Marie and Tony's story
Making the garden child safe and friendly
“Never, even in our wildest dreams, did we imagine that a number of years after moving to Walsall, our suburban garden would win two national gardening competitions, be featured in several television and radio programmes, be the subject of articles in magazines around the globe and welcome visitors from thirty-nine foreign countries!”
We didn’t have a master plan; our garden has simply evolved in a series of projects as our family’s needs have changed. All the tasks have been undertaken and completed by us. We are self-taught and have had no formal horticultural training.
We have not copied any other garden and, as far as we are aware, our design and planting style is unique. After winning the Daily Mail National Garden Competition in 2007, one judge described it as “A garden like no other!”
Developing the garden has involved hard work, learning new skills, a degree of trial and error and immense pleasure from doing this huge project together.
Tony came from a sporting family and his schoolboy achievements included playing rugby for the Southern Counties and representing England in athletics. His success in hammer throwing attracted him to study medicine at Birmingham, where Howard Payne, the British hammer throwing champion, lecturered in physiology.
His parents had a large garden in Southampton. He was brought up on endless weeding of vegetable plots and resolved that, if he ever had his own garden, he would somehow beat the weeds. He also developed very useful pruning skills whilst cutting more than 150 yards of hedges at his parents’ home.
He met Marie in 1972 when she was a first year student at the Queen Elizabeth School of Nursing. After three years of working as a volunteer, first as a housemother in a half-way house in Houston, Texas, and then as an untrained nurse, riding on horseback in the mountains of Guatemala, Marie had come back to her hometown of Birmingham, England, to begin formal nurse training.
Marie had little experience in gardening but enjoyed heavy physical work, especially pickaxing! It was only when she was a student that she got properly into growing plants, including vegetables. Unfortunately, in an attempt to kill blackfly on her runner beans, she used too strong a solution of washing up liquid - with disastrous results! Tony offered to teach her and so began a shared passion for gardening that has continued for over forty-five years, and even more so since our retirement in 2009.
We married in 1975 and Tony completed his general medical practitioner training and Marie went on to qualify as a nurse, midwife and health visitor. In 1977 we worked for nine months as volunteers in a rural hospital in West Bengal, India. After taking a career break of sixteen years to care for their four children, in 1996 Marie returned to paid employment and worked for thirteen years as a transport planner with Walsall Council.
In 1982, we moved to our current home a mile away from Walsall town centre. We came with a one-year old child and three more followed in the next four years. It was before the advent of mobile phones, which meant that Marie had to be within earshot of the landline telephone whenever Tony was on call for his practice. Frequent on-call sessions restricted our movements and, in consequence, the garden became the focal point for the family’s leisure and exercise activities.
Our quarter acre garden faces south and gently slopes down to the mature deciduous trees on our boundary with Walsall Arboretum. The soil is acid/neutral, heavy clay.
In 1982 the upper garden near the house had a square lawn, partly bordered by a decorative wall. The fifty-year-old conifer trees were overgrown and some were diseased. They towered over the garden causing dense shade, obstructing the main exit from the lawn, causing nearby grass to struggle and distorting the yorkstone paving.
The middle garden was home to an orchard of sixteen apple and pear trees, just one of which bore fruit worthy of eating.
Stepping-stones led down to the lower garden, which had been a vegetable plot.
The first 10 years
Our priority in the first ten years was to make the garden safe and interesting for our growing family.
Breaking up the heavy clay soil proved too much for several forks, spades and pickaxes during the first six months; however, we eventually won the battle with weeds!
We re-laid and extended 380 feet of paths, laying deep, solid foundations; often working late into the evenings. Tony became quite adept at pointing crazy paving, ably assisted by his navvy, Marie!
Becoming expert at path laying!
Marie - the navvy!
The crazy paving in the patio area was broken up and weed-ridden so, in 1985, we decided to relay it.
The vegetable patch was grassed over and became the children’s play area, complete with swing and large chalet store that doubled as a Wendy house.
One path we created was the length of the garden and proved a fantastic 180-foot long sledge and go-kart run!
Trial and error!
We experimented with planting schemes.
A Leylandii hedge had seemed a good idea in 1983, and those sixty-five Cupressocyparis Castlewellan (Gold Leylandii) plants looked quite insignificant in the boot of the car. Our plan was to keep them under control, making a compact hedge leaving the front half of the border for other plants However, despite regular pruning, eight years later they towered high above our heads.
This was just one of the mistakes that influenced our future choice of plants.
1986 - hedge 3 years-old and looking quite cute
1991 - Leylandii hedge is 8 years-old and towering above our heads
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- Azaleas & rhododendrons
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- Other Trees
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