Signs of Spring

When the garden at Orchards was open to the public, we would, as a New Year tradition, garden on the 1st of January, even if it was too cold to do anything else we would clear leaves or pick up winter debris. And, whenever possible I would continue gardening every day until a couple of weeks before Christmas when I’d be making Christmas wreaths to sell to customers and to the local farm shop.

Now I no longer garden in January, unless we have some very warm sunny days, and this year I only experienced those when I went to Malta. February the first will see me out there providing the weather is kind.

Following a quick walk around the garden today, the first signs of spring are with us once more and the garden is definitely calling, not too much weeding to do, but lots of leaves to gather and forget-me-not and love-in-the-mist to cull, before it chokes the iris reticulata that are thrusting their way through. Several of the Hayloft double hellebores have been flowering with us since the beginning December last year.


Arthur George Lee Hellyer


AGLH early
Arthur George Lee Hellyer  – an author profile picture I suspect

Today the 28th January 2018 is the 25th anniversary of Arthur’s passing. I had the privilege along with an old friend of his (Iris Baker) to be at his bedside when he took his final breath at 14.20.

Where has that quarter century gone? What would he think of my journey in life since his passing?

The first question I can answer easily. Following his death, Philip and I worked tirelessly to restore the neglect, rejuvenate and replant his garden. When two years after his passing in 1993, his son sold the bungalow in which Arthur lived, we fenced a decent garden around the property and took responsibility for the remaining land…approximately eight acres.

The property was edged on three sides by woodland in varying depths (the north and west originally planted as a shelterbelt), the southern boundary encompassed a bluebell wood and a bog garden – later developed into a pond.

When Arthur and his wife Grace (Gay) first came to Orchards, it was scrubland that hadn’t been cultivated for five decades or more. Here, whilst building their own wooden house (two up/two down), with cedar shingle roof, they began to plant a garden. Apple, pear and cherry orchards were planted (hence the name – originally called The Orchards), along with a vast vegetable garden and a fruit garden. However, in those early days, pre-war and after, the planting of ornamental trees and shrubs, was already taking place. Thousands of daffodils were planted, throughout the front garden and along the western and northern sides. Many I know disappeared beneath the ever-expanding conifers over the years.

What visions they had for the garden, went unspoken. It has been written that Arthur, on seeing the plot and standing on the cusp of the south-facing slope said ‘If you think I am making a garden here you’ve another think coming’. But make a garden he did. Wooden sheds were built on the west boundary parallel to the house, where goats were kept and milked; and apples and vegetables were stored in the winter months. Hens and ducks were also housed in triangle-shaped arks nearby. At one point Gay bred rabbits for meat and I remember as a child seeing the skins stretched on wooden boards, pinned and left drying in the sun.


Arthur working copyright
Arthur at work – Amateur Gardening Office – date unknown


We took on a garden with fewer orchards, and they were only apple orchards, no vegetable garden or fruit garden and two solitary pear trees, which despite the years of neglect and further inaction on our part, still bore fruit. I worked fulltime in the garden and continued with the nursery that I had opened just a few months before Arthur’s death, closing as soon as the doctor had told me the severity of his symptoms. Looking after him in those final months, though stressful was a privilege. I wrote a poem about that experience in my first collection of poetry called Where My Heart Is.

We continued with our work and following a meeting with the local organizer of the National Gardens Scheme, we opened the garden the following year. Within a few years, the garden had been recommended and accepted for The Good Gardens Guide, where it remained up until we sold up and moved away.

So what would Arthur have thought about my journey? I was assured by several of his colleagues, that he was immensely proud of my endeavours when I first opened my nursery on the east boundary of the garden.

I spoke to Robin Lane Fox on the evening of the 28th January, and it was he who first asked if we were going to open the garden to the public. He had made a pact with Arthur that neither would visit each other’s garden whilst they worked together. Robin was the gardening columnist for the Saturday Financial Times, as well as being a contributor to other magazines and an author. He has over the years been a staunch supporter of Arthur and his books. When I published The Haphazard Gardener Robin was kind enough to give it a review in the Saturday Financial Times. I think that Arthur would have been enormously proud of that.

