The white stuff
Winters in this part of the country are usually mild, so when this rectory garden is covered in a snowy blanket its beauty can be appreciated in a whole new sparkling light
When Julie and Mark Coley began work on their garden at The Old Rectory on the Suffolk/cambridge border in 1972 there was nothing on the plot except a few inherited yew trees. ‘You could see right across the fields and the valley to the southeast,’ says Julie. ‘We had two acres of our own and a much larger borrowed landscape that included grazing sheep,’ she says.
The couple created borders and marked out the areas of the garden bit by bit. For Mark, during his City working life, the garden was a weekend haven to which he could retreat, but also involved work laying paths, setting a Yorkstone terrace and developing the layout of the garden with Julie. ‘Now when I walk round the garden, noting changes and seeing what is in bloom or thriving,’ he says, ‘I reflect that we have put in nearly every plant and designed and created all the structures.’
From the terrace there is a sight line that takes your eyes through the gap between the curved arms of two deep semi-circular borders, planted with a combination of shrubs, trees, perennials and annuals that provide colour and fragrance through the year, to the original view across the fields. Field hedges and trees on neighbouring properties have grown up and the view has changed, but it is just as tranquil.
Julie likes winter in the garden as it gives her the chance to think rather than always be busy doing things. ‘Having a persistent blanket of snow over a long period of time is fairly rare here,’ she says. ‘I love the way the countryside goes quiet and any sounds that birds, animals or people make have a different ring to them. Also, you can see the tracks that wild creatures make, giving clues as to what else you might be sharing your garden with.’
Bulbs feature greatly with drifts of snowdrops and narcissi sending up their shoots through the snow, giving a promise of spring. In the woodland garden that leads away from the house, hellebores and epimediums are among the ground-level plants that will bloom once the snow has melted, while shrubs such as flowering currant and lilac prepare to burst into colour as the seasons change.
‘For me, gardening is a constant round of doing, standing back, looking and making lists of things I’d like to change!’ says Julie. ‘I do manage to make many of the changes, but if I could start again, knowing what I do now, I would make the garden more structured and formal.’
Planting a series of shaped box balls, pyramid yews and adding a circular bed are recent examples of Julie’s ‘standing back and looking’ policy. Not only do they put on a good show in the snow, they have worked well to break up the sweep of the borders and soften the impact of the large lawn.
A friend, garden designer Denny Swete, suggested that Julie might plant a pair of specimen birches at the end of the semi-circular borders. Now in winter, when their leaves have fallen and their white stems shine out, the trees hold your attention as they frame the view across the valley.
For most of their time at The Old Rectory, Julie and Mark have tended their two acres at their own pace and in an energetic, hands-on manner. For the past 15 years they have had one-day-a-week assistance from horticulturist Karen de Rosa, and more recently additional help has been brought in to mow and cut hedges.
Mark suggests that his garden contribution is in the structures, while Julie’s strength is her amazing eye for planting combinations. ‘We love the fact that we have such a long association with this garden – it holds so many plants that we have chosen or were given by friends and family. It is full of a lifetime’s memories.’