Now in its 26th year, the Daily Mail National Garden Competition is a glorious demonstration of just how many superb amateur gardeners there are across Britain.
Hundreds of people from up and down the country entered the competition, their plots ranging from small urban patios to spacious country gardens.
‘We loved the variety of entries for the 2021 competition and whittling it down to a shortlist of just four was no easy task,’ says the head judge, garden designer Tim Sharples. ‘We have chosen four gardens that are quite different but all equally inspirational.’
The winner will receive £2,000 and the famous blue plaque. Below, we profile the four shortlisted gardeners.
How a playground became a paradise
Stuart Jones, 80, who ran an engineering company before his retirement, lives with his wife Jane, 76, in Staines, Middlesex
Their garden blends flowers such as fuchsias (pictured left) with foliage plants and conifers (pictured right)
Stuart Jones, 80, who ran an engineering company before his retirement, lives with his wife Jane, 76, in Staines, Middlesex.
Stuart and Jane Jones’s garden is a tale of two halves. For 20 years it was a place for their children to run around, play ball games and make as much of a mess as they wanted. In the past two decades, however, it has changed from a playground to a plant-filled paradise.
The couple first spotted their house – which is just 200 metres from the Thames – when they passed it in their boat while it was being built. ‘We bought it in 1981 and the garden then was just mud – totally featureless,’ says Stuart. ‘Our house was built on what had been the garden of a big estate, so the soil was magnificent. Unfortunately, the builders sold off the topsoil, so the ground was like concrete most of the time, except when it rained and it turned to jelly.’
Once they had reclaimed the 22m x 12m garden from their children, they started by putting in a pond – now home to several koi carp – a rockery and a waterfall. Stuart built the pond himself with the help of his son and also made the trellised seating area nearby. Cunningly, it has been designed so the filter for the pond is concealed underneath.
With the pond acting as a focal point for the rest of the garden, the couple gradually carved out a series of borders, which they planted with evergreen shrubs like euphorbia, pieris and euonymus and flowering plants such as verbascums, agapanthus, poppies, foxgloves and shrubby fuchsias. ‘Because of the backbone of evergreens, the garden really doesn’t look that much different in winter, just less colourful,’ says Stuart.
They planted trees at the edge of the garden to screen it from their neighbours, and put a palm tree by the pond to provide much-needed shade. Other favourite trees are an olive and a graceful silver birch. ‘We put it in when it was about 1m tall and now it’s over 18m,’ says Stuart.
Parts of the garden have a Japanese feel thanks to the small black bridge over the pond, the ornate pagoda-style seating area and a thicket of bamboo. Acers, or Japanese maples, are used throughout, providing wonderful colour in autumn. ‘We’ve definitely been influenced by Japanese style,’ says Stuart.
‘The garden has really evolved naturally, without being drawn out on paper, although we knew that we wanted it to have a touch of mystery and be laid out in such a way that you couldn’t see it all in one go. The only area we really thought carefully about was the pond, because we wanted to get the size and angle of it right. The rest of it has just happened organically.’
Stuart, who started his career as a draughtsman in the car industry, designs and builds the structures in the garden, while Jane is in charge of the planting. ‘She has the final say on the colour scheme,’ Stuart says. ‘I love bold colours, whereas Jane is very keen on foliage plants. We have a lot of disagreements about the garden, some quite heated, but always reach a compromise. It’s very much a joint project.’
In 40 years, the garden has come full circle. Having started out as a children’s play area, it’s now a favourite place for Jane and Stuart’s three grandchildren, especially during epic Easter egg hunts. ‘We love sharing the garden with the family and, during lockdown, it kept us sane,’ says Stuart. ‘We feel very lucky to have it.’
What the Judges said
‘On entering the garden you are greeted with a sensational panorama, followed by a series of interlocking rooms that skilfully use the landscape around it to give depth and extra interest.’
Finding solace in a lost garden
Phil Torr, 68, is retired from running a steel shipping business. He lives in Margaretting in Essex with his wife Carol, 53, an artist, and their three children, Max, 24, Charlie, 21, and Henry, 18
The Garden of Peace and Reconciliation with its ingenious church façade, pictured
The stunning plot (pictured above) is divided into colour themed areas
Phil Torr, 68, is retired from running a steel shipping business. He lives in Margaretting in Essex with his wife Carol, 53, an artist, and their three children, Max, 24, Charlie, 21, and Henry, 18.
When Phil Torr bought a dilapidated period house in the late 1990s, he had no idea that restoring its overgrown garden would provide solace for him during his darkest times.
