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Canadian Couple Making A Splash In England
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

August 12, 2001

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This summer we visited Hadspen again -- and this time it was bright and sunny. Sandra and Nori Pope graciously allowed us to photograph the garden after hours and before opening. Here are pictures of the red border and yellow borders as they appeared in late June of this year.

It was pouring rain when we visited Sandra and Nori Pope’s garden and nursery at Hadspen House in Somerset in south-west England a year ago. Wet weather had alternated with brief flashes of sunshine all week as my husband and I toured as many famous gardens as we could fit in. But on this day, the rain wouldn’t let up.
We’d heard that the Popes were a transplanted Canadian couple who were making a splash with monochromatic borders that showcased colour in an extraordinary way. They had become renowned—in England, of all places, a country full of exceptional gardens and gardeners. What’s more, Hadspen Garden and Nursery, were they settled, has an impeccable horticultural pedigree. Penelope Hobhouse, the doyenne of English garden design, gardened there for 12 years, working closely with nurseryman Eric Smith, a well-known plant breeder whose name is linked to choice hosta cultivars grown around the world.
Touring the garden, even on a sodden day, is inspiring. The 2.5-hectare (5-acre) site is achingly romantic: set into a south-facing hillside, the garden is surrounded by woods and a generous curve of wall in crumbling old brick. Two dramatic terraces, the lower one containing a rectangular lily pond and impressive water plants, lead toward a tiny teahouse with its own blue and white garden under dappled shade. Throughout the garden, the Popes’ mixed borders of flowers, vines and shrubs, each themed in a separate colour – yellow, blue, red, orange, pink peach and plum – are breathtaking. Of all the places we visited – including the stellar Sissinghurst – this was the one garden we did not want to leave.
In the kitchen garden, we met Nori, in Wellington boots and a black rain slicker, planting lettuce seedlings in shades from light green to burgundy. The garden sees up to 20,000 or so people a year, he explained, and rainy days with few visitors are excellent for getting caught up with planting. His wife Sandra was helping a customer in the nursery, where the plants – naturally – are organized by colour.
How did a Canadian couple wind up running an influential garden in England? As Sandra tells it, in 1986 they took a five-week trip to England to visit famous gardens, intending to enjoy a short sabbatical before selling their nursery in rural Vancouver Island and moving it and their garden design business to Victoria. On discovering that Hadspen Garden was for lease, “We changed our plans on the spot,” she recalls, “and immediately began making arrangements to take it on.” In the back of their minds, even then, was the goal of designing and running a public garden, but in Canada the tradition of a personally designed garden open to the public was virtually unknown – so Hadspen Garden, once illustrious, but grown weedy and neglected after Hobhouse’s tenure, presented an opportunity of lifetime.
Since 1987, when they began to redesign of the Hadspen borders – first weeding out the brambles and comfrey that had taken over – the couple has worked side-by-side, running the garden and nursery – both open seven months of the year – virtually unassisted. “The garden is just larger than the two of us can manage by ourselves, which saves it from being overworked or over tidied,” they say. At the nursery, they’re continuing the tradition of breeding, selecting and introducing new plants that originally put Hadspen on the map. Their own selections – Papaver orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’, Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood’ and the gold-leafed bleeding heart Dicentra spectabilis ‘Goldheart’ – are now available in Canada.
In part, the Popes attribute their growing reputation in Britain and Europe to the fact that they use English plants in a North American way. “We take risks and push things to extremes,” says Nori. “Not knowing what’s acceptable and how a particular plant has always been used is very handy.”
Not surprisingly, the Popes have long been at the forefront of garden trends. Nori describes himself as “a gardener from the age of 12 with intermissions for university and practising graphic arts.” Sandra was a student at a garden workshop he was teaching— “and the rest,” he says, “is life.” The couple started a Vancouver Island nursery and garden design business more than 20 years ago, and began to experiment with their unique monochromatic style – which rejects the use of strong colour contrasts. At the time, recalls Nori, they were already expanding the palette of acceptable garden plants: “We had those plants gardeners now want – old-fashioned roses on their own roots and rare perennials – and people stayed away in droves. Today, Canadian gardeners seem to know so much more – and they have a keen appreciation of perennials and native plants.”
The Popes’ extraordinary borders at Hadspen have led to a book, ‘Colour by Design’ with sumptuous photographs by British photographer Clive Nichols. In the book, they outline the foundations of their ‘colourist’ style of planting. “Less is more. By using monochrome (single-colour) plantings at Hadspen, we can closely control the colour shift, the saturation of colour and the tonal change from dark to light. Using a single colour also makes it possible to focus on foliage and on flower shapes, on the rhythm and structure of the planting and, of course, on the full impact of what the colour offers emotionally.”
The splendid borders at Hadspen prove that ‘monochrome’ doesn’t have to mean ‘monotone’. Foliage colours and textures are used throughout to highlight flower colours: green and bronze fennels are favorite foils. While flowers in mixed colours have a tendency to cancel each other out, a single bed that plays on variations of yellow, for example, allows for subtle colour intensification, as light yellow tulips are followed by tulips in darker tones as you proceed down the border.
Colours sometimes do get mixed, but ever so subtlety: throughout the yellow border, tiny dots of blue – the flowers of Brunnera macrophylla in spring and Geranium pratense later on – have the effect of intensifying yellow. It sounds a bit technical, but in the Popes’ hands, the effect is sheer artistry – and a garden you can hardly bear to leave.
For more information about Hadspen Nursery and Garden: Visit the site includes virtual garden tour and visitor information, including hours and how to get there. See also Color by Design by Nori and Sandra Pope (SOMA Books, 1998).

© Yvonne Cunnington. This article first appeared in Gardening Life, June/July 2001.


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