Tintinhull, Somerset – A Formal Garden, Informally Planted

For many British garden buffs, Tintinhull needs little introduction. Nestling deep in the Somerset countryside this “small” garden (just less than 2 acres) is a tour de force of planting design. Tintinhull was created by Phyllis Reiss between 1933 and 1961 and has been in the capable hand of the National Trust since 1954. Between 1980 and 1993 the house and garden were tenanted by garden designer and writer Penelope Hobhouse, who continued the tradition of inventive plantsmanship which makes this garden so special.

Phyllis Reiss considered herself a “groupist” as opposed to a “plantist” meaning that she tried always to plant two things that complemented one another together. There were many examples of this philosophy throughout the garden. I particularly liked the sensitive combination of bronzy Sedum telephium “Matrona” with the firecracker shuttlecocks of Helenium and feathery Macleya. Set against the warm Ham stone and brick walls it conjured a real feeling of mellow autumn. It is one of those plantings that looks so simple and yet probably took years of trial and error to perfect.

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Tintinhull, like Sissinghurst and Hidcote, is essentially a garden composed of a series of “rooms” linked by carefully contrived vistas, each ending with a feature such a seat, summerhouse or sculpture. Each of the rectangular courtyards has its own individual character – the Pool Garden centred on a long rectangular canal, the Fountain Garden with its dark yew hedges and glowing white flowers, and the Eagle Court, providing a more formal setting for the beautiful, pedimented house. Readers from the across the pond may be interested to know that Tintinhull was much imitated in the USA, including a house built in Atlanta in 1918 called Somerset House in its honour.

Penelope Hobhouse, a well known garden writer in the UK, made a particular effort to enhance the planting in the terracotta pots around the garden during her tenure. The present gardener, Floyd Summerhayes, continues to experiment and must be responsible for the pale pink confection of Nemesia, scented-leaf geraniums and marguerites below. Four of these mark each corner of the pool in the Pool Garden.

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Like Quex in Kent, which we visited a few weeks ago, Tintinhull was alive with insects. Dragonflies, like emerald green helicopters, danced with damselflies across the water. Bumble bees went mad for pure white Echinops ritro “White Globe”, whilst Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies sipped quietly on a variety of different Buddleja. It was great to see so many insects, especially bees given the hard time they have been having lately. Let’s hope all is not lost and they can fight back. In the Kitchen Garden there was lots to see, including a border of Amaryllis belladonna (much shredded by snails – I’m glad it’s not just me that can’t control them!) and colourful vegetables which are used to supply the kitchens at nearby Montacute House. But for all the strange and interesting vegetables to be seen, common borage (Borago officinalis) proved the most photogenic. There’s something about those hairy stems and clear blue flowers that loves the camera. And the flowers are good to eat too, tasting very similar to cucumber and making a great addition to a summer salad.

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A stalwart of the late summer garden, Japanese anemones (Anemone japonica) can be seen in gardens everywhere at the moment. One can have too much of the basic pink, but it’s hard to tire of the whites. I am not certain what variety this one is, but it could be “Honorine Jobert”. Japanese anemones are tough and reliable, and in my experience will withstand both dry conditions and quite a lot of shade, making them particularly useful for planting under trees or hedges. However when they’re happy they do spread very quickly and can smother less ambitious plants.

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In a quiet corner of the the Eagle Court I spotted this little grouping, again well adapted to dry shade. The combination of Aster divaricatus and Bergenia was a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll and is a great way of making Bergenia look interesting in late summer. The flowers, on their black wiry stems flop contentedly over any low growing plants to create a carpet of summer snow. Does anyone know what the yellow plant in the background is?

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I found the borders in the Eagle Court the most accomplished and interesting, bringing together lots of hot colours and interesting textures to great effect. I especially enjoyed this combination of Echinacea and Coreopsis. Nearby Alstromeria psittacina (spell that one after a couple of G&Ts!) with its red and green parrot-coloured flowers, zinnias and the foliage of Euphorbia characias looked wonderfully tropical without being an obvious partnership.

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Being reasonably off the beaten track, and without all the usual commerical trappings of a National Trust property, Tintinhull seems to attract a lot of die-hard garden enthusiasts. Yet its size means that much of what’s here can be replicated on a smaller scale. For those inspired to try out their skills as a “groupist”, the small but perfectly formed plant sales area is packed with lots of colourful, good quality plants. And for once I managed to resist. This is a truly lovely, manageable garden around a very charming house – the sort of place we can just dream about having one day.

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Tintinhull website