The secrets of a late summer country garden
Becky Sheaves talks to a lifelong ‘plantaholic’ about how to get colour into your garden in late August – and beyond.
It was certainly a match made in horticultural heaven when Helen Brown met her husband Brian. When they got together 15 years ago, Helen, a lifelong "plantaholic", moved to Brian's farm in East Devon accompanied by two cattle-trailer loads of plants.
Brian, for his part, contributed a large, level paddock sloping gently down towards the River Otter. Today, the once grass-filled field is a spectacular garden, which is open to the public through the National Gardens Scheme.
"I absolutely love the memories and emotions all these plants evoke," says Helen. "So many of the things growing in this garden were given to me as presents or swaps from friends who are equally plant-obsessed. Many have been with me through several house moves. Now here they are, thriving, and have become old friends in themselves."
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Helen has re-homed her lifetime's collection of flowers and shrubs, not to mention several largish trees, and in so doing she has transformed a featureless paddock into a meandering and fascinating garden. The plot is idyllic, with wonderful views across the River Otter to the hills beyond. These days it could scarcely be packed more fully with plants, even though as recently as 2005 much of the lower end of the garden was still simply grass.
"I'm a plantswoman through and through, and can rarely resist a new acquisition – I'll find somewhere for it in a border somehow," admits Helen, whose knowledge and enthusiasm are infectious. Today, a good third or more of the garden has been turned over to densely planted beds and borders. "I just can't resist," Helen admits. "I start by mowing the grass and then just give in to creating yet another border to try out something new."
Helen opens the garden twice a year, once in June and once in August. As a consequence, right now everything is looking its absolute best, full of colour and interest, in preparation for the opening. Indeed, a tour of Helen's exuberant and ambitious planting is a great way to gather inspiration for keeping a garden vibrant towards the end of the summer, a time when many a garden is looking tired and past its best.
"I plant a lot of different things together and often have just one of each particular type," says Helen. "So I mostly group the flowers according to colour to give coherence and a sense of unity to the planting."
With this in mind, her magnificent long borders start at one end with flowers in cool blues, then ease into yellows, oranges and reds, before cooling again to mauves and lilac shades.
So what does Helen turn to for colour in late August and early autumn? For flowers, she recommends heleniums, tiger lilies, rudbeckia and phlox, as well as clematis. "I have clematis climbing through almost every shrub here." she says. Blooms from salvias, verbena bonarierensis and Scheherezade lilies add fabulous August colour too, as do the vibrant reds and oranges of crocosmia. "I love the deep red of a crocosmia called Hell Fire," says Helen. "And I'm especially enamoured of this dahlia, Mystic Illusion," she adds, pouncing on a plant with dark purple-black foliage and acid-bright yellow flowers. "It looks so good at this time of year."
Structure and movement is given to the garden with a huge variety of shrubs, trees and grasses. "All the borders have lots of shrubs in them," Helen explains. "It gives them interest in winter when the flowers have died back and makes the planting more easy to organise year-round, too."
The garden's grasses and bamboos are also things of beauty. There are wonderful displays of stipa, as well as rare forms of elephant grass to give a rustling, yet delicate, sense of activity. "I am very disciplined, though – every bamboo here has been planted in a metal jacket around its roots to stop it taking over," Helen explains.
The garden's overall design has evolved in response to its location, overlooking the small fields and wooded copses of East Devon. "This garden is planned around the view," says Helen, who is careful not to choose trees that would grow up and obscure the vistas of classic Westcountry farmland at its most beautiful.
Within the garden, too, are echoes of the rural life. Old agricultural implements and massive stone rollers have become works of art, often thanks to Brian's handy way with a tractor. "He knows I'm far more thrilled to have something salvaged for the garden than jewellery or chocolates any day," says Helen.
"When it comes to adding interest to the planting, my obsessions are ancient wooden objects, rusting metal and stone." The effect is remarkable, with found rural implements creating a memorable sculpture collection amid the flowers.
Much of Helen's garden is bathed in sunlight and, with free-draining sandy loam soil, dryness is often its most pressing challenge. "Especially this year!" says Helen, who has battled to keep the borders watered through the recent weeks of sunshine. By contrast, however, the far end of the garden is home to an alder grove, where she has experimented with plants that thrive in a shady, damp environment.
The result is a woodland walk complete with stream, bridge and walkways created by old sleepers and a superb stumpery, thanks once again to Brian retrieving oak tree roots from elsewhere on the farm. "He knows the way to a girl's heart!" laughs Helen. "To be honest, if you held a gun to my head and insisted that I had to choose, this area of the garden is my absolute favourite."
Under the trees, at this time of the year, shade-loving hostas, hardy busy lizzies, arisaemias and begonias are thriving, as well as delicate, almost orchid-like roscoea scillifolia. Another highlight is the unusual foxgloves, such as the pinky-orange Polka Dot Princess.
The overall effect of Helen's garden, with all its thousands of plants, is dazzling. But the plot is, she insists, relatively low-maintenance. "This is a genuine no-dig garden," she explains. "I only get the spade out to actually make a hole and plant something. I've learned how to avoid having to weed much at all."
Her technique is to start by eliminating as much of the weeds as possible before she starts planting. When selecting an area for a bed or border, she sprays it off with glyphosphate, the systemic weed killer.
"When all the buttercups, couch grass and meadow grass die back, I let it grow again and spray it off once more. Then I leave it over the winter and spray the following spring."
In all, Helen waits patiently for the best part of a year before planting up her new areas in the garden.
"I've learned that the hard way – if you rush in, you will be pulling up weeds for evermore."
In early spring, she spends "a week crawling about" weeding all the beds. But from then on it is plain sailing: "I just pull up the odd one but I have packed the planting so tightly the weeds really don't get a look in," she says.
In fact, the worry must be that there is scarcely any space left for new plants these days. "If a larger plant is taking up too much room, I just lift up its skirts. I cut it back from ground level so that I can squeeze in more neighbours around it," laughs Helen. "I just can't resist adding more. This garden will never be finished, and that, for me, is just how I like it."
Helen is also a talented photographer, who delights in capturing the garden in all its glory, as these photographs attest. Why not pop along tomorrow to see it all for real and perhaps get some inspiration for your own garden, too?
Little Ash Bungalow at Fenny Bridges will be open to the public tomorrow from 1.30 to 5.30pm. For more details call 01404 850941 or visit www.ngs.org.uk