Not far from northern Kent’s famous marshes grows an English garden with an attitude, romantic at first glance but liberated upon close examination. Golden boxwood swirls punctuate a parterre like giant fishhooks. A bit of meadow has been carved into a hypnotic grass labyrinth that brings to mind water circling a drain. Diagonal planting beds with rainbow rows of catmint, lavender, and pampas grass are interrupted by asymmetrically placed uprights, such as cypresses clipped into giant lollipops and fragrant roses coaxed into midair clouds of pink and white. The vegetable garden’s crunchy gravel paths host crowds of self-seeded flowerers, among them the deliciously named viper’s bugloss, while in another meadow area feral meets formal, thanks to wildflower beds that have been cunningly cut into the field.
“The original mix of annuals included corn cockle, chamomile, and cornflowers, but now corn marigolds have entirely taken over,” says Paul Vaight, a former BP senior executive, who has created this demesne with his wife, Su, almost single-handedly. “Gardening is like a roll of the dice—and unlike painting a picture or carving a sculpture, you never have to stop.”
Originally, the Londoners’ plan was to commission a modern getaway in rural Kent, but planning regulations discouraged that edgy dream. “Fitting in is not what we wanted to do,” Su explains. Still, they acquiesced to a degree, purchasing a derelict centuries-old barn that is attached to a neighbor’s outbuildings in the village of Oare and converting, with Circus Architects, its insides into “one big empty loft,” Paul proudly says. Windows and the like have been sensitively inserted into the elm-sided building, which is known as Pheasant Barn. The two acres of farmyard and pasture around it have been just as inventively re-imagined, replete with quirky special effects, curious proportions, and unexpected geometries, and with nary a greensward in sight. “We don’t like lawns,” Paul dryly observes. “They’re really quite boring.”
The Vaights’ vision of what a garden should be is refreshingly idiosyncratic, but they admit to being inspired by trips to landscape guru Piet Oudolf’s private realm in the Dutch countryside, the impressionistic Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, and Daisetsu Mori-no Garden in Hokkaido, Japan. “We don’t copy, but we do absorb,” Su says. A spiral of cacti at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona sparked the couple’s decision to place santolina in the same twisting formation, and they adapted a “very clever village gate” that they came across in Finland. “We didn’t need a gate, but this area has a history of sheep farming, so we just set the gate in the middle of a path,” she says of the surrealistic grace note. As for the boardwalk that snakes across the property, it echoes the wooden boat moorings along the close-by Oare Creek.
“I like personal gardens that are the result of one individual’s vision and effort rather than someone with lots of money who just handed it over,” Paul says. Early on, though, an eager volunteer developed a scheme, which was promptly binned in favor of an instinctual approach. Part of that philosophy is that plants have to survive on their own. “We don’t get into coddling,” Paul continues; drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants such as lavender, germander, and santolina find favor here. As for plant shopping, there’s only one hard and fast rule. Says Su: “Anything with lots of bees on it fits our criteria.”