‘I’ve always been obsessed with doing places up and when I saw Peacocks, a big Georgian pile that hadn’t been touched since the 1950s, I knew I’d found the final frontier of house restoration,’ he says. ‘The garden was bordering on derelict – I jokingly called it the Lost Garden of Margaretting. It was so full of self-seeded trees and brambles there were areas I didn’t even know existed for a while after I bought it.’
Sadly, some years after moving to Peacocks, Phil’s first wife Sarah died. Juggling his job and the care of his two youngest children, Phil found gardening provided a much-needed escape. ‘It was hugely therapeutic. There was so much to do; it was a project I could really get my teeth into.’
He concentrated his energies on two areas that had once been tennis courts but were totally overgrown. With the help of a builder friend, he set about making the first tennis court, measuring 36m by 18m, into a classic English walled garden. ‘We had to completely rebuild the brick walls and paths – we ended up using 20,000 bricks,’ says Phil.
His design, which borrowed elements from many of his favourite gardens, including Sissinghurst in Kent, included a sundial, pergola, pond and fountain. He divided the garden into colour-themed areas – purple and mauve, hot reds and yellow and white. ‘I love roses, more for their perfume than anything else. My favourites are the pale pink “Scepter’d Isle” and apricot “The Lark Ascending”.
‘I’m also passionate about agapanthus. I grow them in pots around the garden and I have a whole bed of them, which I call the Cornish corner because they grow like weeds in Cornwall. I’d particularly recommend the tall, dark blue “Loch Hope”.’
Phil’s design for the second tennis court was ambitious. The Garden of Peace and Reconciliation, as he calls it, incorporates elements of many different faiths. There are nods to the Islamic gardens of the Alhambra in Spain, with a rill-like water feature and a myrtle hedge, as well as a medlar tree, which originated in the Middle East but was widely grown in England in medieval times.
There is a quintessentially English chamomile law and one corner of the garden has a pagan Green Man while another has a Hindu plaque. Along one side of the garden is what looks like a church but is actually a façade (‘it conceals the compost heap’), built with cedar shingles and recycled oak beams. The windows are based on a design Phil saw in a church in Cuba.
Adjacent to the two garden areas is an old paddock that has been turned into a wildflower meadow and orchard. ‘I visited Great Dixter in East Sussex when their wildflower meadow was in flower and I thought it was amazing,’ says Phil.
Planting a traditional wildflower meadow is complex business, but he did his research and the result is magnificent, with cowslips and narcissi in spring, followed by snake’s head fritillaries and then 27 different types of wildflowers. The apple trees are planted in the old-fashioned way, randomly spaced rather than in rows, which, he says, ‘looks beautiful and is great for wildlife.’
Phil is now happily remarried and his wife Carol loves the garden almost as much as he does. He says, ‘I still have a lot to learn but I think I’m becoming a good plantsman. This garden has been my life’s work and I’ve never regretted the time and effort I’ve put in. This place has sustained me through thick and thin.’
The garden at Peacocks will be open again to visitors for charity under the National Garden Scheme in 2022. Visit ngs.org.uk.
What the Judges said
‘Phil has created distinct garden areas, each with their own individual narrative, all well designed and beautifully gardened.’
Fabulous, front and back
Carole Johnson }(pictured), 76, lives near Harrogate with her husband Michael, 79
The couple, who are retired, used to run the British branch of children’s furniture company Stompa. Their garden is pictured
Carole set about tackling the garden (pictured) on her own – husband Michael is ‘very handy for holding a ladder but he doesn’t enjoy gardening at all’
Carole Johnson, 76, lives near Harrogate with her husband Michael, 79. The couple, who are retired, used to run the British branch of children’s furniture company Stompa.
For many people, leaving a large, much-loved garden for somewhere small and featureless would be depressing. Yet for Carole Johnson it was an exciting opportunity.
‘Seven years ago we moved within the same village from a Georgian house with half an acre of garden to a 1970s house with a small front and back garden,’ Carole says. ‘It had a patch of lawn, a 4.5m conifer hedge and not much else, so it was full of potential.’
Carole set about tackling the garden on her own – husband Michael is ‘very handy for holding a ladder but he doesn’t enjoy gardening at all’ – and she was determined to make use of every inch of space, not least because she’d brought a lot of plants from her old garden. She set herself the task of making the front garden every bit as impressive and interesting as the back. ‘For lots of people, a front garden is just something that leads up to the door, but I really wanted it to be a destination in itself.’
Measuring 7.5m x 7.5m, the front garden includes a seating area with a curved bench, backed by a semi-circle of wooden sleepers, which is planted with ornamental grasses. ‘It means we can sit in the front garden and be completely private – no one knows you’re there,’ Carole says. She opted for a colour palette of orange, bronze and yellow, and the planting includes cordylines, rudbeckias, Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’, hemerocallis, geums and heucheras, as well as the sumptuous tangerine-orange rose, ‘Lady Hamilton’.
