How Berkshire’s gardeners are helping local communities get into gardening
PUBLISHED: 10:54 11 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:07 11 August 2020
We meet the region’s leading lights in the world of gardening, encouraging us all to reap the benefits of getting closer to nature | Words: Rosalind Sack
Sarah Pajwani | Inspiring amateur gardener
Many people would feel somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of transforming a neglected two-acre field into a family garden, particularly with fairly limited experience.
Yet Sarah Pajwani was buoyed by the challenge and has achieved just that at St Timothee in Pinkneys Green near Maidenhead.
“We thought it would be a great adventure,” recalls Sarah, who describes being greeted by dilapidated fences, rundown outbuildings and a greedy population of rabbits when they moved to the house in 2006.
While they were fortunate to inherit a wonderful backdrop of mature trees around the edge of the garden – including silver birches, a red oak, poplars and willows – inside there was next to nothing.
After creating a masterplan with the help of Acres Wild landscape design practice, whose free-flowing style appealed to Sarah, she set to work planting.
“I wanted to do the whole thing myself, but I felt that two acres was a big area and I wanted an expert to lay out where the borders were going to be, and so on. Then we could work at it slowly ourselves, choosing the plants and doing it bit by bit,” she says.
It is now a beautiful, softly-styled garden, filled mainly with hardy perennials and featuring a circular lawn surrounded by borders, a kidney-shaped wildlife pond sitting under one of the willows, a rose terrace, long wild grass areas and a pretty parterre.
“Initially a parterre felt posh for me, but it is an absolute joy,” Sarah adds. “By the time we came to planting the parterre I wanted to make things easy, so we’ve planted box around the edges and in the middle we have a series of spring bulbs (daffodils followed by tulips) and Perovskia, which is a Russian sage with lavender coloured flowers, which is superb. It’s easy but it’s always interesting, right through the winter.”
Being T-shaped, the house looks out over the whole garden, so ensuring there is interest in every area, right through the year, has become an important consideration.
“I am quite a meticulous planner, but I don’t worry when things don’t work,” says Sarah. “Because I was a relative novice I would Google things early on to check I was choosing plants that weren’t just beautiful, but would suit my soil and be tough. I always think what’s a good B.E.T? Beautiful, easy and tough.
“I always check when a plant flowers, and plan what we will have for spring and summer and what it will look like in winter.”
Creating the garden slowly, border by border, has meant that this has been a truly evolving space. “Rather than try to get it totally right in year one, I’ve had time to think about what I want. I’ve looked at it, considered what has worked and what hasn’t and added something more impactful or adjusted the colour balance. There’s always something to do.”
Sarah has not just created a stunning garden for her family, but generously opens it up to visitors through the National Garden Scheme open gardens and hosts talks and private visits to educate and encourage other amateur gardeners in the area.
Aside from a gardener who comes one day a week to help with the lawn, the hedges and anything that involves going up a ladder, Sarah does everything herself, estimating she spends about 16 hours a week gardening. One of her favourite areas is by the pond, which is peppered with pretty lily pads and where she will often see birds, tadpoles, newts, dragonflies and a heron.
“I like the garden to feel happy and full of life – and that’s not just about the plants, it’s the birds, the bees and the butterflies, even the worms and the ladybirds. For me, that’s all part of a happy garden.”
To discover more about St Timothee and the National Garden Scheme, visit ngs.org.uk
Naomi German | Uniting communities through gardening
In a small patch of land tucked behind a church hall in Reading, Naomi German has created a magical garden that has had a major impact on the people in the area.
What was once a forgotten patch of brambles surrounded by terraced streets is now an oasis of fruit and flowers, vegetables and herbs, birds and insects, abuzz with chatter and laughter.
The Erleigh Road Community Garden offers people of all ages and backgrounds a place to grow, to learn, to meet and to have fun, and it is the proud recipient of several awards to prove it.
Naomi created the garden in partnership with the Food4families organisation, which encourages people in Reading to grow fruit and vegetables in their community.
“A broad mix of people come here – families, older people living on their own, younger people who want to learn more about gardening, experienced gardeners and novices,” says Naomi. “Everybody mixes and you can see they get enjoyment from it. Being in a built-up area where people have small gardens makes this a special place to be.”
It’s also rewarding to witness the impact that the garden has on people, says Naomi. “There was a boy at a primary school who found it difficult being in the classroom and his teachers were finding him a handful. His mum brought him along to the garden and at first I could see he was thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’ But by the end of the session he was so eager, enthusiastically discovering insects.”
It’s only a small space, but Naomi and the team have packed in a lot, including fruit trees and bushes, vegetable and herb beds, an olive tree and a pergola trailing with a grape vine and a hop. There is also a seating area, a mud kitchen and a greenhouse.
“There’s a huge social aspect to the garden,” says Naomi. “It has become a hub for people to get together.”
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the garden hosted twice weekly gardening sessions and harvested produce was shared out. At the weekend, visitors enjoyed scones and drinks. Naomi and her team also held cooking sessions, hosted wildlife events, art classes and gardening workshops. They hope to again when it is safe to do so.
A love of gardening was instilled in Naomi from a young age. Her father was a gardener on the Old Rectory estate in Burghfield, then owned by the late Esther Merton; one of the great English gardeners of her day. The family lived in a cottage on the estate, where Naomi spent her childhood.
“It was an amazing place to grow up, surrounded by incredible plants and green space,” she says. “Getting involved in the community garden has rekindled that love I developed as a child. It’s important for people who live in a town to be able to have that connection with nature and it wasn’t until I began gardening again that I realised it was what was missing in my life.
