Four Seasons Garden Walsall
Tony Newton M1974
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 twenty-seven 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.
I came from a sporting family and my schoolboy achievements included playing rugby for the Southern Counties and representing England in athletics. My success in hammer throwing attracted me to study medicine at Birmingham, where Howard Payne, the British hammer throwing champion, lectured in physiology.
My parents had a large garden in Southampton. I was brought up on endless weeding of vegetable plots and resolved that, if I ever had my own garden, I would somehow beat the weeds. I also developed very useful pruning skills whilst cutting more than 150 yards of hedges at my parents’ home.
I met Marie in 1972 when she was a first year student at the Queen Elizabeth School of Nursing. After three years of working as an untrained nurse, riding on horseback in the mountains of Guatemala, Marie had come back to her hometown of Birmingham 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 killblackfly on her runner beans, she used too strong a solution of washing up liquid – with disastrous results! I offered to teach her and so began a shared passion for gardening that has continued for over forty years, and even more so since our retirement in 2009.
We married in 1975 and I completed my general 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. In 1982, Marie and I 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 following four years. It was before the advent of mobile phones, which meant that Marie had to be within earshot of the landline telephone whenever I was on call for my 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.
The quarter acre garden faces south and gently slopes down to the mature deciduous trees on our boundary with Walsall
Arboretum. 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.
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 andpickaxes 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. I became quite adept at pointing crazy paving, ably assisted by my navvy, Marie! One path we created was the length of the garden and proved a fantastic 180-foot long sledge and go-kart run! 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.
We experimented with planting schemes. A Leylandii hedge had seemed a good idea and those sixty five new plants looked quite insignificant in the boot of the car. However, despite regular pruning, eight years later they towered highabove our heads. This was just one of the mistakes that influenced our future choice of plantsThree things galvanised us into action in 1992. Our wonderful Rottweiler, Shona, died at the age of thirteen: it had been difficult to be serious about a garden with a dog nicknamed ‘Rotovator’! The second spur was when, during a gale, our neighbour’s 55-foot mountain ash tree paid our garden an unexpected visit and pollarded the only good fruit tree we had. The third incentive was the realisation that the Leylandii hedge was too high to manage safely. Having injured my back whilst dealing with the neighbour’s ash tree, I gingerly
cut the Leylandii trees in height and fortunately a pickaxe wielding Marie quickly and efficiently removed the sixty-five
The children were growing up fast and developing other interests, including barbeques and outdoor parties with their
Sea Scout friends. We decided to create a garden not only for our family but also to be exciting in all four seasons.
We started re-landscaping at the top of the garden and worked our way down to the bottom between 1992 and 1995. The square lawn edges were softened into curves and the paving extended to match. Our children’s footsteps showed us where new paths and steps were needed! Access to the garden is down a minimum of six steps, and this created numerous challenges over the years as we imported 15 tons of yorkstone, 11 tons of garden soil, 15 tons of concreting sand and 105 cubic metres of forest bark! Short days were lengthened by the use of head torches and inclement weather was ignored. Observers watched with amusement as our people carrier car went by with treespoking through the sunroof!
In 2013 some of these trees were featured in the BBC Great British Garden Revival! We noticed which plants were succeeding and this has led to us choosing many of them as key features in our current planting themes. We have removed all but two of the original garden plants from1982! Gritty sand and repeated compost and pine bark mulches over several years have
dramatically improved the soil.
In 2010 we won our second national title: Garden News Overall Gardeners of the Year. The prize of £100 worth of seeds every year for the rest of our lives poses its own challenges! Influenced by our visits to Winterbourne and Exbury, in our previous home we had started collecting acers and azaleas and were delighted that the neutral to acid soil of our new garden favoured these plants. We use bright evergreens to complement our acers and azaleas; together they provide the colours red, blue and yellow and bold contrast of shape and form. Their year-round interest is enhanced by focal points of oriental ornaments and dark wooden structures. Mainly we have chosen plants that are well suited to our soil and are hardy enough to withstand our unpredictable cold winters. These include: spring bulbs, selected herbaceous perennials, annuals and biennials, azaleas, camellias, lilies, alliums, ferns, bamboos, Japanese maples, ornamental conifers, aucubas, photinia, pieris and ilex.
We have colourful foliage throughout the year, and flowers from early January through to December. A researcher for
BBC2 Gardeners’ World discovered us through our Flickrwebsite (www.flickr.com/photos/fourseasonsgarden).
Filming took place over nine months, resulting in a half-hour special programme broadcast in 2010 featuring our ‘Four Seasons’ garden.
Work to maintain our garden is spread across the year. We have found that careful, timely pruning is the main skill needed to keep our plants and garden looking pleasing from one year to the next. Fortunately, many of the plants we have chosen are very amenable to pruning. We prune to maintain size, shape, form and to keep plants healthy and in proportion with one another. We have found that the life of many of our plants has been extended by pruning since it prevents, or delays, the onset of overcrowding that would need the removal of some of the plants.
In 2011, during a Gardeners’ Question Time feature from our garden, panellist Ann Swithenbank declared that she was going to re-evaluate her own pruning methods since our plants were so healthy!
Bridges had been placed on paths – but a bridge does look better if it goes over water! In 2001 we thought of building a 12-foot stream in the lower garden, but it quickly became a 54-foot creation, complete with waterfall! Whilst this work was underway, the temporary placing of a bridge elsewhere gave rise to the idea of another stream. This was then complemented with a summerhouse with heating, lighting and music – a tranquil place for dictating referral letters!
We competed in the annual Walsall in Bloom competition and in our fourth year of entering we won first place in 2006. Each year we had tried harder! In the autumn of 2004 we visited a garden centre and saw a very large palm tree in an enormous pot – surely we could accommodate that! It was quite a challenge to negotiate the garage, narrow doorway and steps into the garden. Triumphantly, we hauled it down the paths to its allotted space – and so began the jungle in the middle garden! Other palms, several bamboos and banana plants were added.
In January 2005 we bought an oriental pagoda as a focal point in the jungle. It came in 175 pieces – but with noinstructions or screws. On several evenings during those cold winter months I worked in the garage applying seven coats of woodstain. We built a substantial yorkstone base as we waited for 950 screws to arrive. And then the bombshell – we needed planning permission since we are in a Conservation Zone!
We enjoy sharing our garden during charity open days and our main beneficiary has been the National Garden Scheme.
Since 2006 we have welcomed more than 11,000 visitors and raised over £35,000 for charities.
We have been honoured that our garden has received considerable local, national and international interest. We are also delighted that our garden has been featured in newspapers and magazines in the UK, China, Greece,
Holland, Hungary, New Zealand, Romania, Russia and USA.
A Hungarian visitor timed her UK trip to include the Chelsea Flower Show and one of our open days. Chinese
landscape gardening students were intrigued and delighted to visit our garden that had apparently been used as an
exemplar in their tutorials in China. A group from Thailand was not disappointed when they investigated the subject of
an Internet blog: “Four Seasons Garden – the most beautiful home gardens in the world”!
We have worked to achieve interest and beauty on every day of the year and named our garden ‘Four Seasons’. We have
also created a garden to be thoroughly enjoyed by all our family, including our one-year-old granddaughter who clearly
thinks it is wonderful!
We were stunned in 2015 when we were ranked number one in Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘The Impossible Garden’ category
of ITV ‘Britain’s Best Back Gardens’ for having achieved showcase standard throughout the year.
We love our garden and so, it seems, do others. One visitor wrote: “This garden has made me feel emotional because
of its sheer beauty and amazing creativity. A garden that touches the heart”