by Silvana de Soissons•15th August 2011
The handsome village of Cold Aston, near Bourton-on-the-Water, is home to Spring Cottage garden, a densely planted third of an acre part dry stone wall enclosed plot that looks out over windswept, sheep dotted farmland. It is home to Val Bourne, one of Britain’s most prolific, professional garden writers, and her partner Jo.
Val keeps apologising to me, as she has only just returned from a north Devon holiday with her grandchildren, and she thinks the garden is looking bedraggled and dry. In my wildest dreams I could not imagine my own garden looking as good as this in the first flush of May, but such is the steely perfectionism on display that all my effusive compliments are merely carried away, unheeded, by the wind. Three things have contributed to this garden's great success: consistency, commitment and craft.
Spring Cottage was completely derelict when Jo originally bought it at auction and over the years the couple have invested long hours creating very carefully designed flower beds, paths, a vegetable garden, a wildflower garden, an orchard, an auricula theatre, greenhouses filled with tender vegetables, flower planting round a summer house and, quite literally, hundreds of terracotta pots filled with seasonal displays.
“Gardens are a lot of hard work,” Val admits. ”There is no denying it, I garden all the time that I am not busy writing. I am a gardener first and foremost, and all my writing is informed by my practical, every day experience. My background was teaching, so by nature I am quite disciplined,” she told me.
Her passion for plants started when she was a small toddler, and her grandmother, a knowledgeable plants woman from Yorkshire, used to take her round the garden to see all the flowers, so that she would not cry and wake up the household. Val took up writing 17 years ago when she realised that many of the then garden magazines were not delivering accurate information. Her books “The Natural Gardener” (published by Frances Lincoln in 2004) and “The Winter Garden” (published by Cassell Illustrated in 2006) have become important reference touchstones for gardeners everywhere, and her articles feature regularly in The Telegraph Magazine, The Oxford Times, Saga Magazine, Gardens Illustrated and the Hardy Plant Magazine. Her latest series of books are “The 10 minute Gardener” diaries, featuring fruit, flowers and vegetables, published by Bantam Press, and “Colour in the Garden” by Merrell, both to be launched in September 2011.
Her philosophy is deeply grounded in the organic movement, of which she was a pioneer. “I was gardening organically from the very start, when it was not at all a mainstream horticultural movement. You have got to be very careful with the word “organic”, however, because there are many chemical companies out there who want to sell “organic” weed killers and “organic” slug killers. Well, there is nothing truly organic about that. Insect life and all the creatures towards the bottom of the food chain are extremely important to all the creatures higher up the food chain that rely on them for food. All the interactions that take place in the garden, within the eco-system, form part of an intricate, living jigsaw puzzle that must not be disturbed.”
This garden is a rich habitat for hedgehogs, butterflies, bees, hover flies and beetles, and this has occurred through a variety of methods which Val recommends for those gardeners who want to grow all their own food and flowers without the use of unnecessary chemicals.
“It is very important to plant densely, and to have flower coverage from February right through to November. Do not feed plants with lots of nitrogenous fertilisers, as they just produce lots of green, sappy growth that attracts aphids. I just use Vitax 4, which has a good range of nutrients, and I also use powdered chicken manure and make comfrey tea, with comfrey leaves left to soak in water,” Val explains.
We sit in her summer house soaking up the colourful view of the garden ahead. The last of the summer roses and sweet peas are covered with foraging honey and bumble bees and, in the distance, Jo is busy watering the multitude of terracotta pots that are filled with pelargoniums and geraniums.
“If you plant the right plant in the right place it will have a much greater chance of surviving and flourishing. Drought resistant plants, like scented geraniums, are good for dry summers, and remember to take cuttings as an insurance policy against very frosty winters,” she continues.
Val believes in digging the soil in the autumn, to leave clods exposed to frosts that break them up to create finer soil. You cannot see bare soil anywhere other than a tiny slither in the vegetable patch where the onions are left unearthed to dry out. By planting every inch of garden the weeds are suppressed, moisture is maintained and small insects are able to create protected breeding habitats.
Under fruit trees a meadow has been created and snowdrops and hellebores planted. Val is very diligent about deadheading, and she keeps removing dead flowers right the way through the season until the beginning of Autumn, when she collects seed. She gets her planting inspiration from the landscape. Very often, when she is driving around, she will stop to analyse how wildflowers grow and will then recreate natural planting schemes for her own garden based on mother nature’s influence.
The writing of Beth Chatto has informed her own style, “It is very poetic and inspiring” and she was also very moved by the writing of Elspeth Thompson, the late Sunday Telegraph gardening writer. I asked her what advice she would give to young people wishing to enter the fiercely competitive world she inhabits and her answer is concise:
“Find your writing niche and keep pitching. You have to deliver good work, articles that are well written, accurate, checked and edited. Nomenclature is very important. Above all, you need to garden, so that you know, from your own experience, what works and what doesn’t.”
Two gardens that she loves to visit are Woodchippings, in Brackley, Northamptonshire and Pettifers garden in North Oxfordshire. She bemoans the fact that she has so much work to do, consulting on natural gardens, lecturing, overseeing plant trials at RHS Wisley and writing that she does not have as much time as she would like to visit other people’s gardens.
When we go into the cottage to take a photograph of Val in her kitchen, we walk into her study, where she writes, and the walls are completely covered with botanical reference and gardening books. On the kitchen table are two enormous bowls filled with peppers and tomatoes that Jo has harvested from the greenhouse. “I love cooking from Nigel Slater’s “Simple Suppers” and from “The Jewish Cook Book” by Claudia Roden,” Val tells me, as I admire her vast collection of painted china.
It is time for me to go because another book publishing deadline needs to be met. As the warm summer wind continues to rage around me, I take one last look at the beautiful profusion of colour, breathe in the scents and reflect on the lessons I have learned. If ever there was a showcase and celebration of gardening in tune with nature, then surely this is it.
Val Bourne’s Website: www.valbourne.co.uk