garden tales from a Brit abroad
Redoubtable is a word that easily comes to mind when seeking to describe Marylyn Abbott. In her native Australia, she was for many years marketing manager for the Sydney Opera House and developed the garden at Kennerton Green in New South Wales. Under her tenure, it was the most visited garden in the country.
Since 1993 she has also been restoring and developing the gardens at West Green House in the south of England. The house itself is charming, an early 18th century structure restored by the National Trust in the 1990s after an IRA bomb exploded in the forecourt. It is also, fortunately for me, within walking distance of our home in Hampshire, and so we have been frequent visitors to the gardens over the years, observing and enjoying the ever-changing planting and new additions. We were last there a year ago, in June 2013.
For me, the highlight is always the walled garden, restored to its 1770s layout and planted with a glorious mix of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and fruit.
The potager within the walled garden changes dramatically every year.
Structural planting contrasts with some sophisticated colour combinations, often using lilacs and purples in early summer. Her flower choices are eclectic, and include unfashionable perennials such as lupins and delphiniums next to more trendy poppies and alliums. Rather refreshingly, the only grasses to be seen are in the lawns and meadows, not in the flower borders.
From the walled garden, a moon gate leads to a water stairway and view of a nymphaeum designed in the 1980s by Quinlan Terry (often described as Prince Charles’ favourite architect).
Other highlights include the lakefield with its naturalised bulbs and unceremonious perennials:
the little courtyard garden outside the tea shop (whose former Alice in Wonderland theme is now only visible in the topiary teapot):
the artfully arranged glasshouses:
and the lovely trails of iris sibirica through a stream:
Marylyn Abbott is a great traveller and brings back ideas from all over the world for her gardens. Some of these, such as a Chinese peasant style garden in the potager one year, are delightful. Some seem to me to work less well, including the Paradise garden, a geometric arrangement of water, trees and grass, inspired by Islamic gardens. It sits oddly next to the wild garden and for me lacks the lusciousness and fragrance so essential to a real Paradise garden.
Set pieces such as this, and new Dragon Garden near the entrance, detract from the distinctive sense of place that is so strong elsewhere at West Green.
One splendid feature of these gardens is their use in summer for open-air opera productions. Indeed West Green is now being marketed as The Opera Garden. We have enjoyed black-tie evenings with fancy picnics watching a cackling Don Giovanni meeting his end near the lake, and a lovely performance of Traviata in the Green Theatre. This year there will be a week of music and garden-related activities during the long July and August evenings.
Marylyn Abbott must be well into her sixties, but her passion for the new and the quirky continues. She has this year designed her first Chelsea Flower Show garden (inspired by the courtyard garden shown above and winner of a silver gilt medal) and no doubt has more experiments to try and developments to add at West Green House.