On a Chalk Hillside – January 2024

Published: January 11, 2024

Happy New Year!  

Last month I mentioned another type of garden we wish to develop on our chalk hillside – a gravel garden.  (You may recall I already have a gravel garden I've described to you before, which is a gravel mulch on beds, rather than what looks like plants growing out of a “sea” of gravel.)  Before we try and sort out the logistics of having a gravel garden on a steep slope without massive construction work to flatten/retain the gravel; I am going to show you some of the inspiration we got from visiting various gravel gardens.  This month I will try and explain how we FELT visiting this particular garden.  Guess which one it is:-


We visited at the beginning of September last year in the heatwave.  It was over 30 degrees, brilliant blue sky, searing light, and if you have visited you will know you just pull up on the side of the road – and there it is, Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman's garden.   My heart skipped a beat, I felt joy and delight that it was there, literally in a sea of gravel, with the huge sky pressing down on the totally flat land as far as you could see.  All the time we were there cars were pulling up, people were wandering around, taking selfies, playing with the chains/pebbles, marvelling, and driving off.  I cannot do justice to describing the desolation around, the flatness, the aridity, and the lack of any soft landscaping, which makes the garden stand out so much more starkly – here looking back to the road from the house:-


Or famously at the back with Dungeness Power Station in the distance:-


The garden had such a presence – even though the only “Tall” things are the found objects such as the posts above, none taller than me.  Perhaps because of the sea of gravel the objects and plants stood out and made you really look at them.  I felt they were battling to defy the harsh environment and grow. Any growth was to be celebrated, no matter how stunted and contorted – they were symbols of hope, and of the power of nature to overcome adversity.  Celebrate the conditions you have to garden with and find plants that will survive, even thrive.

You might have expected the to grow here – I see it growing on the shingle at Southsea too – and its wide glaucous leaves give impact compared to many other of the plants here :-


But I was surprised at how well was doing here – even though many of the bushes looked as stunted and contorted as my own:-


There were even pops of colour from the rare Yellow Horned Poppy (Glaceum Flavum):-


And Evening Primrose ():-


Now before you go thinking this was a colourful garden – these two flowering plants were found just here, in the front garden in this square:-


The rest were mainly scrawny evergreens or basal rosettes of leaves.  The trick, I felt to appreciating the plants was to marvel at their ability to adapt to these dry, barren surroundings and survive.  Almost to see the subshrubs as sculptures formed by the wind. There were sculptural elements composed of very few different things – such as this sleeper square with the Crambe maritima placed within, level with one side of the house:-


Or this sedum circle within shingle pebbles:-


Rusty found chains were used as borders to delineate plants:-


But although this view back to the cottage from behind seems to suggest the sleeper is denoting the end of the garden, there is no real boundary, it just fades away towards Dungeness Power Station and the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway line:-


On the right of this photo, you can see the Broom growing low to the ground (), which is all it can manage in the harsh environment – at the front, it had got to waist height in places, but without the protection of the building, not higher.  However, at the back of Prospect Cottage in the shelter of the L-shape it creates the planting looks like this:-


And YES that is a fig growing up against the wall!! And a briar rose too by the look of it.  Perhaps the only rose that survived of the 30 Derek Jarman originally planted here? 

I think I walked round the garden at least twice in each direction.  It looked different coming from different angles.  Because it surrounded the house you couldn't see all of it from any one place – the “busiest” part was the front view with the “formal” raised beds along the front elevation of the house, planted more recognisably with actual plants – lavender bought from a shop and placed this year, for example:-


But the most impactful parts for me were where the plants were juxtaposed with the gravel, found objects, and space.  Nowhere did it seem too crowded and cramped to walk around, the views from all angles showed architectural creations of both organic and inorganic materials that seemed “natural” and yet innovative.  Perhaps the very very bright light helped, but it seemed a very joyous garden, and a lot more colourful with the many shapes of plants and the variety of shapes and tone of green leaves, which despite the space, gravel, and harsh environment seemed more cohesive and dare I say garden-like than I expected.  I had expected many found objects artfully arranged, and a few poorly plants.  What we found was a beautiful garden that had a massive impact on us visually and emotionally.  We went down to the shingle beach at Dungeness Point and sat on the desert of shingle looking out to sea, with this garden seared in our mind's eye.    

Reading subsequently, it seems that Derek Jarman did put a great deal of compost under the garden at the beginning when he brought 30 roses to plant.  However, as can be seen, they didn't survive, and the “enriching” of the soil could not really compensate for the harsh environment above ground that the plants were faced with and over the years, the enrichment will have leached away.  He turned to more native plants – as can be seen today.  It appears he was also in correspondence with Beth Chatto, regarding suitable plants for gravel gardening.

Himself's impression of the garden was that it was “not a garden, rather a shingle beach.  Jarman has curated a collection of plants, driftwood, and flotsam.  All are placed in a most natural way around a vernacular timber house in the style of a fisherman's shed.  It absorbs the surrounding vista and buildings.  No hint of forced design tricks – all the plants seem indigenous to a pebble beach.  No straight lines, low level as the fierce wind would ensure all vegetation is low level to survive.”

Last view of the cottage from the front, with the Valerian (Centranthus rubus) and Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) in flower:-


Learning points for us to consider:-  

  • right plant right place; 
  • use of borrowed landscape; 
  • fitting into the landscape; 
  • space to appreciate the form of the plant; 
  • use of found objects to punctuate/highlight plants; 
  • make a sheltered area for some plants to grow better than in the open; 
  • make use of, and celebrate, self-seeders.  

I think one big lesson for me in thinking about gravel gardens/plants is that I am basically a “more is more” cottage gardener at heart.  The garden here is packed with plants, with the idea that there is no bare soil between them to allow weeds to grow.  With no hard/found objects/pots/sculptures in the beds, just PLANTS.  I.E. the antithesis of Derek Jarman's garden!  

Next month, two other gravel gardens (both visited in the pouring rain!); and the inspiration we drew from them to develop our own. 

Sheila May