Puppies Penny and Barley are ready for Easter at Tudor Roost, Fingringhoe ? open for the National Gardens Scheme

Linda and Chris in their garden this month. 'We look a bit like Worzel Gummidge,' she says. Nonsense

Linda and Chris in their garden this month. 'We look a bit like Worzel Gummidge,' she says. Nonsense! - Credit: Archant

It’s an exotic oasis off the beaten track, is the Pegdens’ peaceful garden. Steven Russell meets a couple – and their dogs! – for whom 2015 brings a special anniversary.

The garden of Tudor Roost in August

The garden of Tudor Roost in August - Credit: Archant

There’ll definitely be at least a couple of new faces around the place when Linda and Chris Pegden open their garden to the public at Easter. Since they closed the gate on the 2014 season they’ve added two puppies to the household: Barley, now about nine months old, and Penny (also known as Penny Perfect ? because she doesn’t chew as much as him ? or Penny Pitstop). She’s about five months.

Very cute, very friendly, very keen to greet visitors. But, puppies being puppies, there are one or two signs of their youthful exuberance. Quite a few of the plant markers have disappeared from the garden ? presumed buried ? and some of the hosta leaves show signs of canine nibbling. The couple have jokingly rechristened them dog’s tooth hostas, after the dog’s tooth violet.

“Easter could be fun,” Linda smiles, as we wonder what the dogs will make of the stream of visitors who come over a (hopefully) warm and sunny weekend. Tudor Roost is five miles south of Colchester and less than a mile from Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve. When they moved here in 1992 it was lawn, in the main, with a pond (no plants around it) and bramley apple and victoria plum trees. They’ve transformed it into a quarter of an acre offering varying heights, shape, year-round colour and a haven for wildlife. Paths wind around the beds and ponds (three now ? two with fish, one for frogs and newts) and there’s a tightly-planted subtropical section with exotic and “architectural” plants such as cannas, palms, agapanthus and tree ferns.

The Pegdens have planted more than 100 varieties of rose and over 80 species of clematis. If nature does its bit, there will be summer colour from dahlias and lilies. “We feel we have to fill it with plants because it’s smaller,” says Linda. “To be honest, we’ve probably got more plants than most country estates; but it’s crammed in. If you’ve got acres for people to walk round, you generally have some nice trees and shrubs and that’s it.”

Penny and Barley last December!

Penny and Barley last December! - Credit: Archant

During the year, visitors can enjoy the many pots, urns and hanging baskets, and the large pond whose borders feature water-loving plants such as gunnera and irises. A stroll away, at the back, is the Mediterranean-style garden that’s home to exotic plants, including bamboos and agaves.

We sit in the large conservatory added three or four years ago to the back of the house. It’s filled with plants for whom the March chill is still a threat. It’s more economical to protect them here than to heat the greenhouse. There’s a banana plant ? Musa ensete, with its big leaves. Other over-winterers include a strelitzia, Bird of Paradise, with its spiky leaves, and some agave, including one rescued from a rubbish dump in Spain!

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The couple used to go caravanning a lot ? across Europe and down to Greece. “Seeing the tropical plants and having a caravan… it’s debatable whether you’re allowed to, but there were certainly no rules against it then. So we brought a lot of plants home,” says Chris, slightly sheepishly.

The story behind a particular echium is unusual. The plant grows in Tenerife and has hairy leaves.

The garden in May, 2013

The garden in May, 2013 - Credit: Archant

At one point Chris was undergoing chemotherapy and was on a special drug, so his blood levels were being checked regularly. His hands blistered and doctors thought it was the drug. When he explained he’d been handling an echium they looked it up and found it could trigger a reaction in some people.

There are lemons, too ? pretty easy to grow, he says.

For Chris, who grew up in Willesden, the horticultural bug struck when he was a Cub. “We had Bob-a-Job week and I ended up cutting hedges. I liked doing gardening. Then along came the coronation and I actually won the ‘best garden in the street’ competition. I had alyssum, lobelia and salvia – red, white and blue. I’ve just gone on from there, really.”

Linda’s father was what we’d now call an estate manager, in Surrey. “The landowner was the Queen’s orthopaedic surgeon and it was like his country estate.

Summer, 2011

Summer, 2011 - Credit: Archant

“He used to pay my sister and I pocket money to dead-head the plants. They had a cottage garden, and fruit and vegetables used to be sent up to London. We just used to help our father, and my mother used to do the flowers for the big house.” Her dad ended up working on philanthropist Paul Getty’s estate near Guildford.

Linda and Chris met in a coffee bar in the town. “I was a beatnik,” he smiles. His parents went on holidays to Clacton and later decided to move to Great Bentley. He didn’t really want to move somewhere a bit quiet, so had opted to live in Guildford, where he worked as a salesman.

The couple couldn’t afford to buy in Surrey so moved to a sort of three-bedroom double-decker prefab in the Greenstead area of Colchester in the 1960s.

In October they’ll celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They have a son ? who with his wife runs a smallholding in Lincolnshire with sheep and pigs ? and a daughter, and two grown-up grandchildren.

Tudor Roost in August, 2013

Tudor Roost in August, 2013 - Credit: Archant

In 1976 the Pegdens moved across town to Lexden, and then in 1992 to Fingringhoe. It was at about that time that Chris was made redundant by Colchester Lathe Company, whose fortunes regularly rose and fell. He launched a window-cleaning business. “More reliable!” he laughs.

We stroll round the garden. It looks like a jungle in the height of summer, says Linda. The monkey-puzzle tree came from Scotland in 1995. It cost £1 and was four inches tall. Now, it must top 30 feet. A flat-topped and umbrella-shaped conifer, at the back of a pond, Chris picked up as a seed in southern Spain and planted in 1989.

Linda has a penchant for roses. There are ramblers, climbers, hybrid teas, shrub roses... Lots of shapes. Lots of colour. Plus, they are good value. “They give you a good 10 months,” she says. “I love crocuses ? they make you feel spring has come ? but they need sunshine to open, and they’re soon gone.”

Over the fence at the end of the garden is a vast old gravel pit not used since 1934. Nature has claimed it and it’s brilliant for wildlife: foxes, badgers, woodpeckers and more.

Nearer the house, the couple have expanded the pond, home to koi carp with names such as Ghost. Some are named after ex-neighbours!

Wildlife is cherished. The garden has played host to 65 different species of bird. “The best thing is coming on a nice sunny day and sitting and having tea and cake. There’s lots of birdsong, no traffic noise, and lots of seating areas,” Linda says.

Do they know why they like gardening? “We did our family tree and some of Chris’s ancestors went to New Zealand in the 1800s. We’ve got newspaper articles where they’ve won gardening competitions. It’s obviously passed down in the genes!”

Do go and see it!

Chris and Linda had never dreamed of opening their garden to the public, but were asked to do so to raise money for the village church and did that for a couple of years until the event faded away. So they joined the National Gardens Scheme, making their debut in 2000.

Some years they’ve opened as many as 18 times. Since 2000 they’ve raised well over £25,000 for charity ? £4,000 the most raised in a single year. The average number of visitors is about 600.

Linda says her husband is very good and patient at taking cuttings. They raise about £600 annually by selling plants grown this way.

• The garden is at Tudor Roost, 18 Frere Way, Fingringhoe, near Colchester. CO5 7BP

• It’s open on Sunday, April 5 and Monday the 6th

• Times: 2pm to 5pm

• There are other dates, in May, July and August

• Check www.ngs.org.uk

• Admission: adults £3.50; children free

• Home-made teas are available!