Neighbouring gardeners welcome visitors to explore their beautiful gardens for charity

PUBLISHED: 14:48 04 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:48 04 July 2016

Richard Coward's garden at Musselbrook Cottage, Sheepwash

Richard Coward's garden at Musselbrook Cottage, Sheepwash


Two neighbours in a Devon village are opening their gardens to the public for the first time this year. Catherine Courtenay went to take a look

The garden at Lake Farmhouse, SheepwashThe garden at Lake Farmhouse, Sheepwash

Exploring gardens is always a delight, particularly those I like to think of as secret discoveries; normally private gardens which open to the public for just a few days each year - usually raising money for charity.

The granddaddy of them all, so to speak, is the National Gardens Scheme, which raises between £2-3million each year for nursing charities. Coming across one of its yellow direction signs in a hedgerow is a familiar sight in Devon, especially in spring and summer. Follow one of those signs (which are vital because the gardens are usually so hidden away you’d never find them otherwise) and enjoy a horticultural adventure.

Sometimes neighbours work together to form group openings, where you’ll often get a surprising mix of plants and gardening styles in one area. Like at Sheepwash for example.

Erica Fisher and her neighbour Richard Coward opened their gardens for the first time this year. Down a rough farm track a mile out of the village, Erica’s garden surrounds what was an old farmhouse. Sloping up from the back door and bordered by paddocks and, on one side, a line of mature trees, she has created a variety of cottage garden-style flower borders and an orchard, along with fruit and veg and cut flower beds.

Musselbrook Cottage garden features many special plantsMusselbrook Cottage garden features many special plants

It’s a peaceful, harmonious place, probably reflecting this gardener’s approach to her work, as much as the planting. It’s hard to visualise just what a struggle it has been at times.

The focal point of the garden is a beautiful old weeping ash, beneath which is a hosta bed. But when Erica first arrived at Lake Farmhouse the tree’s branches touched the ground, encompassing a thicket of large dogwoods and brambles. Then there were the cold winters of 2009/10 which decimated Erica’s initial planting. Nearly everything she had brought to her new home was killed. Discovering she had taken on a windswept garden that faced the full barrage of winter weather and was on largely thick clay, also didn’t help. So, working with the garden, she spent time finding places which suited her plants, not fighting battles she couldn’t win. She says: “I try to understand the soil and the best time for planting, which I’ve found to be a small window in the spring and in the autumn.”

She shaped the garden using box, planted many roses, which she adores, and concentrated on colour themes. She also created a hot border to act as a backdrop to a swimming pool along with a peony border. Her productive vegetable garden also reflects her nurturing touch. Strawberries have been allowed to tumble naturally down a bank and self-seeded currants are lifted and moved to form a hedge.

A trained gardener with her own garden design business before moving to Devon, she also discovered a love of cut flowers. Cosmos are a favourite, and she’ll plant some of them them in the four beds beneath her apple trees. The orchard, laid out on a lawned plateau, consists of four symmetrical beds, each containing four trees. Situated at the higher end of the garden, the formality contrasts with the flowing edges elsewhere, although there’s still a softness provided by the grass surrounds.

Musselbrook Cottage features a colourful selection of plantsMusselbrook Cottage features a colourful selection of plants

Richard arrived about a year after his neighbour. The music teacher from Wimbledon had wanted to find somewhere to create his own perfect garden and he saw the potential in the field behind Musselbrook Cottage, across the lane. With the help of another neighbour he dug out a series of ponds, using the removed earth to form the garden layout. The design, he says, became clear to him in a dream during his first night at the property.

It’s very different in style to Erica’s garden, packed full of often rare plants gathered by Richard on his travels. While Erica will grow from seed, propagate and create more plants through division, Richard has been known to raid garden centres for bargain plants - even gathering a car load from a garden centre on his way to an airport. He’s also had to grapple with the heavy soil. “Everything has to be planted using a mattock,” he says - unless it’s in the pond spoil areas of course. Not liking to throw anything away he uses found objects to create planting tubs and has devised clever techniques for keeping slugs at bay.

His energy, enthusiasm and absolute delight at his beloved plants is infectious and as the garden opens up (the route through is based on the Japanese idea of a ‘stroll garden’) his horticultural dream is revealed as ambitious and deeply personal.

The carefully laid out water features wrap around a series of planting areas including a wildflower meadow, a Mediterranean garden, an ericaceous border and scree slope. Everywhere you look there’s one of Richard’s special plants, from the rare blue conifer Abies pinsapo “Glauca”, to the scented Rhododendron loderi “King George” and the thorny Kalopanax septemlobus - which drops its thorns as it matures. At the top of the garden is Richard’s music studio and a japanese tea house, crafted out of a common garden shed, overlooking the first pond, containing koi.

What is evident is the individual and deeply personal nature of these gardens. Gardeners like Erica and Richard who are willing to show us the results of their labour, are sharing not just horticultural interest, but often a very personal vision - which is exactly what makes the open gardens so special. And it raises money for charity too.

The Sheepwash gardens are open 16 and 17 July from 11am to 5pm.

New this year to the National Gardens Scheme and open in July are:

Cheristow Lavender, Higher Cheristow, Hartland. A farm witih informal gardens manned by volunteers. Wild and informal wildlife gardens. July 17 (11am - 5.30pm)

The Priory, Abbotskerswell, Newton Abbot. An old manor house, now retirement complex, with five acres of grounds, including borders, a wild flower meadow, woodland, cottage gardens and views. July 2 & 3 (1-5pm)

Topsham Gardens, Victoria Road, Topsham. Three gardens, including a tropical walled garden, and two very different riverside gardens. July 15 & 17 (11am-5pm)

Socks Orchard, Smallridge, Axminster. Specimen trees, herbaceous plants and over 160 roses. July 22 & 23 (1.30-5pm)

Hole’s Meadow, South Zeal, Okehampton. Herb garden, with cutting flowers, veg, orchard and two Plant Heritage National Plant Collections of monarda and nepeta. July 22 & 24 (11am-5pm)

Craddock House, Craddock, Cullompton. Extensive garden with small lake, formal areas, herbaceous and rose borders and woodland. July 9 & 10 (2-5.30pm)

The School House, Lydford, Okehampton. Wildlife friendly cottage garden with mixed borders, kitchen garden and potager. July 9 & 10 (11am-5pm)

The gardens may be open at other times in the year. For more info go to

Latest from the Devon Life