When Doug and Linda Smith bought Meon Orchard and its 17th century cottage 30 years ago, the garden was a neglected grass
field in which there were just 12 remaining trees. But the potential was enormous. The Smiths wanted a blank canvas on which they could design and construct their dream garden, with many plants you wouldn’t expect to be grown outside. But after the first year,
when they waited patiently, only for no plants of any interest to come up, they started all over again! Their aim was a garden that flowed visually, not broken up into different parts or ‘rooms’. The result is a succession of round lawns with island beds joined up through winding grass paths.
“The paths go off at angles, making you want to explore the garden further,” Doug says. “It makes the garden look larger, too.” The garden is close to the River Meon, which is now accessible as the Smiths have since bought the adjacent 20 acre water meadow, including half a mile along the river frontage, where you can find orchids such as Dactylorhiza incarnata. But as the land is so close to the river, it’s in a frost pocket, so they started their project by planting eucalyptus trees to create a more sheltered area.
“We wanted fast-growing evergreens giving us height,” Doug says. They gradually created beds one at a time and, after a while, they added a conservatory and three greenhouses, enabling them to grow an impressive collection of tender plants, which give the garden a certain flair. Interesting architectural plants such as pseudopanax, oreopanax and podocarpus among tree ferns like Dicksonia Antarctica make sure the garden has year-round interest. A mix of annual plants such as tithonia, the Mexican sunflower, cosmos, cleome, Nicotiana tabacum ‘Burley’, tender shrubs such as lantana, and perennials such as Impatiens tinctoria add intense splashes of colour in summer. Hanging baskets with rhipsalis, geraniums and begonias add further seasonal interest. Doug and Linda dug out a 60cm (2ft) deep ‘stream’, and planted it with hardy water lilies, and they transformed a small swimming pool into a fish pond.
“We’ve also got tropical water lilies, water cannas and colocasia in water filled barrels at the front of the house,” Doug says. They are among a wide range of potted succulents, such as aeonium and echeveria now and narcissus in spring. Opening the garden to the public has been a huge success, and Doug and Linda are very pleased by the (“openmouthed!”) reactions of visitors. Due to the milder climate, Doug and Linda are able to grow tender perennials such as cannas, bananas and dahlias outside, with some winter protection. Other plants, including Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm, which are hardy in most parts of the UK, fit in perfectly, along with Paulownia tomentosa, the foxglove tree, pruned hard in
early spring for big foliage. As the garden doesn’t have any walls and remains relatively open, even the north-west facing area gets evening sun, and the dahlia collection does well there.
“We planted woodland plants including fatsia, mahonia, roscoea and Pseudopanax laetus in the east-facing part of the garden, which gets most shade,” Doug says. The garden is full of diversity and beauty, but for Doug and Linda it’s equally important to look after the plants carefully and make them available to others. The initial plantings of eucalyptus developed into a National Collection with more than 30 species. They include Eucalyptus nitens, a vigorous tree which can grow up to 90m (300ft) in the wild and has reached an impressive 30m in the Smiths’ garden, and Eucalyptus gregsoniana, Wolgan snow gum, a more compact eucalyptus which grows approximately 4m (13ft) high, offering a fantastic display of creamy white flowers in May. When one of the eucalyptus trees blew over during a bad gale in 2014, Linda and Doug placed four logs in the garden to sit on, and turned the stump upside down to plant it up with sedums and other small plants. They like to experiment. “Don’t read too many books,” Doug says.