A Plant Photographer’s Paradise.

White Japanese anemone flower
A beautiful white Japanese anemone

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.)

House and border at Fullers Mill Garden
Left: Looking towards the house. Right: A shrub border

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.

Steps and terraces at Fullers Mill Garden
Steps and terraces in the Low Garden

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.

Path below the terraces at Fullers Mill Garden
Path below the terraces

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.

Trees in Fullers Mill Garden
Two views of the same area in the ‘Top Garden’

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!)

Flowers in Fullers Mill Garden
There were plenty flowers to keep me busy taking photographs!

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.

Perennial border and riverbank at Fullers Mill Garden
Left: A perennial border Right: The river bank

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.

Riverbank at Fullers Mill Garden
The riverbank retains a feeling of wildness and informality.

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.’

Autumn colour at Fullers Mill Garden
Autumn colour at Fullers Mill Garden

 

 

A Favourite Garden

Water garden ponds at Beth Chatto's Garden
Two of the ponds in the water garden

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy visiting other people’s gardens. They’re a great source of both pleasure and inspiration. One of my favourites to visit is the lovely garden created by the late Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market in Essex.

Fortunately for me, I live in the neighbouring county (Suffolk) and I’ve been able to visit the Beth Chatto Garden many times over recent years. But my first visit to the garden was much earlier, while I was still living in Scotland. At the time I was still fairly new to gardening and Mrs Chatto’s book, ‘The Green Tapestry’ had just come out. The book soon became one of my most relied-on sources of information about how to create a garden, so it was a great treat to actually be able to visit the garden that had inspired it.

Water garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens
The view as you enter the garden and look towards the ponds

As you walk into the main part of the gardens, your eye is caught by a series of four large ponds that form the impressive centrepiece of the garden. The water-garden was created to take advantage of  water coming from a natural spring and to solve the problem of what would otherwise be heavy, waterlogged ground. The results are beautiful and invite you to wander and linger or just have a seat on one of the benches and relax.

Water garden planting at the Beth Chatto Gardens
Planting along the bank of one of the ponds

It was late spring when we visited and there was new growth everywhere. The garden changes a lot with the seasons and can be dramatically different when the plants have grown to their full size later in the year. Our previous visit had been last autumn, so this felt like quite a contrast, with everything very fresh and green and full of promise for the summer.

A candelabra primula growing by the water
A candelabra primula growing by the water

Many of the plants here are familiar to me from Scottish gardens – candelabra primulas, gunnera and ferns particularly – but sadly they won’t grow well in my own very hot and dry garden. (One of the things I learned through reading Beth Chatto’s books was the importance of choosing the right plant for the situation. I’m afraid I condemned a few plants to a slow death by putting them in entirely the wrong place in my earlier gardening days!)

Arum italicum 'Pictum' echoes the shape of the fern but has a contrasting texture and markings.
Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ echoes the shape of the fern but has a contrasting texture.

The planting in the garden is a delight. I love to see the way texture and shape are contrasted (as in the photo above). Actually, I’d really like to grow Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ in my own garden because the lines on the leaves make it a great subject for black and white photographs. (The wild arum keeps popping up here, so it should do well enough.)

Looking across part of the water garden
Looking across part of the water garden

Our visit to the Beth Chatto Garden was partly prompted by wanting to get ideas for making a pond in our own garden. (OK, so our pond will be absolutely tiny in comparison, but you might as well look for inspiration from the best!) And there’s a nursery at the garden, so inspiration can easily turn into a few plants to take home with you…

Alliums and forget-me-nots in a border
Alliums and forget-me-nots in a border

Of course, there are plenty of familiar plants that I can (and do) grow, like the alliums, camassia and forget-me-nots in the border above. And then there’s the plants that I could grow when I lived in Scotland, like the rhododendron below. (Ah, now I really wish I could grow that here!)

White rhododendron
A plant I wish I could have….

The gardens have far more than I can possibly describe here. There appears to be just about any habitat that you can think of – water garden, woodland, shady areas and the sunny scree beds. And then there’s the famous gravel garden with its drought-tolerant planting – it has been a great source of inspiration for our own very dry garden. It’s a garden that I feel I can thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting this area, at any time of year. There’s a nursery and a good tearoom too, so you can easily spend a few hours here.

As you will probably know if you read gardening papers or magazines, Beth Chatto passed away in May this year, aged 94. She has been an inspiration to many and I know that a lot of my own enthusiasm for gardening has come from reading her books. I feel that her legacy is not just in the beautiful gardens that she has created, but also in the love of plants and the understanding and knowledge of them that she has shared with other gardeners.

Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree or redbud)
A quiet spot under a beautiful Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree or redbud)