Lancashire Gardens - a Mancunian masterpiece in Stretford

Shaded cool under the pergola with with a planted urn on a plinth at one end

Shaded cool under the pergola with with a planted urn on a plinth at one end - Credit: Linda Viney

Two artists have taken a blank canvas of land and transformed it into an award-winning garden. Linda Viney reports

Colour from the day lilies

Colour from the day lilies - Credit: Linda Viney

Artists are used to blank canvases but not many are 365 feet long. However, this blank canvas was a piece of land, part of an orchard on the medieval de Trafford family estate at Stretford in Manchester.

And the artistic gardeners Maureen Sawyer and her partner Duncan Watmough have transformed this narrow plot, a stone’s throw from a motorway, into a masterpiece that has won a wheelbarrow-full of awards.

Southlands, a series of individually designed rooms, won the north final of BBC Gardener of the Year in 1999 and has been shortlisted for a top competition run by a national newspaper. Maureen and Duncan opened to the public in 2002 and they have raised thousands for charity.

They moved here 23 years ago when the upper part was grass with a few fruit trees at the bottom. Only one pear tree from the original orchard remains and while the blossom is still beautiful, the fruit isn’t good so they’ve trained a climbing rose through it. There was a very dilapidated 80 foot greenhouse which is now fully restored.

Maureen in the garden

Maureen in the garden - Credit: Linda Viney

Maureen is both a gardener and designer as well as an artist. She is a passionate plantswoman and member of the Hardy Plant Society. Over the last six years their show displays have won three Large Golds and three Best in Shows. She was also involved with the society’s display at Chelsea.

Stepping out of the house, the first thing you notice is the planted containers between their house and their neighbour and as you get to the garden there are a huge number of pots grouped to display the plants and succulents to their best effect on the York paved terrace. She is the first to admit she is indulgent when it comes to plants and is forever changing the pots around, which she was doing when she took me on a tour. Some of the containers she has made while scattered round are smaller pottery items left by her students.

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‘The garden is forever changing as plants don’t stop growing. I was a late developer and when I went to Art College I studied graphics and textiles. I wasn’t a fine artist but I had a good design education,’ Maureen explained. ‘I am not a flower person but I love texture and architecture from foliage, I love light and airy planting enabling you to see through a garden. I am not fond of clumps.’

A formal pond adds tranquillity and the waterfall is a stunning feature helped by a flat piece of fixed Perspex Duncan added to give an even drop. The pond contains fish despite the best efforts of the local heron population. As we move down the winding path there is so much to admire. From the swaying grasses and colour, you enter an area of soft green hues from the formality of a low-clipped hedge to soft ferns. A bird bath forms the centrepiece for the cobbles, which Duncan laid.

The restored greenhouse was full of tomatoes when I visited, these are all grown from seed and placed in the ground. There are four varieties, some heritage. Cucumbers are also grown and grapes - ‘Black Hamburg’ - hanging down.

‘Television garden presenter Alys Fowler always says you shouldn’t grow tomatoes in the same place, but I have never found this a problem,’ Maureen said.

Adjacent is the organic vegetable garden. The beds are edged with golden oregano which gives it the formality of a potager. To complete this colour standard ball shaped small trees and grasses add to the continuity. Soft fruit thrives in another bed behind the greenhouse. Moving on, you come to a covered pergola with a planted urn on a plinth at one end. ‘Many people see this as the end of the garden but as you move on you enter a bright sunny colourful area with another pond which is in stark contrast to the cool shade you have just left. Visitors are often heard to shout “wow” - it is quite unexpected,’ Maureen added.

The final woodland area is an area of cool and calm which in spring comes to life with snowdrops followed by scilla, Tete a Tete narcissus and bluebells. The soft green planting of ferns, hostas and shrubs add to the tranquillity here which is where Maureen loves to come and relax. The land beyond the gate is part of the Mersey Valley Way and the trees make a lovely curtain to this quiet secluded spot.

This garden is full of inspiration and, as it is divided into contrasting rooms, there will be ideas for you to take away. Maureen is a gardener and practising artist and designer who divides her time between the development of the garden at Southlands, the garden design and consultation service she offers and her own work which she exhibits in galleries and craft shops as well as giving talks. In the past she was a senior lecturer in art and design.

Duncan exhibits his work in major galleries throughout the country, now retired from his position as a senior lecturer and Head of Foundation Studies in Art and Design. It means he also has time to enjoy the garden and play the saxophone - he and a group of musician friends entertain visitors on their open day.

See for yourself

You can view by appointment. Private parties are very welcome and they offer guided tours. Admission is £3.50 per person with concessions for parties over 10 people.

Refreshments are available. They have a huge range of plants for sale propagated from those they grow at Southlands.

Telephone 0161 283 9425, email or visit the website

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