Arne Maynard’s rustic-chic house and tapestried grounds in the Welsh countryside double as guesthouse and plein-air classroom for blossoming horticulturists. Slide Show
Six years ago, the British garden designer Arne Maynard and his partner, William Collinson, were flipping through an issue of Country Life magazine when they came across a story about a restored Elizabethan folly that they had admired for years from afar. The property, tucked away in a secluded valley a few miles from Usk, Wales, was up for sale, so they took a drive, and shortly thereafter became its new owners. Now the pair’s primary residence, the house also functions as a year-round bed-and-breakfast, and its lovely grounds provide the fairy tale campus — reminiscent of Tolkien’s hobbit Shire — for Maynard’s popular summer gardening courses.
It may not look like much at first glance. Indeed, the approach to the property is markedly understated. But as one makes his or her way down the drive, a single clipped beech and a crowd of “chattering” topiaries, as the designer likes to refer to them, confirm the presence of a master gardener. Blousy perennials and wildflowers offset the formality of the manicured trees — announcing a casual yet carefully considered design.
Built in the mid-15th century as a single-story cottage with wooden mullions and leaded windows, the house — called Allt-y-bela, Welsh for “high wooded hillside of the wolf” — has been added to and renovated in the ensuing centuries by a succession of owners. The garden, however, planted on farmland tended by former residents, is entirely Maynard’s creation, and it epitomizes his style. His own project may be less grand than many of the properties he designs for clients — he’s created nearly 200 gardens — but it echoes the same elegant, comfortable aesthetic that is characteristic of all his work. Perhaps it’s a reflection of his rural roots mixed with an intuitive artist’s eye; Maynard grew up in the countryside of Dorset and trained as an architect. He has a keen understanding of proportion and scale, and his time-tested confidence as a horticulturist — he’s been gardening since he could walk — frees him to experiment. At Allt-y-bela, he’s planted old-fashioned English roses in unconventional ways: in the middle of a meadow, and scrambling up trees. A kitchen garden of herbs and other edibles is also an important element in his design; to cook from his own garden, he says, is a luxury he couldn’t live without.
This cool spring evening, the designer is in his kitchen busily stewing the last of the rhubarb, his personal favorite, with ginger wine to serve as dessert. “Everyone should grow rhubarb,” he counsels. “If you have a square yard of space, you can grow one plant and you won’t be disappointed.”
“When I started out, nobody wanted a kitchen garden,” Maynard says. “If an old one existed on the property, they wanted it converted to a flower garden. Now everyone wants one.”
Maynard’s garden is so charming and picturesque, it may come as a surprise to some visitors that it is also enormously productive, with pear trees trained over hazel arches, espaliered apple trees, flowers for cutting and crops of his must-haves — new potatoes, broad beans, baby sweet peas and, in the winter, Tuscan black kale. In the popular classes he holds at Allt-y-bela every June, he teaches about maximizing small garden spaces and advises on the best “delicatessen” varieties to cultivate, focusing on the vegetables and herbs that are difficult to find locally or those that suffer most when not picked fresh.
Inside the house, Maynard and Collinson have designed their space with a like-minded spirit of thoughtful informality. There is no front door to speak of: one enters through the kitchen, the “hub” of the place. But there are elegant historic details, like a grand 16th-century spiral staircase in a tower that houses the couple’s private quarters. The dining room, which is furnished with a 17th-century solid oak table and ancient oak chairs, is painted a mulberry brown. “At night, when we are dining with friends and the room is lit with just candles, and the light illuminates people’s faces against the dark walls, everyone looks as if they are in a 17th-century portrait painting,” Maynard says.
Lately, Maynard’s been pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone as a designer. He’s recently begun a project at a beach house in East Hampton, N.Y. — one of his first in the United States. “I find it exciting to work with a new climate and plants,” he says. A garden in Italy for the British textile designer Tricia Guild is taking him down a more contemporary path. But his objective remains consistent: to temper his strong, well-planned designs with a certain wildness, ceding control to nature — but only to a point.
This balance is central to his aesthetic. He says his objective is to create gardens “that appear to have always been there,” that make sense in the context of house and setting. “I know that I have achieved a ‘sense of place’ when the garden begins to ‘sing’: to speak to the landscape around it.”