Gardens: A group of Borders dwellers invite you to contribute to a good cause by taking a peek inside their gardens
A STONE’S throw over the Border lies a hidden valley. Its 12,000 acres are within the boundaries of the Northumberland National Park and include the Cheviot massif – the highest hill in the north of England.
But only 12 vehicle passes per day are issued to visitors who want to explore the rugged College Valley and perhaps that’s why this wild and beautiful landscape is such a well-kept secret. The tranquillity that the local residents are used to will be temporarily interrupted next month, when six of the valley’s gardens are opened to the public.
Fiona Elliot is the College Valley resident who’s organised the event on 1 July, with proceeds going to the Great North Air Ambulance. She says that the idea of opening the gardens collectively came to her several years ago as she walked around and saw how well the gardens high up in the valley were developing – some created from scratch.
“Ever since being aware that the Great North Air ambulance depends totally on charitable contributions I have tried to support it,” she says. “I thought that with our gardens we have something extra in a special setting to appeal to people to come and look beyond the garden gate. Luckily, when I broached the idea to the others living up here they unanimously agreed to support the day.”
Elliot has lived on a farm at Hethpool since 1980 and says that the garden was originally used for growing cutting flowers and is divided by espaliered apple trees, extending into a walled garden. She took the garden over from her mother-in-law, Gwen Elliot.
“I’d be the first to admit I was given a good start and some of her plants continue on,” she says. “As the years have gone on I’ve gradually added my own style, encouraging clematis and climbing roses to scramble through the apple trees, softening the straight lines and filling in the gaps where age is getting the better of the trees.” She’s recently been tackling the ruin of a 14th-century Pele tower, an unusual garden feature which adds to the secret garden feel.
The other two gardens on show at Hethpool include Elliott’s next-door neighbours, with formal lawns, shrubbery and a walled garden growing a huge selection of vegetables. The third garden is her mother-in-law’s, which was established 30 years ago from scratch out of a field and now has a tremendous variety of plants. Further up the valley, the challenge of gardening between 800 and 1000ft is being admirably met by Elliot’s neighbours who live in the former shepherds’ houses.
Pauline Baker has lived at Mounthooley since 1991 and says that she and her husband developed the garden from a field of couch, thistle, nettle and docks. She says the weather is their main challenge and they have been flooded twice, had amazing heat spells and have coped with minus 20 degrees centigrade plus 15ft snow drifts.
That might be enough to make most gardeners give up, but Baker’s enthusiasm is undimmed: “We garden totally organically for wildlife and the abundance of birds, bees, butterflies and reptiles are a constant source of joy.” As for coping with the conditions, she says: “we plant small, mulch well and often with small stones as well as leaf mould composts. Our main perennial planting is done in spring, as well as pruning to help overwintering. But we do lose some plants each year. We overwinter cuttings in our polytunnel, which we could not do without.”
Over at Goldscleugh, Pat Ivison and husband Jeff began transforming their garden in 1995 by covering the whole lot in black plastic for 18 months in order to suppress the weeds. Since then it’s come on in leaps and bounds and her favourite features now include the acers, the arbor, the beech arch and more recently the pond, complete with goldfish and aquatic plants. “We love our summerhouse and, of course, the views,” says Pat.
She cites the moles, voles, rabbits and mice as challenges, along with the weather and short growing season, but says she copes with it by planting “acid-loving wind tolerant and hardy plants with a strong leaning towards perennials and shrubs and by putting up with our natural neighbours.”
Ros Harris has lived at Fleehope with her husband Paul since 2006 and their garden is the smallest and newest of the open gardens. The previous tenants had moved out four years before the Harrises moved in, so they too had plenty of work to do as the garden had reverted to a field. “Our first job was to define our area, so a fence and hawthorne hedge went up and then the long laborious task of digging up yards of nettles, grass and thistles began,” she says. “The hardest part of the digging was the stony nature of the land and we moved what felt like tons of the stuff.”
Slowly the garden took shape as they added herbaceous beds and raised beds for vegetables. “I think the favourite part of the garden for both of us is the vegetable patch,” says Harris. “The raised beds are easy to cover to protect from pests and make crop rotation very easy. Although we do not grow anything unusual, we love the fact that we can grow enough to sustain us through the hard winters when we have been known to be snowed in for many weeks. I have even been known to dig up carrots when in snow that is thigh-high.” All the gardeners in College Valley rave about the views beyond the garden fence as well as those within, and Fiona Elliot says that they’re really looking forward to sharing it with visitors, even if it does mean a bit of extra work for the open day. “Extra days in the week would be wonderful, but at the end of the day gardens are ongoing projects – never finished and always in the hands of the weather,” she says. “We just hope people come and enjoy our efforts. As for striving for perfection, well, most of us think we’re pretty close to having that just by living in the valley.”
College Valley Open Gardens is on Sunday 1 July, noon-5pm. Admission £4 (under 12s free). Directions can be found on www.college-valley.co.uk and for more information contact email@example.com
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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