Coton Manor Garden: The symphony of colour where flamingos mix with flowers, voted Britain’s best garden

Flamingos may draw the crowds, but it is the brilliant flower borders that keep people coming back to Coton Manor Garden, the wonderful space at the home of Ian and Susie Pasley-Tyler, says Tiffany Daneff. Photos by Clive Nichols.

Since 1925, the garden at Coton Manor has been cared for by three generations of the same family, each of which has left their not inconsiderable mark on this south-west-facing landscape that slopes away from the formal stone terraces around the manor house and across flamingo-fringed lawns to a wildflower meadow and bluebell wood and so to the valley beyond.

The garden’s current custodians, Ian and Susie Pasley-Tyler, took over in 1991 and have built up the garden’s reputation — not only for its entertaining birds, magnificent borders, plants and garden areas, a garden school, café and plant nursery — but as a place that local people visit regularly, often weekly, such is the friendly family welcome. Faces are recognised and greetings exchanged as Mrs Pasley-Tyler wanders the grounds taking notes of what plants need dividing or moving. Until recently, her husband manned the plant stall, too, totting up the sales in his head. An exercise in keeping house and garden in good order has thus become a way of life. No wonder that a recent poll elected Coton Manor garden as the nation’s favourite.

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

The bluebell wood is usually in flower from the last week in April until mid May. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

There has been a manor here since Domesday and, in 1597, its owner, Sir Fulke Greville, required the annual rent to be paid with a pound of cumin. That house was razed to the ground after the Loyalists were routed by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Naseby (only three miles away) in 1645, after which a farmhouse was built in 1662 using Northamptonshire stone from the recently demolished royal palace of Holdenby. From then, the land was farmed, with cattle grazing up to the front door until 1923, when it was bought by Mr Pasley-Tyler’s grandparents, Harold and Elizabeth Bryant.

The Bryants extended the farmhouse and made a garden of about six acres, taking advantage of the views to the south and south-west. The trees they planted on the garden’s boundaries have grown to provide a shelterbelt and some of the finest specimens in the garden, such as the black walnut in the middle of the former stables (now the café), date from those days. The lawns and yew and holly hedges were also laid out then.

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Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

A lovely combination of oranges and purples in the Mediterranean Border, with the scented lily-flowered orange Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ and Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’, as well as purple-blue iris and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ behind. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

Their daughter Haroldine married Henry Pasley-Tyler and, in 1950, the couple moved into Coton Manor, where the garden, like so many others, was very overgrown. They set to with zeal, Haroldine working on the planting as Henry focused on landscaping. He enlarged the water gardens, built up a collection of tropical birds and wildfowl and even landscaped an area of water and rocks for some sea lions. They are long gone, but happily their enclosure — complete with small bridge — has found a new use as a gravel garden. Some of the flamingos that wander the lawns today, were originally his. A naval commander, Henry liked things ship-shape and, according to his son, ‘his commitment to impeccable maintenance often clashed’ with his wife’s more relaxed approach to gardening.

The mix of menagerie and gardens proved a winning combination when Coton Manor first opened to the public in 1969 and, although the quantity of animals has been scaled back now, there are still plenty of ornamental ducks, including a flock of whistling Fulvous tree ducks and another of Mille Fleur Barbu d’Uccle chickens, which like to sit among the branches of the large Katsura tree.

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

The Water Garden, with Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ below Rhododendron ponticum and a yellow laburnum, with the scented yellow azalea R. luteum and Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Crimson’. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

When Mrs Pasley-Tyler arrived, she was new to the whole gardening business, although one would never guess, so detailed is her plant knowledge today. In 1991, the gardening bug had yet to strike; indeed, neither owner really had any idea of what they were taking on.

It was colour that first drew Mrs Pasley-Tyler’s attention to plants and it is colour that has guided her to making and maintaining the vast borders, as well as all the other planting areas, from woodland to bog and water gardens. She has, she says, the equivalent of about four full-time gardeners to help, although only one, Richard Green, works daily. ‘Richard does the hardware, the wildflower meadow and herb garden, the trees, hedges, pigs, cows, hens, bantams, ducks and flamingos.’

