A winter garden filled with heathers
Faced with a steeply sloping garden, Helen Thomas has come up with a design that enhances its contours – and looks beautiful in winter. Words by Humaira Ikram, photographs by Eva Nemeth.
When Helen Thomas moved to Hill Farm, the garden was little more than grass, and mature trees and hedges. Helen came up with a plan that would provide space for her children to play in, while preserving the sloping garden’s natural contours.
While many designers would have been tempted to create terraces, Helen enhanced the steep slope by using heathers and shrubs to accentuate and mimic the movement of the land. Sweeping areas of planting separate sections of the garden, with pathways of grass and wood chippings running like ribbons between the levels.
Name Hill Farm.
Size One and three quarter acres.
Soil Free-draining, slightly acid loam.
Climate Temperate and north facing.
Hardiness zone USDA 8.
As the soil is acid loam, many neighbouring gardens are full of rhododendrons and camellias, but Helen didn’t want to follow the same pattern. “I wanted to show that you could plant in a different, lighter and more modern way, using grasses as well as the more traditional heathers,” she says.
Read our advice on growing winter-flowering heathers.
Initially, Helen's choice of traditional heathers was practical as much as aesthetic. “I had a young family and heathers were dog- and child-proof.” She started with a mix of the magnificent mauve Erica x darleyensis ‘J.W. Porter’, and the white Erica carnea f. alba ‘Springwood White’, planted as a matrix with the Irish heath, Daboecia cantabrica. Although unable to compete with the ericas, this Irish heath still stubbornly pops up every so often throughout the border, providing sustenance for pollinators in summer.
In winter, the ericas, including Erica carnea f. alba 'Springwood White' and Erica x darleyensis 'J. W Porter' create seamless rivers of colour. "I had to do some weeding until it all knitted together but since then it has really looked after itself."
The main terrace has been cut out of the slope, with walls constructed of local flint and softened by the carpet of heathers. Ornamental grasses used in the garden include Calamagrostis brachytricha, along with the upright Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’, and the shorter and more lax Miscanthus sinensis ‘Abundance’, which arches over the edges of the paths. Helen has dotted the lighter Molinia caerulea ‘Poul Petersen’ around to create a shimmer effect.
Beneath a mature pine, the zingy green hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, has spread and interspersed with ferns and snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis. These are repeated on the other side of the lawn, beneath the structural and striking winter skeletons of Acer griseum and Betula utilis subsp. jaquemontii.