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Discover a plantswoman’s garden near Honiton

PUBLISHED: 11:01 08 July 2014

The “hot” border is vibrant with lilies, rudbeckia and heleniums

The “hot” border is vibrant with lilies, rudbeckia and heleniums


A treasure trove of horticultural gems has been carefully cultivated by an East Devon enthusiast, as GILL HEAVENS reveals

The blue poppy Meconopsis 'Lingholm' thrives in the stumperyThe blue poppy Meconopsis 'Lingholm' thrives in the stumpery

There are as many types of gardener as there are gardens. For ease of reference they can be grouped together into different species; the cottage gardener, the modernist, the alpine specialist, the woodlander to name a few. Of course there are cross breeds and hybrids but the most dangerous of all is the ‘plantaholic’ and a prize specimen in this category is Helen Brown at Little Ash Bungalow near Honiton in East Devon. Her stunning garden, with scenic views to pastoral hills beyond, is packed with horticultural treasures that would thrill any species of gardener.

Although Helen has no formal training in horticulture, she is no stranger to the outdoor life. She was brought up on a 20-acre smallholding and was taught to identify wild flowers from an early age. After school she studied agriculture at Harper Adams College and subsequently taught at both Walford College in Shropshire and our very own Bicton College.

Her horticultural journey began with the purchase of her first home; a brand new property with a blank and rubbish-strewn canvas to the rear. A neighbour gave her some useful tips, including how to dig using a spade instead of a tractor, and so her gardening adventure began. A turning point came in the early 1990s when Helen joined the conservation charity Plant Heritage, enticed by their spectacular plant fairs. This broadened her knowledge and fuelled the fire of her collecting. When she moved to Little Ash in 1998 she arrived with two horsebox trailers full of plants. The problem was: where was she going to put them?

Undeterred, she began planting in the limited space available and after “a bit of a discussion” with her long-suffering husband, Bryan, the garden began its expansion. Metre by metre, bite by bite, a paddock has been devoured by the garden which now extends to 1 ½ acres. Early on in the evolution Helen had the good sense to plant specimen trees and shrubs. These are now well established, providing height and structure to the garden, especially in the winter.

Old stone rollers are a focal point on the lawnOld stone rollers are a focal point on the lawn

They include the fragrant Clereodendron trichotocum, the Sweet Gum Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’, the Katsura tree Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the Coral Bark Maple Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ and crab apple Malus ‘Evereste’. There are not many plants that cannot be catered for in this garden. More tender specimens such as salvias are planted close to the house, there is a gravel garden for alpines, a pond provides moist conditions for rodgersias and hostas, extensive mixed borders are crammed with sun-loving perennials and an alder copse is home to the woodlanders.

This eclectic mix of plants is given coherence as Helen follows Gertrude Jekyll’s theory of “colour rooms”, which ensures everything has its spectral home. Particular favourites of Helen are green flowers and purple foliage, not necessarily on the same plant, such as euphorbias, Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ and Physocarpus diablo.

Helen has a secret passion that may surprise you; a fetish for rusty metal, old pieces of wood and lumps of stone! Metal sculptures are dotted around the borders, a seat is made from a slab of oak and stone rollers are used as a focal point. It is very handy having a husband with a tractor! Helen’s planting style is soft and voluptuous so this collection of hardware provides an inflexible foil against the fluidity of the borders. She underplays the amount of work this garden demands. She is an advocate of layer planting, which means a new plant is emerging just as the previous season’s performer is spent. Bare soil is irresistible to both rabbits and weeds; the garden is intensively weeded throughout early spring and by May there is no earth on show to tempt either bunny or bindweed!

Helen remains excited by “plants she has not yet met” and this enthusiasm is matched with a vast knowledge of horticulture, learnt on the job, not in the classroom. Much can be learnt through formal education but for the lucky few, with determination and hard work, things come naturally. This garden is well worth visiting, you will certainly leave feeling inspired but be warned, you may also feel a little bit envious!

The garden at Little Ash Bungalow is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday, 1 June and Sunday, 17 August (1.30-5.30pm). Visitors are also welcome by appointment June to September groups of ten or more only, coaches are welcome.

Women in Horticulture Through the Ages

Lady Henrietta Antonia Herbert (1758-1830)

Whilst in India with her husband, Edward Clive Governor of Madras, Lady Henrietta used her time wisely, studying and collecting the local flora. She discovered several new species which she shared with the Botanic Gardens at Calcutta

Jane Loudon (1807-58)

Jane Loudon wrote gardening books specifically aimed at women including Instructions on Gardening for Ladies. Unlike many of her predecessors she instructed on digging techniques and suitable clothing. She did not go as far as to suggest “the fairer sex” look after vegetables though, this should be left to the men.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1942)

Gertrude Jekyll worked extensively with the architect Edward Lutyens and was renowned for her use of colour. She designed over 400 gardens during her career and wrote 15 books. She was a recipient of the Victoria Medal for Horticulture, as was Ellen Willmott, when they were first awarded in 1897

Ellen Willmott (1858-1934)

Born into an extremely wealthy family, Ellen Willmott had all the resources to create magnificent gardens and this she did. She created three gardens in three countries and employed 103 gardeners! Her reputation was of a formidable character who carried a small revolver in her hand bag. Not a lady to be trifled with!

Margery Fish (1892-1969)

Margery Fish created the Grade I listed garden at East Lambrook Manor. She championed a relaxed style of gardening and encouraged plants to self-seed where they pleased. She was a great plantswoman and hands-on gardener, as well as a writer and broadcaster.

Plant Heritage

Plant Heritage, also known as the tongue twisting National Council for the Protection of Plants and Gardens (NCPPG), is a charity whose aim is to preserve the diversity of garden plants. It achieves this in several ways.

It oversees collections of groups of plants held by private individuals or botanic gardens which are given the status of National Plant Collection. From abelia to zingiber the collections range vastly in size: there are 1,000 in the snowdrop collection, whereas stokesia only has 14 taxa. These collections are considered to be ‘living libraries’ and are as comprehensive as possible. Devon alone has 40 collections.

For those lacking the space or time to tend a full collection, Plant Heritage has instigated a Plant Guardianship scheme. It distributes individual “at risk” garden plants to members for care and propagation. By passing these on to fellow gardeners they will ensure that another gem does not get lost in the mists of time.

You do not need to hold a collection to become a member, just support the cause. You will be able to enjoy organised trips to gardens, informative talks and (as Helen knows too well) wonderful plant fairs.

There is more on the Devon Group at


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