A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House

A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Abbey House Gardens in Malmesbury in Wiltshire are a stunning display of a huge variety of plants. It's a fabulous place to spend an afternoon, and there are some fine examples of garden design that we can all use in our own gardens too.

The gardens cover 5 acres adjacent to the historic abbey close to the town centre, and spill over a steep slope, from immaculate formal gardens above, down to a sheltered woodland alongside a river in the valley below. 

Owners Barbara and Ian Pollard have been influenced by the history of the site, and used the range of microclimates there to create a wonderful year round display of a huge variety of plants. There is topiary and sculpture. There are roses and herbaceous borders, lawns and fruit trees, acers and rhododendrons, a rock garden, a fernery, and a stunning laburnum tunnel.

All are sited perfectly, and juxtaposed cleverly, so that you move easily from one area to the next in smooth transitions that draw you onwards to explore further as well as offering numerous opportunities to sit down and take it all in a piece at a time. 

If you're looking for inspiration for your own garden it's an ideal place to visit. There are superb examples of garden design all over the gardens. Here are my favourites:

A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House

Reach out and borrow the landscape

We can't all be lucky enough to have a medieval abbey just over the garden fence, but it's always worth looking to see what you do have, and trying to join your garden up to it if it's something pleasant to look at.

"Borrowing the landscape" is a well known garden design trick, but they way it's done here is cleverer than most. The idea (put simply) is usually to hide your boundary with plants and leave an open view in between them to the landscape or focal point beyond, making it feel part of your garden.

At Abbey House, in the formal gardens, trees and shrubs of graduated heights have been used, so that the eye is led step by step up and over the wall to the remains of the abbey next door. The neatly trimmed box is backed by the yew hedges and other taller trees, with a large copper beech behind that seems to reach the height of the abbey itself.

Borrowed landscape A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
The abbey ruins have been "borrowed" cleverly

It's impossible to tell which are within the garden and which are outside, and it's this that achieves the effect of borrowing the ruins, which seamlessly become part of the view, almost as if they were an ornament placed in the garden intentionally. 

Straight lines and focal points

There are lots of long straight views in the formal gardens at Abbey House. Some are made by neat box hedges, others by mixed herbaceous borders on either side. 

All have either a focal point or a seat at each end. 

This enables the visitor to sit and relax and gaze down a long vista full of beautiful planting on either side, their eye drawn right to the furthest point where a statue, water feature or feature plant becomes the object of their attention, willing them to take the walk down for a closer look.

Whilst the views are dead straight, the planting which frames the view can be either formal or informal, as the following two examples show.

Straight lines and focal points A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Informal beds spill over onto this path, which leads
the eye through the yew archway to the fern

Straight lines and focal points A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Formal edges here lead the eye through a stone arch to another seat

Tall spires of foxgloves sit beyond the seat through the saxon archway, adding to the incentive to head towards them for a closer look. More of them later.

Sweeping curves of lawn

Heading away from the straight lines of the formal gardens, you arrive at an open area of lawn, lush and immaculate, and just as maintained as the tightly clipped topiary, but with a looser, less restrained feel.

This is due to the sweeping curves which form the edges of the lawn as it narrows and widens in various places, leading you round the corner to the next part of your journey but allowing space to pause and stretch out on your way.  

Sweeping lawn curves A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
The lawn with its sweeping curves

It's difficult to put your finger on why the curves look so good. A straight line is a straight line, but a curve, well, it's more difficult to define. But these are just right!

Step over apples to edge front of border

Here's something I haven't seen anywhere else. To me it seems quite a bold thing to do but it works. One of the borders around the sweeping curved lawn is not planted with spreading ground cover, low level bedding plants or a small box hedge, but with step over apples.

Step over apples at front of border A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Step over apples at the front of the border

Trained along supports so that the apple trees become effectively a low level hedge, the fruit is in easy reach, and it's a solid block of planting along the front of the bed, acting as a foil for the mixed planting behind. If you want a way of making your garden both ornamental and edible - give it a go!

Step over apples at front of border A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
The stepover apples sweep along the front
of the border on the right of the picture

Multi coloured topiary

Something else I haven't seen before is the way berberis has been used to add a bright reddish purple to the topiary in the Celtic Cross Knot Garden.

The blocks of neatly clipped hedging are formed of box and santolina, with lavender pushing up in between - so far, so traditional. But a modern twist has been added by using the berberis, and I think it adds a good deal of interest.

Multi coloured topiary A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Multi coloured topiary using box, santolina, lavender and berberis

Narrow entrance to a wide open area

I promised you more of the foxgloves, well what a way to present them! A narrow shady archway through the yew edge confronted me, with a restricted view through the gap of some box hedging and a small tree.

Narrow entrance to a wide open area  A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
Just a glimpse through the narrow gap...

Offering just a glimpse of something beyond, by providing such a narrow view, is a great way to entice a visitor through to the next part of a garden. 

Ideally, stepping through such a narrow entrance should lead to a wider more open area with something exciting to see as soon as you enter. This is what greeted me:  

Foxglove heaven A Garden Design Masterclass at Abbey House Gardens
...stepping through led to foxglove heaven!
I don't think I've ever seen so many foxgloves in one place before! Hundreds and hundreds of them filled the borders with their tall spires of pink, purple and white flowers, standing out proudly against the dark yew hedges. 

Notice also that extra depth is provided by the fact that this area goes around the corner to the left at the back of this initial border, and the foxglove heaven continues further round but from this viewpoint simply adds more layers to the scene, making it a truly three-dimensional experience.

But the real drama was created by the narrow entrance to the area which kept me in suspense until the moment I stepped through. The visual impact of suddenly revealing such a display all at once was tremendous. 

All these ideas are things which any of us may be able to try and incorporate into our own gardens, but the joy of visiting Abbey House Gardens is that everything has been done so effectively and so beautifully. It is full of inspiration and well worth going if you're able to.


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