Other People's Gardens - A Multi-Dimensional Composition

Composer David Hellewell's concept of multi-dimensional music has influenced his whimsical garden design, finds
Elisabeth de Stroumillo
Photographer Jennifer Beeston
Garden Plan Valarie Hill

My first question to composer David Hellewell had nothing to do with gardening but concerned "Multi-Dimensional Music", which is how he describes his art. "Well," he replied, "I began with jazz and pop, and then went into avant-garde classical. But I was also composing a new genre of popular stuff - jazz, rock, medieval and other sorts of music mixed - and it's now evolved into what I call 'multi-dimensional'."

"My garden is the same," he went on, politely ignoring my baffled expression. "You'll see influences from the Chinese, from formal gardens and elsewhere, all mixed, and it is constantly evolving, too. When we came here nearly 40 years ago," ("here" being a large Victorian house in Bournemouth), "the garden had lots of herbaceous borders. I tried to keep them going, but it was far too much work and, 15 years on, I realised I must change it."

David and Monica with the fan-trained pyracantha

His first aim was minimal maintenance: ("my wife and I run a music academy and can only spare Sundays for the garden. This is reflected in the design, emphasising structure, shape and permanence.") So out went herbaceous things and in went shrubs and foliage plants - and scattered paving slabs to reduce digging and weeding: "Why step on to a patch of earth to get at something if you then have to fork it over?

"My design was also governed by how far my wife, Monica, can stretch from her wheelchair to do the weeding," Hellewell continued, "so none of the beds is more than 3ft wide." Those two considerations apart, what he most wanted was "space and trees, so I began by making a big lawn and planting well-separated specimen trees in it."

So far, fairly conventional; what makes this garden idiosyncratic is Hellewell's treatment of the rest of the space, mixing textbook formality with his own brand of whimsy. "A formal garden is easiest to keep," he explained, "but I avoid getting it too formal by planting asymmetrically. Each part of the garden is a self-contained entity, linked by box and paving."

Box is, indeed, everywhere: 4,000-odd plants in the 1-acre space, "all raised from cuttings off a single plant." Topiary-clipped bushes make solo sentinels; tiny hedges emphasise the curvy paved paths; and two waffle-patterned parterres enclose more paving slabs in place of flowers ("It makes it easy to sweep up the clippings when I cut it in early July.")

Yew there is in plenty, too, some of it as individual features that are also topiary-clipped. Most impressive is the front hedge, its top shaped like stylised ocean waves.

The drive parallels next-door's garden wall, below which is a bank planted with Serbian spruce (Picea omorika), hybrid rhododendrons, acers and other shrubs. Across the drive, one side of a lawn laps the house wall and the other three sides end at sinuous, box-edged paths, and borders partly carpeted with spreading conifers.

Azaleas, variegated hebes, blue-grey Lawson cypresses trimmed like feather dusters and other little evergreens, all pot-planted to restrict their growth, poke up between them. So do rugged stones rescued from an old rockery, stood on end and so, more unusually, do artfully-stacked bricks. ("I wanted sculptures, but not cherubs, and I couldn't afford Hepworths, so I hit on this. A bonus is that no-one will steal them, and I can move them when I need to.")

Bulbs were through everywhere at the end of a cold winter but the rhododendrons had yet to bloom, leaving centre stage to a witch hazel smothered in brilliant puff-ball blossoms, its scent defying the chilly breeze.

A fan-trained pyracantha, resembling a fish skeleton, climbs up part of the house-front; the front door is framed by a white-berried callicarpa and another scented beauty, wintersweet (chimonanthus praecox).

Flowering herbaceous plants are few and far between: "messy borders where everything competes in colour and size" are among Hellewell's pet hates; white-flowering bergenias ("I hate the pink ones") are only tolerated for their foliage. But smell is important - rhododendron Loderi 'King George' is cherished for that reason, and though most winter-flowering heathers are now banished ("They need too much care"), the scented Erica erigena. 'Superba' remains, and he makes room for scented regal lilies.

Behind the house, separating it from a much larger lawn, is a much-punctuated terrace. In a little bed once used as a cuttings nursery, adolescent plants learn new tricks: golden hollies turn into standard trees, bays twist round poles, eventually looking like balloons on springs. The shrubs and other plants are discouraged from growing too big by being confined in pots: a modified bonsai technique that produces unusual silhouettes.

