlies, intense searing sun.” This is according to Kathryn Morris, owner of the Roundhouse, the only property on this shingled promontory that has sheltering hedges and a fence. Dungeness is a conservation area and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as well as a site of great horticultural interest to the many pilgrims who come here to see the garden of artist and writer Derek Jarman, made famous in the timeless book, Derek Jarman’s Garden.

Referencing a 19th century collection of ghost stories, Jarman describes Dungeness as the fifth quarter of the globe, the other four being Europe, Asia, Africa and America. With its own historic nuclear power station (currently being decommissioned), Dungeness is a kind of republic, and certainly a place set apart. Join us for a visit to one of its more unusual corners.

Photography by Caitlin Atkinson, for Gardenista.

Above: West Cottage, one of two lighthouse keepers’ cottages which are rented out as holiday lets, just across the path from the Roundhouse. In the background, the ever-looming Dungeness A power station, built in the 1960s and in the slow process of being decommissioned.

Dungeness is home to 600 species of plant (one third of all plants found in the UK, according to the Dungeness National Nature Reserve). The landscape is therefore “vegetated shingle” (shingles here meaning beach gravel). At the Roundhouse, built around the foundations of a 1792 lighthouse, the gardens around two lighthouse keepers’ cottages have a layer of soil, since the two families needed to feed themselves in this barely populated place. “There are historical photos of greenhouses and neatly laid out vegetable plots, and bee hives,” says Kathryn. Now, people interested in lunch form an orderly queue outside the Dungeness Snack Shack for the best lobster rolls this side of the Atlantic.

Above: Drought-tolerant and resilient Brachyglottis (planted by Kathryn’s father), faces out to sea against the rounded walls of the Roundhouse.

The Roundhouse was built in 1843, partly to shore up the base of the lighthouse tower, and the two lighthouse keepers’ cottages were added at this time. When the old lighthouse was demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century to make way for a taller one next to it, rubble was dumped into what is now Kathryn’s back garden, which is why the ground is “very topsy-turvy.”

Above: Under the lee of giant, clipped oleaster (Elaeagnus x ebbingei), the gravel garden is able to thrive.

Kathryn’s own garden is accessed through a narrow gap in the hedge. The garden was made by Kathryn’s father, after he bought the property on impulse about 30 years ago. He was an artist and sculptor, which is evident in the way he used found materials and built structures, but he was also a smart gardener, creating enclosures—and sheltered places within those enclosures.

One of the former cottage tenants works at Great Dixter house and gardens, a 40-minute drive away. Kathryn asked her to find someone to help steer the Roundhouse garden after she inherited the property, and along came Marc O’Neill: “I immediately said I would, as I love Dungeness.”

Above:  Washed-up former sea defenses from Camber Sands, just along the coast, bring a sculptural element to the gravel garden.

“I’ve topped up some plants that Kathryn’s father introduced like the Rosa rugosa, which flowers well in the boundary areas, and Santolina chamaecyparissus, which forms nice domes in the wild areas,” says Marc, who also helps to maintain the old garden of Derek Jarman and his partner Keith Collins just up the road and now under the guidance of gardener Jonny Bruce. “Prospect Cottage is much more exposed, but I do pick up tips and advice while helping Jonny on the garden there. The Roundhouse is more sheltered due to the hedges, so it’s possible to experiment a bit. ”

Above: Sea brick, as rounded as sea glass, adds to the many textures. Individual, red sea bricks stuck vertically into the shingle are a feature of the garden at Prospect Cottage.

Kathryn is in the process of thinning out quantities of phormium in the gravel garden. Its tall and spectacular inflorescences can be seen from the Roundhouse, reaching higher than the outsized hedges. Whenever the phormiums are thinned and the gravel disturbed, opium poppies appear.

Above: A fringed pavilion of wood and corrugated tin is a safe haven from wind blowing in from the south, west and east. It also gets early morning sun. The quiet space allows tender plants to flourish, like agapanthus and pelargoniums, grown in pots.

Marc again: “The main references for plants at the Roundhouse are Beth Chatto‘s gravel garden, Olivier Filippi’s dry garden stock beds at his nursery in France, and of course Prospect Cottage for plants like Eschscholzia californica and roses.”

Above: The beach offers up large flints, and stones with holes in that ask to be strung.
Above: A nod to the concept of raised beds by East Cottage, with sea daisy (Erigeron glaucus, a California native) ranging around. The wooden surrounds were put in to hide the water tank; shelter comes from red-flowered Escallonia, which is tolerant of salty wind.
Above: Somewhat invasive euphorbia held at bay over the wall, with sculptural, found objects in the foreground.

Although Mediterranean spurge seems intent on claiming the whole site, considered euphorbia introductions have been added, in the form of smaller, prostrate spurges Euphorbia myrsinites and E. rigida.

