“In sum­mer, there’s no place I’d rather be"

This cre­ative oa­sis has a maze, bridge, tree­house and fern­ery, all hand­made by its owner, Mike Robin­son

Garden Answers (UK) - - Beautiful Gardens -

This in­no­va­tive gar­den is full of clever ideas for adding struc­ture. Set on the edge of a small Fen­land town, Twin Tarns was born from in­ven­tion and a de­sire to re­cy­cle. “I moved here in au­tumn 2002,” says owner Mike Robin­son. “My wife Frances couldn’t join me from Ox­ford un­til the fol­low­ing sum­mer, so I used the in­terim time to sort out our new house and gar­den be­fore look­ing for work.” Apart from four shrubs and a deep, boggy hol­low (which Mike calls his ‘non-pond’) the site was vir­tu­ally empty. “The back half had been di­vided into two horse pad­docks while a brick wall bor­der­ing the prop­erty had two dozen el­der trees grow­ing out of its base, ready to push it over!” he says. “It was pre­cisely the type of place we’d been look­ing for be­cause it gave us the chance to do our own thing with­out work­ing around some­one else’s ideas.” In the far cor­ner, Mike’s non-pond was an eight-foot-deep kid­ney-shaped trench, dug out by the pre­vi­ous owner who had also planted a row of thirsty young trees along its edge. “It only ever got half full,” says Mike. “But on the plus side, with this ready sup­ply of mois­ture at hand, the trees now look like they’ve been there for 40 or 50 years. They’ve helped give the gar­den a sense of pri­vacy and ma­tu­rity, so we’re lucky from that point of view.” From these sparse be­gin­nings the gar­den has evolved into the pic­turesque and wel­com­ing space you see to­day. “On oc­ca­sion the de­sign has been guided by the site it­self,” says Mike. “For in­stance, where the pre­vi­ous owner had mucked out the

It gave us a chance to do our own thing with­out work­ing around some­one else’s ideas

sta­bles, there was an enor­mous pile of horse ma­nure,” says Mike. “I didn’t want to bar­row a tonne of muck around the gar­den, so we de­cided to turn the area into our kitchen gar­den. For­tu­nately it was quite close to the house and had a nice sunny south-fac­ing brick wall for es­palier fruit trees. It all made sense.” Raised beds and gravel paths now add struc­ture to this pro­duc­tive part of the gar­den, while grapes trained along fenc­ing give it a sense of en­clo­sure. Run­ning south from the kitchen gar­den is a colour­ful herba­ceous bor­der. “We have a brick wall here, which made it the ob­vi­ous site for a deep herba­ceous plant­ing,” says Mike. “Be­cause the bor­der is so wide there’s plenty of room for broad sweeps of peren­ni­als such as echinops, fen­nel, cro­cos­mia and daylilies, backed by climbers such as roses and hon­ey­suckle.” In con­trast to this colour­ful sunny bor­der is the box maze. “I grew all 800 of its plants from cut­tings,” says Mike. “Ev­ery­one had a good laugh about it for the first three years while the cut­tings were tiny,” he says. “But I don’t like pay­ing for things, and I’ve al­ways been self-suf­fi­cient, so I’d rather be pa­tient and wait for small plants to grow.” The box cut­tings came from a sin­gle shaggy plant and were rooted in gritty com­post in in­di­vid­ual pots in the green­house. “I planted the outer cir­cle the first year, then made an in­ner cir­cle from more cut­tings the next year, and so on. It’s de­signed as a se­ries of con­cen­tric cir­cles that I planned on paper first, cut­ting out lit­tle bits of each cir­cle to de­vise the most com­pli­cated maze I could get for its size.” Mike is un­der­stand­ably keen to avoid

Ev­ery­one had a good laugh about my box maze for the first three years

box blight. “We formed a gar­den­ing club in the vil­lage and there are plant swaps two or three times a year. I al­ways ask peo­ple to avoid bring­ing any box!’” At the cen­tre of the maze is a dragon­fly sculp­ture; one of many pieces Mike has wo­ven him­self, from wil­low. Other artis­tic flour­ishes in­clude a dis­play of an­tique wooden-han­dled gar­den­ing tools. “They once be­longed to my fa­ther-in-law,” says Mike. “We’ve mounted them on the wall in our old sta­ble block.” The gar­den has a pro­duc­tive Arts & Crafts feel. “I have a mi­cro-brew­ery in the sta­bles and we’ve turned the old hay barn into a sum­mer­house,” says Mike. “We’ve also added two new Vic­to­rian-style green­houses in the kitchen gar­den.

“Frances and I were also keen to cre­ate a proper pond for its wildlife value,” says Mike. “We dug out 120 tonnes of soil, mound­ing it to one side, and added a fur­ther 30 tonnes of Der­byshire lime­stone to cre­ate a nat­u­ral­is­tic rock­ery be­side the pond. Af­ter see­ing the price of lime­stone at a builder’s mer­chants, I de­cided to hire a lorry my­self and source the stone di­rect from the quarry.” Thrifty Mike now has two ponds in ad­di­tion to his orig­i­nal ‘non-pond’. “The lower pond has a wa­ter­fall that tum­bles over the rock­ery stones, while the up­per pond has a still sur­face to en­joy the re­flec­tions, with a cen­tral is­land. I made the is­land by fill­ing a fi­bre­glass pond liner with soil and plant­ing it with yel­low flag irises and other aquatic plants. The ducks love it and use it as a safe nest­ing site for their duck­lings ev­ery year. “Mean­while, our orig­i­nal ‘non-pond’ has mor­phed into a fern­ery,” says Mike. Shade-lov­ing plants thrive in the damp, shady con­di­tions. To add a fresh per­spec­tive I built a bridge over the hol­low so now you can walk down un­der it among the ferns, or up and over it to look down on them from above. “Liv­ing in The Fens the land­scape is fairly flat and tree-less, but here I’ve cre­ated a mini-wood­land. When you’ve

only got half an acre you can’t re­ally have a wood­land, but you can wind peo­ple back and forth through the trees enough times to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of one.” Per­haps the best view­point comes from the tree­house. “Two years ago our boys stopped us­ing it, but when I was tak­ing it apart, I re­alised the ba­sic struc­ture was still sound,” says Mike. “So I con­verted it into an adult tree­house with a solid set of stairs. I made more than 80 spin­dles for the ban­is­ters – fixed at dif­fer­ent an­gles and shapes to match those on the bridge.” Set about 15 feet in the air among the trees, it looks across wa­ter mead­ows to­wards the Bishop of Ely’s Palace. “I like to re­lax here with a beer at the end of a day’s gar­den­ing,” says Mike. “If you’ve got some sun on your skin, a bit of tired­ness in your bones and there’s a light breeze up there, there’s no place I’d rather be.”

ARTS & CRAFTS (clock­wise from above) Aga­pan­thus thrive in this sunny grav­elled area; sun-lov­ing echinops, eryn­giums and cro­cos­mia in the herba­ceous bor­der; a strate­gi­cally placed sun­dial; Mike weaves his own plant sup­ports from wil­low – here for Ja­panese anemones; the box maze, grown from 800 cut­tings, with a dragon­fly sculp­ture at its cen­tre INSET Echinops

de­sign el­e­ments (clock­wise from above) Mike’s hand­made oak bridge by the wood­land and fern­ery; the for­mer sta­bles is now a mi­cro-brew­ery; a dove­cote with salix ‘Flamingo’ stan­dards; a slate bench is set into a dry stone wall; the lower pond has a wa­ter­fall cen­tre A shady sit­ting area with pot­ted Aloe aris­tata mounted on the sta­ble wall

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