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

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words & Photograph­y: An­nie Green-Army­tage

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.

Ex­pand­ing vi­sion

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’

Dis­tinct di­vi­sions

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.

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