Life without a garden? ‘My reason for living would be gone’
- Credit: Archant
‘During my really dark days it is the garden that has been my driving force,’ says Jane. It’s open on May 11
Jane Bastow began welcoming the public to her garden the year after her husband died. Now she's marking 25 years of opening.
Byron, you'd imagine, would be thrilled that what used to be an acre of just grass and weeds is now brimful of flowers, trees and shrubs - and a firm fixture on the garden-visiting calendar.
He and Jane married in 1991, lived in Essex, and ditched the idea of moving to Shropshire after a honeymoon drive to Suffolk and Norfolk had them falling for rural East Anglia.
In 1992 they bought a bungalow at St James South Elmham, between Halesworth and Harleston, and for a while split their time between Suffolk and Essex while Byron was still a police officer in Clacton.
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The switch became permanent in 1993. Sadly, Byron was diagnosed with cancer and died about six months after the move.
Jane opened the garden for the first time in 1994. This is her 25th year.
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"With help from my friends I have raised over £20,000 for charities ranging from Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Suffolk Heavy Horses, Help for Heroes, the air ambulance and our village hall, amongst others. This year the main charity will be EACH (East Anglia's Children's Hospices)."
The vital bit for 2019
The Laburnums, St James South Elmham, near Halesworth, IP19 0HN. Six miles from Halesworth and six south of Bungay.
Garden open: Saturday, May 11.
10am to 5pm.
Large plant stall, all-day barbecue, cake stall, books, bric-a-brac, raffle, apple juice from village orchard, spoon-carving demonstration, Waveney Valley Brass Ensemble from 3pm to 4pm, and more.
Admission £2.50 (supervised children 50p).
Can she describe, briefly, what the garden is like and what people might see - and what they shouldn't miss?
"The garden is an acre in size - an oasis of colour, scent and birdsong (and - at time of writing - baby ducks). A huge variety of everything and a few more rare things that go out in the summer and under cover in the winter. All my citrus and Hibiscus have now been moved from the conservatory to the sunken garden, for example."
Can Jane see herself continuing to open?
"I can't ever imagine a time of not being able to garden. I will probably have to change how I do things and as I get older have help - but life without a garden is not something I could even begin to imagine. My reason for living would be gone.
"I have gardened since I was a child. Both my parents, grandparents and one uncle in particular were all keen gardeners and I keep the link by using their tools.
"Once upon a time I never thought I would open for 25 years because it seemed so far away, but now I am there I don't plan to stop - and, of course, over the last seven years I have added opening in the spring for the National Garden Scheme - which is a completely different type of day."
Do you draw people from far and wide?
"I can claim Hong Kong, as a friend's daughter came with her while visiting, but regularly from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Gosport and Cornwall - the last two being relatives."
Do some visitors literally meet "friends" just once a year - at your opening?
"At least one group of ladies come every year from Lowestoft to meet fellow visitors and it works for quite a number of people, where I and the garden are the common denominators for a meeting. Nothing else they do during the year brings them together like the tea and cake or BBQ in my garden. I flit in and out of the groups as they sit chatting."
Heck of a lot of work, though, isn't it? - keeping a garden and also opening it.
"I work pretty solidly in the garden from Christmas to May 11. Before the clocks change, the evening meal gets later and later while I make the most of the light, but once the clocks change I can then go back out after tea. I also have to split time between doing the actual garden and growing plants to sell."
Why do it?
"I work at this level because people are paying money to come to see the garden, but after May 11 it becomes my garden to relax in with a book or lunch by the pond and attend to it when I feel like it. It has to be said, though, it is never a chore."
Exhausting, though, surely?
"It is very tiring as I have ongoing health issues which have been particularly challenging this year, but the alternative of sitting around not doing anything is not a bearable thought.
"I have to change and adapt what I do, backed up with tablets, hot water bottles and joint supports, aided by mugs of tea. I do sleep better if I have had exercise and fresh air, and mentally it is a balm too."
"I need to 'put to bed' the garden in the autumn/winter months, and if I do that the spring is easier to cope with. Also, I pack the beds with plants, so that cuts down on weeding.
"The ongoing jobs are weeding, cutting back, dividing plants, moving things that are in the wrong place or have grown too rampantly. A lot of what I sell comes from plant division, cuttings, self-sown seeds etc. It is an ongoing hobby, with something always wanting attention, but the urgency changes coming up to the open gardens."
Any funny moments?
"Hilariously, after some visitors had left earlier this year, I noticed a 6ft Amelanchier in a prime position was dead. I had walked past it so many times and in the back of my mind I must just have thought 'Oh, that's a bit slow this year!' If anyone noticed, they didn't say - how polite."
Big sigh of relief when everyone goes home?
"When everyone has gone on an open day, the first thing we all do is have a quiet cuppa and cake (if any is left). Then we do the initial tidy, then have a takeaway and collapse in a heap.
"The following day we go out and get the signs in (a pet hate of mine is signs left out way after an event has happened) and get them put away for the next year; and then over the next few days the marquees come down, phone calls are made to raffle winners and thank-you letters/emails are written."
What do you like about opening the garden?
