A vintage caravan, fruit and flowers in abundance, and a wildlife pond to die for. Annie Green-Armytage visits a garden which has biodiversity and sustainability at its heart
Surrounded by a patchwork of fertile farmland, Chapel Cottage is tucked discreetly behind a 19th century Methodist chapel in the tiny village of Rougham. Home to Sarah Butler and husband Rodney, the cottage forms part of the Rougham estate, a tract of countryside owned by the North family, notable in the horticultural world for the Victorian amateur botanist and painter, Marianne North.
In the mid-19th century the intrepid Miss North travelled the world, firstly with her father and then solo, painting the flora of California, India, Japan and Borneo and subsequently, at the suggestion of Charles Darwin himself, Australia and New Zealand. She has a gallery at Kew dedicated to her work, and in Rougham itself the village well was erected in her memory and still stands today.
Sarah Butler describes herself as a biodiversity landscape designer, amateur naturalist, entomologist and botanist. She pursues these interests partly through professional work, but also in Marianne North’s Victorian tradition of an overriding passion for her subject, and a fascination with learning more.
Her life, and the life of the garden at Chapel Cottage, is built around her philosophy that we should prize the existence of all creatures and strive to perpetuate and nurture them. “To
me gardening means thinking of your surroundings and how to enhance them for all of us,” she says, “whether you’re a human, a ladybird, or a hedgehog.”
This involves considering the landscape as a whole as well as the setting of the garden and individual plants within it. The fruit trees here, for example, provide year-round height and structure, as well as shelter for insects and birds, and, of course, fruit for humans and other creatures.
When Sarah and Rodney moved to the cottage 30 years ago, the garden was far smaller and open to the scouring East Anglian winds. They started with a small plot at the back of the house, but as Sarah’s interest grew, so did the garden, and today a patchwork of diverse areas, surrounded by a shelter belt of hedges and trees, stands at 2/3 acre around the house.
The soil is fertile, which she puts down to past owners keeping pigs on the site, but this fertility is tempered by the existence of various building foundations. “The sweet shop garden is called that simply because it’s on the site where the old sweet shop was,” she says.
This tiny space bordering the roadway is particularly sheltered, enclosed by mixed native hedging and hosting hollyhocks, Rosa rugosa and asters. The combination of micro-climate and sympathetic planting makes it one of Sarah’s favourite spots for insect study: most of the flowering plants have single or open flowers which are more attractive to bees and other insects, as their nectar and pollen are more accessible.
Next to this is a large vegetable garden where Sarah grows a mix of fruit, vegetables and flowers for cutting. This was one of the first areas to be developed, to provide organic food for the table. It has a more formal structure than the rest of the garden, with rectangular beds edged in timber, and pathways of sawdust, sourced for free from the local saw-mill: “I shovelled up almost a 100 big bags,” she says with feeling. “£200 for gravel seemed cheap after that!”
It departs from convention by having a wide border of flowers, which Sarah uses for the local church flower arrangements, and also for weddings and funerals. “I like offering to do the flowers for important people in my life,” she
“Although the garden may look natural and spontaneous, everything is deliberately planned”
says. “They’re a joy to cut and to smell and, of course, provide food for insects and birds.”
This is characteristic of the garden; most aspects have more than one purpose and everything, although it may look natural and spontaneous, is deliberately planned to create an effect.
Each separate area is gated, not only to keep chickens, guinea pigs and occasional small children within bounds, but also to create a flow. “I like the idea of moving through from one place to another,” explains Sarah. “When you go through a gate it feels like a bit of a journey.”
The pond garden is a quiet, rustic space, with naturalistic
planting including flag iris and waterlily. The crystal clarity of the water adds to the sense of meditative calm and the little summer-house provides the perfect place to watch dragonflies and water-beetles.
This is again intentional;
“I am also developing it [the garden] to do classes and quiet days,” says Sarah. “There will be some gardening, but also some exploration in how to develop your connection between wellbeing and biodiversity, how you see the world and how well you feel. I think they’re very much linked.”
The main part of the garden is more open, linking the other areas and providing a foil to their enclosed feel. Chickens and guinea pigs roam freely here, and bird feeders are constantly visited by robins, blackcaps and finches, who also enjoy the teasel seeds planted close by.
An old-fashioned washing-line creates a bygone-days atmosphere with its visual aesthetic, as well as being purposeful in providing free, green, drying power. Adding to the nostalgia vibe is a Super Sprite caravan, in its final resting place having provided family holidays when Sarah’s children were young.
Today it serves occasionally as a home office during the summer months, which she really values: “It’s great to work from because you’re sheltered but still in the garden, amongst the birds and insects. And it has internet access!” (The cottage has little or no reception).”
At the other end of the garden a little picket gate allows access on to the neighbouring field. Here Sarah has planted out (with the farmer’s agreement) a mix of native wild-flowers. These also evoke a nostalgia for traditional agriculture before intensive farming.
In addition, they connect into Sarah’s passion for encouraging biodiversity. “It really gives me so much pleasure, growing the British native flowers that should be here and then seeing what arrives to use them,” she says. “It’s a peaceful thing, to restore that balance in nature.”
ABOVE:Kitchen garden, with beds edged with timber and pathways lined with sawdust from the local sawmill. Foreground plants include autumn-fruiting raspberries, Michaelmas daisies and evening primroseLEFT:Sarah Butler feeding Henny Penny the hen. Compost heaps and the path to the kitchen garden in the background
ABOVE: View of the newly painted Super Sprite caravan which serves as a home office for Sarah, away from the house. Young crab-apples in terracotta pots are Malus‘Red Jade’, and perennials include Rudbeckia fulgidavar. sullivantii‘Goldsturm’, rosemary, a late-flowering lavender (Lavandulax intermedia‘Grosso’) and Caryopteris clandonensis
RIGHT:Sunrise at the wildlife pond, with sunflowers flanking the summer house. A pear, Pyrus‘Doyenne d’Ete’, ripens on the tree in the corner of the pond garden. Water plants include Scirpus maritimus (syn. Bolboschoenus maritimus)