Gardening on the Edge: Foamlea, North Devon

The most inspiring gardens are not always those on which huge funds are lavished or indeed the better known ones. Often they are the gardens where the visitor finds something or someone that they can relate to. Such was the case for me with Foamlea, an extraordinary coastal garden in North Devon.

Foamlea, Mortehoe, Devon, June 2015

In 2002 Beth Smith took over this scenically blessed spot of coastline in Mortehoe, near Woolacombe, when her mother could no longer cope with the maintenance. In stages she has created a gently terraced garden devoted to the cultivation of sun-loving plants, particularly phlomis, of which there is a National Collection. I won’t claim that phlomis are my favourite plant group, but a collection of any genera is a fascinating thing for a plantsman. Beth has over 40 species and hybrids, ranging from pretty pink Phlomis italica (Balearic Island sage) to an attractively variegated sport named P. ‘Rougemont’, discovered in the gardens of a hotel by the same name in Exeter. Holding a National Collection is quite a responsibility, requiring regular inspections as well as ad hoc visits from interested botanists and taxonomists. Beth’s plants are in rude health and clearly enjoy the conditions at Foamlea. Beth pointed out to me P. ‘herba-venti’, Iranian Jerusalem sage, which is a tall perennial phlomis with arrow-shaped, greyish-green leaves and upright stems carrying 4 to 7 dense whorls of large, rose-pink flowers. When the seed has set the flower stalks simply break away from the base and blow away, hence herba-venti or ‘herb of the wind’. I am familiar with the shrubbier phlomis, but the perennials are new to me and sound appealing.

Foamlea, Mortehoe, Devon, June 2015

If you’re not a phlomis fan then don’t be deterred from visiting the garden on one of the forthcoming NGS open days. Even at this slightly awkward time of the year, Foamlea is awash with flowers. In the vertical there is beautifully perfumed Moraea huttonii (below), rocketing Echiums, rose pink watsonias and striking Wachendorfia thyrsiflora from South Africa. Hunkering down low you’ll find even more treasures, including helianthemums, cistus and osteospermums. Evergreen structure (and essential shelter) comes in the form of a fascinating collection of ozothamnus and corokia species. I fell in love with Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ with its blue-green needle-like leaves and pink flower buds which eventually open to white. Beth colour themes some areas of the garden and I thought the yellow and orange border looked especially strong at this time of year.

Moraea huttonii, Marwood Hill, Devon, May 2015

The growing conditions at Foamlea are both blessed and challenging. The plot slopes to the west, facing the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel. On the bright side this affords the garden sun and protection from frost, which never settles for more than an hour or so. The patch was once farmland so is fertile and mainly clay-based. Thanks to the constant addition of grit and sand the soil is very free draining. On the other hand the exposed position means that Foamlea is at the mercy of gales from the south and west. Plants have to be tough to survive here, although plentiful rain prevents salt from building up to troublesome levels. Beth has found that Echiums other than E. pininana need staking to keep them upright. Her regime is one of low feeding in order that plants grow hard and not so lush that they topple in the wind.

Foamlea, Mortehoe, Devon, June 2015

I was surprised to find moisture lovers such as cannas, hedychiums and irises flourishing on seemingly dry slopes. They are situated in damper patches, fed by water that drains from the hills above Chapel Lane. It’s clear that Beth understands and takes advantage of every inch of her garden. Her intuition has developed over time and only after careful observation. Someone like me, with limited experience and relatively little discipline, has a great deal to learn from someone who, herself, has learnt from trial and error.

Foamlea, Mortehoe, Devon, June 2015

Beth claims her garden is not ‘designed’. However, presented with a series of terraces linked by steps and paths bounded by low stone walls, descending lazily towards the cliff’s edge, it’s hard to imagine how better Foamlea could have been conceived. On a still evening, surrounded by exotic scents, enjoying a gin and tonic and watching the sun set over Lundy Island, there could surely be nowhere more sublime.

Foamlea is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sundays June 14, 21 and 28 2015, 2-5pm. Foamlea, Mortehoe, Woolacombe, EX34 7DZ, United Kingdom.

Foamlea, Mortehoe, Devon, June 2015

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21 thoughts on “Gardening on the Edge: Foamlea, North Devon

  1. I became a phlomis fan after buying some Phlomis tuberosa ‘Bronze Flamingo’ on a whim, for my previous garden. I can easily see me getting addicted to the genus when I start working on my next one!

    What a gorgeous spot — makes me want to visit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. i had flamingo, composted it with no regrets after acquiring Amazone which is a better plant. Amazone has better seedheads and black stems (which my clone of flamingo never developed) and seems to stand out in the border better.

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  2. I adore this garden. What a magnificent sense of place it has. And I think subconsciously designed gardens are almost always the best. I have to say, I wasn’t keen on Phlomis until quite recently, but I’ve seen it used so fabulously over the last six months or so, I could quite happy give it a spot in my garden.

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      1. It does indeed do really well in the drier parts of Australia, although in Sydney the humidity is a bit of a problem for many perennials. Here, we are on the cusp of being able to grow so many plants, from tropical to cool temperate, but the reality is that most are not really all that sure about our funny, in-between climate. My borrowed Magnolia x soulangeana from next door is currently flowering in the first week of winter – these plants just don’t know what’s going on!

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  3. What an absolute stunner, thanks for sharing. And interesting about the Phlomis collection – yet more new plants to discover!
    However, I’m starting to feel you’re having an “Echium-off” with me, and I’m definitely losing….

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  4. Over the last couple years I kept running into Phlomis in Gardens Illustrated, and wondered what the fuss was about. It kept being listed as a must have plant. You do not see it in gardens here in Canada. I had to order some from a specialist mail order supplier. I was able to obtain a different variety from a botanical garden fundraiser sale. If they survive I will perhaps jump on the band wagon. I kept the tags so I will be able report which ones they are later. They are the only two varieties I have found in Canada so far, one is yellow and one pink.

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    1. Oh good. It was fascinating to understand what would grow on such an exposed site. I believe much was established behind temporary escallonia and tamarisk hedges, which Beth has now been able to grub out. There were also numerous alpines, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

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  5. I have Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’, but found the other variety called ‘threave’ at a local garden centre and have to say, at the 2 litre pot stage, it looks like a much more attractive plant.
    silver jubilee has pine like needles and branches but threave is like a white, bolt-upright rosemary and according to hilliers, a bit hardier too.
    I find silver jubilee a bit drab and have seen it get quite rangy and unattractive if left in a pot, although i think it would look good in the right place (…which im still working on) so i hope threave still keeps its good looks at maturity.

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