'Texture is the key'

An Article published in Garden Answers Magazine with Photographs by Jonathan Need

Tim Melton and Bernardean Carey share their secrets for
creating a rich tapestry of colour, shape and form

Tucked into a quiet side street in the charming village of Steyning, West Sussex, retired chemist Tim Melton and artist Bernardean Carey have created an atmospheric garden of contrasts. Here, billowing Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) provides a silky foil for spiky eryngium ‘Jos Eijking’. Bright yellow daylilies trumpet the appearance of berry-coloured alliums, floating above frothy clouds of pink gypsophila. Buddleia ‘Nanho Purple’ sends out arching purple panicles above the green whorls and white bracts of euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’.

Garden Answers Magazine about NGS garden 'Saffrons' in West Sussex

“I use the flower beds as my ‘laboratory’,” says Bernardean. “I experiment with different plants, looking for contrasts of shape, colour and texture. A lot of people choose plants solely for their flowers, which might be exciting from a colour point of view, but for me, texture is the key. It’s too often neglected in a planting scheme. You need a good mix of spiky plants and billowy plants in a border. Leaves are important too – they’re what you look at most of the time.”

Bernardean’s plant experiments began when the couple moved to their Edwardian home in 2001. “There wasn’t much here when we bought the house,” she recalls. “It was basically a very flat garden – very green and surrounded by a wilderness of nettles, brambles and bindweed, with a few mature trees around the edges. We couldn’t have taken it on without the help of our redoubtable part-time gardener Catherine Wiles. But at least it made a wonderful blank canvas so we could start from scratch.

“We started off by working with what was already here, then eventually introduced some hard landscaping. Finally we transformed the derelict garden pavilion into an art studio, which created a focus for where our new flowerbeds should go.” The three-quarters of an acre garden is now made up of broad lawns studded with ornamental trees, and borders punctuated by Japanese maples, cherry trees that flutter with blossom in spring and magnificent bamboos interspersed with grasses and rhododendrons. Mature trees form the southern border, providing shade for ferns and hellebores.

“Steyning used to lie on the edge of the Adur estuary so the garden lies on a little area of river terrace gravel, which is slightly acidic, free-draining and very rocky. That’s a perfect combination for rhododendrons and Japanese maples, so we set out with an oriental theme in the garden for a while, using bamboos for hedging.

But that wasn’t very wildlife friendly, so more recently we’ve started replacing the bamboo with hawthorn and privet to the point where last year we started getting new wildlife species in the garden such as the privet hawkmoth.”

The free-draining soil is perfect for silver-leaved Mediterranean plants, euphorbias, sedums, alliums and lilies, alongside white-stemmed Himalayan birches – all set off by neatly trimmed corridors of grass.

“I’ve never been very excited about  lawns,” says Bernardean, “but they’re important in a design. You need flat areas of green to set off everything else.”

Clumps of grasses play a useful role in the borders here – combining well not just with eryngiums but other architectural gems such as giant thistle-shaped cardoons (Cynara cardunculus), Verbena bonariensis and agapanthus.

Garden Answers Magazine about NGS garden 'Saffrons' in West Sussex page 2

“In one border I’ve planted little clumps of pennisetum ‘Hammeln’ among glossy green dwarf Yakushimanum rhododendrons and they look really good. The grasses are all mulched with bark which makes a huge difference – keeping the weeds down and holding the moisture in.”

Bernardean’s husband Tim looks after the lawn mowing, the hedge trimming and vegetable garden where he’s built a fruit cage for raspberries, red currants, gooseberries and blueberries. There are fan-trained and espaliered plums and pears as well as an asparagus bed.

“The garden has taken a long time to look like anything,” says Bernardean. “But now it’s finally come to a point where it does look good. I admit I’m something of a perfectionist – especially because we open for the public. If people are paying to come here, they’re entitled to see something nice.”

All those fluffy grasses and thistly dabs of colour certainly lend the garden a painterly quality. “If a garden is going to have a focus, you need a vision. You can’t just keep plants because they look nice. For me, the focus is texture, colour and the feel of the overall place. It’s just like painting – only three-dimensional.”

Photography by Jonathan Need