Putting garden lovers in the shade!

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
May 2023

Steffie Shields recommends Woodlands, Ann and Bob Armstrong’s Fotherby haven.

After a gap of more than a decade, returning to Woodlands in the Wolds near Louth, my first impression was one of immense pleasure. The Armstrongs’ front garden is edged by a low wall of un-mortared bricks laid sideways, creating an attractive diamond pattern. This frames an area, created in 2012, built of sharp sand for low-growing alpine plants. Interestingly, they have not been watered since.

Their embroidered effect invites a closer look, a pause, before approaching an unassuming garden gate.

A different world awaits exploration, a mature but ever-evolving, fairy-tale woodland. All paths are narrow, such is the novel variety of planting on either side, but mostly bark-covered gravel, and easy to negotiate.

The first skirts the large conservatory leading to a sheltered sitting area beside Bob’s gallery studio. A variety of chairs offers visitors a chance to sit in sunlight, take in the view and reflect on the owners’ creativity.

A stone-edged amoebic-shaped pond is accompanied by candelabra primulas and self-sown yellow Welsh poppies sprinkled amongst the gravel. I noticed blue honeywort, Cerinthe major, the first of many shades of blue plants that star as magnets for bees. Its delicate, bell-shaped flowers are surrounded by bluish-mauve bracts surrounded by green-grey foliage.

In the foreground, an old clay forcing pot is home to Senecio candidans ‘Angel Wings’, a new, unusual evergreen perennial, with large sculptural, silver leaves that are soft and velvety to the touch. Nearby, standing in a bath of rainwater, some carnivorous trumpet pitcher plants take most people by surprise.

Although hardy and thirsty, Sarracenia, originating from the eastern seaboard areas of North America, are mostly grown under glass in this country.

Living exhibition
Chatting to Bob, a skilled landscape artist, I discovered his latest works included intriguing interiors of Gunby Hall. Mostly he aims to commit to canvas ever-changing skies, open moors and wild, high places of England. You will find a selection of his paintings online (www.bobarmstrongartist.co.uk).

I then turned my attention to explore the living exhibition outside. Ann tends the nearby Woodlands Plants nursery (www.woodlandsplants.co.uk) tucked discreetly within a glasshouse area enclosed by a high hedge and trees. A modest, passionate and expert plantswoman, she loves to share her plants with many others, raising them from or propagating them from the garden.

The diverse wealth of her plants is displayed in relaxed layers in every corner. Not a single inch of soil is wasted. Ann packs in her shrubs, climbers, perennials and bulbs with an eye for delicate detail and colour harmony.

Do take a camera or phone with you when you visit. Your images will serve as both an aide memoire to enjoy and ponder in the future, but will also prove, as I have found, an invaluable lesson in unexpected plant companions.

The Armstrongs are recognised holders of the national collection of Codonopsis, a select genus of more than 60 species of bellflowers of the Campanulaceae family that is widespread across eastern, southern, central and south-eastern Asia. They include twining climbers with blue or white saucer-shaped flowers, others with bell-shaped or tubular flowers in green, pale yellow and purple, as well as scramblers, sprawlers and small rock plants. Unfortunately, my late spring visit was too early to find any in bloom. (For NGS summer opening dates see panel.)

Treading the circuit at a slow pace, I made a mental note of feature plants that work well together, whether in full sun or semi-shade. Ann clearly follows Beth Chatto’s mantra ‘the right plant in the right place’. I photographed what seemed a three-dimensional, floral jigsaw out in the light before entering the dappled area of woodland alive with birdsong.

Woodland garden
A few years ago, when a gale brought down a large ash tree, the couple seized the opportunity to develop a woodland garden in the resulting clearing. They invested in a multitude of unusual shade loving plants which they could then add to their nursery collection.

Being sheltered from wind, the large glade is home to magical spires of giant viper’s bugloss, Echium pininana, reaching skyward beside a rustic gazebo.

Meandering undisturbed around the trail, some of the way marked with moss-coloured logs, I felt increasingly in awe. I came across swathes of various purple alliums, deep magenta hardy geraniums and Byzantine gladioli, dotted with contrasting yellow Allium moly and Welsh poppies in amongst ferns, hostas and trilliums.

Then, to my delight, amongst nodding bluebells, zinging lime-green euphorbias and everybody’s favourite, foxgloves, I spied Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’. I had admired those hybrid Himalayan blue poppies on my last visit. Here under a silver birch, their hairy stems backlit, and still partnered with orange-red species tulips ‘Sprengeri’, they successfully created a red, white and blue ‘bling’ moment.

The complex forest-floor communities are alive with zillions of pollinators and doubtless myriad fungi strains networking below ground. Such strange diversity is rare especially in dry, shady places. One tall, deciduous Chinese shrub, Decaisnea fargesii, with exotic leaves, almost a tree, displays racemes of unusual, trailing yellow-green flowers. Another smaller dell hosts a newly planted outstanding Japanese dogwood, Cornus kousa. Its eye-catching, creamy white, petal-like bracts have the form of a cross. No wonder Chelsea designers seek Ann out when sourcing those extra special glamorous plants from distant continents. As I left, she was preparing to leave for the Show. I was not surprised to read later that a selection of her plants had helped landscape architect and garden designer Charlie Hawkes win his first Chelsea gold medal. His Wilderness Foundation UK Garden also won the ‘All About Plants’ category.

Surprise around every corner
If the RHS Chelsea Flower Show floats your boat this month, but getting to London is a bridge too far, head over to Woodlands instead, with a surprise guaranteed around every corner, the next best thing. Do remember to park thoughtfully, as the charming Peppin Lane is narrow. I came away grateful for such an uplifting, immersive experience, laden with Salvia ‘Amethyst Lips’ and other goodies, and resolving to return to see those special, heartthrob Codonopsis.

His Majesty King Charles and Sir David Attenborough encourage everyone to care for Great Britain’s plants and wildlife to help save, let alone enhance, the planet. Ann and Bob have been quietly doing their bit for many years. Constantly replacing tired old shrubs, revising and refreshing their treasured collection, by adding topsoil, compost and leaf mould – they put most of us in the shade!

he Coronation, have you heard that English Heritage has announced a living celebration? One hundred wildflower meadows will be established around the country’s ancient monuments, including Bolingbroke Castle and Sibsey Mill. Should this romantic fashion for wildflower meadows ever fade, I wonder whether the next new trend will be investment in woodland wildernesses?

If so, the Armstrongs are well ahead of the game.

NGS Open Garden dates
Open Garden days in aid of the National Garden Scheme: Sundays, 7th May; 18th June; 20th August; 17th September. 10.30am-4.30pm, £4 per person, children free. Home-made cakes St Mary’s Church, Fotherby. NB: the garden is also open on pre-agreed dates from January to December by arrangement for groups between 1 and 99. Please park in designated area.

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