I’m lucky that East Anglia has some great gardens to visit. Last weekend there was the chance to get over to the Fullers Mill Garden near Bury St Edmunds, before it closes for the season. (It’s open from the start of April until the end of September every year.)
The garden is entered by a narrow lane that passes through the edge of the ‘Kings Forest’, Forestry Commission woodland at West Stow. So as soon as you arrive, you are surrounded by the sound of the wind rushing in the trees. This changes when you get right into the garden and arrive at Fullers Mill Cottage – now the sound you will hear is the River Lark forcing itself through a narrow weir before it spreads out again and becomes calmer on its journey through the garden.
As you continue into the garden, the sounds from the forest and the weir recede and you’re surrounded by a feeling of tranquility and calm. Even when the garden is full of visitors, you can find a quiet spot just for yourself. (And if you’re lucky, it might just happen to have one of the benches that are dotted around the garden.)
The original garden at Fullers Mill was small when the creator of the garden, Bernard Tickner and his wife Bess bought the cottage in 1958. Over a period of more than 50 years, Bernard was able to gradually buy land from the Forestry Commission and turn it from rough ground into a garden filled with a vast collection of plants, many of them uncommon and unusual.
The first area to be developed was the ‘Low Garden’ (Photographs above and below). The terraces here are full of flowering bulbs in spring, and in summer there are the beautiful flowers of the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum.
Bernard said that his ‘gardening heroine’ was Beth Chatto and reckoned that there was a similarity in the way both gardens grew and developed over time. The gardens now cover seven acres and offer a wide variety of planting conditions. While the Low Garden has a mix of shady and sunny areas that suit woodland plants and lilies, the Top Garden has poor soil and dry conditions, so is much better suited to Mediterranean plants. Moisture loving plants are happy around the mill pond and along the river and stream banks. (The garden has both the River Lark and the Culford Stream running through it.) There are open areas too, so sun-loving plants can also be found a suitable home.
One of the great things about having such a wide range of growing conditions is the sheer variety of plants that can be grown. I was amazed by the huge number of different trees, shrubs and perennials growing here. It made me wish that I had a better knowledge of plants and could recognise more of what I saw. I suspect that even then, I’d still find that there were a lot of rare or unusual cultivars here that I didn’t know.
For me, the wonderful collection of plants was an opportunity to take lots (and lots!) of photographs. I could easily spend days in this garden and still find that I wanted even more time for photographing the plants. (My husband did have some difficulty in getting me to leave the garden. Next time, maybe he’ll just leave me there!)
Despite the fact that there are large collections of plants (around 70 or more euphorbias and the same number of lilies and snowdrops are just a few of these), the garden is designed to be in sympathy with the character of its site. The river and stream areas are allowed to keep a fairly natural, informal look and the planting in the woodland areas feels very appropriate – somehow very ‘comfortable’ there. This is the sort of garden that I love. (I’m much less keen on formal gardens and have never come to like topiary or parterres – or even box edging.) Overall, the feel of the garden is unfussy and relaxed, and extremely welcoming.
In 2013 Fullers Mill Garden was gifted to Perennial, The Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society to ensure its future and keep it open for visitors to enjoy. Bernard remained involved with his garden right throughout his later years. (He died last year, at the age of 93.) In a radio interview when he was almost 90, Bernard said that he didn’t believe a garden was ever finished. ‘I’m still buying plants, much to Annie, the head gardener’s distress, because then she’s got to find a spot for them. And I say, ”You can find somewhere Annie, to fit those in”. And she does eventually…it may take a little while.’
You can hear the radio interview with Bernard Tickner here. It’s easy to hear, from listening to him talk, how much he loved the garden at Fullers Mill and how how happy it (and gardening) made him. That happiness is something that the visitors to the garden can’t help but share. It’s a delight to stroll around the peaceful grounds along the banks of the river and stream, to walk under the trees and to discover all the wonderful plants tucked into every corner of the garden.
Fullers Mill Garden is now looked after by head gardener, Annie Dellbridge and her team of gardeners and volunteers. They tend the garden with obvious loving care and make visitors very welcome. (The garden is open from the start of April to the end of September, on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can find full details on their website here.)
I fell in love with this garden and I know I’ll be back for several visits next year. And I even managed to bring a little bit of it home with me by buying a couple of white Japanese anemones and an aster, ‘Les Moutiers’.
Bernard Tickner said he liked the idea of buying a plant raised in a garden as a memento of it. But then, he was a man thoroughly in love with plants. I’ll give him the last word here, because it’s something I feel too (and I do hope he’s right!): ‘I love plants. Once you’ve got the ”disease”, you’ve got it for life. It doesn’t ever desert you.’