Some gardens have great design, others focus on diversity of planting. Dale Farm brings both elements together with immense skill and endless enthusiasm
We head out west with Annie Green-Armytage
It’s sunrise, and a veil of mist rises off the mirror-like pond which dominates the garden. Birds chorus from the surrounding trees, the colours of flowers and foliage intensify with the increase of light, and you might imagine yourself in the depths of the countryside.
The house and garden are surrounded by housing estates and busy roads, and as the day proceeds, a murmur of traffic swells as the bustling mid-Norfolk town of Dereham goes about its daily business on the other side of the hedge.
Dale Farm dates back to 1760 and its extensive pond shows up on a map a few decades later – most likely a man-made gravel pit dug to provide building materials for the house and its outbuildings. The housing estate to its north is built on the former farm land; the garden was saved only by the existence of the town’s Victorian sewerage tunnels buried beneath it.
Graham and Sally Watts moved here in 2007, when Graham retired as director of city services in Cambridge. “We wanted a garden of about two acres,” he explains. “If you live in Cambridge you need to win the lottery roughly twice to afford anything like that.”
The size of plot was important to both of them; Graham was keen to transition into an active retirement, to avoid ‘falling off a cliff’. In addition, he and Sally wanted to fund-raise by opening the garden, giving back to the charities which had supported their respective mothers during their final months with terminal cancer.
As seasoned horticulturalists – Graham trained as a parks apprentice and completed a diploma at Kew, while Sally trained as a florist and plant propagator – they were happy to take on a challenge, which was just as well. “We knew we’d have a phase of what I call silent spring,” says Graham succinctly. “We had to get rid of everything before we could start to develop it.” ‘Everything’ included dead and dying trees, swathes of bullrushes with their densely-matted roots, tons of water milfoil, an invasive oxygenator which was choking out everything in the pond (except the bullrushes), and rough scrub, grown up in rich silt deposited from a previous dredging.
“You practically needed a chainsaw to take the nettles and brambles out,” remembers Graham. “I’ve never worked so physically hard in my life. And Sally was an equal partner – if
I did seven or eight hours a day, she’d do nine – and cook good food afterwards!”
With the help of a tree surgeon and a commercial water clearance company, as well as many long hours of labour, the garden clearance was accomplished in a phenomenally short space of time. Replanting started early the following year, with the establishment of marginals around the pond, a young orchard underplanted with a wildflower meadow and mixed borders close to the house.
Today, the garden is transformed. The bullrushes have been replaced by massed plantings of loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata ‘Alexander’, L. ciliata ‘Firecracker’), Inula magnifica, and the exoticlooking Thalia dealbata, and the water milfoil has been more or less eradicated, thanks to 30 herbivorous grass carp. “They’re the best staff I’ve ever employed,” says Graham with a smile.
The scrub has given way to sweeping island beds with a great diversity of planting, from bamboo and Japanese maple to roses, hostas and hydrangeas. The hydrangeas are particularly beloved by Graham who holds more than a hundred different species and cultivars.
Some of these were inherited from another grower. “He invited myself and a friend to visit and over coffee and biscuits he entertained us with tales of his time in the US as a rodeo hand and a stunt double for Rockford Files star James Garner!” says Graham. “Then he announced that he was dying of prostate cancer and wanted us to take over his hydrangea collection. It was the most surreal day I’ve ever experienced. We returned with a horse-box full of 200 different varieties to share between us.”
As they have learnt more about the garden and its wide range of growing conditions, Graham and Sally have developed and adapted the planting. The soil proved too fertile for the wildflower meadow
so this has been replaced by informal plantings of ornamental grasses and prairie plants, including Sanguisorbia and Cenopholium denudatum, a graceful cow parsley look-alike.
Sadly, honey fungus and ash die-back (chalara) have come this way on a number of occasions, despite having had ailing stumps and roots ground out and removed. Undeterred, Graham has discovered interesting alternatives, including alder Alnus sub-cordata, originally from Iran, and a decorative variant of Acer negundo (A. negundo violaceum), the species recommended by the RHS as honey-fungus resistant. In addition, parts of the honey-fungus victims persist in the garden as sculptures, designed by Sally and created by local artist Martin Pigg, in a continuing commemoration of their existence.
Throughout the garden Graham and Sally demonstrate their skill in creating beautiful pictures while also managing to find the right place for the right plant in a huge range of conditions. “If it doesn’t work, we move it,” says Graham. “An old mentor of mine once said: ‘Here lad, you’ve blundered into accuracy!’” He laughs broadly. “A lot of gardening seems to be like that, certainly the way I do things. I just go for it.”
THIS SPREAD: Rosa ‘Eglantine’ next to the archway through to the main lawn. It is a David Austin Rose bought as Gertrude Jekyll, and it does better in semi-shade. Graham likes it because ‘comes out and greets you’’; A windchime,made by Sally from coloured glass wine and gin bottles, hangs from a rowan (Sorbus var)
RIGHT:View of the house from the far end of the pond, with the sun rising behind it. Featuring Inula magnificaand loosestrife Lysimachia ciliata‘Firecracker’ in the foreground
BELOW:Graham and Sally’s plants include Cenopholium denudatum, Salvia forsskaolii, Eryngium‘Picos Blue’ and mallow (Lavatera‘Burgundy Wine’)
ABOVE: Graham Watts labelling Salvia dolichantha in his garden at Dale Farm TOP: Breakfast time: Sally Watts feeds the ducks in front of the house. The ‘gin and tonic boat’ is moored on the pontoon in the foreground. Plants include Phormium tenax and Thalia dealbata