A PAINTER’S EYE
Close to the Suffolk coast, artist and garden designer Helen Riches has created a garden that is as relaxed as it is pretty
Artist Helen Riches has created a coastal-style garden full of colour
Helen Riches is musing over some of the wilder elements of her East Anglian cottage garden and wondering whether to let them be. “I’m definitely not as disciplined as I should be about allowing those borderline wild-flower/weeds to self-seed,” she says. “But then, on the other hand, can anyone ever have enough foxgloves and evening primroses? I think maybe not!”
By mid-summer, the result of this laid-back approach is a marvellous tangle of cottagey delights – ox-eye daisies, poppies and phlox mingling with blue oat grass and carex, pierced occasionally by little rockets of purple loosestrife and taller ones of foxgloves. “I’m very tolerant of blow-ins,” Helen says. “It does create work keeping them in check, but it brings nice surprises, too. The strain of honesty we have here has the loveliest purple hues in the seed heads – and last year, when one of us accidentally stepped on a young evening primrose seedling, it caused it to branch into a huge, multi-stemmed triffid. Each flower trembles just before it unfurls in the evening – it’s quite mesmerising to sit and watch.”
At the end of a sunny day, she and husband David drag deckchairs down to the west-facing corner and settle down to read the paper, while Helen tries not to let the waiting garden tasks distract her. They both use the garden as an alfresco studio for painting, so set up a gazebo in the summer to provide them with shelter from sun or rain as they work. “It makes the garden look poised, as if ready for a party, which is a happy sight,” Helen says.
In recent years, Helen has managed to weave some of the many strands of her life together here. She and David met at Norwich School of Art, where they trained as graphic designers. Later, she
moved into illustrating gardens, which then prompted her to increase her plant knowledge by retraining in garden design: “As I love growing plants and enjoy trying to make things look good, it seems sensible to do both together.” When not painting, she designs gardens for other people and holds occasional three-day courses on the subject, based at the cottage.
Last summer she became artist-in-residence at Darsham Nurseries, an independent garden centre a few miles away, where she captures moments in its daily life – she has an exhibition there in July. “I paint vignettes of items that catch my eye – a terracotta pot with some pelargonium cuttings maybe, or an old mug planted up with a succulent. I enjoy the way that painting from life records a moment in time, transporting you back to those hours when it was laboured over.”
In her own garden, Helen has been both creative and practical. When she and David came to this 18th-century cottage near the Suffolk coast five years ago, she was realistic about how much of its garden she could tend. They both have busy lives and the 16 x 70 metre back garden was, at the time, more than they needed.
Helen’s solution was to concentrate on the first 30 metres and screen off and leave the end section to grow wild. Her next move was to change the axis of view: “I wanted the eye to travel diagonally across the garden, not down its length – it makes the space look more dynamic.” To achieve this, hard landscaping is a series of interlocking rectangles in decking, paving and gravel, interspersed with wide beds of planting. One rectangle is raised, forming an east-facing breakfast terrace that catches the morning light.
Helen was inspired by a single photograph in her scrapbook of a beachside boardwalk through sand dunes, but maritime
plants such as sea kale didn’t do well, so she has instead created the feel of a wild area by the sea by choosing plants that have the right mood: “Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ has that glaucous blue-green leaf like sea kale, for instance, and seeds itself gently about the place. It’s lovely to see it coming up because I associate it with the friend whose garden I gathered it from.”
Five New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Platt’s Black’), artfully spaced, set up a rhythm in the beds and have a unifying effect. There are several stands of feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’), adding height to the border. Before these grew up, Helen put in hazel wigwams and three tall pieces of weathered timber, salvaged from an old barn, to make punctuation marks in the beds. She has decorated these with beach pebbles hung on strands of twine. “I love fiddling about with bits and pieces like that,” she says. “You can have a bit of fun in the garden and be experimental. Why not?”
Repeating a plant several times not only simplifies the design and holds it together, but also helps with maintenance because they can be treated in the same way at the same time. For instance, the feather reed grass is all chopped down in March. Helen was tempted to take out a large strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, which is a little too near the house, but it was reprieved by ‘having its skirts lifted’ (removing the lower branches) to let light through instead. A mahonia is another plant that Helen values for its architectural qualities, branching in candelabra-like fashion.
As well as providing an outdoor studio, Helen’s garden is primarily a place to relax: “I don’t get to sit down very often but I do like to potter. If time allowed, I would be out there in all weathers, feeding the compost heap, wrestling with any straggling climbers and digging new beds. Gardening is my relaxation. It’s very therapeutic.”
For details of Helen’s garden-design courses, go to helenriches.co.uk or call 01799 502155. Her exhibition at Darsham Nurseries runs from 3 July-6 August 2018 – visit helenrichespaintings.co.uk or darshamnurseries.co.uk.
Erigeron karvinskianus and large ferns soften the order of Buxus sempervirens; Echeveria runyonii ‘Pink Edge’; Sempervivum ‘Crimson Velvet’; Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ is vibrant against soft-blue painted woodwork; Pelargonium ‘Chocolate Girl’
PREVIOUS PAGES Borders brim with ox-eye daisies and Phlox paniculata CLOCKWISE FROMABOVE RIGHT A delicate orange nasturtium; colourful half-can holders contain Sempervivum ‘Crimson Velvet’ and Sedum spurium ‘Fuldaglut’;
FROM ABOVE Spires of Digitalis purpurea and ox-eye daisies create a cottage-garden look; informal displays include shells and quirky mugs
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE A plan of the garden; Papaver rhoeas and Allium aflatunense create highlights within a mass of ox-eye daisies; sunlight shines through Lunaria annua seed heads; pretty pink sea thrift contrasts with the dark purple foliage of Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’; a compact New Zealand flax Phormium ‘Platt’s Black’ has been planted at regular intervals; Helen and her dog Scout