It is hard enough to get a border looking right for a month, let alone an entire season, but Susie Pasley-Tyler of Coton Manor has cracked the conundrum, says Ursula Buchan

So much of both the enjoyment and frustration of gardening comes from attempting to bring together plants that will enhance each other in look, in habit and, especially, in colour to make a pleasing picture. It is the most difficult thing to get right. I am willing to bet that, however experienced a gardener you are, this feels to you like the greatest challenge. It’s hard enough to choose wallpaper and paint for a room but at least once done it stays decorated, the colours only gradually fading with the years.

That is most definitely not the case with gardens, since the dynamic of plant growth is inexorable, and the weather capable of destroying any planned effect, that the look of a border can change almost daily. For impulse buyers, easily beguiled by a tempting plant stall or garden centre display, the task becomes even more perplexing. Moreover, most gardeners know that flowers are only one aspect of a composition: there is also their shape, habit and texture, as well as that of leaves and stems, not to mention the colour of bark and twigs. Whenever keen gardeners are gathered, they will talk of how challenging it is to get a border looking right for a month, let alone a season.

Coton Manor is a must-see for garden lovers

One person who seems to have cracked this conundrum is Susie Pasley-Tyler of Coton Manor in Northamptonshire. Those who have visited the garden will know that she has a most exceptional talent for this. In the more than 30 years since she and her supportive husband, Ian, inherited the house, large country garden and plant nursery from his parents (as well as two Caribbean flamingos, which still grace the garden), she has developed the garden into a must-see for garden lovers. So much so that in 2019, Coton Manor was voted the nation’s favourite garden in a poll organised by the National Garden Scheme.  And now, literally, the whole nation has the chance to see the garden, since Pasley-Tyler has put the ripe fruits of her hard-won, hands-on experience into Gardening with Colour at Coton Manor.

I have been lucky enough to meet Pasley-Tyler from time to time over the years. Whenever I do, I am warmed by how humble she is about her considerable flair and success. She admits she knew little about gardening before 1991 when she and Ian moved to Coton, which was already a large established garden, divided into discrete spaces, and open to visitors. But it was in sore need of refreshment and renovation, so they set about the task, helped by Richard Green, who was already employed there and is now head gardener. Their long partnership has plainly been extremely fruitful.

Experimenting with colour

The book is, in essence, a prolonged and detailed conducted tour of the 10-acre garden, with all the wisdom modestly imparted by an enthusiastic, sympathetic and phenomenally observant garden owner. It has a charming introduction by the garden photographer Andrew Lawson, and is sensibly laid out according to the different areas of the garden: the Alpine Terrace, the Woodland Garden, the Mediterranean Bank and so on. The reader is helped to understand the layout by a useful bird’s-eye plan. And there is helpful advice at the end on invaluable plants – and those to avoid.

‘Experimenting with colour is my great passion,’ she writes. She understands the importance of generosity in planting, and of unifying a scheme by the skilful repetition of particular plants. ‘I have deliberately used the word “composing” to describe how to create and manage a border because it seems to me that there is a useful analogy between the musical instruments at a composer’s disposal and the plants which a gardener uses. In gardening terms, plants are the instruments, and the gardener needs to know how they perform and how to put them together for maximum effect. This metaphor can be extended to include texture, colour, timing, rhythm, repetition, mood and, if you like, movements/seasons.’ 

Publishers that take gardening seriously

Hats off also to Pimpernel Press, one of the few publishers that still take gardening seriously, for the quality of the design and colour reproduction. Altogether, this book is a gem, and one I suspect I shall plunder for ideas until it falls apart. Susie Pasley-Tyler’s book Gardening with Colour at Coton Manor (Pimpernel Press, £30) will be published on 8 February.

If you enjoyed this feature, take a look at other pieces by Ursuala Buchan in The Field, including sources of help for novice gardeners and why narcissi are the stars of the garden in spring.