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

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