“I’d been leading an urban life, living in a terraced house with a small garden and working in an office, so this has been brilliant.”
Naomi is now a garden tutor for Food4families. She has also started the Tiny Veg Patch online, giving people ideas of what to grow at home with limited space.
Paul Barney | The plant hunter at the cutting edge
Paul Barney has made a career out of being ahead of the game when it comes to horticulture. His nursery, named Edulis (Latin for edible) in Pangbourne, may be housed in a Grade II-listed Victorian walled garden, but his vast selection of rare plants are far from traditional.
Growing around 3,000 different plants, his is a fascinating collection that includes flowers, vegetables, fruit and herbs.
Paul has over 600 kinds of snowdrop and 60 different ferns, alongside unusual edibles such as Earth Chestnut, Greater Cuckoo Flower and Kentucky Colonel Mint. Paul is also a regular at rare plant fairs and has exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Sustainability is an important consideration and Paul runs biological controls, collects and recycles rainwater and avoids chemicals as much as possible.
“We’re so bio-diverse in the nursery that we don’t get a lot of problems with pests. I’ve always been interested in being at the cutting edge. So, rather than developing those ideas, I’ve always tended to move on to find something new and challenging and different,” says Paul, who famously sold River Cottage gardener Mark Diacono his first Szechuan pepper tree.
Discovering a love of wildlife at an early age and enthused by his father’s interest in gardening, Paul started growing vegetables and bedding plants that he would sell to his mother’s friends. He went on to win growing competitions at the local horticultural show near his home in Pangbourne.
While studying for a Masters degree in Soil Science at Reading University he developed an interest in organic farming and growing, and became a trustee of the Soil Association.
He then became an assistant gardener at The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, during which time he set up his own landscaping company.
A Masters degree in Landscape Design followed before he returned to Pangbourne to resurrect his late father’s derelict walled garden that had been part of Bere Court Manor House. He says: “ I wanted to grow unusual vegetables for permaculture.”
While he fine-tuned his offering at the nursery, Paul was called on to create a plan for Pangbourne’s Beale Park. “We planted 23,000 trees and a community woodland and I worked with Clare Wilks who was one of the pioneers in willow sculpture, which led to building willow mazes in schools around London,” he says.
It was Paul’s fascination with willow that saw him travel to Scandinavia in 1994 to research its use for biomas energy aboard the ill-fated MS Estonia. The boat tragically sank, killing 852 people. Paul was the only British survivor.
It thankfully didn’t extinguish Paul’s passion for travel and in the late 1990s he embarked on trips to Africa, Asia and South America to discover rare plants to bring back to his nursery in Berkshire.
“I travelled the world searching for rare plants with a story, climbing mountains and looking in markets, getting excited about what other cultures were growing and eating, which could grow here,” he says.
Edulis now has a reputation for its rare plants and edibles thanks to Paul’s inextinguishable spirit for the new and unusual.
Franzi Cheeseman | Designing gardens with feeling
Looking after one of the most beautiful gardens in the region is a demanding job in itself, but when those gardens are such a poignant place of reflection, it takes a deeper level of consideration and understanding.
For Franzi Cheeseman, Head Gardener at Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens for the past seven years, it’s a job – and indeed a passion – that is very special indeed.
“When people first come here to visit plots, often it’s a difficult time in their lives and gradually, months or sometimes years down the line, you can see that some healing has taken place and the gardens are instrumental in that.
“To have this place where they can come and remember a loved one and get used to their new reality is special,” explains Franzi, who lives in Maidenhead and has recently completed her Master of Horticulture, the RHS’ most prestigious training programme.
Designed and laid out in the 1930s, the 20-acre Grade I-listed gardens contain water features, a colonnade, parterres, a rose garden, woodland, rock garden, a wisteria pergola, parkland and a natural area watched over by a magnificent 600-year-old oak.
While the purpose of the gardens is the internment of cremated remains for all cultures, faiths and beliefs, it is open to the public to visit. Within it are also 500 gated family gardens, including the Ghurka Memorial garden in memory of the 4th Prince of Wales’ own Gurkha Rifles, and care is taken to safeguard the gardens’ history.
Designed by Franzi, a new extension to the garden was unveiled earlier this summer.
“It can be useful to have a story to form the basis of a design and I referenced various bereavement models that help people through the stages of grief.
“A caterpillar turning into a butterfly is used with children to illustrate how the person who has passed away goes on to become something different and beautiful. So in one of the areas we have planted butterfly friendly plants and erected signage describing the model,” says Franzi.
In another area of the garden Franzi has been instrumental in restoring what was originally a heather garden that had been taken over by rhododendrons, hiding the family gardens in the area. Over the course of several years she and the team have been replanting smaller azaleas to make the space more open.
“Before you could barely get through it and now you can see the individual gardens and shape of the land. We thought it was flat but there’s little valleys,” she says.
Franzi’s desire to follow a career in gardening took root at an early age. She was asked at kindergarten in her native Switzerland what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite having little more than window boxes at home, she knew a future in gardening was for her.
Alongside her role at Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens, Franzi also looks after Holtspur and Shepherds Lane cemeteries in Beaconsfield and Parkside in Gerrards Cross. She also runs her own garden design business.
She says: “Occasionally a domestic garden comes up in a particularly memorable setting. I did a design for one that was next to an old tithe barn in Bisham built in the 1500s, so the backdrop was gorgeous and had a lot of history.”
As well as creating beautiful spaces for others, Franzi has cultivated her own patch at her home in Maidenhead.
She says: “It’s an informal, slightly cottage-style garden with wildlife and vegetables and lots of flowers. I like gardens to envelop you and enclose you and give you a hug.”