“If one is going to tell a story with plants, it may as well be an adventure story.”
Plants have always been a passion. It’s alleged that ‘Mesembryanthemum‘ was the first word I spoke, although I think that’s more myth than reality. Nevertheless, my childhood was defined by plants and flowers, experimenting with seeds and cuttings in my parents’ garden in Plymouth. I recall roses ‘Albertine’, ‘Masquerade’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’; juicy, hirsute loganberries; dark-leaved Prunus ceracifera ‘Nigra’; stiff and starchy African marigolds and pungent hedges of privet and escallonia. It’s as if I last brushed past them yesterday. In a small cedar-scented greenhouse, my father grew tomatoes: ‘Gardener’s Delight’ as I recall. Times have changed, but the tomatoes have never been bettered.
My grandparents were my greatest horticultural 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 began to grow.
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 and phormiums. Her 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in the 80’s and 90’s. The photograph below was taken some years after my grandmother passed away, when the garden was no longer maintained to her immaculate standards.
By the age of fourteen I had acquired a greenhouse, and took to filling the borders in my parents’ garden (now near Bath) with a myriad of colourful annuals every summer. Dahlias, petunias, marigolds and nasturtiums were firm favourites, along with obligatory mesembryanthemums. I would spend hours each spring browsing seed catalogues, often choosing the newest, quirkiest varieties. That thirst for the new and usual has never been quenched, although I reach my limits when a flower is hybridised beyond recognition.
Whilst I relished the immediacy and vibrancy of annuals, over time I developed a taste for perennials. I discovered Hannay’s of Bath, a specialist nursery (now sadly defunct), and started to indulge in all sorts of plants, many of which were uncommon at the time. They included Inula magnifica (giant fleabane), Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious), Phlomis russeliana (Turkish sage), Zauschneria californica (Californian fuchsia) and the very beautiful Antirrhinum sempervirens (silver snapdragon). Salvias were a speciality of Hannay’s’, and though I indulged, I cannot recall the varieties I purchased. I know that they did not survive long in the garden’s heavy clay soil, but the inula, cephalaria and phlomis survive to this very day.
University followed. I read Landscape Management at Reading, ultimately gaining a first class degree. My dissertation explored the ‘new’ ecological style of planting design, involving perennials which might co-exist in naturalistic groups. ‘Perennials and Their Garden Habitats’, a rather dry book by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, became my bible. I would not recommend it for bedside reading, but it’s a superb reference for identifying plants for specific growing conditions.
It was at the same time that I was introduced to the landscapes of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, and of Roberto Burle-Marx, three of my gardening heroes. Oehme and van Sweden popularised the ‘New American Garden’ style, characterised by vast, swathes of grasses and perennials – not mixed as in a prairie but in groups of a single variety. One can still find their book ‘Bold Romantic Gardens’ on Amazon and I heartily recommend it to anyone planning a new garden, whether it be large or small, town or country. Roberto Burke Marx was of a similar ilk , designing parks and gardens of unparalleled scale and artistry. In creating the largest of landscapes he considered every detail of a plant’s character and what it would lend to the overall design. He is probably best known for the two and a half-mile mosaic promenade which runs alongside Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
From university I embarked on a short career as a Landscape Architect in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Discovering that the world of commercial landscaping involved the smallest palette of relatively dull plants I quickly became disillusioned. Within the year I had been made redundant and after a few months of freelancing I decided enough was enough. A new career in retail ensued, and I have never looked back.
For a number of years my passion for plants and gardening lay dormant, although it never died. I made a small courtyard garden behind my first home in Reading, growing ferns, acers, camellias and woodland perennials. The soil was terrible and there was no sun after midday, but it kept my passion alive.
Having moved to London in 2005, the following year I decided to buy a weekend home on the Kent coast: I find cities claustrophobic and like to be beside the seaside. I knew nothing about the area, but on recommendation paid a visit to Broadstairs and bought the first and only property I looked at. It was called The Watch House. The story of how I created the garden, which I refer to as the Jungle Garden, can be found here. Ten years later I purchased an adjoining cottage and knocked through the following year, creating a library, garden room and two additional bedrooms in the process. These rooms are still collectively referred to as ‘next door’. The garden that came with the cottage is referred to as the Gin & Tonic Garden because the sun reaches the back door at 5pm, when a G&T is compulsory.
Since 2015 I have opened The Watch House for the National Gardens Scheme on the first weekend in August, and will do so again in 2020. Initially we welcomed around 200 visitors each time, rising to 440 in 2019. Meeting neighbours and garden lovers from further afield is the best part of the garden opening experience.
Moving forward to 2020, I live full-time in Broadstairs, commuting daily to London; a four-hour round-trip. I share my home and garden with my partner John (aka The Beau) and his two pedigree mongrels Max and Millie. Earlier this year we took on a large allotment plot just around the corner at Culmer’s Land. A new world of fruit and vegetable growing lays before us, and my adventures in gardening continue. TFG.
Lead Photo Credit – Marianne Majerus