Monthly Archives: December 2014

Portrait of an artist’s garden

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.

Helga and Salome - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

Helga and Salome – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

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.

Malus 'Evereste' - Frosted crab apples in December - The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

Malus ‘Evereste’ – Frosted crab apples in December – The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

‘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.

View to rear of house with wrought iron garden seat. Yew and box topiary and dwarf hedges on frosty morning in December - The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

View to rear of house with wrought iron garden seat. Yew and box topiary and dwarf hedges on frosty morning in December – The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

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.

View of Mill House on a frosty morning with yew topiary in December - The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

View of Mill House on a frosty morning with yew topiary in December – The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

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.

Shepherds Hut in wild garden, December - The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

Shepherds Hut in wild garden, December – The Mill House, Little Sampford, Essex – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

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Indoor bulbs

All gardeners know they will have to wait several months to enjoy a display from bulbs planted outdoors this autumn. Well, there’s a clever way of getting a much earlier fix. Snap up some varieties suitable for flowering indoors and they’ll fill your home with colour, and often scent, in just a few weeks’ time. These bulbs are best planted now in pots filled with multi-purpose compost. Some simply need water and a light spot on a windowsill to kick-start them into life, while others need a bit more attention. Most will flower 6 to 10 weeks after planting.

Narcissus 'Tete a Tete' in blue enamel pot - © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

Narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’ in blue enamel pot – © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

Sunny daffs
The sunny yellow flowers of miniature daffodils, such as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’, are perfect for cheering up a bright windowsill. After flowering, bulbs will be exhausted so discard and plant fresh bulbs next autumn.

Floral display of Tulipa and Ranunculus - © GAP Photos

Floral display of Tulipa and Ranunculus – © GAP Photos

A nice cuppa
Try recycling items from the kitchen or rummage around in a junk shop for some interesting containers, such as this old tea cup that makes a striking carrier for some early red tulips.

Amaryllis - Hippeastrum 'Christmas Gift' in green glazed container - © Clive Nichols/GAP Photos

Amaryllis – Hippeastrum ‘Christmas Gift’ in green glazed container – © Clive Nichols/GAP Photos – Styling Jacky Hobbs

Trumpet fanfare
Native to South Africa, hippeastrum boast the most spectacular flowers of all indoor bulbs – the large, trumpet-shaped blooms will last for up to three weeks before they start to fade.

Cyclamen coum in pot beside posy - © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

Cyclamen coum in pot beside posy – © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

Sensational cyclamen
Cyclamen coum is an exquisite plant with flowers that can be white, pink, rose and magenta, and rounded foliage that is often beautifully patterned or simply glossy, dark green.

White Hyacinthus bulb in glass vase on windowsill - © Juliette Wade/GAP Photos

White Hyacinthus bulb in glass vase on windowsill – © Juliette Wade/GAP Photos

Heady hyacinths
Heat treated hyacinths will fill the house with a delightful heady perfume. Plant a single bulb in an elegant vase or place several in shallow bowls filled with general-purpose compost.

So here it is….

Candle in glass decorated with Pine cones and foliage - © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

Candle in glass decorated with Pine cones and foliage – © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos

As Slade once declared in their glam rock Christmas classic: ‘So here it is, Merry Xmas’. For most of us that means having to down tools in the garden to indulge in a marathon session of eating, drinking and general partying. Not that we’re complaining, of course, but don’t forget to make the most of all the natural materials in your garden when it comes to preparing the house for the big day.

Our huge collection of photography contains images of all sorts of fantastic decorations, from wreaths to mobiles. Some may require a bit of time to make, but others are dead simple. Take this bowl arrangement. It took just a few minutes to put together but would make a long-lasting centrepiece for an indoor or outdoor table over the festive period.

We started with a zinc bowl (don’t worry if you don’t have one, use anything decorative) and placed a candle protected by a glass jar in the centre. Fill the gaps with sprigs from a pine tree and a selection of different pine cones – spray a few silver or gold to add an extra ornamental touch.

Now, put it in a prominent place and you’re ready to start the celebrations.