Old Hall Farmhouse: a perfect winter garden
PUBLISHED: 12:16 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:16 20 February 2018
© Anne Green-Armytage 2015
In the gently rolling countryside of north Norfolk, sandwiched between woodland and watermeadow, Jane-Ann Walton has established a garden which welcomes the winter season with open arms
The great playwright Noel Coward famously commented, laconically: ‘Very flat, Norfolk.’ He was wrong, but can be forgiven for his error, as the landscape of our great county is subtle.
Gradually undulating expanses of wide open field and pastureland alternate with stands of ancient woodland which nestle into the folds of the land and in just such a spot lies Old Hall Farmhouse, resting on the site of a former moated medieval manor house.
“The remains of the moat still exist at the back of the farmhouse,” explains owner Jane-Ann Walton. “We think it was probably created for drainage reasons, rather than to repel invaders – we’re surrounded by water meadows here and this is a slightly drier hillock in the middle of them.” Beyond the meadows lies the Swanton Novers National Nature Reserve, 84 hectares of managed woodland with protected status, which shelter the garden from biting easterly winds.
Jane-Ann and husband John were attracted to this idyllic and isolated spot 25 years ago and have never regretted it, although the garden was a challenge from the start. “The soil is a strange mix of glacial clays and sands,” she explains. “In addition, there are collapsed farm buildings everywhere, so originally there was only a thin layer of soil, underlaid by rubble. I don’t know its acidity level – I tried doing ph tests, but there was so much mortar in the ground, the results varied wildly.” Jane-Ann’s birthday present from her husband that first year may not have won prizes for romance but was much appreciated nevertheless. It was a pick-axe.
Since then she has created a series of garden areas which take centre stage at different times of year, including that gap between Christmas and the emergence of spring daffodils, when most of the UK stays firmly indoors. The reason for this is Jane-Ann’s passion for winter flowers, particularly the long-lasting, robust blooms of the hellebore, and the graceful nodding purity of the snowdrop.
Jane-Ann is a self-confessed galanthophile, but while snowdrop collecting is a passion, so is creating an overall picture. Formerly a flower arranger, she brings this eye for composition to her planting. “You’ve got to think about mixing up different types of leaf and flower,” she explains. “Basically it’s like doing a big flower arrangement. Ideally you need some shrubs and some vertical interest in among all the low level growth of the snowdrops, aconites and hellebores.” To this she adds a talent for willow weaving, creating little coloured hurdles next to dark bark pathways, and birds perching on top of wigwam plant supports. “I’m not very good,” she says modestly. “My baskets are very wonky. But I like fiddling about with it – I’m even wondering whether to tackle making a deer this season.” She pauses and smiles broadly. “Perhaps that might be going too far…”
Jane-Ann grows the willow herself and harvests the young stems annually by coppicing (cutting right back to the base of the plant). Hazel poles are also used instead of bamboo canes around the garden and these come from the neighbouring woodland, which is managed on an annual rotation, each hazel plant being coppiced every three to five years. It’s crucial to Jane-Ann that the garden fits into the surrounding landscape. “It’s something I learnt from [garden designer and plantsman] Arne Maynard,” she says. “He has written about sense of place: being sympathetic to what’s around you and where possible using local materials rather than making something that looks as if it has been airlifted in from somewhere else.”
The winter borders are deliberately placed around the edge of the garden for the most part, so that they can exist quietly during the summer without drawing too much attention to themselves. There are exceptions: some choice plants are housed in sheltered beds within sight of the kitchen window, bringing uplift to the darkest of winter days. In the main though, the robust species are allowed to naturalise in the grassland bordering the main driveway and along the banks of the moat, while the more fragile cultivars are grown in raised beds. This increases the drainage and eliminates competition from surrounding grass.
Other winter flowers, including crocuses, winter aconites and, of course, hellebores, sit alongside these, often enclosed by upturned baskets and cloches to protect them from the ravages of local muntjac straying into the garden. The Waltons’ geese, ducks, and guinea fowl also roam free during the day, which limits the extent of planting around the moat: “I can’t really grow any lovely water plants because they just eat them,” says Jane-Ann. “But they add another dimension to the garden. They are a pain but they’re also great fun!”
It is this mix of philosophy and artistry, combined with expert knowledge and attention to detail, that makes the garden at Old Hall Farmhouse so special. Its managed borders blur around the edges, imperceptibly blending into the wild space beyond, and everything sits beautifully within its very English setting. And in the quieter winter season there is more time to appreciate its gentle charm. “It’s not so frantic right now,” says Jane-Ann. “During the summer I’m so busy with weeding and other garden tasks that I don’t always have time to enjoy the garden, but at this time of year there’s more time to stand and stare.”