"I turned an old allotment into my dream garden"

Nicola Cliffe's garden is a place to relax – and the perfect inspiration for her successful home business.

THE LOOK:
Modern country, mixing sleek contemporary features with wild and natural planting.

LOCATION:
“We bought some allotments behind our 1904 detached house, to create a garden that would inspire my art business, was big enough for a home office, and had space for my son to play football.” 

SITE AND SOIL: 
Size 25m (82ft) x 30m (98ft) Faces South-east Soil Well-drained limestone.

Set in the pretty Lincolnshire town of Stamford and behind an Arts and Craft house built in 1904, you’ll find Nicola Cliffe’s beautiful garden. A mix of wild planting, with contemporary hard landscaping, it’s not just a sanctuary where she and her family can relax and wind down, it’s also the place she works and where she gains ideas for her botanical print business. 

Stepping stones made of Indian slate are a stunning way to create contrasting colour and texture for Nicola's garden walkway.

Stepping stones made of Indian slate are a stunning way to create contrasting colour and texture for Nicola's garden walkway.

Developed on the site of a former allotment garden, Nicola purchased the patch of land four years ago but only finished work on it in 2015. Because the area had previously been used to grow vegetables, the soil is fertile and the unexpected discovery of a compost heap during the initial excavation of the land was put to good use and spread over the plot as top soil. 

Indian slate paving has been used to create a gentle arc leading from one end of the garden to the studio where Nicola works. It’s a choice which is both practical and stylish. It also keeps a large grassed area free for Nicola’s son to play football but, she says, “I didn’t want it to look like a pitch.” 

The curve of the slate is mirrored by the shape of the flower bed and all the plants chosen and installed by Nicola and her son, Bertie. “I have a science background but I have taken a more artistic, suck-it-and-see approach to my garden, planting the things I like and adapting them as I go,” she explains. “I don’t spend a huge amount of money on plants. I prefer to buy the structural and backbone elements from a good garden centre, then mix them with things I have got from friends, or separated or moved from other parts of the garden. I keep azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas separately in pots as they prefer acidic soil but some things I’ve left untouched, like the asparagus that just popped up one day and which was a legacy from the old allotment.” 

Wildlife is important to Nicola and one side of the garden has been left purposefully ‘undone’ to contrast with the more structured elements. Tall spires of purple verbena and salvia have been planted to attract passing butterflies, and the tall hollyhocks outside the studio are abuzz with bees in early summer. “I’d love to get some honeybees of my own in the future,” says Nicola. 

At the end of Nicola’s garden is her studio. Designed in collaboration with Tom Parsons of Olive & Umber (www.olive-umber.co.uk), a construction company based in Rutland, it is clad in larchwood which gives a very clean and modern appearance to the building. 

“I’d seen some designs in Belgium that I liked. I sat and drew out what I wanted and Tom and I worked on it together. He was very patient! Eventually, I’d like to plant a living sedum roof so that it can completely blend into the landscape.” 

Outside the studio, there’s a decking area which will eventually be almost hidden by the tall plants growing in front of it. This creates a layering effect which is big on texture and wll provide a sense of seclusion when the plants mature. The ornamental grasses create a striking feature against the larch backdrop – there’s Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ with its variegated leaves, Carex ‘Red Rooster’ for a flash of rusty red, Panicum virgatum‘Heavy Metal’ and Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ which are grouped in clusters. 

One of the most striking additions to the garden is the gabion wall, a feature that’s become more common in garden design over the past 10 years. Filled with rejected quarry rocks in wire cages which create building blocks, it adds an industrial element to Nicola’s garden. Not only is it a striking design feature, it is also entirely functional as it provides a screening area behind which Nicola rinses her painting equipment. 

Founder of Madder, Cutch & Co (www. maddercutchandco.com), Nicola screen-prints botanical designs on to linen using natural dyes and this is then transformed into cushions, lampshades and covered notebooks. Many of the plants in her garden, such as achillea, feature in her designs. Outside her studio, a tin bath is crammed full of plants traditionally used for dye, such as woad with its small yellow flowers, and madder (Rubia tinctoria). She uses these to mix her own soft and muted colours. 

icola’s garden blends the skills of an artist and a scientist. It’s a space that is as beautiful as it is useful. And that’s a hard balance to strike.