When Helga Crouch bought her run down wooden house in the heart of rural Essex, she inherited an equally tired garden. Back in 1983, the space surrounding Mill House, the site of a former windmill in the chocolate box village of Little Sampford, was an unruly jungle of undergrowth and dead apple trees.
‘It took years to get the house and garden done as I only had a small and unpredictable income, says Helga, a botanical artist whose work has appeared in books and magazines, and is held in collections around the world, including the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and by The Linnean Society of London.
Fast forward thirty years and the former eyesore has been transformed into a striking garden that provides all year round interest and inspiration for her delicate and closely observed works of art. The year gets off to a flying start with snowdrops and aconites, followed by primroses, violets, cowslips and narcissi. In summer there are perennials, while fruit and nut trees take centre stage in autumn. Among them are mulberries, quince, medlar, hazelnut and crab apples, such as Malus ‘Evereste’ with its almost glowing, orangey-red fruit that cling onto the branches well into December.
‘As a botanical artist I portray the wild flowers, fruits and insects, all within my conservation garden,’ explains Helga. Her self-imposed golden rule is to only paint subjects within the boundaries of her property, even if she spots something interesting in the hedgerow across the road. This obviously takes great discipline as there are some wonderful views across the bucolic landscape beyond the confines of her plot.
Winter can be a magical season at Mill House. Like most other gardens there is very little colour, but there’s plenty of sculptural interest thanks to an abundance of yew and box topiary, along with crisply cut low hedging. There are countless pieces that have been thoughtful placed by Helga’s that add structure to the monochrome scene and are at their best when dusted with a light coating of frost.
Even Helga’s unique house provides a splash of colour on a bleak day; this building and all other structures within the garden, including a combined green house and storage shed, have been painted a lovely shade of green. Her inspiration to do this came from a visit to Estonia. Although Helga was born in London, her mother’s side of the family came from the Baltic area. When the botanical artist first travelled over to see the town where her mother grew up she was bowled over by the wooden houses that were all painted the same colour green, helping them blend well with their natural surroundings.
The same shade of green has even been used to decorate an old fashioned telephone box that stands on a concrete plinth and makes a quirky feature in a corner close to a beautiful weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolius ‘Pendula’). Although it lacks its iconic coat of red this structure looks like the real thing but is actually a stage prop made from wood. Elsewhere, a traditional shepherd’s hut on wheels has been given the same treatment to help it blend into the garden. Helga bought it in Dorset and towed it to its current home, fitting it with a bed and wood burning stove, so she can even spend time in it over winter. The hut rests in Helga’s so-called wild garden. ‘It is my favourite spot in the whole garden. I sit on the steps and just look around me,’ she says.
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