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Lyn and Malcolm’s Ferndown garden

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a garden where lots of hard work has really paid of

How do you get a quart into a pint pot? Very carefully, I told myself, as I edged into a garden that fronts an end of terrace house just off the A348; and that was just the visitors, who were passing through the gate non-stop all set to break the record set on a previous Wednesday opening for the National Gardens Scheme.

The explosion of colour in Malcolm’s garden.

The explosion of colour in Malcolm’s garden.

More quarts and pints came to mind, though, as I struggled to take in the incredible garden display that Lyn and Malcolm Ovens have apparently been putting on for the last ten years at 357 Ringwood Road. This was, I soon realised, a small garden of enormous size.
Thirteen years ago the garden began its transformation when Lyn planned a front garden that moved towards English cottage style while Malcolm, inspired by Spanish holidays, took over the back and went totally bananas; not just bananas, either, but also oleander, cannas, brugmansia and bougainvillea. Ferndown might not be tropical, but the house is only about five kilometres from the sea with a belt of pine trees between it and the north winds. The garden is sufficiently sheltered to enable Malcolm to indulge his love of the exotic but, with an occasional frost sneaking in, many of the tender plants are in pots to enable them to be moved to winter shelter in greenhouse and conservatory.

Dahlia ‘Giselle’ takes the stage.

Dahlia ‘Giselle’ takes the stage.

Lyn uses the same trick in the front garden. Many of the plants are in the soil, but many more are in pots so that they can be used to fill in a gap once something goes over. The planting is so dense that the pots are invisible and I found it very hard to believe that there are ever any gaps, as I tried to count the number of clematis scrambling over the fence, up trellis and twining through borders. There are more than one hundred and with four or five different blue varieties all intermingling, everyone was searching for the labels. These are tucked beneath most plants, in some places several together where there is also an under-planting of spring bulbs. I noted Clematis ‘Daniel Deronda’, ‘Elsa Spath’ and ‘Victoria’ running riot. A bit of research before planting clusters of clematis like this can ensure a succession of flowers over a much longer period.

More plants than you can count in Lyn’s garden.

More plants than you can count in Lyn’s garden.

Also of note are the magnificent phlox, flowering well above waist level. Phlox ‘Mum’s Pink’ needs no description, and ‘Bright Eyes’ is also pink but with a central white eye. Their height is in part due to the large trees sheltering the front garden, which draws them up to the light, but also to the two hours a day of watering and the generous fertiliser that is applied.

Tropical splendour beneath the brugmansias.

Tropical splendour beneath the brugmansias.

Lilies stand tall among it all, in vibrant solid colours as well as yellow and plum stripes and white with pink spots, as though a painter has been let loose with a full brush to spatter at will. Jazzy ‘Hot Lips’ and ‘Miss Rio’ are stunning, while ‘Lady Alice’ is much more demure in palest peach. There are over sixty to enjoy, something for everyone, from golfer ‘Tiger Woods’ to composer ‘Vivaldi’. The smallest is Lilium formosana at about 30cm high, but ‘Golden Splendour’ will reach above 2 metres.

 Popular oriental Lilium x ‘Stargazer’.

Popular oriental Lilium x ‘Stargazer’.

Somehow a well has been fitted into Lyn’s patch, beneath a clematis-covered arch. Clumps of agapanthus and feathery grass reach above fuchsias. Bursts of burnt orange helianthemums, yellow achillea or giant crocosmia add fire to the planting scheme. It is all set off by lawn so green and lush that one visitor was seen to bend and touch the grass, to see if it was real. Those of us whose gardens after a searing summer resembled the Sahara could only look on with envy.  The areas of grass are, of course, small, but are sufficient in size to make the perfect foil for the plants. Neat brick edging, all laid by Lyn and Malcolm, makes mowing much easier.
There was a queue for the short distance to Malcolm’s tropical delights, some of it brought about by the promise of home-made cakes and tea in the conservatory. How on earth do they find time? My slice of pear and chocolate cake was too good to hurry and I quickly grabbed a just-vacated chair where I could hear Malcolm explaining to another visitor that the bad winter of 2005/06 killed the banana trees; so, undeterred,  he just started again with small ones, which are now well above head height.

Tiger lily – just one of a huge collection..

Tiger lily – just one of a huge collection..

The spectacular brugmansias were definitely the talk of the afternoon. Plants including ‘Grand Marnier’, ‘Ecuador Pink’ and ‘Sunset’ were flaunting themselves in front of photographers who were vying to get the best shot of the long, dangling trumpets. Just one word of warning, though. These plants, natives of the Andes, are believed to have been used by the Aztecs and Incas to produce hallucinations and heighten the senses before important rituals. No part of brugmansia should be put in or near your mouth and hands should be protected when handling a plant, or certainly well-washed afterwards.

 Delicately flowered Clematis texensis.

Delicately flowered Clematis texensis.

The timber structures in the back garden are painted deep Mediterranean blue, with an old yacht sail spread horizontally aloft to provide shade with a hint of the sea. A standard fuchsia and an olive tree are just two of the plants that reclaim the conservatory for shelter in the winter months. The brugmansias are also taken inside, having first been stripped of their leaves and cut back to a manageable size.
Like the front garden, a small water feature has been squeezed in here; very Japanese in style and originating not in far off Kyoto but from a discontinued garden at Bournemouth International Airport.  The lion’s head water feature came from northern Spain, where Malcolm gained much of his inspiration. Less unexpected in this half of the garden are the dahlias; potted, again, for easy distribution and winter protection. I loved the powder-puff ‘Floorinoor’, with its orange/yellow centre fading out to pink. Summer bedding sizzles with gerberas, their vibrant deep pinky-reds echoing the colours on the coleus leaves.
Gravel beds might reduce weeding but, with pots sunk into the beds to enable a change-over from tender to hardy at the onset of autumn, I had the feeling that – small though it is – this remarkable garden must keep Lyn and Malcolm on their toes for most of the time. Their efforts are rewarded by the stunning displays they have created and the numbers of visitors who, quite obviously, return not just throughout the season but year after year.
I wondered if I could grow a brugmansia in my garden? Commonsense said, no. I haven’t the space, the conditions, the time. Then I realised that if Lyn and Malcolm had let those small considerations put them off, we wouldn’t have this amazing garden to enjoy.  I made notes of plants more my style that I could search out for next year: Thalictrum ‘Hewitt’s Double’, perhaps; Sidalcea ‘Rose Queen’ or Lythrum ‘Robert’. I took one last look at the extensive plant stall, much of which had already been carried off to gardens new, and drove home much later than intended. How could I possibly have been in this small garden for such a long time?

If you’d like to see this or other NGS gardens for yourself, check the NGS Yellow Book for opening dates and times. Not all gardens open every year. 2011 saw 357 Ringwood Road on the scheme, but visitors by appointment are normally only accepted between late June and the end of August (01202 896071).

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