Gardens: Alan and Elizabeth Thompson’s Borders steading

Wellrig Farm Steading in the Borders
Wellrig Farm Steading in the Borders
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A farm steading in the heart of the Scottish Borders had plenty to offer a couple who already loved gardening, but they weren’t sure where to start finessing the field at their new doorstep.

The converted buildings, overlooking the Eildons not far from St Boswells, borrow beautifully from their landscape, but needed a sense of enclosure. When Alan and Elizabeth Thompson moved in three years ago, they spent time thinking about what they wanted from a garden, before calling June Tainsh of Greenweaver design. June says: “Unusually, the brief was not for a garden that is low maintenance, which I get asked for a lot. Elizabeth wanted to be in the garden.”

Wellrig Farm Steading

Wellrig Farm Steading

Although the garden was begun 18 months ago, it has romped onwards, especially this year. Elizabeth was very interested in plants and wanted something that gives year-round interest. The large space curves around the house and is broken up by three deep beds. The first offers the earliest floral interest of the year, with pastel-colour plants from spring. The next is designed to give a big bang in summer and after that a shrub bed offers interest in the winter. All have some plants with interest throughout the year.

The Thompsons came from a larger garden and wanted something that Alan says doesn’t take 24 hours a day to keep. A lot of preparatory work had to be done. “The grassed area was in part a concrete yard and it was a working area of a farm until five years ago,” says Alan.

The Borders has been badly hit by rainfall this year, but the garden has coped. This is perhaps due to early drainage work. However, when it was time to lay the majority of the plants, the gardeners were hit with the opposite problem of a dry spell, which meant they couldn’t plant anything for about six weeks.

June’s husband and business partner, Kevin Drury, built the stone seating next to the pond. The couple ran a landscaping business until 2010, but now concentrate on design and also run a gardenware shop.

June chose plants with added value. Grasses in the first bed of the main garden are Panicum virgatum ‘Squaw’, which stays orange through the winter, next to dogwoods providing slashes of red. Next to the house, the summer plants have been kept as they’ve gone over, the huge stalks of the globe artichokes providing a haunting presence against autumn mists. They’ll stay there in winter, visible from the sitting room. High up in the Borders, frost has torched heads of sedums from pink to brown, but despite the height there is still plenty of colour from rudbeckias, asters, the dying glow of yellow red hot pokers and the surprisingly vibrant miniature crocosmia ‘Emily Mackenzie’. June says the idea was that there would be plenty of presence visible from the sitting room. The final bed has mahonia, spireas and acers. “This will become a solid area to have presence throughout the year,” says June.

In the middle bed there are a lot of vigorous plants. June says: “The way I approach this is to put a lot of bullyish plants in there so they jostle - pokers, rudbeckias and asters, sedums, lots of perovskia - it goes quite skeletal. There are cardoons, and even ligularia can be invasive so I have grouped these in a summer bed. I like the crescendo of colour, a contrast to the earlier part of the year. It is easy, if you are planting for year-round interest, to use shrubs but with herbaceous you can make things happen, they change. You concentrate things in a certain area to make an impact.”

There is a lot of autumn colour in the trees, which have benefited from the garden being drained as June has known gardens lose their trees because they have become waterlogged. Beech and hawthorn hedging provides warm and changing boundaries with the surrounding fields that will mature slowly, complementing the surroundings.

The grass was sown from seed and now forms a deep curl around the house, looking like it has been there for years, and Elizabeth has kept parts uncut to allow wildflowers and bulbs to grow. The wide grass path curves out of sight, eventually pooling into a circular lawn. Concealed by low-growing shrubs, which have been chosen to preserve the view of the Eildons, the circle is the same size as the nearby pond.

The private sanctuary of a courtyard is formed by the inner walls of the steading, laid out by the builder when it was first converted. In here, there are four parterre-style beds with box and standard trees including photinia and cotinus. Elizabeth has grown pears here, while plants still flowering late into autumn include dahlias and lavender. It is a still, secluded space away from the expansive Borders landscape from which the main garden borrows.

“It’s a garden Elizabeth can spend her life in, but we are not committed to spending all our time there,” says Alan. That said, in addition to feeding and cutting the grass all summer, he has laid decking at the pond to hide the pump works, constructed rotation beds for Elizabeth’s vegetable plot and built a summer house. He can’t help pondering what to do next. k

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