The renovation of our Percy Cane garden
Published: 01 September 2021
The grounds surrounding Sharpham House are officially taste-full now that they’ve been reworked as a tea-garden.
Thanks to £1,400 worth of funding from the Devon Gardens Trust and the hard work of Sharpham’s garden team, there are now fragrant herbs, plants and flowers infusing the air – and the teas too.
Sharpham House is a retreat centre run by charity The Sharpham Trust. More than 1000 retreatants visit each year, many of whom drink herbal teas on their stay.
Head Gardener Bryony Middleton presided over the £5,600 renovation of terraced areas behind Sharpham House, known as the Percy Cane gardens.
Percy Cane was an esteemed garden-designer of the 20th century, creating Italianate landscaping and planting for places including nearby Dartington Hall, owned by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. When their daughter Ruth married Maurice Ash, and settled downriver in Sharpham House, the Elmhirsts commissioned Cane to work there.
In 1963, he drew up a geometric garden, using his trademark terracing, steep banks, cypresses and steps, for the couple, who later founded The Sharpham Trust.
Cane created gardens throughout Great Britain, some which are of national importance. He exhibited show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show over a number of years, winning multiple gold and silver-gilt medals. In the same year as designing for Sharpham he was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal - an international prize awarded to "persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the art, science or practice of horticulture."
The landscape at Sharpham is registered Grade II* by Historic England, with the area designed by Percy Cane contributing to the grounds’ significance. However, the Percy Cane area had become tired and needed revitalising, said Bryony. “Because this is such an important part of the garden we really felt we had to something quite exciting here,” she said.
The making of a refreshing tea-garden
The Sharpham Trust – the charity that operates the House and the Sharpham Estate – has a mission to connect people to the land. One way to do that is by offering food – and now drink! – that is grown on site in the Trust’s organic gardens.
Bryony conceived the idea of turning the Percy Cane gardens into a place where tea & tisane plants would grow and be harvested to make drinks for people participating in retreats and courses at Sharpham.
She dug into the history of the landscaping, working with Sharpham’s archivist Polly Morrow. “We looked at the old plans that Percy Cane had drawn and although we don’t have any planting plans or any reference to the plants he wanted to use, we have the pencil drawings,” said Bryony.
She found that the original plans had not been carried out correctly, and so she devised a new garden that returned it to its origins and gave it a fresh purpose as a place for growing herbs for teas and infusions.
The work required
Bryony and her team of four Kickstart trainee gardeners spent time digging up the existing four beds, deeply weeding to remove unwanted roots and conditioning the soil with municipal green-waste compost, plus adding some sand and grit in order to support the Mediterranean plants that were going in.
The beds needed reshaping in order to return to Cane’s original designs, plus they were edged in steel from a local craftsman. Lavender ‘Hidcote’ plants, compact with deep purple blooms, were precisely planted around the borders of each bed, a traditional physic garden look.
Other fragrant and medicinal plants were carefully selected, including Korean mint, chamomile, thyme, echinacea, lemon verbena and oregano. Rose bushes remain at the centre of each of the four beds.
Plants were chosen for their power to attract bees and pollinators, ensuring that there is a win-win for humans and insects in this garden renovation.
Being sensitive to Sharpham’s heritage
The Percy Cane terraces sit within the wider landscape of Sharpham – whose design may have been influenced by England’s most famous garden designer Capability Brown.
Also, the funders of the renovation have a mission to promote and conserve designed landscapes in Devon.
"Sharpham is a Grade-I listed house with Grade II* registered gardens,” said Dianne Long, chair of conservation at Devon Gardens Trust. “We're very pleased to support The Sharpham Trust in its restoration of the Percy Cane designed garden, reviving the Italianate formality and defining the key view towards the River Dart."
Bryony paid tribute to Devon Gardens Trust for backing the renovation of the Percy Cane Garden and supporting its new role at Sharpham. “This particular planting here is a beautiful marriage between the history…keeping the designs in place but also having new plantings here which will be beautiful and useful and productive for what we do here today,” she said.
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