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Heavenly Holbrook

PUBLISHED: 10:00 16 October 2014

There are many fine helenium species and cultivars in the garden

There are many fine helenium species and cultivars in the garden


GILL HEAVENS reveals she has found her own little slice of paradise…as she marvels over a Mid Devon garden

Rudbeckia deamiiRudbeckia deamii

To misquote songstress Belinda Carlisle “Heaven is place just off the M5”. Admittedly not as catchy as the original but the Utopia I am referring to, one mile from Junction 27 and even closer to the main train line from Cornwall to London, is a beautiful and uncompromising garden, crammed with treasures of all denominations. If that isn’t enough to get the juices flowing, alongside is a plant nursery full of old friends and beautiful strangers. To many, myself included, all that is missing is George Clooney!

This horticultural oasis, near Sampford Peverell in Mid Devon, has been created by Sue Proud and Martin Hughes-Jones. They arrived in 1982 and over the years have transformed a south facing 2.2acre field into the spectacle it is today. All this has been undertaken without the help of chemical pesticides or peat; fertilisers are used only in the nursery and vegetable garden.

These are folk who use their brains as much as their backs. Martin and Sue have created a relatively low maintenance garden, without the large areas of hard landscaping usually associated with this phenomenon. There are, of course, more frantic times of the year, for example staking the more needy perennials such as the taller heleniums and rudbeckia in early summer. Weed suppressant mulch is used extensively on both paths and borders and tree surgeons are regularly diverted to dump their woodchip in the car park. Watering is kept to a minimum and the ground is only dug when a new plant is welcomed to the fold.

To the rear of the house is the stone garden where everything is grown hard, this tough treatment negates the need for staking. Self-seeders are encouraged and the variable size and form of these renegades enhances the natural feel. Amongst others Achillea “Coronation Gold”, Rudbeckia deamii, Lobelia tupa, Salvia uliginosa and Pennisetum macrourum flourish in this area. Although it is tempting to continue to list all the splendid specimens, it is the atmosphere that is paramount; unrestrained and diaphanous.

The dual borders of “Hot” and “Wild” create an intentional juxtaposition. On one side is a traditional mixed border, fronted with manicured grass and containing sizzling Monarda “On Parade”, Hedychium “Assam Orange” and Kniphofia “Percys Pride”. The grass on the other side is left to grow long and the border has more naturalistic planting, including species asters and Helianthus “Lemon Queen”. The Wet Garden is rich in colour and structure provided by the Palm Sedge, Carex muskingumensis, Helenium “Riverton Beauty” and the lacy foliage of Sambucus laciniata.

Superb though they are, there is far more to this garden than herbaceous perennials and across the site there are many special trees and shrubs. These include several Notofagus obliqua, the majestic Southern Beech, a splendidly hipped Rosa moyesii “Geranium” growing through a snake bark acer, a candy floss scented Cercidiphyllum japonicum and the wondrous Cercis canadensis “Forest Pansy”.

The herbaceous borders are not cut until February as seed heads provide valuable winter respite for the wildlife which is encouraged and nurtured at Holbrook. Sue and Martin have discovered that by maintaining an ecological balance most pests and diseases can be managed and apart from the odd niggle, such as when the bullfinches eat the crab apple buds, they live in harmony.

The nursery, Sampford Shrubs, is full of gems, the majority of which are propagated on site. They are well cared for and you will find cultivars here that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. Martin has bred many plants including Agapanthus “Holbrook”, Buddleja davidii “Castle School” and Monarda “Duddiscombe”, with plenty more at the trial stage, including bronzed-leaved single dahlias.

Holbrook Garden is a glorious example of what can be achieved when we work with nature and not against it. Martin and Sue’s favourite visitors are those who appreciate the ambiance, the sanctuary, the informality. This is a garden that is encouraged to express itself, to naturally evolve throughout the seasons and the years. Of course when necessary there is human intervention to rein in the exuberant or support the vulnerable. As Martin says (tongue firmly in cheek): “Don’t be deceived we are completely in control”. What I think they are is “in harmony” and in my opinion you can’t do much better than that! n

Holbrook Garden and Sampford Shrubs are open every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 2 April to 12 September inclusive 10am to 5pm, for more details visit


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