Foamlea coastal garden, north Devon

Hazel Sillver / 26 September 2014

On the exposed, near-vertical cliffs of the north Devon coast, Beth Smith has a magical coastal garden brimming with exotic plants.



It is hard to imagine any garden plant managing to grow on the north Devon cliffs at Morte Point, as the waves roar against jagged rocks that fall steeply into the water and winds blow in from the sea. In fact plants thrive here – a one-acre garden is ablaze with colour on the steep slopes that skirt the South West Coast Path below Mortehoe village, ten miles northwest of Barnstaple.

Foamlea garden is packed with coastal and exotic species, enclosed by tiers of terraced beds, and is owned and tended by Beth Smith.

The clifftop house is where Beth grew up and it has been in her family since 1949. ‘My mother cultivated the garden, mainly for produce and cut flowers because she used to run a guesthouse here until the Seventies,’ says Beth. ‘When she became elderly, the garden gradually went wild.’

When Beth moved here in 1999, after her mother’s death, she decided not only to rejuvenate the garden but to make it ornamental rather than productive.

As the plot is extremely steep the first task was to stabilise the soil. ‘All the soil had surfed over the walls, so you couldn’t see them,’ recalls Beth. ‘I had machinery push it back up the slope, then new retaining dry-stone walls were built in 2002 with local slate.’

Thriving exotics

Twelve years later, exotic shrubs, perennials and alpines jostle for space. There are gems from the Canary Islands, such as Echium pininana (giant viper’s bugloss) and Echium wildpretii (tower of jewels), with their electric blue and pink spires.

There are umpteen species from South Africa, Beth’s favourite country for plants – including scented geranium and red-hot pokers – as well as plants from New Zealand, such as olearia and corokia – sizeable shrubs that help to secure the soil and provide shelter.

The near-vertical garden is divided by winding paths and different colour zones, including a cool area of ghostly whites and pale blues, a hot patch of fiery scarlet and orange flowers, a pink border and a silver bed. There is also an alpine house displaying South African miniatures such as rhodohypoxis and tulbaghia.

Beth even holds a National Collection of phlomis, also known as Jerusalem sage. ‘But that’s a misnomer,’ she adds, ‘as it isn’t found there.'

‘I have plants from all over the world and although many are tender, they thrive here because we’re beside the ocean. The soil is warm and we don’t get much frost.’

A passion for gardening

Unsurprisingly, Foamlea is not her first bash at gardening: ‘Before my family lived here, I was given my own little triangle of land at my aunt’s house in the next village, Lee, when I was seven, and I grew radishes and candytuft.’

Beth also learnt a great deal from her late husband,  Leslie, who was a keen plantsman. ‘We had a small garden where we lived in Hertfordshire with our three boys, and all our holidays were garden-orientated – we visited NGS gardens all over the country. My husband was very knowledgeable and grew a lot from seed. When he fell ill, I took over the gardening.’

At Foamlea she has the advantage of an extra pair of hands as her son Tim now lives with her. And much needed they are too as the maritime microclimate produces an astonishing 11-month growing season.

There are many familiar plants here (including sea holly, alliums, campanulas and calendula), as well as exotic specimens such as Androsace lanuginosa (woolly rock jasmine), Wachendorfia thyrsiflora (the red root plant) and an enormous regal Agave americana, which Beth bought for a bargain £1.50.

A truly cosmopolitan garden in a most unlikely setting.

Photography by Paul Debois.

Beth Smith, creator of Foamlea, shares her top ten coastal plants here.

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