Both of my parents would have understood the necessity for us to sell up once the garden became too much for me. They knew only too well what an onerous task it was.






Trawling through some scanned photos on an external hard drive I came across a nostalgic shot of a little girl, running through the long grass at Orchards, my home at the time. It must have been in the early 1990s but I’m not certain.

Krysten in the long grass

It was the only time, whilst gardening at Orchards with Philip, that I managed to persuade him to leave the grass uncut, long after the daffodils had finished flowering. The front vista was awash with thousands of daffodils, in clumps of different varieties, and in my parents day, the grass was often left long, but only in the form of the clumps, being cut with an Alan scythe machine six weeks after the last clump had died back.

But this particular year we cut wide swathes through the otherwise long grass. I was in heaven, so many different varieties of grass and other wildflowers thrived and this little girl (the daughter of a friend of ours) spent hours playing in the grass, searching for the different grasses and wildflowers.

However, when late summer came and we had to hand scythe the now long and matted grass Philip was less than impressed with my romantic notion. It was the one and only time, he ‘allowed’ wildness in the grass as well as in my borders!

Broussonetia papirifera – Gelso da Carta


Life is one long learning curve…

This tree growing in ‘The Valley Garden’ in Cernobbio, was my friend informed me used in the making of silk; the leaves being fed to silk worms. To my knowledge silk worms only eat mulberry leaves!

However, the fruits of Broussonetia papyrifera – The Paper mulberry – are, I now discover, edible as are the young leaves, if they are steamed. Also, the bark, fruit and leaves are used traditionally for medicinal purposes. In China silkworms are fed with the leaves.

Il Giardino della Valle – The Garden of the Valley


It took a visit back to Italy, (five years after we left) to see a dear friend, to ‘discover’ this garden; a disgrace on my part given that we lived fairly close to Cernobbio for nearly a decade!

With little else to do on a January afternoon, when so much is closed to residents as well as tourists, we wandered along narrow streets to discover the garden. Our friend had been before, several years ago, and knew that it now suffered the same ‘neglect’ that all gardens do when you are less able to attend to its daily needs.

Garden view 2

I was not disappointed in the way it looked. It is obvious that in the spring and summer months there would be more colour but the wildness and slightly unkempt look is so much my kind of garden, so like nature.

The following text is taken from the notice board in the garden – ‘Pupa Frati began creating The Valley Garden in the early 1980s. She transformed the banks of the Garrovo stream from an illegal dump into the beautiful garden that exists today with the occasional collaboration of a few keen friends. In 2001 the Association of The Valley Garden was formed in order to guarantee the conservation, the upkeep and the improvement of the garden. In 2002 the botanical trail was inaugurated. Following this trail allows you to observe all the diverse botanical species present in the garden.’

Pupa Frati is now 94 years of age.

We entered the garden from the top, (having walked up the road which runs parallel to the garden), here the Garrovo stream can be heard, rippling downwards towards the lake, round stones and boulders. However, with the dryness of the previous months, the stream ceased moving further down the garden. A narrow path and steps take you down the valley, with places to rest and enjoy the vista.

Owl in a ring PSH

Large wooden statues punctuate the garden. A narrow bridge crosses the valley – it was at this point the water just lay instead of flowed – and sadly a conifer, with layered flat branches, spread itself too far to take a picture back up the valley.

Hedgehog PSH

If you ever find yourself in Cernobbio or nearby please seek this gem out.

Villa Bernasconi, Cernobbio

This Art Nouveau villa designed by Alfredo Campanini at the beginning of the 20th century for Davide Bernasconi can be found in Cernobbio. The stucco decoration on the external facades include flowers, butterflies, and mulberry leaves and silk worms linked to the silk production industry. Davide Bernasconi owned a silk factory nearby.

I found it both beautiful and slightly grotesque too…the decorations certainly weren’t subtle but they were marvellous too. Unfortunately it was closed when we visited, though you can walk through the grounds and see the building from each angle..the rear of the property is the plainest.