John Massey's garden

First, an update. I've been busy most of this year on my new book, which is published tomorrow. Visiting gardens when I'm doing a book is very different from visiting gardens for my own pleasure, and quite often I get to the point where I don't want to have to think about gardens, or plants, or combinations thereof for quite a while.
I'm pleased with the book and I think Hugo Rittson Thomas's photographs look wonderful, but completing it left me feeling exhausted. So it was very nice to feel enthusiastic about garden visiting again, thanks to my friend Hester Forde, whose garden, Coosheen, is in Ireland, in Co Cork.
Hester came to see my garden while visiting the Cotswolds this summer. I'm planning another jungle clearance project, this time beneath an enormous yew tree which is home to dozens of brambles and other weeds and saplings.
Hester is a fantastic source of good advice and recommendations, and she suggested I raise the crown, or "limb up" the yew (brilliant idea!) and that I visit Ashdown Nurseries in the West Midlands, where the owner, John Massey, has a three-acre garden. His woodland planting, she said, would really inspire me.
I went to the final open day of this year, which was on Saturday. I drove up the motorway in brilliant sunshine, but the minute I walked into the garden, at around 1pm, it started to rain. The law of sod was at work again.
Ashdown Nurseries is not one of those massive garden centres with acres of scented candles and woolly jumpers. The indoor bit is quite compact, but two things immediately alerted me to the fact that this was a good garden centre.

50th anniversary souvenirs on sale at the entrance to the garden

First, you don't celebrate your 50th anniversary in the garden centre world these days unless you are doing something right. Second, there was a really good, interesting selection of bulbs on sale, and when I walked outside, there was a spectacular brugmansia with dozens of flowers on it. Beyond it stretched a selection of shrubs and conifers in pristine condition.
I must confess, I had to drag myself away from the nursery in order to visit the garden (I loved the lewisias growing in a theatre like auriculas, and the mini-greenhouse display of Cyclamen species), but it was worth it.
The garden is roughly the shape of a half-moon, with the house at the centre of the flat edge, and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal forming a semi-circular curve. You enter the garden through a woodland path, with a wildlife meadow on the left. Around the back of the house, a series of borders and island beds provide not only different effects and moods, but lead the visitor through the garden.
It should come as no surprise that island beds are favoured by plantsmen like John Massey, and Adrian Bloom at Bressingham. They are a good way to grow plants, because everything gets a share of the light. If you want to see how a modern version can work, visit the Oudolf Field at Hauser + Wirth in Somerset.
For me, John Massey's garden scored on all sorts of levels. It is obviously a plantsman's garden, with that attention to "right plant, right place" that the horticulturally literate pay to their beds and borders. It is full of interesting things and ideas, with constant changes of colour and texture just to keep you on your toes. For example, I loved the placing of Rudbeckia fulgida var.deamii next to the brilliant yellow autumn foliage of a Cornus sanguinea (sorry, forgot to check the cultivar). Most people would partner the rudbeckia with a contrasting colour (I have it with the lavender-blue flowers of Aster  'Little Carlow'), but the yellow on yellow is very effective and makes you look twice.

Brilliant combination: Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii (centre of picture) with the autumn foliage of a Cornus sanguinea

A display of nerines attracted covetous glances. Sadly, they were not for sale.

I loved the woodland planting with its mixtures of dry-shade-tolerant Dryopteris and Polystichum ssp. I loved the Abyssinian bananas (though I was glad I wasn't the person who had to take them inside for the winter). I loved the pond, overhung by a twisted robinia. And I loved the grass border alongside the canal.

The new stump garden, an exuberant example of shade planting

The pond, framed by Robinia pseudoacacia. 'Lace Lady' perhaps?

The dark red of the Abyssinian bananas,  Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii' , is echoed by a dusky phormium.

Asters and grasses - a fabulous combination. For late spring interest plant bulbs such as alliums and tulips.

The yellow leaves of a Japanese maple glow against the soft cream of the house wall.

Most of all, however, I loved the sense that here was someone really enjoying their plants and having fun playing with them. So I would like to say a huge thank you to Mr Massey for sharing his garden and his enthusiasm, and for inspiring me to rouse myself from post-book lethargy and go and enjoy my own plant playground.


  1. Congratulations on your new book. I have it in front of me and just read the introduction. Gorgeous photos. I couldn't help but have a flick through before I start to read. And congratulations to the nursery on their 50th.I'm sure you came away from your visit with lots of ideas for the dry shade you will have when you limb up your tree. The display of nerines is beautiful. I just saw a program recently on Adrian Bloom with his father. He was the one who introduced island beds. They need lots of space and plenty of grass. But many of the larger English gardens have the room to do that.

  2. What a wonderful nursery - the aster/grass combination is inspired! Around here, it's the rare nursery that would have actual gardens to explore - what a treat that would be.

  3. When you talk about it being a 'plantsman's' garden I sense it's not precisely to your taste. With your own - is it more knowledgeable guesswork, a preference for informality . . . or . . . ?

    1. I genuinely loved the garden and there were lots of bits that I would cheerfully steal. There were things that perhaps I wouldn't have in my garden, or not in the same way, but you couldn't fault the horticulture. I suppose I meant that it was a plantsman's garden in the sense that the plants drove the design of the garden rather than the design dictating which plants were used.

  4. Congratulations on your book! I've been to wonderful Bidbury and traveled The Cottswolds (My computer is telling me that "The Cottswolds" is not grammatically correct - so apologies) But I have a question for which I have searched futilely for answers and you might be my last hope. It sounds rather silly but: Why is Awkward Hill named Awkward Hill? I would so appreciate it if you could solve that mystery for me which I'm fairly sure is no mystery at all.
    If you can would you e-mail me at
    Thank you in advance.
    Richard Marcus, Portland, Oregon

    1. The lane here actually has two names. The lane on the north-west side of my house is called Hawkers Hill, and the lane to the south-east is Awkward Hill. Bibury and Arlington are now considered one village (called Bibury with Arlington), but in the past they were two distinct communities, connected by the footpath via Awkward Hill and Hawkers Hill. It is believed that Hawkers Hill got its name because pedlars and traders would set up their stalls alongside the footpath to attract passers-by. I don't know whether Awkward Hill is a corruption of Hawkers Hill (in Gloucestershire dialect, "awkward" is pronounced "okkerd"), or whether it was a jokey reference to the fact that it is a bloody steep hill!


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