By way of contrast, the colour scheme in the back garden is a romantic mix of soft pinks, blues and white, with Carole’s beloved roses taking centre stage as they scramble over pergolas and arbours. ‘I adore roses, the look of them and the fragrance,’ she says. ‘I have the pink rose “Harlow Carr” dotted around the place, and the pale pink rambler “Paul’s Himalayan Musk”, with a honeysuckle weaving through it. The sight and the smell is quite something.’ Around the roses, Carole has planted hardy geraniums – her favourites are purple-pink ‘Sirak’ and blue ‘Nimbus’ – astrantias, campanulas, ferns and hostas, followed by a beautiful display of late-summer phlox. ‘I try to have something of interest in the garden right through the seasons. In winter, for instance, we have lovely colour from the dogwoods.’
One thing noticeably lacking in the garden is a lawn. ‘In our last garden we had a lot of lawn and although I loved it when the grass was looking pristine, it was a lot of work, so I made the decision not to have any here. I miss the feel of grass underfoot but it makes life a lot simpler.’
Carole enjoys visiting other gardens for inspiration, and her favourites include three nearby gardens: RHS Harlow Carr (after which her rose is named), York Gate and Newby Hall. ‘I often come back with ideas for my own garden,’ she says.
Her latest project is a new, semi-shaded area which is being planted with frothy, lime-green Alchemilla mollis, bronze grasses and ferns. ‘This garden will never be finished,’ Carole says. ‘That’s why gardening is so satisfying; however long you’ve been doing it, there are always more things to learn.’
What the Judges said
‘Carole has cultivated every inch of this garden, both front and back, with wonderful use of form, texture and especially colour.’
A touch of the med in the East Midlands
Michelle Malcolm, 52, a florist, is married to Gary, 55, who works in insurance. They live in South Normanton in Derbyshire
Michelle Malcolm, 52, a florist, is married to Gary, 55, who works in insurance. They live in South Normanton in Derbyshire.
When Michelle Malcolm moved house 21 years ago, her garden consisted of a scruffy patch of grass, a few conifers and a whole lot of concrete. ‘It was awful. I wasn’t interested in gardening and didn’t feel inspired to do anything,’ she recalls. ‘I wouldn’t have known where to start.’
Michelle’s mother Norma had other ideas and kept arranging trips to nurseries and garden centres. ‘I found them boring,’ Michelle admits. ‘But after a while I gave in and bought the odd plant. Of course I then planted them in the wrong place. Gradually, I got more enthusiastic about the garden and thought maybe I could make something of it.’
Michelle decided she wanted a garden which would bring back memories of holidays in Greece and Italy. ‘I love tropical plants and I wanted something to remind me of hot, sunny days, even if the weather at home wasn’t good,’ she says. ‘I came up with a design that had pergolas, seating and big, bold plants that would make an impact and remind me of the Mediterranean.’
Her best purchases were two tree ferns, which survive all year round if they’re wrapped up in straw for the winter. Statuesque plants like the windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, Fatsia japonica, acers, yuccas, euphorbias and hibiscus add to the sense of drama, creating a jungle effect in a space which is just 14m x 12m.
Michelle especially loves hostas, whose oversized leaves bring a touch of lushness to the garden, though she warns they are high-maintenance plants. ‘I work hard to keep the slugs off them,’ she says. ‘I’m quite often out there at midnight, armed with a torch, picking off the slugs and snails which are eating the leaves. It sounds mad but that’s the best way to protect them.’
In early summer the colour palette is mostly white, cream and lavender, but by late summer things have hotted up with fiery cannas and geums and hanging baskets of peach and orange begonias. ‘I know people are snooty about begonias but I wouldn’t be without them – and they’re so useful because they flower well in part-shade,’ Michelle says. Glossy blue pots containing neatly clipped box balls add to the theatrical feel.
Husband Gary does the hard graft, like laying paving slabs and building pergolas. Thanks to his electrical skills, the garden is artfully lit at night with colour-changing lights, supplemented by hanging lanterns with tea lights. ‘It’s very private,’ says Michelle. ‘We’re in our own little world.’
She may once have had to be dragged round garden centres, but Michelle now can’t keep away from them – and in fact she has worked in one for the past eight years and is about to embark on a new career as a florist.
‘When I heard from the judges that I was a finalist in the National Garden Competition I actually cried,’ she says. ‘From having been a complete beginner to having this kind of validation for my garden is an incredible feeling.’
What the Judges said
‘Michelle has created her own tropical paradise in the East Midlands, using modern materials to dramatic effect.’