Dwarfing things in pots has other advantages, David Hellewell maintains. "This is a sumach," he said. "Fantastic in the autumn when the leaves turn, otherwise murderous because they sucker like mad. But this one has been in its tub 10 years and stays about 8ft high." Winter jasmine, hebes, even sedum 'Autumn Joy' are similarly treated, planted in pot-saucers. "In a border, sedums are big, floppy things," he said. "Grown like this, they stay neat."

In a corner is an unexpected colony of plastic pots painted a vivid scarlet, near a white-painted miniature obelisk mounted on a scarlet stool. "The Chinese use these bright colours, but when I tried a couple of pots, my wife thought I was joking," Hellewell recalled. "Instead of giving up, though, I bought more - and now, massed together, they make a feature. The obelisk? It's a finial that fell off a gable-end, which I couldn't waste."

Elsewhere on the terrace an Ali Baba jar rests on four cast-iron pillar-capitals, turned upside down. "We got it from a specialist antiques place. It's an old Spanish wine-jar; see the date cut into it? 1880 - the same as the house." Flanking it are two raised circular beds of differing size ("asymmetry again, you see?")

Beyond the terrace, and the two chequerboard parterres, and a pair of yews clipped into "celestial orbs", the lawn is broken by yet more circles, again of varying diameters. Most contain trees, all differently shaped, partly by careful pruning. "Nothing you see is accidental," Hellewell stressed. "If you left these alone, they'd cover the garden - but I prune upwards, taking off lower branches and letting in light and exposing their lovely bark." Among them: a eucalyptus (pauciflora niphophila) with a gorgeously-marked silver and olive trunk, and a juniper resembling a set of drums.

A carefully clipped juniper, like a set of drums, stands in the centre of a green circle cut in the large lawn.

A twisty willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa') makes a striking shape of its own accord and a parrotia persica, trained along faintly parasol-like lines, also catches the eye. But neither is as theatrical as the pear pruned into a mushroom shape "primarily for practical reasons because I didn't want to climb ladders to collect the fruit. Now the pears are easy to pick - and it's sculptural, too."

Not all the lawn circles have trees in them. In one, the sword-like leaves of a stately phormium and the slender spikes of grasses wave above a small pond. A plastic magpie gyrates among the greenery, suspended in a hoop made by a small, well-trained pyracantha branch. "I bought the bird because I was told it would scare away the pigeons, which were becoming a pest, but it didn't work, so I hung it there. It's not the sort of thing I'd normally do - but it does seem to belong there."

Another circle features a tree-stump surrounded by newish-looking plants "I've only just done that because you were coming: I had a liquidambar there that never coloured properly, so it had to go. You need to be ruthless if a garden is to evolve as you want it to. But Schubert said of his music that he composed and then ripped out any discrepancies 'with bare claws', and it's the same in a garden. The big difference, which makes gardening a piece of cake compared to composing, is that the plants already exist, whereas in music you have to create everything."

More paved paths separate the lawn from the boundary walls, and low banks planted with shrubs and trees (Serbian spruces again, and bright golden privet). ("I heap my compost and it rots down along those banks; the birds spread it for me and the plants stop it from spilling over the paths.") White, chain-linked poles border the paths and support evergreen clematis, akebia (the chocolate vine), and wistaria.

The lawn ends at a yew hedge, behind which is a moss-carpeted spinney planted with beeches of different ages and sizes. "I had to have a bit of forest," Hellewell said, "but despite being a novice I realised that the trees shouldn't be identical." Even in wintry light the subtle colours of the mosses glowed. "I love it," Hellewell enthused. "The grass I had here at first was full of moss and it was murder to mow round the trees. Then I discovered that Paraquat weedkiller kills grass but encourages moss, and look at it now."

Favourite plants? "That's like asking me for my favourite piece of music. I suppose box is one, but it's the way I use it that I love. I love the eucalyptus, and the golden privet, but I love everything in the garden, it's why they're all here. If I only had a small space, I'd want to keep my spinney, and the moss."

Tips? "When I wanted yew in place of an old hedge I found that if you put young yews among the existing hornbeam or privet, they gradually take over and you can take out the old hedge bit by bit. Anyone wanting to have a go at topiary shouldn't let box and yew grow to 2ft before starting to clip them. Cut them hard back when they're tiny; the harder you clip, the more they bush outwards, which is what you need for topiary."


© This article appeared in the November 1997 edition of Saga magazine ©

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