Gallery: Janet Oakley proudly descirbes her garden as one ‘you can get lost in’

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Picture: Denise Bradley

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

You don’t have to spend a fortune to create a garden to be proud of. Steven Russell has a tour of Janet Oakley’s quarter-acre, which she looks after mostly by herself – with a little help from Oscar

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Oscar, Janet's rabbit, who helps to keep the grass short.

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Oscar, Janet's rabbit, who helps to keep the grass short. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

Janet Oakley doesn’t hesitate when asked what she likes best about her garden in the Waveney Valley. “You get ‘lost’ in it,” she says. It’s a kind of escapism. “You come out here and you’re thinking about all sorts of different things, and you’ve got no idea what the time is. Then you realise ‘I’ve been out here a couple of hours...’”

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Janet in her summer house. Picture: Denise Bradley

Janet Oakley in her garden at Billingford. Janet in her summer house. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

It’s a garden on which she spends barely a penny – and it’s no less beautiful for that. Given room and a bit of freedom, nature repays her with a vista of colour and shape, and adds sanctuary for wildlife as a free gift.

Plants self-seed, or are given by neighbours. A bench is made of old windowsills – recycled by a friend and fixed with dowelling rather than nails – after being discarded when council bungalows nearby were treated to new ones. An old teapot, entwined deep within honeysuckle, is the perfect nest for garden birds.

Alison Connors, a gardener by calling, takes her hat off to Auntie Janet for keeping on top of it all when others half her age might think twice.

Some higgledy-piggledy stumps are what’s left of conifer trees that last year stood in the front garden, too tall at 12 to 15 feet and so wide they were encroaching on the lawn. Janet cut them down with a saw and then she and a friend dug out roots by hand. “She had pampas grass,” says Alison. “Any ornamental grasses like that, once they start growing, they’re very anchored into the ground. You never want to be digging out pampas grass. She did. I’ve seen chaps suffer, and bend tools, trying to dig pampas grass out. If you want one of the big ornamental grasses, make sure you’re going to want it forever!”

It did take three weeks, bit by bit, admits Janet.

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This isn’t a conventional gardening article, because there isn’t a long string of tips to offer – none of the usual “Do this on March 15 and your flowers will bloom beautifully by May” advice. Janet’s guiding principle is to work with nature. Do that and there’s a good chance everything will work out just fine.

Like at the front of the house, where aquilegia spreading from next door are a bonus.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a nice garden that’s kind to wildlife,” she laughs.

Alison, who once worked at the famous Bressingham gardens, near Diss, says: “I’m quite a tidy gardener. I’d (naturally) cut things back sooner than I really needed to, because I liked things to look neat, but now I’m more for letting things go and letting them seed – which is what she does.”

The fearsome rain of breakfast-time has abated and we stroll down the long and thin garden of Mrs Oakley’s semi-detached home near Hoxne – whose front bedroom offers a distant view of the aptly-named Oakley church.

“I don’t buy any plants for my garden. I just let anything come up that wants to. Just let it seed and come up,” she says. “I let everything come up in the spring, and then, when I can identify them, I pull the weeds up.”

There are crocuses, snowdrops, self-sown cornflowers that have been in three years and are emerging early. Some antirrhinum have been resident that long, too. They’re near alpine strawberries. “She had cowslips in October,” says Alison. “I’ve never known them to flower then.”

About halfway up the garden is a shed-cum-summerhouse. After toiling outside, Janet can open her book, place her tea on a little shelf by the chair, and put her feet up.

Outside, beneath a tall column of ivy she planted, is the post for the washing-line. It’s not eroding any brick walls, so it’s a good place. The berries are a handy food source during the winter, and nestling within the leaves is a bird box.

There’s a lilac tree, living contentedly with honeysuckle. There are also cooking-apple and eating-apple trees, a Victoria plum tree bought by Alison, and dogwood. A garden-bed includes roses. There’s also box, rescued from a dump after someone threw it away. Up to the end of the garden, past the rhubarb patch, and… no fence separating it from the field beyond. So, it looks as if the garden goes on and on. “She steals the view of the landscape – the garden designer’s trick,” says Alison. Hares often run across the brown earth, and from here you can see an old oak tree and the remains of an ancient chapel.

Janet spends a lot of time outside in good weather, and can’t abide using gardening gloves, even though she admits her nails get filthy.

“I think it’s something about sticking your hands in the earth,” says her niece. “You feel more at one with the environment. You really are an animal again. Some people might try to encourage her to go and live in a bungalow with no garden… it would probably finish her off! When you’re indoors, you feel like you’re slowly dying.”

Aunt and niece certainly sing the same tune about the benefits and pleasures of gardening and the joy of living in harmony with wildlife. They diverge in just one respect – how to deal with the moles that love the soft ground.

“There are things you can do” – humane methods, Alison means – “to try to get them out of your garden. Rag soaked in diesel, put down hole.”

“Well, I use these – and I don’t care!” says Janet, picking up some metal traps as her niece winces. “One year I caught 13.”

Back inside, in the warm, she gazes out through the window.

“I often think to myself: you do that grass every week. It takes me two hours; exactly two hours. I can’t do it under. You think ‘What would I do if I didn’t?’ At the end of the day, you like to stand here and you can see for miles.”