Come gentle spring

PUBLISHED: 14:56 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:07 20 February 2013

Perennial wallflower Erusimum 'Bowles' Mauve' brown Carex and Myosotis alpestris (forget-me-not) in foreground. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii on corner.

Perennial wallflower Erusimum 'Bowles' Mauve' brown Carex and Myosotis alpestris (forget-me-not) in foreground. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii on corner.

While many gardens are awaiting summer months to look their best, Anne Green-Armytage discovers a garden that blossoms in springtime.

Come gentle spring

While many gardens are awaiting summer months to look their best, Anne Green-Armytage discovers a garden that blossoms in springtime.

Seldom does a garden set out to be definitively a spring garden, but at Slys Farm in the north Norfolk countryside there is a pragmatic reason for doing just that. Were on very light land and its very difficult to keep enough moisture in the garden through the summer, explains its owner and chief gardener, Prudie Finch. Spring is always beautiful because we have more rainfall then. In July and August it goes quiet, but then in the autumn the colour is back.

Prudie and husband John have lived and farmed here for the past 15 years, but the farm has been in Prudies family since just after the second world war. It was her mother, Peggy Schulman, who first saw the potential in a three-quarter acre frost pocket of land, so stony and sandy that Prudies father pronounced it space out of doors only good for rabbits. Peggy created the original garden single-handed, starting with a mix of conifers and native trees as shelter for choicier specimens. These included gingko, golden elm and the golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), all of which still grace the garden today.

The garden was modelled to a certain extent, says Prudie, on Vita Sackville-Wests famous Sissinghurst, with small, distinct rooms separated by screens of shrubs and trees, but she adapted the style to suit the place. An abundance of spring blossom in the form of cherry, hawthorn, apple and camellia was under-planted with early-flowering euphorbia, forget-me-not and bulbs, some of which still survive.

A love of coloured foliage led her to include a lot of variegated shrubs and golden conifers, an approach which at one stage caused her father to declare: Everything your mother grows is diseased, a view which, needless to say, was not shared by the rest of the family.

When the couple retired they swapped houses with Prudie and John, who took on the tenancy of the farm. With a young family and a keen interest in horses, finding the time for garden maintenance was a struggle.

I called it Mums millstone, admits Prudie. I couldnt just let it go, but it was a chore rather than a pleasure. I sweated blood trying to keep it going, but with only three hours a week from one man to help me, we lost it and I got very disheartened.

Enter Debbie Stien, fresh from creating a three-acre garden in the States, and brandishing a newly acquired Royal Horticultural Society diploma. She recognised the potential of the garden, and took on the task of renovation.

The set-up was fantastic but it had become a little parks and gardens, she recalls, with everything clipped to within an inch of its life. Fortunately I think we got it in time and allowed it to breathe again.
Gradually, with Prudies direction and help, Debbie and her team have banished the persistent weeds and thinned out over-enthusiastic plants such as the yellow dead nettle (Lamium galeobdolon) which had run all over the garden.

Some of the trees have been radically pruned, and an ongoing process of crown lifting has allowed light back into the under-storey. In addition, the Finches have updated the conservatory and replaced the old, slippery concrete terrace with stone paving, as well as revamping the little gravel terrace further up the garden.

Prudie has trodden a fine line, ensuring that the garden has remained faithful to her mothers vision, while allowing the development to be guided by Debbies naturalistic approach to the planting. This border with the red tulips is structurally more or less as my mother planted it, she explains. The white rubus at the back is original but I used to keep it much more controlled, cutting back the foliage so that it left the white stems. Debbie is much freer, allowing the foliage to clothe it in the summer, leaving the white stems for autumn and winter. I go with her advice because it definitely works. So Im learning all the time.

Signature plants like the golden grass Millium effusum Aureum, sky-blue forget-me-nots, and the creamy-green bells of Tellima grandiflora are allowed to self-seed around the garden within the constraints of what works visually if it looks good it stays, if it doesnt then it comes out. Even then, Debbie is loath to throw away good plant matter, and usually tries to relocate the rejected plant in a more auspicious spot.

This way of gardening is definitely not low-maintenance. Its actually probably more work, letting things go to the edge of tidiness and keeping them that way, rather than clearing all the beds and pulling everything out, not letting things seed, she admits. The trick is to find the balance between nature and control.

It has taken Prudie and Debbie six years of hard work to achieve this equilibrium; to recreate the garden into a space which is structurally strong, but lightened and softened by naturalistic planting. Prudie believes the effort was worth it.

Im thrilled with the result. Theres still lots to do and we can keep going for a while yet, I think. But it is absolutely beautiful, especially in the spring. When we talked, she was looking forward to the marriage of her daughter, Rebecca, later in the month. Were having the reception in the garden, she smiled. I was married from here, so history is repeating itself. My mother would have been delighted.

Slys Farm top spring performers

Main act: Trees and shrubs
Prunus Shogetsu (syn. Prunus serrulata Longipes)
One of the original trees in the garden, this flowering cherry is a lovely spreader growing to 5m (15ft) tall x 8m (25ft) wide.
Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree)
An unusual, graceful specimen tree, does best in well-drained soil and full sun, when it will produce panicles of diminutive yellow flowers, hence the name.
Acer palmatum var. dissectum
The green form of finely cut-leaved Japanese maple.

Supporting Players: Under-storey and climbers
Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
Euphorbias are a classic act for the spring garden, their acid green bracts complementing the yellows and golds of spring bulbs.
Viridiflora tulips
These have characteristic green stripes and feathers on the petals. One of the most popular is Spring Green, with ivory flowers; others include Artist (orange), Greenland (pink) and Esperanto (carmine-red).
Tellima grandiflora, fringe cups
A perfect foil for showier plants with delicate spires of creamy-green bells
Millium effusum Aureum (Bowles golden grass)
The fresh limey yellow of Bowles golden grass is topped with feathery flowers much earlier in the season than most grasses, making it a great choice for a spring border.
Actinidia kolomikta
Distinctive climber with white and pink variegation, looks like bright paint splashes. Grow in a sheltered position.

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