When two pretty Norfolk gardens became one
PUBLISHED: 11:48 18 June 2018
© Annie Green-Armytage 2017
How two gardens became one tranquil space, despite overwhemling odds
For years Alan Inness had admired the garden next door with its seven stately oak trees. “I always thought, ‘what a lovely garden’,” he recalls. “But never in a million years did I think that I’d get the opportunity to purchase it.” When his new partner, keen gardener Sue Collins, joined him, she was equally smitten.
“It was a bit wild in here,” she laughs. “I used to peep through the gap in the conifers and think, ‘Wow!’” In 2009 their neighbour offered them the part adjoining their garden and the couple jumped at the chance. They didn’t realise that its purchase would be bitter-sweet.
“As we were going through with the transaction, Sue was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and given 12 months to live,” says Alan, matter-of-factly. Apart from the utterly devastating effect that this had on their lives, he started to have second thoughts about the garden purchase, but Sue urged him to continue. “I felt I didn’t want to give up,” she remembers. “I still wanted to garden because gardening lifts my mood. Being outside and doing something with nature is inspirational.”
In the event, after a traumatic period of chemotherapy, surgery, and saying goodbye to friends and family, the hospital dropped another bombshell. Sue had been misdiagnosed and didn’t have cancer at all.
As she gradually pieced her life back together, the garden underpinned and in some ways mirrored her process of renewal and restoration. The conifers were banished in a succession of huge bonfires, and borders were dug out, uncovering an enormous amount of household rubbish and building materials.
The grass was reseeded around the oaks, which turned out to be multi-stemmed – three sets of two stems and a single – from the time when this area was coppiced woodland. “The Tree Protection Officer told me that a lot of the timber from here was sent to northern France in the First World War, to be used in the trenches,” explains Alan.
Most of the now L-shaped plot was relatively shady, so Sue created a backbone of planting centred around robust shrubs – mahonia, euonymous and viburnums – and drought-tolerant ferns such as Dryopteris. The couple have enhanced this, after being inspired by the late Will Giles and his Exotic Garden in central Norwich, by adding a jungle feel with bamboos, Fatsia japonica and even a Tetrapanax in the sheltered woodland atmosphere. (Alan has also fallen under Will’s colourful shirt-wearing spell.)
Closer to the house the garden is sunnier and more open, and Sue’s planting becomes more colourful, with perennial geums and geraniums rubbing shoulders with annual eschscholtzia, poppies and pelargoniums. These last hold a particular significance for Sue: her father, who introduced her to gardening at a tender age, passed on his collection of pelargoniums, all propagated from a single plant acquired in Italy during the Second World War. Although these sadly succumbed to a vicious frost (despite being in a heated greenhouse), today’s replacements still hold an air of nostalgia. “I love geraniums (pelargoniums) because of my dad,” she says.
The garden is now unified into one integrated whole, flowing from one area to another via curving pathways, and held together by a restricted planting palette which changes with the conditions but has an overarching sense of peace and tranquility. The continuity is strengthened by the two summerhouses which serve as dual focal points at the far end of each section. The first was self-built by Alan, recycling two old sheds in the process with the help of his former brother-in-law; “He did all the clever stuff, I did the donkey work”. This is styled as a French-themed rumpus room where Alan can listen to the football and play his 70s vinyl. The other is a more serene spot at the top of the new part of the garden for Sue to relax and enjoy the seclusion. “The lovely thing about being up there is you’ve got no view of the bungalow,” smiles Alan. “It’s like sitting in the woods.”