Gallery: The garden Willow Cottage in Wlasham le Willows may have lost its name-sake but it has so much more to offer including a camomile lawn and peony fans

Willow Cottage garden feature. Left to right, Kevin Boardley and John Ward.

Willow Cottage garden feature. Left to right, Kevin Boardley and John Ward. - Credit: Gregg Brown

For many plant-lovers, August bank holiday means Walsham le Willows and its open gardens. Steven Russell enjoys an early visit to Willow Cottage… and finds out why the willow is no longer

Willow Cottage garden feature. Left to right, Kevin Boardley and John Ward.

Willow Cottage garden feature. Left to right, Kevin Boardley and John Ward. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Kevin Boardley feared time was running out. He’d been keen on growing things since he was young, but his 50th birthday loomed and he still hadn’t had a garden to call his own. Reality was London and just a couple of balconies; and pots and containers really weren’t horticultural heaven.

It all came to a head about five years ago when Kevin and John Ward rented a Sussex farmhouse for a holiday. It had lovely grounds. “I was in my late 40s and was musing, and said ‘If we don’t get a garden soon I might never have one.’”

While there’d been gardens over the years “they weren’t mine and I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted with them. I sat there and it just struck me, and that’s when we started looking”. Suffolk fitted the bill, and there were links. Kevin hailed from Lowestoft and John’s late father was born in Ipswich, though he’d spent most of his life in the north before he and his wife retired to Bury St Edmunds.

Mind you, while Suffolk was the obvious destination, finding the ideal home (and garden, of course) wasn’t plain-sailing. The civil partners spent a late-summer week trying to find the perfect place, looking in Woodbridge and many other towns and villages, but nothing stole their hearts.

On the last day John noticed the details of Willow Cottage, in Walsham le Willows, and they had a look on the way back to the city – “and immediately thought ‘Yes’… and then we wavered a bit,” says Kevin. The wavering didn’t last long, for they bought it and moved in at the end of November, 2009.

So what did they like about the cottage, which has eaves bearing the date 1753 but is probably a good 100 years older than that?

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“It’s pink and thatched!” smiles Kevin. In the distant past, it was known – rather prosaically – as Thatched Cottage. Work on the garden began in the March of 2010: infrastructure stuff, first, that simply couldn’t be avoided. That willow tree had to go, for a start, sad though it was. Kevin remembers it dominating. “I suppose it must have been five metres tall – more than that, probably. Stupid tree for this garden. It looked lovely in the spring, but we couldn’t have done much else with the garden (had it remained).” Its size blocked the light and its roots stretched almost to the kitchen of a neigh-bouring house. Kevin’s brother-in-law chopped it down. Then John dug out the roots, bit by bit. It took about a year to get rid of every last trace. “My job was basically digging half-way to Australia and to sift the entire garden,” he says. “There was 300 years of rubbish, basically – bottles and cans, and bricks, glass, metal. My gym membership was cancelled. Well, there was no point!”

“About two spade-depths, not ‘half-way to Australia’; he’s not very good on distance,” teases Kevin.

Another pressing project was repairing the outbuildings, which had sagged because of rotting. They’re now a woodstore and potting shed. John, not a gardener, describes himself as “just the labourer”, but adds with a grin: “It’s far more useful to be able to build, as it effectively is, a house than it is to be able to advise on the law.”

While the levels of the garden were already established, the bank of earth was barely held back by retaining walls. There was a large bed with shrubs, but it was overgrown and the garden needed some loving. Sleepers of tropical hardwood were laid, and old bricks given new life within the pathways.

Kevin’s father was something of a guru during those days of hard-landscaping. “He said ‘For everything you bring in, you’ll have to take out the equivalent amount’ – hence the 12 skips, at least, of junk we had,” says John.

Kevin’s dad is by trade a builder and carpenter. “I felt a bit like Alan Titchmarsh on one of those Ground Force programmes,” says his son, remembering the garden makeover series with Tommy Walsh. “‘Tommy! I want this and I want that!’”

John and Kevin did do a lot of the labouring. “We bonded, Kevin’s dad and I, over the cement mixer.” Had you not before? “Yes, but it definitely took it on to another level. I think he respected the fact that a lawyer was prepared to get his hands dirty!” An intriguing solution softens the view of a neighbouring house, up against the boundary of the garden. A dozen or so tall oak pillars stand with plants growing on and between them. It’s effectively a natural and green wall.

There’s a wide variety of plant life in the garden, though the “top four” in terms of numbers are roses, clematis, peony and lavender. Kevin doesn’t really know why it’s turned out that way, though his grandmother – who along with an old Reader’s Digest book is credited with getting him interested in gardening – was a peony fan.

Now that he finally has his own garden, he’s making the most of it. “I keep saying ‘There’s no more room’ but I came back with an armful of plants this afternoon! It’s amazing how much you can squeeze in.”

They’re always stopping at places they pass, to see if there’s something that would prove a worthy addition. “I rarely can resist. That’s my trouble,” admits Kevin, who works for a housing trust. “My ‘go to’ nursery locally is Hedgehog Gardens (near Diss) because they have a range of plants that often aren’t found elsewhere. There is always something unusual or rarer than the regular garden centre fare. I often find myself whipping out ‘run of the mill’ stuff, or space fillers, and replacing with a find from Hedgehog.”

We walk up the garden to look at the little pond and admire a recent arrival – Sidalcea “Party Girl” – which came from Wyken Vineyards at Stanton. John remembers the early days. “My contribution, plantwise, was to choose one of the dahlias, Bishop of Llandaff, which is a glorious deep red.”

“Which I wouldn’t have put in, because it’s bright red,” smiles Kevin. John adds, mischievously: “I asked for one small bit of grass... which was banned. (Kevin reckons a lawn is a bit dull, and a pain to have to cut.) I said I would cut it with nail scissors if necessary! But instead we have a camomile lawn. I wanted something green to lie on. It’s just long enough for me.”

Before I leave, I learn the willow hasn’t totally disappeared. John shows me a woven basket, made out of bits of the tree. Kevin’s sister got it done. “It’s a really lovely idea,” says John. “When we bought the place, I think it was the surveyor who said ‘When you buy somewhere like this, you don’t “buy” it, you just look after it for a while.’ So we feel we would perhaps leave this behind as and when we ever leave.”