Above: Gladiolus subsp. communis byzantinus in the sheltered meadow by the house, shown here with wind-resistant Allium ‘Summer Drummer’ in bud.

“Vivid magenta spikes of Gladiolus subsp. communis byzantinus look splendid in a setting of buttercups and cool grass stems,” wrote Christopher Lloyd in his book Meadows at Great Dixter and Beyond. Introduced by Marc O’Neill to the Roundhouse garden from the nursery at Great Dixter, they mix with other culturally-relevant plants from the nursery, such as “low-level botanical tulips like Tulipa bakeri and T. turkestanica which grow well, beneath the wind.”

Above: Grassland between the Roundhouse and its encircling walls will see displays of field and yellow horned poppies later in June, with insects finding plenty to enjoy in long grass and the stems and seed heads of plantain. Centranthus ruber (foreground, left) is a prevalent wildflower, nectar-rich and non-native.

“Right from the start, Kathryn and I agreed to keep a wild meadow in as many areas as possible, and each year it’s fascinating seeing what appears, including wild orchids.”

Above: A bit of structure for the garden.

“The Ness offers up blow-ins that enhance the garden like Crambe maritima, Glaucium flavum (yellow horned poppy), and Echium vulgare (viper’s bugloss). June is the best time to visit and see these wildflowers throughout the landscape,” says Marc.

Above: All things that do well here. Fennel, red wallflowers, purple sweet rocket, ribwort plantain, silvery Brachyglottis, euphorbia (E. myrsinites) and young Jerusalem sage huddle together.

Common fennel thrives around the buildings at the Roundhouse, standing up in the face of coastal wind. Giant fennel, which can reach 10 feet in a season, is grown in the shelter of the gravel garden. “Plants that have worked well in the shingle are Euphorbia myrsinites and E. rigida,” says Marc, who has also planted two types of broom, Genista hispanica and G. aetnensis (Mount Etna broom), Rosa glauca, Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, blue Catanache caerulea (Cupid’s dart), Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, Stipa gigantea, and flowering legumes Medicago arborea and Californian Lupinus arboreus (tree lupin).

Above: Flaming wall flowers arrange themselves along paths by the Roundhouse, surrounded by white, flowering mouse-ear.

Grass by the Roundhouse is colonized by white native wildflowers (Cerastium), variously known as mouse-ear. According to the RSPB’s list of Dungeness flora, six types have been recorded here since the 1960s (common, field, little and sticky mouse-ear, plus another variety, snow-in-summer). Sea mouse-ear was first recorded in 1867. Wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri, from south-east Europe) tend to hug paths and walls when self-seeded and are longterm residents of the British Isles, probably introduced by the Romans.

Above: A self-seeded Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ is protected by Genista hispanica (Spanish broom), plants that were introduced by Marc. In the foreground: Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’.

The two lighthouse keepers’ cottages at the Roundhouse have been carefully refurbished by Kathryn Morris (East Cottage and West Cottage) and are available as holiday lets.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening in Dungeness?

The Roundhouse Shingle Gardening in Dungeness is a unique gardening project located in Dungeness, England. It involves the cultivation of plants and flowers on the exterior walls of a roundhouse constructed with shingles.

How was the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening project started?

The project was initiated by the owners of the Roundhouse, who wished to transform the exterior walls into a living botanical artwork. They partnered with several landscape designers and gardeners to bring the project to life.

What type of plants and flowers are grown in the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening?

A variety of hardy and drought-resistant plants and flowers are cultivated in the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening project. These include succulents, sedums, lavender, grasses, and other coastal plants that can withstand the harsh coastal climate of Dungeness.

How are the plants and flowers maintained on the shingle walls?

The plants and flowers are grown in specially designed pockets or planters that are attached to the shingle walls. These pockets provide the necessary soil and drainage for the plants to thrive. Regular maintenance, such as watering and pruning, is carried out by the gardeners to ensure the health and beauty of the garden.

What is the significance of Roundhouse Shingle Gardening in Dungeness?

The Roundhouse Shingle Gardening project has become an iconic landmark in Dungeness, attracting visitors from around the world. It showcases the beauty of sustainable and environmentally friendly gardening practices, while also highlighting the resilience of plant life in challenging coastal environments.

Can visitors explore the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening?

Yes, visitors are welcome to explore the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening. The garden is open to the public during designated visiting hours, allowing visitors to appreciate the unique gardening techniques and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the shingle walls covered in vibrant plants and flowers.

Are there any restrictions for visitors in the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening?

To ensure the preservation of the garden, visitors are kindly requested to stay on designated paths and refrain from touching or removing any plants. Additionally, the Roundhouse Shingle Gardening project is only accessible during specified opening hours, and visitors are advised to check the official website for up-to-date information.

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