That sounds more than enough, but still leaves Mrs Pasley-Tyler the rest of the planting. Borders are richly planted, hugely varied and wonderfully co-ordinated, not to mention large and plentiful. Every summer, once the June flowers are over and the late-summer blooms are getting into their stride, she walks around taking notes of what needs to be moved, replaced or changed. To give an example of how much there is to organise, these notes are broken down into about 30 to 40 different sections that are individually described. The Woodland Garden alone has five. This is an area that has recently been developed to create a calm, cool, low-key contrast to the busy areas around the house. It also contains a huge tulip tree, possibly the tallest in the country, believes Mrs Pasley-Tyler, and a mature copper beech.

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ below Cercis siliquastrum. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photographed by Clive Nichols.

Some borders, such as the Holly Hedge Border — a very long border with one end in full sun and the other in deep shade — she inherited from her mother-in-law. ‘She had some very strong orange-red roses (R. ‘Fred Loads’ and R. ‘Scarlet Queen Elizabeth’), which I didn’t really like, but then it dawned on me that this was a colour that could square off with the holly backdrop. When the greens lose their spring vibrancy, they need something to fight against the glistening holly.’

Mrs Pasley-Tyler kept the roses, but spread them out and added more scarlets, with alstroemerias and Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’, then wove through the long border six groups of Penstemon ‘King George’ and ‘Windsor Red’, together with shrubby red salvias. She inherited S. grahamii, now S. macrophylla, and, as the years have gone by, has gathered another 50. This border is filled with softer colours early in the year, but reaches its finest moment in late summer, when those scarlet roses, salvias and penstemons shine against the dark green drawing the eye through mounds of blue agapanthus, pale-pink dahlias and mauve asters. Throughout the garden, the aim is to limit and repeat the plants in one border and to plant for different moments when they reach their zenith. With so many areas and something of interest all year round, there is never time to stand still.

‘It’s like conducting an orchestra, keeping the border going. Plants are like instruments, with different colours, textures and effects. The musical analogy works amazingly well with timing and repetition and themes — it’s the best one I can think of. And, of course, there are the unpredictable seasons.’ Silence, too, is important and, at Coton, Mrs Pasley-Tyler delivers those moments of calm, the pauses between movements, that allow the eye to rest before the next performance.

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

Iris ‘Rajah’. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

In the recently replanted quartered circle in the Old Rose Garden greys (euphorbia, artemisia, rosemary, eryngium) offset the almost yellow-pinks of the roses and Penstemon ‘Evelyn’. The lavender is grown for its foliage, with the flowerheads removed to provide a clean cruciform edging.

Throughout the garden, the choice of plants and selection of colour tones are edged towards rather than imposed upon. As one moves along a bed or from one part of the garden to another, themes echo and repeat in a most natural and effective way. Stronger colours are used to provide viewpoints, so, for example, oranges draw the eye all the way from the upper lawn, across the main pond to a waterside planting of orange tulips with, to follow, Geum ‘Coral Supreme’, Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’, Hemerocallis fulva ‘Flore Pleno’ and martagon lilies, which are balanced by the greys and blues of agastache, Hydrangea villosa and Baptisia australis.

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

Meconopsis (Fertile Blue Group) ‘Lingholm’. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

The joy in arranging and working with plants is tangible and, as a bed reaches its peak, visitors stand still, absorbing the many layers of plantsmanship that has gone into producing such a tumultuous result. From the first bluebells of spring to the powerful crescendo of high summer, this garden never misses a beat.

Coton Manor Garden, near Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, is open to the public —

Coton Manor, Northamptonshire

Paeonia itoh ‘Copper Kettle’. At Coton Manor, one-third of plants flower before June, the rest afterwards, as the latter bloom for longer. Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. Photo Credit: Clive Nichols

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