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The lost gardens of St Martin’s

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When Rohan Thorn inherited her father’s St Martin’s property last year, it came with an acre-and-a quarter of overgrown garden and a promise to try to return the once stunning site it to its former glory. It seemed like a daunting project, but she soon discovered that Harold Dally had not only bequeathed her his garden but also his passion for horticulture...

IN JUNE 2018, I inherited an acre-and-a-quarter of neglected (through no fault of my father’s) and overgrown garden. That was the start of my journey and the awakening of a passion for gardening – a passion that has seen me through some sad times and led me to a deeper understanding of my father.

In the weeks preceding his death, Dad apologised several times for the state of the garden, telling me I was going to have my work cut out, and telling me to get help from Simon Tostevin (Dad’s long-term friend, collaborator and go-to gardening muscle). I promised Dad I would sort it – and this is a promise I am working hard to keep.

When we moved in to Val au Vallee in 1966, the garden consisted of a large field with some mature trees and a huge amount of brambles – a blank canvas which Dad spent the next half a century developing it into a garden filled with interesting plants, shrubs and trees. Over the years, Dad worked tirelessly, planting, weeding and removing that which no longer fitted his vision of how it should be. I used to be horrified when I visited to find a favourite tree had been removed and something new now grew in its place. Dad always said a garden should not stand still, but should be constantly changing and evolving. I now appreciate this statement as I make tough decisions involving chainsaws and diggers.

The garden is not an easy one to deal with, being on a slope with only stepped access to the main plot.

There used to be a bonfire area, which undoubtedly made the autumn clear-up much easier. Now this area has been planted, it has been a challenge to dispose of green waste and has necessitated many trips to Chouet and the collection of numerous one-tons. I even started taking my tablet to Chouet on my green-waste runs, armed with before and after photographs in case I was accused of running a gardening business.

A chance conversation at the Nerine Festival led to Plant Heritage taking an interest in the garden, with regular visits now taking place so they can photograph the seasonal changes. Their expertise and words of encouragement have been invaluable as I make decisions about what to keep and where to regenerate.

My childhood friend Christine has been able to provide valuable insights into some of the changes made over the years, as she has been a regular visitor for plant swaps with Dad. And Simon has become my go-to person, as someone who has been involved in the garden for many years, as Dad’s friend, as well as the person who undertook the heavier tasks in later years when Dad was no longer able.

Simon knows the garden, he knows what’s in it, he knows why things have been done and he understands the changes I want to make, as well as suggesting changes I had not considered. Having people like this onside makes the job so much more like the legacy project I wanted it to be.

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Harold Dally in his garden in 2013. (Picture by Steve Sarre, 24119896)

I found photographs of how the garden used to look in its prime, and stuck these on the pantry door as a daily reminder of what I am aiming for. I found planting plans for the numerous camellias dotted around the garden, which has helped with identification. And I found Dad’s handwritten notes, slipped between the pages of his many books, and have used these to work out what has been planted where. I now have a folder named ‘Garden Restoration’, which gets fatter the more I find and the more I do.

My biggest dilemma so far has been, when faced with a huge area in need of attention, where to start? I went for the ‘easy’ option and chose pots.

1. Remove all the furniture from the sun lounge.

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2. Lift the pots out of the borders and take them into the greenhouse to weed and, wherever possible, label.

3. Use the sun lounge as a greenhouse to store pots as they were tidied.

Labelling has been perhaps my greatest challenge, requiring hours of searching through photographs to identify the contents of the pots (of course they have not all been in flower during one of my frequent visits over the years), asking my daughter if she had any clues, as she lived with Dad for several years, and Google. Oh, the power of Google. It’s amazing the results you can achieve when you type in, ‘plant with tongue-shaped leaves and a single red flower’. This pot now has a label – it is apparently Haemanthus coccineus, or Paintbrush lily.

I lifted another group of lilies, potted them, and labelled them ‘pink lily’. Simon walked past the row of pots a few days later and said, ‘Your Jersey lilies are looking happy’. Later that evening, the labels were removed, turned over and relabelled Jersey lily.

On a practical level, I have learned that permanent marker is the best for labelling. Many of the plants had been labelled, but Dad used pencil and the names have long since disappeared. In some cases, there were tantalising clues – half a word, a few random letters left readable. Combined with photographs from previous years, I have been able to identify many of the pots, although I still have a number of them labelled WAS (‘wait and see’).

I have used old bulb catalogues that Dad ticked with his choices, and now have seven pots of specie Iris called Katherine Hodgkin – as soon as they flowered, I was able to identify them because I knew which bulb company he ordered from and that’s the only one they sell. Sorted.

The sun lounge filled with sorted and tidied pots. (24107441)

After the pots, the natural progression seemed to be the rest of that border. It is actually the only flat piece of the garden, too, so I thought it would be relatively easy.

Oh, how wrong can one be?

Shrubs at the back of the border had become so tall that the view across the valley had been obscured.

Solution: remove shrubs. But of course they had to be approached from the direction of the border, as there was no way of getting to them from the other side. In front of them was Dad’s collection of lilies…– I lifted, washed, dried and stored over 600 lily bulbs. My shoulders ached, my foot hurt, and it took me a week. Of course I hadn’t a clue what each of the different groups of lilies were, and consequently there are boxes of stored lilies labelled ‘tall orange lily’, ‘very tall red lily’, etc. When they flower this year, I need to enlist a lily expert to tell me what they actually are.

If nothing else, it has been a learning curve (although it has been so much more).

I have learned that you need to remove the flower stem of evening primrose if you don’t want a crop of hundreds of seedlings the following year. The same goes for kangaroo paw and Echium. I have learned that you need to have an alternative job on the go so you can give your back, hip and foot a rest from digging. I have learned that a simple job is never that. And I have learned that I have more determination and stamina than I thought. I have finished days so tired I could cry, but I have always started the following day with enthusiasm.

Of the 200 pots I tended to, only two have failed to respond – that in itself has been hugely satisfying. There are signs of life in all the others, and I am waiting for them to flower over the coming months in order to label them properly.

  • Email: rohanrolo@aol.com
Helen Hubert

By Helen Hubert
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