“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
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