Gallery: Elmswell open gardens takes place tomorrow - which will you visit?

Scenes from Clive and Virginia's garden in Elmswell.

Scenes from Clive and Virginia's garden in Elmswell. - Credit: Archant

Seventeen gardens of various types and sizes open in Elmswell tomorrow. Steven Russell enjoyed a sneak preview of one – and heard how it once hosted Christmas celebrations in summer, complete with carols, crackers and even snow

Clive Woodgate was always keen on horticulture, but never really had the garden or circumstances to allow his imagination to let rip. Then he met Virginia. Love blossomed… and so did his relationship with Mother Nature.

For the land around Virginia’s bungalow at Elmswell was essentially a blank canvas. She didn’t know much about gardening, so the way was clear for Clive to make his dreams come true when he moved in about eight years ago.

There’s nothing out of place, and the beds around the lawn host a collection of plants of all shapes and sizes – all in rude health.

Many of the plants fall into the “exotic” category – Mediterranean types that Clive has often spotted on holiday and sought to add to his oasis near Bury St Edmunds.

Agapanthuses are one of those success stories. In another three weeks his huge pots, crammed full of the blue giant variety, will be ablaze. Another favourite is oleander, but it’s a challenge to keep it in good heart. “If you go to California, you go along the highways and in the middle are oleanders. They get the worst possible treatment you can imagine – hot, dry, full of fumes – but they never stop flowering. So I tried them… but they do like the sun. Can’t always guarantee that. But I had some flowers on it last year and I’ve got some flowers now.”

“It’s his hobby; his love. This is his relaxation,” says Virginia, who deals with some of the pots and keeps things looking tidy, but otherwise is content to leave green-fingered matters to her partner.

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“I’ve always been a keen gardener, but I haven’t really had the garden,” Clive explains. “I’ve been married, divorced; had my own place with a postage stamp garden. But when I moved here it gave me what I needed.”

“You came here for the garden. Nothing to do with me!” laughs his good lady, who moved to Lyle Close about a decade ago.

Clive spent 33 years in a factory in Sudbury. He rose to middle management. “When you come into your garden, the stress level just drops,” he says.

“I’m not the sort of bloke to sit around and watch television – apart from when football’s on – so I get out here and this is what I do.”

He took voluntary redundancy about three years ago and set up a gardening business. “Definitely a stress-buster – and a weight-loser. I think I’ve lost, what, a stone and a half since I’ve lived over here.”

“I don’t feed him,” jokes Virginia.

We stroll along the borders. Every plant, it seems, is a favourite. Like pineapple guava. Tender, it has to be covered by a “coat” in winter. “Odd shapes: look like Yetis,” muses Virginia.

By the patio is a rose (many roses, actually) with a sentimental story. It began life in a pot and was given to Virginia by a friend, in memory of Virginia’s late husband. She brought it with her when she made the move, so it’s been here since day one.

Clive is effectively self-taught. “I learn from mistakes and what people tell me. The gardening club is very good. You get speakers who tell you a lot.”

An appreciation of earth and nature was laid in childhood.

His mum was evacuated from the East End during the war. “They’d never seen a cow. They grew up in the city. She was evacuated to Acton and she married a local bloke.

“Everything she grew was for food. We had a council house and I can remember it being full of potatoes. We had potatoes for the whole year. She knew nothing about gardening, but she had a neighbour who was very good and prepared to say how to do this and how to do that.

“My father had died when I was one and she was a widow the rest of her life, so she did all this herself. That was my first experience of gardening, but I have to say I wasn’t too keen on it! But that was the way then; everyone along the street grew food.”

The winter months are a time for planning. “We sit in the conservatory and look out and think ‘Oh, that’s not very good… that doesn’t look right.’” While the neat and beautiful plants and flowers obviously appeal to the couple on aesthetic grounds, they’re happy for their haven to be used as a proper living space – a social area where they relish entertaining family and friends with a barbecue and the playing of lots of daft garden games.

“They’re our favourite days, when the family comes,” admits Clive. “The garden’s nice, but it’s pointless if me and Virginia just look at it. Well, it’s not pointless, but it’s nice when people come round and join us.

“I was divorced and lived on my own, and that was fine. But what I missed were family days. So when I came here, we reinvented them, didn’t we?”

“With a vengeance!” agrees Victoria. Although we no longer seem to get the long, balmy evenings of our childhoods, the couple refuse to let the rain wreck those barbecues. They’ve even had one in the garage, next to the mowers!

They laid on a Christmas-themed barbecue one summer, too, complete with a remote-controlled snow machine, carols and crackers.

We’d better return to plants for the final word. What’s another favourite? Well, Clive likes hibiscus, though he’d prefer to be growing the Mediterranean type, rather than the hardier kind better suited to Suffolk. That more delicate plant could only survive indoors, though, he says.

You’ll have to move to Spain.

“Don’t encourage him…” pleads Virginia.