"I love sharing my garden with other people because it gives me so much joy and contentment, and they share their thoughts and stories with me - and sometimes they only need to have a small amount of encouragement to 'go and try again'."
What do you like about the garden itself?
"I love the changing not only of the seasons but the daily changes. I walk round the garden most days, looking to see what is new. At the moment the tree peonies are taking centre stage as they begin to open. It's a really good year for them, with more flower buds than ever, and considering how challenging the weather was last year, that is really pleasing.
"The garden is awash with the heady perfume of the yellow broom, which I absolutely delight in, and the lily of the valley are just waiting in the wings to take over.
"Nearly all the bird boxes are in use and we are watching the parents frantically going back and forth. One of the boxes has been taken over by a small colony of bees."
What's the worst thing about gardening, and opening for the public?
"I think the worst thing with gardening is when you lose plants you have nurtured and enjoyed for years. In the heat of the summer I lost a most wonderful tree peony that used to have gorgeous purple flowers the size of a dinner plate. I hadn't noticed that it was suffering through drought until it was too late.
"The worst part of opening is the hours spent putting out the advertising (signs) and collecting afterwards, but without it we wouldn't have the visitors."
What one thing would make your life heaps better as a gardener?
"Actually it's two - rain at night and sun during the day!"
How kind, or otherwise, is the climate/weather where you are?
"Because of how I have planted my garden, it is very sheltered and the neighbours' tall trees protect it from some of the high winds.
"A friend who gardens on the edge of the village with a more open aspect is always colder than mine and her plants bloom later than mine. I have micro-climates in the garden which I can take advantage of."
Favourites, and why
"My favourite thing in the garden plant-wise changes with the seasons. Snowdrops and Hellebores in spring; then the Daphnes and their perfume - now the tree peonies and trees in blossom.
"But the one permanent is the air of peace and tranquillity - being able to sit with a book or mug of tea and listen to the birdsong and the wind sighing in the trees. It gets life back into perspective.
"During my really dark days over the years it is the garden that has been my driving force."
Do you change something/add something each year?
"I always want something new for my regular visitors but it is quite a fluid thing.
"Just after Christmas I saw some Edwardian 'estate fencing' in an antique shop and immediately started thinking of where I could use it. That was followed by David (Jane's companion) saying 'I can make it for a lot less', and so the fencing along the back of the sunken garden was born, and the low hooped fence on the daffodil walk to hold the daffs back off the path.
"Not only are they both practical but add to the aesthetics of that part of the garden. Before I opened in February, obviously the daffodil walk wasn't showing, so I overplanted with 2,000 snowdrops to make a snowdrop walk!"
Is there anything that's defeated you?
"A great love of mine is Mimosa. I have tried four times in different parts of the garden to grow it and every time it comes into bloom the frost kills it, so I have had to give up and enjoy other people's."
Do you still do anything Chelsea Flower Show-related?
"My Chelsea days are behind me. After our gold medal (in 2002, with a group from her night-school at Otley College) then four years planting a trade stand, it became too much, really - and it is in the week after my open garden.
"I probably will go back to visit at some point, because it is so special, but in the meantime there are so many other places I want to see."
How would you encourage someone with little time to spare and little knowledge to give gardening a go?
"Always start small, with your favourite things - either flowers, fruit or veg. Start with things that are easy to grow and not too demanding, and you will be bitten by the bug and start to expand.
"So many people tell me they just kill plants, but I start them with something undemanding and go from there. One lady had a Hellebore from me and every time she sees me she says 'it's not dead yet'!"
Any thoughts of moving, or expanding?
"Much as I would dearly love to have more land, I love living here too much and Byron and I bought this bungalow as a permanent home; so the way round that is that the grass gets less and the flower beds get larger. Which is fine until the marquees come out and we think 'Well, they fitted in that gap last year!'"
What do you most like about living in The Saints?
"I grew up in a village environment where everyone knew everyone, so living here is like my own roots. Over the years I have got to know so many people - a large number through my gardening and plants, and even in Beccles last week, when I was being served, I was asked if I was the 'plant lady'.
"When I lost my husband, although we hadn't been living here long, the villagers just looked out for me."
Have you any veg at all?
"I used to grow veg but my flowers edged them out. I do runner beans in pots, tomatoes etc in the greenhouse, and anything else I buy from roadside stalls."
How many laburnums? And ponds?
"I have in excess of 30 laburnums as I allow a certain amount of seeding and am currently working on making a laburnum archway.
"I still have three ponds - the largest had to be completely renovated in 2017 - new lining; the works. It took three of us four hours to remove the 24 years of water lilies that had choked the pond.
"It is wonderful again to be able to see the fish, and the plants and sky reflected in the water. Also, the sound of gently-running water from the pump housing."
How many hours do you think you spend in the garden?
"I spend time in the garden nearly every day; and often I will pop out for an hour… and many hours later realise what the time is!
"Gardening is addictive but doesn't have the side effects of other addictions! There is always something to do and enjoy out there. Even on rainy days I have the 33ft greenhouse or conservatory to play in."
Favourite TV gardener
"I enjoy Monty Don as he is such a practical hands-on gardener and importantly shows that even he has failures or puts plants in the wrong place and has to move them, just like the rest of us."