Arne Maynard reinvigorates the garden of an Oxfordshire manor house

Eva Nemeth

The garden projects that the designer Arne Maynard appreciates most are those that evolve gradually over a period of time. ‘I always start with a master plan, but often the gardens are big and need to be broken down into phases,’ he says. ‘Plans change and evolve as the owners start using the space. It allows each part to develop in a more organic and natural way – and stops the garden from feeling over-designed.’ Arne was commissioned to work on this Oxfordshire garden in 2000 – and, 19 years on, it is still a work in progress.

The attractive Norman manor house, with later additions in the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, is full of character, its sense of antiquity contrasting with the contemporary interior. The owners have a home furnishings business, so textiles and interior design are particularly important to the family. They felt strongly that the garden should reflect the juxtaposition between old and new inside the house. Arne’s plan combines traditional and contemporary aspects, incorporating existing walls and old hedges, but also introducing fresh elements.

When Arne first arrived, the house had been engulfed by dark, funereal planting. ‘It felt like a retirement home,’ he remembers. ‘The garden had been crammed with conifers and shrubs planted in the moat next to the house, so we couldn’t even see how big the garden was – there was no sense of proportion.’ Arne and his team removed countless laurels and hollies and began to put the house back in its proper space, allowing it to breathe. The first step was to get the walled kitchen garden up and running. With low box hedges and lovely gnarled apple trees, the framework of the old garden was still in place, albeit overgrown, so they set about clearing and redefining the space.

At that point, the owners had young children and knew little about gardening, so growing vegetables and herbs seemed like the right introduction. ‘I always feel it’s a good thing to start people off in the kitchen garden, because you can involve the children,’ says Arne. ‘It got them out into the garden as a family.’ However, the beds were too large for them to cope with all at once so, for the first year, they sowed some of them with an annuals seed mix that looked wonderful and required little effort.

Today, the kitchen garden comes to life in the spring, with a frothy mix of apple blossom, tulips and hellebores, followed by the large, yellow, bowl-shaped blooms of Paeonia mlokosewitschii and tall blue camassias in May. Tulips also appear in profusion in what the owner calls ‘the secret garden’ – another smaller walled enclosure, which Arne has turned into a simple cutting garden with a grid of timber-edged beds. The different tulip varieties are chosen each year by the family and these are followed by annual flowers that can be cut for the house.

The area at the front had previously been used as a car park, so Arne made a new space for cars to one side of the house, creating an entrance courtyard that complements the façade. Partially enclosed by a line of pleached ‘Red Sentinel’ crab apples, the main feature of the courtyard is a delightful contemporary knot garden with hummocky box snaking through the space in an irregular pattern, and taller yew topiary forms in contrasting shapes.

‘I wanted the ingredients of an Elizabethan manor-house garden, but with a feeling of modernity – the lines are broken up unconventionally, so it isn’t too formal,’ explains Arne. Tulipa turkestanica and pulsatillas emerge from the gravel in spring, followed in summer by a soft, flowery cloud of lavender, verbena and other self-seeders. The dark yew and box set against the pale gravel give a contemporary feel.

An existing Magnolia x soulangeana flowers lavishly every year to the side of the house, where it is bordered by a cloud-pruned yew hedge. This was already there, too, but it was straight edged and unimaginative, so Arne and his team attacked it with a chainsaw. ‘We gouged out great chunks and it looked dreadful for a few years, but now it has come into its own, giving the garden that feeling of age, rather than making it look suburban.’ Beyond this is a new area of the garden still under development, with a series of more modern-looking hornbeam hedges that spiral round to enclose further areas of planting.

‘The idea was that, from the back of the house, you look onto a lush, green expanse, as though into a park,’ says Arne. There is a ribbon of wildflowers in front of the hornbeam hedge, but all the cultivated flowers are either in the borders next to the house or hidden in the walled gardens and behind the hornbeam, so you have to go on a walk to find them. ‘It’s a bit like the house,’ explains Arne. ‘From the outside, you see the historic façade, but when you go inside, there is the contemporary interior – it’s a lovely contrast.’

Opposite the entrance courtyard is a section of garden that was not part of the original master plan – a gently contoured mound with a carpet of jewel-like bulbs in spring. An old chestnut came down in a storm several years ago, giving the owners the opportunity to add something new. Arne suggested a series of tulip trees under-planted with Iris reticulata, narcissus, crocus and other early spring bulbs – ‘like a bejewelled Elizabethan tapestry’. This is just one example of the garden’s organic evolution over time. ‘I think we’ve all grown into the space in a natural way,’ says Arne. ‘All my gardens evolve from a passion for gardening rather than from design itself – it’s all about the art of horticulture, about creating spaces that can be gardened’.

Arne Maynard Garden Design: