“If one is going to tell a story with plants, it may as well be an adventure story.”
Plants have always been my passion. It’s alleged that ‘Mesembryanthemum‘ was the first word I spoke as a baby, although I think that’s more myth than reality. Nevertheless, my childhood was defined by plants and growing, experimenting with seeds and cuttings in my parents’ garden. I recall redolent roses ‘Albertine’, ‘Masquerade’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’, juicy loganberries, dark-leaved Prunus ceracifera ‘Nigra’, tangy African marigolds and pungent hedges of privet and escallonia. It’s as if I last brushed past them yesterday. In a small lean-to greenhouse, which smelt wonderfully of cedar, my father grew tomatoes: ‘Gardener’s Delight’ as I recall. Times have changed, but the tomato has never been bettered.
My grandparents were my greatest inspiration. My paternal grandfather, Dennis Cooper, was Head Gardener at a large country estate. He taught me how to force rhubarb, thin bunches of grapes, pollinate glasshouse peaches and grow asparagus. I was fortunate: how many people have these skills to share nowadays? What I remember most vividly are drifts of cheerful daffodils scattered through the grass beneath ancient apple trees. There, deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside, my love of narcissi and other bulbous plants was born.
On my mother’s side, my grandmother, Florence Pope, was a thoroughly modern lady gardener. Her children having flown the nest and my grandfather having passed away, she filled her Cornish garden with heathers, conifers, camellias, hydrangeas, eucalypts and phormiums. Her amorphous, informal island beds were inspired by the likes of John Brookes and Alan Bloom; designers and plantsmen who elevated gardening to new levels in the 80’s and 90’s. The photograph below was taken some years after my grandmother passed away, when the garden was no longer maintained to her immaculate standards. For a time this style of gardening was shunned, but now, in 2018, it’s coming back in to vogue once more.
By the age of fourteen I had acquired a greenhouse, and took to filling the borders in my parents’ garden with a myriad of colourful annuals every summer. Dahlias, petunias, marigolds and nasturtiums were favourites, along with mesembryanthemum, naturally.
University followed, reading Landscape Management at Reading University. Here I specialised in the new ecological style of planting design, involving perennials which co-exist in naturalistic groups. From there I embarked on a very short career as a Landscape Architect. Discovering that the world of commercial landscaping involved the smallest palette of relatively dull plants I quickly became disillusioned. A new career in retail ensued, and I have never looked back.
Today I garden by the seaside in Broadstairs, commuting daily to London, a four-hour round-trip. The garden here at The Watch House was designed in partnership with Declan Buckley, a very talented landscape designer. In a space measuring 20ft x 30ft I cram in as many tropical, or tropical-looking plants as possible. You can find out a lot more by looking at My Coastal Garden and the associated plant list.
In 2015 and 2016 I opened The Watch House for the National Gardens Scheme, welcoming around 200 visitors each weekend. Meeting neighbours and garden lovers from further afield was the best part of the experience. I took a break in 2017 to complete building work that was started in 2016 following the purchase of a neighbouring cottage. With that cottage came another small courtyard, complete with greenhouse. Twenty years after acquiring my first greenhouse, I am back under glass once again. One day, as soon as budget allows, the new courtyard will be redesigned on an Islamic theme with olive trees, grasses and Mediterranean perennials. It will be my very own Paradise Garden.
Following a tumultuous and life-changing 2017, I hope 2018 will mark a new beginning for The Frustrated Gardener. I have updated this page for starters. The Watch House will be open again on August 4th and 5th, when I look forward to welcoming friends old and new. In the meantime, please enjoy this tale of a small town boy making good in a small town garden. TFG.