Nurturing haven for plants and wildlife
Both practical and visually pleasing, sarah Butler’s Norfolk cottage garden is a nurturing haven for plants and wildlife
Awinding lane sweeps through a patchwork of fertile farmland and hedgerows in the Norfolk countryside into the tiny village of Rougham. Discreetly tucked behind the imposing bulk of a 19th century Methodist chapel is a scarcely noticeable cottage. In late July, an overflowing border of shrubs and flowers, and a bright flash of blue door and sunny yellow leopard plant may just catch the corner of the eye. However, it is only when the little wooden picket gate into the back garden is pushed open that the world of Chapel Cottage is revealed. Cottage and garden lie on the Rougham Estate, a tract of countryside owned by the North family. They are 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. She painted the flora of California, India, Japan and Borneo, and subsequently, at the suggestion of Charles Darwin, Australia and New Zealand. Today, a gallery at Kew is dedicated to her work, and in Rougham, the village well was erected in her memory, and still stands today. The current resident of Chapel Cottage, Sarah Butler, describes herself as amateur naturalist, entomologist, botanist and biodiversity landscape designer. She pursues these interests partly through professional work, but also in Marianne North’s Victorian tradition of dedicating herself to an overriding passion for her subject. In her spare time, Sarah is a Norfolk Rivers Trust volunteer, a pony warden at a local common and a surveyor of reptiles, bees, butterflies, moths and other insect life. “It’s my idea of fun,” she explains with a smile. “Finding out what’s out there and logging it with the Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service county records.” She builds both her life and that of her garden around her philosophy that the existence of all creatures should be prized, and it is important to strive to perpetuate and nurture them. “To me, gardening means thinking of your surroundings and how to enhance them for all, whether human, ladybird or hedgehog,” Sarah says. This involves considering the landscape as a whole and the setting of the garden within it. Next, the role of individual plants and what they can contribute to the garden’s ecology is taken into account. Chapel Cottage has numerous fruit trees distributed around the plot, for example, including pear, Pyrus communis ‘Doyenné d’Été’, plum, cherry and apple, Malus domestica ‘Discovery’. These provide not only year-round height and structure, but also shelter for insects and birds. There is blossom in the spring, and fruit to be enjoyed by humans and diverse other creatures in summer and autumn.
Sarah and her husband Rodney moved to the cottage 30 years ago. Then, the garden was far smaller, fairly wild, and open to the scouring East Anglian winds. “A long time ago, it used to
be two farm workers’ cottages. There would have been garden then, but that was long gone,” she explains. “So we planted all the hedges and trees.” This early planting focused on native varieties, such as silver birch, viburnum, hazel and field maple, as well as the many fruit trees. They started with a small plot at the back of the house, but as Sarah’s interest grew, so did the garden, with extra land allocated to them by the North estate. Today, it covers an approximate acre rectangle, mostly at the side and back of the cottage. The soil is fertile, which she puts down to past owners keeping pigs on the site. However, this fertility is tempered by the existence of various building foundations, particularly at the front of the cottage, which date back to when the village was much larger. “The sweet shop garden is called that simply because it is located 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 make them particularly 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 produce, including spinach, parsnips, beetroot, carrots, beans and raspberries. This was one of the first areas to be developed, designed 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. These came free from the local sawmill, although there was a cost in the effort required to obtain the sawdust. “I shovelled up almost 100 big bags,” says Sarah, with feeling. “Two hundred pounds for gravel seemed cheap after that.” The vegetable garden departs from convention by having a wide border of flowering plants around the edge. These are used 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 says. “They’re a joy, to cut and to smell and, of course, to provide food for insects and birds.” These include goldenrod, Solidago cultivars, dahlias, tansy, Tanacetum vulgare, larkspur, Delphinium consolida, cosmos, marigolds and, later in the season, Michaelmas daisies and aster cultivars. This is characteristic of the garden as a whole. Most aspects have more than one purpose, and everything, although it may look natural and spontaneous, is deliberately planned to create an effect. This effect may be practical or visual, or in many cases, both. Each separate area is gated, for example, 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.”
