Piet Oudolf was still up and coming when he was commissioned to create a garden at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. Twenty years later, the work he did shows exactly why he has gone on to enjoy a fine career, as Non Morris discovers.
‘Of course, what you’re about to see,’ explains head gardener Paul Smith, ‘is early Oudolf.’
I’m standing at the entrance to the Walled Garden at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. Ahead of me is a lush green corridor: a tall, clipped beech hedge on one side, stretches of stilted limes on the other and, behind them, a tantalising tapestry of shade-loving foliage punctuated by swathes of silvery pink Astrantia Roma. The only grasses to be seen are knee-high sheaves of Hakonechloa macra lushly clothing the ankles of shoulder-high mounds of cloud-pruned box.
The idea of visiting a garden in the way you might an exhibition of an artist’s work from a certain period is intriguing. Since the eminent Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf was first commissioned in 1999 to bring this derelict 4½ acres of North Yorkshire back to life, he has created enthralling and much fêted gardens all over the world.
Probably the most famous is his exhilarating 2006 planting of the High Line – an elevated park on a disused section of railway track in New York – and, in 2014, he created a wonderfully dreamy, grass-filled scheme for the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Somerset.
Mr Oudolf’s approach at Scampston was to divide the body of the 18th-century walled garden into 10 distinct compartments, but to slow down the visitor’s arrival purposefully by leading him first around its perimeter along the Plantsman’s Walk.
There are tantalising glimpses of Oudolf planting as you travel, but the tightly clipped beech hedge has a calming effect and allows time to enjoy the borders. There is a mile of beech hedge forming the structural backbone of the garden, ‘three miles, if you count the two sides and the top,’ says Mr Smith, as he considers the backbone from a pruning point of view.
The Plantsman’s Walk has a good collection of acers, subtly different cultivars of Hydrangea aspera, voluptuous tree peonies and a huge-leaved Tetrapanax papyrifer. ‘It’s supposed to be tender, but it grows here like a crazy thing,’ Mr Smith tells me, putting its success down to the shelter created by the high walls and the sandy soil.
The walk offers the opportunity for traditional English gardening within a coherent Oudolf framework. After 17 years, some of the borders need rethinking, but this also brings welcome opportunity and Mr Smith is ready with a list of covetable shrubs.
The Walled Garden opened in 2004, after a valiant five-year period of in-house propagation: 4,500 beech whips alone were needed for Mr Oudolf’s design. Creating a first-class contemporary garden for visitors was the brainchild of Sir Charles Legard and his wife, Caroline, who had taken on the enormous job of renovating both house and grounds. Sir Charles’s son, Christopher, now lives in the house and runs the estate and, as I finally emerge into the main body of the garden, I’m excited to see how well the design has worn.
Importantly, the whole point of the deeply considered Oudolf approach to perennial planting is that, if you select plants for their stability and if you don’t use self-seeding or bulb-based plants that spread and require regular division, the perennials will remain in ‘established formations’ and the gardens should ‘persist in their planned state years after being planted’.
It’s excellent for wildlife, too, says Mr Smith. ‘We’re not an organic garden, but we’ve got a nice little eco-system going. If we do get a few aphids, they seem to go very fast. By leaving the seedheads and lots of cover in the winter, it’s brilliant for small birds – really, we only need herbicides for the paths.’
He points out that this isn’t low-maintenance gardening – rather, it’s ‘level maintenance’, with the tight 21st-century gardening team busy throughout the year instead of following a lull in early spring with a mad rush.
I’m keen to get to the Drifts of Grass garden that I remember well from a visit soon after the garden opened. I’m delighted to see the same – now, perfectly silvered – over-sized wooden armchairs by Piet Hein Eek nestled in skirts of rocketing, smoky-purple Salvia verticillata Purple Rain and sheltered by a quartet of handsome feathery-leaved Phellodendron chinense trees. Around this group, broad waves of Molinia Poul Petersen, a wonderful form of our native purple moor grass, emerge from the close-mown lawn, the shimmering violet tinge of the grass echoing the purple of the salvia.
There are enticing views from the Drifts of Grass garden through to the exuberant central fountain and to the contrasting calm of the Silent Garden, but, first, I enter the Spring Box Border, one of a pair of slim, rectangular spaces that flank the Perennial Meadow. The clipped box cubes give the spaces a calm and settled feel. There are slim perennial borders here, too, against hedges, which call for clever and restrained planting.
In the Spring Box Border, oriental poppies and Iris sibirica are followed by airy Stipa gigantea, neat-headed cardoons, catmint and the lovely pale-yellow daylily Joan Senior. Mr Smith admits that the oriental poppies, such as Patty’s Plum, don’t exactly fulfil the ‘neat upright’ brief, but says they’re magnificent when they’re in flower, are part of Mr Oudolf’s original plan and are, therefore, staying.
We move through to the Silent Garden, where 24 yew columns are arranged in a grid around an elegant, rectangular reflecting pool. This garden is a triumph and has become stronger and more steadfast as the yews have matured. The modesty of the low bench here seems fitting and the clarity of the design is in wonderful contrast to the towering, billowing parkland trees that march right up to the garden wall.
On to the Katsura Grove, another rather brilliant idea: four beds of eight multi-stem Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the burnt-sugar smell of which, as the leaves fall in autumn, is intensified because of their enclosed and sheltered situation.
The Katsura Grove is not without its challenges: Mr Smith works hard to keep the trees at their current height by carefully removing key stems and the perennial underplanting has had to evolve as the shade has become deeper. However, the scent from only a few fallen leaves in midsummer is delicious and there must be an extraordinary few days when the grove is completely magical.
By the time we reach the Perennial Meadow, it’s raining heavily. ‘It looks better in the sunshine,’ says Mr Smith, but, despite the rain, this central garden around the original dipping pond is dazzling. There are 47 perennials and grasses planted in generous blocks, each plant making a series of contributions. Shape and form are as important as colour: horticulture students are asked to photograph the garden in black and white to understand how it works.
The garden gets going in June and is in constant and glorious flux after that. The bobbing yellow heads of Phlomis russeliana are a strong presence in July, but, by October, will offer subtle support to Panicum virgatum Shenandoah, with its spectacular burgundy foliage.
For now, the lime-green Sesleria autumnalis and electric pink of Dianthus carthusianorum add dashes of brilliance; the lupin-like, rich-yellow Thermopsis caroliniana offers blocks of upright rhythm and the soft seedheads of Allium cristophii thread through the planting ‘like tumbleweed’, knitting it together. As the sun comes out again, the insects start buzzing.
We leave the garden via the Mount, a crisp, grassy mound from which you can see the whole design before you go. This is surrounded by a wildflower meadow, dancing with lilac field scabious when I visit, and, best of all, the Yoshino cherry trees, which have made the most of their 20 years and fling out their branches with jaunty confidence over the crisp hedges.
There is much more to see at Scampston – not least 80 acres of Capability Brown parkland and an excellent nursery. Mr Legard is determined to keep innovating and to ensure that the welcome is always warm, so that the garden can remain sustainable.
As the garden closes for the day, he and his wife, Miranda, head off to the Silent Garden with their mats for some Pilates – surely a perfect sign that the garden is still hitting the spot?
The gardens at Scampston Hall, Malton, North Yorkshire, are from April to the end of October, Tuesday to Sunday plus Bank Holiday Mondays, 10am to 5pm. Guided tours are available from May to August. See www.scampston.co.uk for more details.
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