Tuesday 17th September 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the June 2019 issue

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Steffie Shields meets NGS garden owners, Erica and Colin McGarrigle.

Blink and you may miss this small hamlet near Grantham. A sharp bend in the road brings you face to face with Corner House Farm. Fifteen years ago, Erica and Colin McGarrigle suddenly left Nottinghamshire and took a chance on this stone house, c.1605, Grade II listed. In the four centuries since, it had naturally undergone some alteration and expansion. They spotted the corner plot and old farmhouse with mullion windows overlooking Little Humby green on Rightmove. So it has proved.

Colin retired from headmastering at Queen Margaret’s Independent School, York, to run conferences. Connections with the county run deep for Erica as an “RAF brat”. During WWII her father, Air Commodore E D McK Nelson CB DL, served as a Lancaster bomber pilot on 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. Having trained at RAF College Cranwell, he returned for a further two tours, the last as Commandant. With both having had previous marriages, Erica and Colin shared and raised seven children. I sensed from the first hello, they are a great team and both immensely content.

The large garden has played an idyllic, central role in McGarrigle family life and now continues to be loved just as much by the next generation: fifteen grandchildren and counting! Everyone descends for “peaceful” country weekends, loving the open space, great lawns sloping upwards east beside an intriguing bog garden, reigned over by a mighty ash, making use of the tennis court and admiring the latest project, a maturing arboretum further south in a west-sloping paddock. The youngsters always make a beeline for the pale blue Wendy house tucked in a corner sheltered by an Atlantic blue cedar.

“I am not a plantswoman,” Erica insists, while admitting talking to her plants. “I bung things in and if I don’t like them, I take them out!” Meanwhile, Colin is more than happy to help bring her schemes to fruition, and in maintenance, in his words “Basil Fawlty style”. Erica is a dab-hand with a paintbrush, having studied marbling, stencilling, ragging and dragging, walls and furniture. An eye for colour and tone is helpful when choosing planting companions according to the season and in considering the aspect and how the light falls on them.

Bringing up four children, with not much time left over to garden, she discovered David Austin’s repeat-flowering rose shrubs were an absolute godsend to fill the herbaceous borders. Their garden has now mellowed, brimming with beguiling and luxuriant English roses in every corner, and reflecting Erica’s creative passion for gardening, and invaluable advice three mornings a year from garden designer Nicky Applewhite. Rosa ‘Shropshire Lad’ developed terrible rust this year apparently. “I do spray my roses,” she confessed, at the same time trying to be reasonably organic. 

Roses play a huge part in this country’s garden-loving DNA. On the death of the celebrated rose breeder David Austin OBE, late last year aged 92, every avid gardener, garden designer, photographer and writer surely paused to ponder his legacy. His online obituary at www.davidaustinroses.com is well worth reading.

David experimented with old-fashioned roses beloved of flower-arrangers such as Constance Spry, rather than rigid, gaudy tea roses ubiquitous in mid-twentieth century formal rose gardens. His impressive roses are mostly hardy and repeat-flowering, reliable ‘do-gooders’ displaying a softer habit and more subtle colours. Having bred more than 200 sensational new ‘less stiff’ varieties, David Austin has completely changed the romantic face of English gardens, and in 2010 American rose-growing societies named him ‘Great Rosarian of the World’.

Last June, I visited the McGarrigles’ garden for the first time, a perfect early summer evening, an all-pervading perfume wafting on the breeze. True, you can peruse wondrous images of roses online, and risk seduction, but they do not, in any way, compare with the heart-warming, living experience – especially with a glass of chilled wine in the hand. Here, with metal tags helpfully naming each variety, enjoy a marvellous masterclass in the country’s most successful ‘rose brand’, amongst many mounds of flowering shrubs and ‘upwardly mobile’ climbers.

‘Adélaide d’Orléans’ an elegant, easy to train rambler, introduced in 1826, adorns a rustic pergola, with dainty sprays that are almost evergreen. Her small, pink buds open to semi-double flowers, fading from cream to white. She is accompanied by Rosa ‘Phyllis Bide’, an uplifting, rambler-like reliable, repeat-flowering rose bearing sprays of small, pale apricot-pink flowers, flushed with pale yellow.

The McGarrigle’s have transformed the ancient farmyard into an enclosed ‘modern’ walled rose garden, ablaze with colour. A white ‘Rambling Rector’ covers and cascades down the corner tree, maintaining links with the past, while in the foreground, glowing pink rosettes salute the famous Edwardian gardener, Gertrude Jekyll. One of the first to flower, this engaging, vigorous, middle-sized shrub has a beautiful, balanced quintessential Old Rose scent. Nearby a warm apricot rose ‘Buff Beauty’, and a wonderful magenta ‘Rosa de Recht’ vie for attention. Erica has noticed that new English Roses probably do not last quite as long compared with real old-fashioned ones. The strong rambler ornamenting the south wall of the house, Rosa ‘Alexandre Girault’, proved so pleasing, she has introduced it elsewhere, with flat, quartered, crimson-pink flowers, “a cracking good colour”. 

Rosa ‘Darcey Bussell’ is an exceptional, compact performer, ‘dancing’ freely, healthily and continuously, centre-stage in the walled garden, her gorgeous deep crimson, frilly rosettes lending sweet fragrance to borders. Here are alliums and foxgloves in amongst interesting, mauve, pink and blue textured hardy perennials, compulsive plant fair purchases or grown from seed collected at Pam Tatum’s ‘seed-collecting’ day at Hall Farm, Harpswell.

Erica wisely advises: “Restful colours are preferable near where you are going to sit.” Her all-time favourite, a hybrid musk rose, Rosa ‘Wildeve’ is positioned thoughtfully, and to great effect, close to the stone-flagged patio, near enough for contemplation and fragrance at gin and tonic time. Rain resistant, cushioned, pink roses, flushed with apricot, they are named after the character in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. “Tough as old boots,” she explained. “It keeps on flowering and – the best bit – it was a gift from a dear neighbour.”

The National Garden Scheme (NGS) Yellowbook describes this garden as ‘a timeless tribute to rose lovers’. Austin’s appropriate ‘Generous Gardener’ reminds one of the McGarrigles’ support in publicising the charity. I came away inspired, resolving to buy oodles more roses this year. Rosa ‘Grace’, an arching shrub with pure apricot flowers named to acclaim the defining characteristic of English Roses, a “happy soul” according to Erica, will be in the mix, a perfect way to celebrate our golden wedding. As I told my very dear husband this morning, I have very much enjoyed writing about “a lovely garden full of lovely roses created by a lovely couple.”

Corner House Farm garden opens by arrangement for the NGS Scheme, 1st May–30th June 2019. Contact Colin & Erica McGarrigle to discuss your requirements for a group or bespoke visit.

T: 01476 585909 E: ericamcg@hotmail.co.uk

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