“Where even the bee has time to glide (Gathering gayly his honey’s store) Right to the heart of the old-world flowers China-asters and purple stocks” Violet Fane, ‘In Green Old Gardens’
Each area has a distinctly different feel: the sunny, enclosed sweet shop garden; the narrow, scented herb garden; the tiny secluded shade garden; the open, rural feel of the pond. This last feature lies next to the vegetable garden, but is completely obscured by what Sarah describes as a ‘nature hedge’. This is a tangled, tumbled boundary of native plants, including guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, pear tree, Pyrus ‘Doyenné D’Été’, and Rosa rugosa. All of these have flowers and fruit which are attractive to butterflies, birds and bees, so conventional hedge clipping is not an option. Instead, she painstakingly selects a few stems each winter and removes them completely. The pond itself is sunny and open. This effect is created in part by the large expanse of water, but also by the naturalistic planting of sedges and grasses, both in the pond and along the pathway. Annual sunflowers add a warm glow. Sarah is particularly happy with the way this has turned out, not least as it was a long time coming. “We cut the shape of the pond when our son Duncan was two. As a toddler, he even helped to carry the turves away. But life is complicated, and it took until he was 17 before we got the water in.” In the meantime, the area became ‘a party hole’, used
for bonfires and social gatherings. The liner, when it was finally installed in 2012, was incredibly heavy. “It took five of us, pulling this enormous weight, and we kept falling over.” Sarah smiles broadly as she remembers. “It was so exciting to see the water in it after so long. A real joy.” The large size and the carefully restrained planting, including flag iris, waterlily and oxygenating weed, keep the water in good balance without a pumping system. Its crystal clarity adds to the sense of calm. By its side, a little summer house and decking provide the perfect place to sit quietly and watch dragonflies and water beetles going about their business. This is again intentional. “I am also developing the garden for classes and quiet days,” says Sarah. “There will be some gardening, but also some exploration in how to develop a connection between wellbeing and biodiversity. How you see the world and how well you feel: I think they’re very much linked.”
Experimenting with lawns
Between cottage and chapel lies the tiny shade garden. This is an experiment in using alternative lawn material. “I’m very interested in the footprint of gardens; how to avoid watering and lessen lawn mowing,” she explains. Here, she uses mind-your-own-business, Soleirolia soleirolii, which started life as a houseplant, but thrives here in the shade of the buildings. Sarah acknowledges that this is not robust enough to be a substitute for grass, so there are stepping stones to take human footfall. Characteristically, she is taking the knowledge from this to develop the garden elsewhere, planning another experiment with self-heal, Prunella vulgaris, and creeping bugle, Ajuga reptans, next season. At the back of the cottage is a more open space. This links the other gardens, providing a foil to their enclosed feel. Chickens and guinea pigs roam freely here. Bird feeders are constantly visited by robins, blackcaps, treecreepers, nuthatches and finches. Chicken houses and beehives stand further out in their own enclosure. An old-fashioned washing line creates an atmosphere of bygone days as well as being purposeful in providing free, environmentally-friendly drying power. Adding to the nostalgia is a Super Sprite caravan, in its final resting place after providing family holidays when the children were young. Today, it serves occasionally as a home office for Sarah during the summer months.
“It’s great to work from because you’re sheltered, but still in the garden among the birds and insects.”
Wild flower patch
At the end of the garden, between pond and meadow, lies the herb garden. This is a narrow space, which Sarah calls her ‘end-of-the-day’ garden, catching the sun in the late afternoon and evening. Herbs are planted in a naturalistic interweaving of fennel and sage, yarrow and angelica, with rosemary and golden marjoram providing structure. From here, a little picket gate allows access onto the neighbouring farmer’s field. With the farmer’s agreement, she has planted out a mix of native wild flowers, including corn poppies, corn marigolds, teasels and clover. Again, these evoke 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, collecting together 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.” This perhaps encapsulates her approach to both garden and the wider landscape. She will employ pragmatism in finding out what works and what does not. She now prunes lavender conventionally, at the end of the season, in order to encourage bushy growth, and has introduced evergreen planting at the back of the pond for year-round interest. But Sarah’s overarching rationale is to increase the number of living things in the environment in order to restore balance between people and the natural world. She does this in a thoughtful, careful way. “I try to garden in consultation with nature,” she says.
Crab apples in pots outside the caravan are Malus ‘Red Jade’, and perennials include rosemary, Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ and Caryopteris clandonensis.
A stepping-stone-style pathway behind the house leads to a simple wooden bench deep within Choisya ternata, laurel, hellebores and Soleirolia soleirolii.
Sunrise over the wildlife pond, with sunflowers shedding a golden glow over the summer house. Water plants include bayonet grass, Scirpus maritimus.
Berries of guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, an important food source for birds.
Ripening rosehips of Rosa rugosa ‘Rubra’, which resemble tomatoes.
The timber-edged beds of the kitchen garden, split by sawdust paths.
The entrance to the tiny sweet shop garden, where plants include hollyhocks and Rosa rugosa.
The gate from the herb garden into the surrounding fields is surrounded by fennel, Achillea millefolium and roses. ›
Fruit trees are distributed around the plot, including pear, Pyrus ‘Doyenné d’Été’, which ripens on the tree in the corner of the pond garden in late July; and apple, Malus ‘Discovery’.
The bright orange bloom of a hybrid marigold, Calendula var.
The cottage garden affords views of the surrounding Norfolk fields and Sarah’s wild flowers, including poppies, corn marigold, Glebionis segetum, clover and teasels.