Lady Farm Upper Garden © Charles Hawes
Lady Farm is a private garden open on occasions to the public. Its recent prairie/steppe plantings, expertly achieved and highly photogenic, have received great critical acclaim in the media.
Lady Farm was purchased as a working farm by Malcolm and Judy Pearce in 1972 and the 10 acre garden has been created by the owners in collaboration over the last 13 years with Mary Payne, Senior Lecturer in Amenity Horticulture at the University of Bath. Mrs Payne has worked on a voluntary basis throughout. There are paid maintenance staff but Mrs Payne also has a continuing limited role in the hands-on maintenance of the garden, and in particular any new planting.
Lady Farm sits on a lip of land overlooking a shallow valley. It looks out to a landscape of arable farmland and young and old woodlands, and down to a stream and two small lakes. There are no buildings in sight beyond the garden.
The garden begins with formal, geometric gardens around the house; it then proceeds down a wide, curvilinear sloping vista of grass framed by shrubberies to the two lakes below. The budget has been generous, although mostly directed into earth-moving and planting.
To the left, hidden by trees and shrubberies, is an enclosure of prairie/steppe planting. To the right an area of grass and trees around the lakes. The stream in the valley bottom is crossed by bridges to provide a circuit walk. The prairie/steppe gardens were added in 1997.
Current developments include the refinement and editing of the prairie/steppe planting, flower meadow and marginal planting around the lakes, the addition of numerous sculptures, and the creation of a ravine garden with random rockwork, mist units and a wooden gorilla.
Arrival and Main Vista
AW: On arrival visitors are directed round the back of the house and make their way to the front and the open view over the main garden. Media coverage of Lady Farm has focussed so firmly on the detail of the prairie/steppe planting that it is surprising to arrive amongst such conventional gardening.
SA: The terraced, formal gardens around the house are well planted and maintained with colourful perennials in strong borders. Perhaps the terraces are smaller than the house needs in the face of that big landscape prospect; it makes them seem suburban, a bit 1950s in fact with the resin fairies.
More compelling are the less formal, more miscellaneously-planted parts of the garden, like the big vista which comes next. It’s a broad river of grass rolling away downhill to a lake, and flanked by dense mixed shrubberies and a tea-room. This is the part of the garden which addresses most directly the surrounding landscape and it does so by being simply curvilinear in layout if not naturalistically planted. It’s a bold stroke. On the other hand it’s pure 1970s, in the manner of gardens such as Great Comp, Foggy Bottom and parts of Wisley; surprisingly, it was made in the 1990s.
AW: Yes, it seems very municipal to me, with its sweeps of grass, immaculate shrub plantings and random trees parachuted in. The conifers dotted around add to the suburban 1970s feel. There are some good groups of white stemmed birches but they look a bit like afterthoughts.
SA: The shrubberies are becoming congested as the years go by; they would benefit from serious thinning, to let them be as relaxed as the vista they define.
AW: Relaxed? This is area is totally tidy and contrived. Relaxed suggests something more natural in appearance than these artificial curves and tidy plantings.
The Steppe and Prairie
SA: In a rising rectangle of land enclosed by small trees and and a stream, are two big beds – the steppe and the prairie. The planting is excellent. The steppe side is more subtly and tuftily planted and has an altogether leaner aspect than the prairie bed where vast swathes of autumn daisies and upright miscanthus stand tall together. No wonder photographers love it.
Best of all are the views from the central lawn over the steppe and out over medium sized trees to the ponds, fields and woods behind. The transition from garden to landscape is seamless and the enclosing trees thoroughly inconspicuous for a change.
AW: The lines that these beds follow look rather hosepipe-led, but there is no doubt that these areas, when doing their thing, are what people come to see and are well worth seeing. When we visited in September the vivid yellow rudbeckias and helianthemums and deep green grasses of the prairie were in sharp and uncomfortable contrast to the faded grey and beige of the steppe. But when I revisited at the end of October the bright yellow had gone and the two areas were more comfortable with each other.
SA: True. Side, by side, the two beds contrast with each other in a way which highlights their specific differences rather than enhancing the overall ‘naturalistic’ effect. Perhaps these plantings would have been more productively set at the garden’s edge, rather than side by side in a box.
Meeting the Landscape
AW: I’m not so sure whether they marry with the landscape – it rather depends where you view things from. Some views give a picture of alien prairie/steppe plants framed by British woodland and I found the effect weird rather than exciting.
It’s a shame that the lakes have fences and an unnaturally relentless fringe of plants, backed by manicured grass.
SA: I could wish the lawns and intensive gardening ceased after the stream. It feels as if you are out into the landscape then, with the field (flower meadow) running away uphill. Why have more traditional gardening here? Maybe prairie and steppe, as large-scale naturalistic plantings, could be used here instead?
AW: Right. Prairie/steppe planting is wonderful for following and emphasising sweeps of land and altogether an opportunity has been missed. In the spirit of Gilpin, who wished to take a sledgehammer to break up the over precise symmetry of the ruin of Tintern Abbey, I would also take out just a few trees, to let the beautiful lines of the countryside breathe, and place the prairie/steppe where it could flow with the sinuous shapes.
AW: There is a creeping overlay of superfluous and tasteless decoration arriving, which I believe has nothing to do with Mary Payne. The gorge, with its dreadful gorilla is the worst of this; an echo of the fairies by the house. When I visited in October I found a variety of statues, at least one of them bordering on the obscene.
SA: The statuary is set in the outer parts of the garden adjoining the landscape. Like the lawns across the stream, it’s a leaking of artificial features into the wilder parts of the garden, making a smooth transition to countryside even harder. Heavy use of sculpture can be a means to advertisement or the result of the gardener’s inability to resist gilding the lily. I could do without it here.
SA: The garden exit is up beside the house and approached by a sloping topiary allée of clipped standard spheres of Ligustrum delavayanum. There are fashion-conscious, cleverly-coloured formal beds of dahlias, verbenas and so on, all impeccably maintained. In reality this area is an adjunct of the formal terraces around the house and I would prefer to see it visited at the start.
AW: These gardens are very satisfying: simple, clear, good, well planted.
AW: The greatest problem here has to be that there are two fingers in the pie. Although Mary Payne may be consulted about planting and changes, it is clear that her influence is quite random and that the garden is increasingly being pulled in different directions.
For me, the garden lacks integrity. It hasn’t made its mind up what sort of garden it wants to be. Parts can be brilliant – I loved the two formal gardens, and the prairie/steppe have their merits – but I believe that a great garden is more than a collection of gardens, and that it should work as a whole. It is as if a composer were to add bits of reggae and nursery rhymes to a symphony, without having any overriding purpose or point except that he fancied some of those too.
SA: It is indeed a collection of much-loved and well-maintained gardens and different planting styles from the last 30 years, but fast becoming over-rich. I have no problem with combining the styles, but they could be used in a sequence which provided a happier and more logical transition from house and formality to countryside. That ought also to bring a greater sense of distinction between spaces. I also want to say ‘No more features please, just refine the existing ones.’
AW: The prairie/steppe plantings capture the imagination of photographers bored with endless flower borders and roses; the two areas offer brilliant photographs, as features in isolation from the rest of the garden and from each other. In print this creates an impression of a more committed planting and style in the garden than actually exists.
A visit to Lady Farm may create disappointment and a sense of anticlimax (it did for me) given that it isn’t actually a first rate garden despite public claims to that effect. If I’d come upon it unexpectedly I think I would have been more inclined to overlook its weaknesses.
First published in the Garden Design Journal, Issue 48: pp. 22-27, March 2006
Extra photographs have been included in this web edition
Lady Farm website