The Stuff of Dreams

The perfect little potager at Dreamers Cottage is a brilliant backdrop to a thriving vintage garden business

Those of us stuck behind a desk may dream of pottering in the garden all day, but when your profe ssional life is devoted to plants, how does your own plot fare? When Louise Allen and Piers Newth bought Dreamers Cottage in the tiny Oxfordshire village of Little Haseley 11 years ago, the last thing they wanted was to bring their work home with them.

The couple met at RHS Wisley, and went on to careers at Harcourt Arboretum and Oxford Botanic Garden. ‘Our entire life was about labelling and being precise , recording things – very botanical. When we came here, Piers took to buying hellebores, and he threw all the labels away. It was wonderful,’ explains Louise. ‘Although,’ Piers chips in, ‘it’s a bit annoying now, because people are always asking us what they are, and we don’t know.’ At a third of an acre, this is the kind of garden we can all dream of tending one day. The process of its renovation and renewal so beguiled Piers and Louise that they quickly knew they had to find a way to spend all their time here. ‘At the end of the first week, I didn’t want to go back to work. Piers pointed out that we had a mortgage, so I said, if I pay the mortgage off, can I give up work?’ He said OK,’ recalls Louise. But what would they do? ‘We always used to say something will come up,’ says Louise. A chance purchase of some cheap old tools set them thinking about how mvintage gardening gear was undervalued, and so six years ago their business, called Garden & Wood, was born.

It was a big gamble, giving up perfectly good jobs in horticulture for a new venture, but as Piers notes drily: ‘The worst that could happen is that we would have the most amazing collection of tools.’

Their timing, however, was perfect; cannily tapping into the resurgence of interest in the sturdy and sometimes curious garden tools of the past. The garden at Dreamers Cottage is the showcase for everything from cloches to chairs. ‘The joy of the garden is that we use it as a backdrop for the business. It’s not a leisure pursuit – it’s part of what we do,’ says Louise. It wasn’t long before Garden & Wood grew f rom a hobby into a ser ious enterprise, with a stand at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and annual trips to other major shows, such as Courso nin France and Hex in Belgium.

Dating back to the 17 th century, Dreamers Cottage is a thatched chocolate box of a place, tucked behind the village green. It served as a gamekeeper’s cottage to the nearby estate of Haseley Court, once home to the late Nancy Lancaster, a doyenne of interior and garden design who is credited with creating the English country-house style.

When Piers and Louise first arrived, the garden at Dreamers Cottage was a blank canvas, more or less. There was a hazel, some fruit trees, long grass and 27 soaring leylandii trees to fell. ‘They all went up the chimney,’ says Piers. ‘They are quite resinous, but if you season them properly, they burn really well.’

In line with the couple’s enthusiasm for the make-do-and mend approach, they wanted a productive garden where growing fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers for cutting were all given equal billing. They also allotted space for half a dozen chickens too. Netted brassicas grow happily alongside the acid brights of orange Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and magenta mounds of Armenian cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon).
Given their horticultural backgrounds, it’s not surprising that everything is carefully considered. The couple started off hating Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’, one of the few remnants of the old garden. Piers describes it as ‘a bit of an actress’ peony’, but he has grown to tolerate, if not love this plant, and plans to buy more choice peonies from a specialist breeder on their next trip to Hex.

Pretty much every other flower in the garden has been chosen as a good doer, from the tiny starbursts of dark-red Astrantia ‘Hadspen Blood’ to the lime-green froth of Alchemilla mollis.

Louise and Piers are 75% self sufficient for fruit and veg, relying on cloches rather than cold frames or a greenhouse to get the best out of their crops, and showing how to live sustainably without sacrificing on good looks. ‘Our neighbours liberally call it ‘the good life’, and there is a bit of that. You won’t find too many old tyres here, but at the same time, we work with what we’ve got,’ says Louise.

Take the terrace directly behind the cottage, a simple space with room for a substantial slate-topped table and chairs, flanked by a yew hedge and a border of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’. Rather than buying in new paving, Piers reused the piles of stones uncovered when making the vegetable garden, laying them end to end. Other existing paving stones were turned into paths, while a mini coppice of hazel supplies the garden with bean tunnels and pea sticks.

Like any garden renovation project, there were a few compromises along the way. At first, the chickens roamed free, but when they went AWOL, only to be tracked down by a fox while checking out the neighbour’s swimming pool, Piers and Louise decided to corral them into a generous chunk of ground to one side of the house.

And despite the fact that absolutely everything in the garden is for sale, every gardener has that special tool they can’t bear to be without. Or in Piers’ case, two tools: ‘There are two spades that I will never sell. One is welded up and it’s living on borrowed time, but no one’s allowed to use it.’ Fortunately, with their own ever-changing treasure trove of spades, forks and every other tool you can imagine, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Words: Jane Perrone
Photographs: Suzie Gibbons
English Garden Magazine: June 2014