Some gar­dens have great de­sign, oth­ers fo­cus on di­ver­sity of plant­ing. Dale Farm brings both el­e­ments to­gether with im­mense skill and end­less en­thu­si­asm

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: An­nie Green-Army­tage

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.

Not true.

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

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