Amelia Singleton on how to create a garden from nothing
- Credit: Mimi Connolly
It was a small black and white photo in the local paper which brought us to Wood Farm in the summer of 1988. A typical Suffolk timber framed farmhouse, it was the only property we viewed.
The isolation and the far-reaching views, framed by two magnificent oaks, persuaded us that this was the one, despite the drawbacks, which were considerable. The house was semi-derelict, on a hill (hence the views) and bitterly exposed to the wind.
The surrounding land was a rabbit-infested wilderness strewn with rusting farm machinery and crumbling agricultural buildings. There was no suggestion of a garden and we were no gardeners.
Whilst the house was literally being propped up, we embarked on a major tree and hedge planting campaign. My husband, Andy, and his brother planted nearly half a mile of mixed native hedging along the boundary. We had the two large farm ponds dredged, the spoil retained for future use.
Once the structure of the house was secured, our first attempt at gardening was to construct a border around it. This we filled with hardy geraniums from our previous garden which we surrounded with picket fencing backed with rabbit wire. Thirty years later, it still exists. Although it’s purpose was utilitarian and the rabbits have (mostly) retreated, its cottage garden character remains in keeping with the house.
The original geraniums have been supplemented by newer, longer flowering varieties such as sky blue “Orion”, and various herbaceous perennials such a Linaria “Canon Went”, centranthus ruber and lychnis coronaria. Pale apricot rose “Emily Bronte” is planted in groups along the south-facing facade.
Having abandoned my London-based career to look after the children, every spare moment was spent digging with spade and pickaxe, breaking up the compacted clay and rubble. I read voraciously, both garden design books and practical horticultural guides.
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Eventually, as the children started school, I decided to channel what had now become an obsession in a professional direction with a one-year garden design course at Otley College. Of course, having studied the principles of good design which I was now applying to other people’s gardens, I regretted some of the decisions we had made in the early days.
The Wood Farm garden has evolved slowly, initially in a rather haphazard way without any overarching plan, but I hope that gives it a certain charm. The garden as it appears now – and there are always projects in the pipeline – is divided into distinct areas, each with its own character.
The planting round the house has been expanded to envelop the weather-boarded extension and adjoining brick outbuilding, but with a more subtle palette of pale pinks and yellows, better suited to its east facing aspect. Primrose yellow rose “Teasing Georgia” and rambler “Phyllis Bide” are just some to the roses
adorning the walls.
Beyond, next to the pond, is the old pigsty which, having been stripped of its corrugated iron exterior, revealed a wooden skeleton of criss-crossing beams – a perfect support for all manner of climbers. It has since been transformed into an arbour draped with rich plum coloured viticella clematis and the late flowering rambling rose “Sander’s White”. At its centre sits a large copper, green with Verdigris containing the velvety red rose “Darcy Bussell”.
Not all parts of the garden exhibit such restrained use of colour. Opposite the house, a courtyard flanked on one side by the converted barn is now a hot Mediterranean style courtyard set in gravel and punctuated by box balls. The heat is really turned up in late summer when Dahlia “Archbishop of Canterbury” – almost neon pink against the darkest foliage – is contrasted with the sword-like leaves and scarlet flowers of Crocosmia “Lucifer”. Vibrant swathes of purple Salvia “Caradonna” complete the picture.
Colour theming has always been a part of my gardening style. It helps, I feel, to give an intensity and a distinct character to each area. Usually, this involves the exclusion of one or two colours, but sometimes it’s rewarding to concentrate on just one.
The White Garden stands on the site of what was originally the veg plot. It is surrounded on four sides by yew hedging which we planted years ago as tiny specimens. As they developed into thick, eight-feet high walls of green, we realised it was wasted on vegetables which are now grown elsewhere in low maintenance raised beds. Instead, this enclosed area now contains a silver and white garden, set in a formal pattern, divided into quarters and with a well head at its centre.
In each corner is a specimen of Eleagnus “Quicksilver”, its shimmering metallic silver leaves contrasting with the yew behind. Further along, providing height, are the luminous, pure white flowers of hybrid musk Rose “Moonlight” and, at a lower level, erigeron karvinskianus seeds itself in the paving cracks. As with all white gardens, it comes into its own at dusk when the contrasts between light and dark are most pronounced. Unseen from the outside is, in effect, a secret garden entered through a narrow opening.
Leading up to it is a paved path bisecting the mixed border which runs in front. This wide border – known as the New Border but no longer new – provides a colourful approach, full of blues, yellows and whites including Hypericum “Hidcote” and deep purple Buddleja davidii “Black Knight”, with artemisia ludoviciana Valerie Finnis providing a silver element. The aptly named centaurea gigantea displays pale yellow pincushions at head height.
Wood Farm is not a tidy manicured space. It has, I hope, a more naturalised style which suits its setting in the Suffolk countryside. With only occasional assistance (delegation not being my strong point!), composting and mowing are amongst Andy’s unrelenting, but apparently still pleasurable, tasks.
Outside the cultivated areas, he has mown paths through the meadows, making the most of the views beyond. Already a haven for wildlife – some more welcome than others – last autumn we sowed a small, experimental area of wildlife meadow which is just beginning to emerge.
There’s no doubt this is a high maintenance garden – the scale, density and variety of planting would not suit many people. As a plant obsessive, it does suit me. What I have come to realise, after 30 years at Wood Farm, is that however much you plan or design your garden it’s just the start. Gardening is an evolution, a constant, creative editing of nature. But in that process, lies the joy.
A gardener's notebook
Try to start with a master plan — I didn’t, but I would now.
There’s no need to implement it all straight away. Take it in stages as time and money allow.
So many plants peak in June. Try to plan for later in the season so it’s not all over by July. In addition, most perennials will repeat flower if cut back hard after the first flush.
If, like me, your garden is on heavy clay, provide entry points and hidden paths so you can access it throughout the year without compacting the soil.
Allow self-seeding. Nature often places plants in unexpected combinations. It makes the garden and gardening so much more exciting. Plus, if you separate self-seeded clumps of seedlings and replant them round the garden, you can save a fortune.
Buy from a knowledgeable local nursery that sells unusual plants. I use Woottens of Wenhaston.