A look at the beautiful gardens at Hoopers Farm in Mayfield

An urn punctuates the view

An urn punctuates the view - Credit: Leigh Clapp

Take inspiration from the beautiful gardens at Hoopers Farm, which Andrew and Sarah Ratcliffe have developed over many years in the lovely village of Mayfield

Fragrant, semi-double Rosa 'Ghislaine' de Feligonde

Fragrant, semi-double Rosa 'Ghislaine' de Feligonde - Credit: Leigh Clapp

A country idyll looks effortless but we all know gardening takes time and expertise.

For Andrew and Sarah Ratcliffe, developing the two-acre garden at their home, Hoopers Farm, is a joint effort taken on with enthusiasm. Attracted by the stunning setting, the couple moved to the property in 1993. “We were looking for somewhere with some land for our horses but the main attraction of Hoopers Farm was the view. We are on the southern edge of Mayfield, within walking distance of the village, and have superb uninterrupted views over the Rother Valley,” says Sarah. Set on a gentle south-facing slope which melds into fields, the borrowed view beyond was always a factor in coming to decisions on how the garden would look. Over time the scene has been beautifully conceived, slowly and with care, evolving from the existing palette of a few shrubs, a small herbaceous border, some mature trees including silver birch and lime, and swathes of daffodils.

“The first thing we did, after making changes to the house, was to raise a flat lawn in a semi-circular shape and construct steps down to the lower level. We also removed a small rockery that was in front of the house and constructed a sloping border along the full length of the house, which is now planted with blue and yellow flowering plants,” Sarah recalls. From the outset tasks were delineated, with Andrew in charge of the framework and Sarah the infill. “Andrew designed the overall structure, making full use of the views and sight lines including removing part of the boundary hedge and putting in a ha-ha to draw the eye into the fields beyond. I have a background in textile design and I love putting colours and textures together so the planting was another form of expressing this creativity. In the days when all we had was a window box, I started to read the works of garden writers such as Marjorie Fish, Christopher Lloyd and Anne Scott-James and imagined one day being able to put those ideas into practice,” she adds.

Working with the location and conditions was important, while achieving an informal flow through the garden to augment the setting. Having a sense of place is an essential element in a country garden and Hoopers Farm demonstrates that feeling of belonging perfectly in the landscape, with some areas on view and others to discover. Swathes and drifts of mixed herbaceous planting fill curvaceous beds, echoing the contours of the vistas beyond. “These island beds are designed to be seen from above and to wander through. We got the idea from part of the garden at Great Dixter, which is a big favourite of ours and not far away. The colours here flow from beds on one side, which have hot reds, oranges and yellows through shades of pink, to blues and purple on the far side,” she explains. A joyous jumble of fiery crocosmias, hardy geraniums, spikes of Stachys macrantha ‘Superba’, pretty Penstemon ‘Hidcote Pink’, bi-colour lupins and tactile sedums keep the show going through summer. Adding further texture and movement are peripheral meadow grasses swaying in the breeze.

Clematis and hops adorn the archway into the potager

Clematis and hops adorn the archway into the potager - Credit: Leigh Clapp

Roses feature in the borders, such as free-flowering ground cover ‘Raubritter’, and also in a more formal buxus-edged garden, complete with climbers adorning an impressive metal arbour as a central feature over a lawned avenue to the summerhouse. “Our soil is Wealden clay so we are constantly adding grit and organic matter to enhance it. Our three resident donkeys play a great part in this! We are wildlife-friendly and do not use chemicals. Roses do well here and they are a great favourite. We have several different varieties, mainly shrub, recumbent, climbing and rambling, such as ‘Penelope’, ‘Ferdinand Pichard’ and ‘Prosperity’. Our one concession to the hybrid tea is ‘Chandos Beauty’ which has the most superb fragrance and is a lovely pale apricot-pink. We have six of these lining the walkway to the summerhouse,” Sarah says. Other lovely roses here include ‘Grace’, a pure apricot, rosette form bred by David Austin, and three vigorous climbers – cream, scented ‘Gloire de Dijon’, pale orange ‘Ghislane Feligonde’ and ‘Treasure Trove’, which turns from pale apricot to pink as the flowers age.

Sarah says: “You can wander through the garden in a number of different ways. It’s also exposed to south-westerly winds so we have had to put in protection measures. Inspired by the spiral hedge at Marchants Hardy Plants’ display garden near Ripe, we planted a circular beech hedge around our rose circle and then a line of tamarisk trees and beyond them a line of aspens. As a contrast to this open aspect we created a more enclosed area, bounded by a hedge of Cotoneaster franchetii and Lonicera nitida, which we called the Secret Garden, with an entrance and exit hidden from view. This space has a more contemplative feel to it, a place to sit and think.” Clouds of Verbena bonariensis, purple roses ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Achillea ‘Rose Madder’, spires of foxgloves, brilliant blue borage, upright violet Aconitum carmichaelii and deep burgundy maple foliage add to the sense of intimacy in this hidden area. Also inspired by Great Dixter, a bench made by a local craftsman is positioned to one side.

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To the side of the house there is a large terrace with four raised beds, brimming with cheerful, brightly toned calendula and nasturtiums, and a greenhouse for propagation. No country garden would be complete without a kitchen garden, and it’s a very comprehensive one indeed. “The vegetable plot started with one small bed and has got bigger and bigger, extending down the slope to the new garden in the old tennis court. Neither of us played tennis – I think we only had one game on it – so it became a sand school for exercising the horses. When I stopped riding, we had an unappealing large grey rectangle for many years and our latest project has been to remove the sand, dig out some beds and turn it into a new garden. At the same time we created a wildlife pond at the bottom of one of our fields and the soil from the pond mixed with mushroom compost was used in the new beds. This is our latest project. We are still trying to think of an appropriate name for it. As well as the basics of potatoes, beans, peas and carrots and onions, we have progressively added more unusual plants including sea kale and melons. The vegetable plot is laid out in traditional potager style, mainly with long narrow beds running north-south, but with some smaller ones for salads and herbs,” says Sarah.

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If we are unable to visit gardens in person due to social distancing, we can still enjoy some virtually. Take a look at the National Garden Scheme’s website, www.ngs.org.uk, where you can read some garden owners’ inspirational stories, get garden tips, link to social media, and even take video tours by owners of their gardens, including Hoopers Farm. Each Thursday a new collection of virtual garden visits will be released as part of their Support Our Gardens Appeal, inviting us to donate to this worthwhile charity, ngs.org.uk/virtual-garden-visits

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