Dan Pearson: A garden has to have boundaries — but they need to be blurred if we’re to connect with nature

How do you make a garden that fits its landscape? It's a question pondered by plantsman-designer Dan Pearson in the first of a new series of articles for Country Life, with photography by Huw Morgan.

It was November nine years ago and the very end of a growing season when we took possession of Hillside. It was a good time to witness a landscape stripping itself back to reveal its bare bones.

The 20-acre smallholding originally produced fruit and vegetables for the nearby town of Bath, but the farmer before us had turned the ground over to beef cattle in the 1980s and grazed it hard to the hedges. He famously said ‘You can’t live off the view!’, but that view is one of the very reasons we are here. Perched and exposed on the south-facing slopes, our prospect is remarkable. We look west up the valley, where the stark line of Freezing Hill is picked out in a procession of beech trees. The prevailing wind whips up and over the hill from the Bristol Channel to rush over us and remind us where we are.

The sweep of the three fields in front runs down to a shadowy stream and woods that rise on our neighbour’s slopes. These trees form a backdrop and provide a litmus for what is happening with the weather and seasons. The alders are smoky with catkin in winter, the lofty poplars shimmer silver in spring. A hazel understorey flares twice, first creamy with catkins as the wild garlic pushes up its aromatic carpet and then with its distinctive undercurrent of yellow autumn colour. There is life in the woods, mushrooms and wild anemone and deer run there in the gloom. Being pitched as we are, level with the jackdaws in the tree tops, we have a bird’s-eye view.

©Huw Morgan

To the east, the ground runs down the valley, dropping into a wet crease and then rising fast to a plump field called The Tump. Beyond lies a decrepit orchard and the Hospital Field, well known by the locals for being good for animals with its diverse sward. The downwardly running ditch oozes boot-gripping mud and, at its base, a fast and continuous supply of water was audible under brambles that first winter.

We cleared them and allowed a broken hedge of hazel to grow out. The opening up revealed fleets of primroses, which we have been encouraging and increasing. I have made a total of five bridges to switch back and forth and studied the feel of the vegetation here: primeval horsetail and runs of meadow-sweet that follow the dampest ground and spearing Angelica sylvestris. It is a fecund place, tall with marsh thistle, but incredibly beautiful in its spontaneity.

The ditch is beyond my possible reach of day-to-day care, so I have introduced a number of muscular perennials that fit with the vegetation and favour the conditions. A river of kingcups now runs from top to bottom to blaze in March, with Iris x robusta, giant Inula and silvery Salix purpurea Nancy Saunders, a selection of our native purple osier, all added as a bridge between the shimmering poplars and something gently cultivated. These light-fingered moves and the paths walked into the vegetation allow the patch to feel heightened and cared for, despite its ruggedness.

The houses in the valley sit on the spring line and the hedges that run downhill do so in the company of ditches that were dug to channel the water. Campion, bluebell, stitchwort and dog’s mercury, which have hidden there, protected from grazing, are the indicators of their age. The hilly, hard-to-manage ground has saved most of the hedgerows from being grubbed up for larger fields and these are lifelines to wildlife. This landscape is far from wild in reality, but certainly old.

©Huw Morgan

Where the house and barns run along the contour, the farmer had carved out a little vegetable patch in the lee of the barn. This is the natural place to have a garden, tilted into the sun like a deckchair and with the barns providing shelter from the prevailing westerlies. Our neighbour, Glad, tells of the lines of produce she remembers on these slopes when she was a girl. The first time I walked the land, I could feel in my bones that these fields, with their deep soil, sun and moisture, were going to provide good growing conditions.

I knew I wanted to garden here, but we moved to Hillside to be part of something bigger. I had been gardening a long, thin plot in Peckham, south London, for 12 years, where every square inch was under my control. I pined for ground that provided an opportunity to observe a wilder place, a habitat that I could become part of and be influenced by, rather than be the dominant party.

The long view here and the acres I couldn’t possibly manage as a gardener have caused me to question a new set of values that are particular to nurturing this land. The big questions are how much to garden, why and what for? A gardener’s desire to tend, to rear and to nurture is a hard one to overcome, but the landscape that laps up to the house and finishes uninterrupted at the horizon is a powerful influence and a good one in several ways. It is the driver of an aesthetic, it demands a way of gardening that is in tune with the place and with what energy is available. It allows me to think bigger, to give a little, to be custodian, not dictator. This requires a little humility and, with it, moves made in the right place and at the right time.

When I was getting to know the place, my initial actions were practical ones. I planted an orchard in the first winter, because it’s good to be able to see time mapped in trees. A blossom wood of native trees was also added on our high ground to provide a sanctuary for birds. I set to and repaired the hedges, re-planting sections overwhelmed by elder and bramble with sweetbriar, hawthorn, guelder rose and buckthorn for the brimstone butterflies. We began to relax the land.

©Huw Morgan

We also changed the grazing regime so the fields could show us what they were made of. The three in front we kept as sheep pasture; the remainder were over-sown with yellow rattle (Rhinanthus major) and wildflowers. To his credit, the farmer had been thrifty: although the land had been worked hard by the animals, it had not seen a plough in years, nor chemicals or fast-food leys of rye grass.

Seven years after changing the regime, we are finding our first orchids and witnessing a new ecology of moths, butterflies and beetles. Swallows have returned and the bats have runs along the hedges we’ve let grow out. Rough banks are left uncut and tussocky and barn owls and hawks hunt for voles and mice.

The push of Nature that we have encouraged via careful management has been the barometer and the provider. It took five years of observing and trialling what would feel right on the farmer’s old vegetable patch to decide what to do about making a garden. Taking the time looking and being part of the place allowed me to know what would work here and the hub provided by the area near the buildings has enriched the hillside, as well as being very much part of it.

©Huw Morgan

The gardened garden was started in 2015 and made in sections as resources became available and as we repaired the buildings to make way for an area of cultivation. It runs in a spine along the contour that holds the house, borrowing from the wildness of the ditch to the east, jumping the track and moving in an easy swathe that wraps the barns. It pauses where the meadows reach the house, so we sit to enjoy the view with newly sown wildflower banks coming up to meet us. It then continues west, where we grow to eat in a kitchen garden that sails through into the new orchard and nods to the smallholding that preceded us with its lines of produce.

Although the garden proper does have boundaries, because the gardener in me needs to be subservient to the naturalist, it is a place that blurs boundaries and allows us to be fully here and connected through tending it.

Find out more about Dan at www.danpearsonstudio.com or read more of his writing at digdelve.com.