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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.