Garden at a Glance
Who lives here: Frankie and John Sheekey and their two children, ages 7 and 8
Location: Essex County, England
Lot size: About one-quarter acre (940 square meters)
Designer: Patricia Fox of Aralia Design
Before: The yard behind the family’s renovated 14th-century home was not always a place of such bucolic charm. “It was previously a very neglected and overgrown area,” Frankie says. Shrubs were overgrown, planting beds had large empty patches that became home to weeds and a pond held stagnant water. There was also an exposed oil tank. Without screening plants, the neighboring house seemed to encroach on the courtyard.
An outdoor upgrade was one of their top priorities when the Sheekeys moved in, and it wasn’t long before they reached out to landscape designer Patricia Fox to help them reimagine the space. Carving out privacy was a main goal from the start, as was creating a low-maintenance garden with year-round interest. “We wanted it to be a joy to look out on [the garden] all year-round,” Frankie says.
Fast-forward past planning and installation and the family now enjoys a dynamic courtyard garden where they entertain friends, eat dinners outside in the summer, barbecue year-round and share their love of nature with their children.
Pleached European hornbeam trees (Carpinus betulus, USDA zones 4 to 8; find your zone) and rows of lavender reflect a traditional, formal planting design. In other areas of the garden, the introduction of ornamental grasses and freeform perennials planted in clumps and swaths, rather than orderly rows, gives the garden a natural meadow-like feel, in line with a more contemporary aesthetic.
Outdoor dining room: A solid oak pergola planted with wisteria vines encloses the outdoor dining room, providing light shade for the eating area and a structural feature for the backyard. As the vines mature, they will eventually blanket the pergola in lush foliage and fragrant springtime blooms. “The oak pergola was a very bold statement,” Fox says. “We wanted to make a real wow feature, while at the same time framing views out to the wider garden.”
The pergola opens to a lower slope of the garden, directing one’s gaze down to a lawn with mounded grass terraces.
The metal-edged walkway winds between beds planted with evergreen boxwoods, arching giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea, zones 5 to 10), chartreuse Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii, zones 6 to 8) bearded iris (Iris ‘Sultan’s Palace’, zones 3 to 10) and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, zones 5 to 9).
The lounge overlooks the garden and is the perfect spot to take in the space or keep an eye on children. In the evening the couple can light the freestanding chiminea fire feature to cast a flickering glow and create warmth.
The material selection and installation technique reduce the gravel’s movement. The Cotswold gravel used here is more angular than traditional pea shingle, making it better at locking in place. Fox’s team used a geotextile membrane beneath the gravel on the path and patio to help form a secure base and then tamped the gravel down to compact it.
Large windows in the family room and open kitchen look out onto this courtyard, making the garden very much a part of the home’s interior. “I often work in the summer with the doors flung open to the sunshine and the soft breeze, being distracted by watching the butterflies and bees on the flowers,” Frankie says.
Flowering perennials and bulbous plants, such as four different types of allium, add color from spring to fall and attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
The mix of shrubs and perennials provides year-round interest and requires far less maintenance than planting designs centered around annuals that need to be replaced every season. To keep beds looking neat, the grasses, perennials and box are trimmed back twice a year. All beds are set on timed soaker hoses for irrigation.
The garden has become an integral part of the Sheekey family’s lifestyle — a place for relaxing at the end of the day or hosting friends on the weekend. For the couple’s children, the garden acts as both a play space and an open-air classroom for learning about the natural world. “We enjoy bird watching as a family and raise butterflies during the summer from kits. We have bug hotels in the garden, bird boxes, bat boxes and we also are lucky enough to have a resident hedgehog,” Frankie says.
When asked if the prickly fellow had a name, Frankie says, “The kids couldn’t agree. One called him Mr. Prickles, and the other Boris, so he’s called Mr. B. Prickles.”