Aston Pottery: Painting with plants

The hornbeam walk is at the heart of the garden © Mandy Bradshaw

The hornbeam walk is at the heart of the garden © Mandy Bradshaw - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

What started as a business ploy by one Cotswold firm has developed into an inspirational garden

Dahlia 'Apricot Desire' © Mandy Bradshaw

Dahlia 'Apricot Desire' © Mandy Bradshaw - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Stephen Baughan’s assertion that he’s not a gardener makes me smile. True, it’s not how he earns a living but anyone who raises more than 5,000 annuals a year has fingers that are definitely a dark shade of green.

The space he cultivates is rather less easy to categorise. It’s not a garden in the traditional sense but the literal description of planting around a car park woefully underplays what he has achieved.

Dahlias, containers, perennials, grasses, tropical-style planting and those annuals, Aston Pottery’s garden encompasses a range that would put many bigger plots to shame, while Stephen’s ability to blend texture and colour is inspirational.

Of course, this skill is hardly surprising given his background: an art foundation course and 35 years running a successful pottery that supplies household names including Kew, Liberty’s and Wisley. Artists often make good gardens; after all, gardening can be described as painting with plants.

Stephen is quite open about the garden’s original purpose to make the pottery more of a day out destination.

“The gardens were initially a big old hook line to get people to come along,” he says.

Hylotelephium telephium 'Purple Emperor' © Mandy Bradshaw

Hylotelephium telephium 'Purple Emperor' © Mandy Bradshaw - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

And it’s a hook that has proved attractive with the gardens and the popular cafe now more of a draw than either the pottery or shop.

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Even so, few would have quite so much effort into the project but there’s the sense that Stephen does nothing half-heartedly.

His method of soil preparation is just one example. Before a bed is planted, two years are spent tackling perennial weeds using weedkiller and aerating the soil with a mini-digger. This is done up to three times a year until there’s no bindweed or couch grass. Mushroom compost and lime-free grit are then added and mixed in, again using a digger.

“You end up with soil that’s a bit like spooning sugar,” explains Stephen “but it’s got grit in it, which helps it drain and it’s also got a lot of mushroom compost, which helps retain the moisture.”

Plants are then added and carefully spaced so that they will eventually supress weeds; Stephen aims to weed borders just twice a year, once in March when perennials are cut down and again in mid-May.

The garden began quite small scale with the long ‘front border’. Created in 1996 to coincide with the shop opening, it was planted with a mix of perennials, including rudbeckias and heleniums.

The blue-mauve tones of asters are used as a foil for other plants © Mandy Bradshaw

The blue-mauve tones of asters are used as a foil for other plants © Mandy Bradshaw - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

However, by 2010 Stephen had decided it was “very disorganised” with too many Cephalaria gigantea and Oriental poppies. So, he dug it up.

“My customers were horrified,” he recalls. “I looked at it and saw a mess but they looked at it and thought it was something. I suddenly twigged that it was something that people really liked.”

It was a realisation that has led to the creation of several more gardened areas with every season seeing new developments and more plants added to the hundreds already grown.

The front border is now 7m-deep and a densely-planted space that in late summer is a haze of blue and purple thanks to masses of hylotelephium – what used to be known as sedum – and asters, including ‘Monch’ and ‘King George’ – “It’s my favourite. The purpley-blue of it is just exquisite.”

The main entrance to the shop and café is also designed to make an impression. Pots of grasses, agapanthus, eucomis and geranium line the path, giving an architectural display that lasts for months.

At the heart of the garden and bisecting the pottery’s car park, is the hornbeam walk. An avenue of 60 trees leads to a large gazebo with beds of perennials either side of the path.

The hot bank is a sloping border of blazing colour © Mandy Bradshaw

The hot bank is a sloping border of blazing colour © Mandy Bradshaw - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

The season starts in June with around 600 alliums leading the colour show. They hand on to salvias, delphiniums and geraniums, creating a wash of blue. Later, helenium, echinacea, hylotelephium and helianthus take over.

Although plants are ‘mirrored’ on either side of the path, they are not an exact match but planted instead in triangles that put the repeats at an angle. It’s a clever trick that creates a rhythm down the path and a sense of progression.

This idea of planting in blocks is repeated in the two dahlia beds where ‘rooms’ just slightly wider than a square are created with lines of grasses, including Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and C. brachytricha and Panicum virgatum ‘Squaw’. Each space is filled with 12 dahlias – three each of four varieties – and each block is fronted by agapanthus and blue-flowered asters, designed to be a continuous foil to the red, yellow and pink of the dahlias.

“There’s a lot going on in that border,” admits Stephen.

Not only do the grasses provide year-round structure, they are the perfect foil for the more static dahlias.

The dahlias are lifted in autumn and wallflowers take their place – around 2,000 all grown from seed in nursery beds. More home-grown plants are used in the annual border, which has around 180 different varieties – “The reason we’ve done the annual border is because there are just so many annuals I want to grow.”

And he’s got plenty of space. The border is 80m long and 7m deep, filled with cleome, lots of amaranthus, cosmos, tithonia – “It’s the plant that seems to wow everybody but it grows like a weed and is fabulous.” – several different marigolds, diascia and heliotropium with a ribbon of different sunflowers at the back.

Stephen’s love of raising things from seeds stems from childhood when for several years, he was responsible for growing vegetables in the family garden.

“We had about half-an-acre that my dad rotavated and it was my job to plant it and do it. I just remember unpacking the box of seeds and it was magic, as good as Christmas Day.”

Making a blazing boundary at the far end of the site is the hot bank, a vast sloping border created from the spoil when the café was built. At the top is a purple beech hedge and a strip of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ that will eventually frame the dazzling planting in shades of red, pink, yellow and orange that includes dahlias, cannas, penstemon, salvias and alstroemeria.

Originally, the border ended in line with the car park but a second section was added two years ago. In this area, plants were set in ones or twos instead of the block planting of the original. It’s given a more random effect that Stephen prefers and the first bed is likely to be revamped in the same style.

As with everything else at Aston Pottery, it’s gardening on a vast scale; Stephen also takes hundreds of cuttings every season, giving away some and planting many more.

Inspiration for the garden comes from visiting other plots not so much for design – “I could live my life 50 times over and still not be short of ideas” – but for plants. Stephen keeps a notebook by his side at all times.

“They’re full of plants, buildings, music,” he says. “When you go through them you find that over the course of three or four years, plants that you really liked you’ve noted again and again.”

A visit to another garden will yield more plants that he comes home to research and bring into the nursery bed to propagate before adding them to the borders.

Surprisingly, given that Stephen and his wife, Jane, also run a business employing around 80 people, he manages the garden with just one part-time helper – “Jane calls herself a gardening widow”, he says with a smile.

He’s planning to scale down his involvement in the garden but it’s unlikely he will ever fully relinquish it.

“I’m doing the three things I wanted to do when I was young,” he says. “I grew things, did lots of drawing and lots of baking and that’s what I do now.”

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