The Poignancy of Plants
A vibrant garden in the large Essex village of Hockley, positioned between Rayleigh and Rochford, has been opening for the National Garden Scheme since 2014. It’s a real hidden gem tucked behind houses along the main road, giving few clues to the stunning garden and the poignant story it conceals.
Garden owner Karen Mann (pictured above) has always loved gardening. And although she claims that her Indian heritage does not influence her gardening style, the vibrancy and richness of the planting makes it hard to think otherwise. As soon as they moved in she immediately set about creating a series of beds and borders stretching over 185 metres on the 1/3-acre plot. From the back of the house, the borders stretch up and out creating an effervescent tapestry of colour and interest.
Karen is very clear in what she likes: a mass of tender perennials that provide loads of colour over the summer months. These include dahlia, salvia, cannas, gingers, brugmansia and grasses. It’s very labour-intensive – these perennials are dug up in the autumn and over-wintered in the row of tasteful greenhouses positioned discretely along the back of the garden. The beds are then fed with ‘mountains’ of mushroom compost. January is the time for planting seeds and planning before the big push in the spring when the plants are moved outside.
“This gives me the opportunity to redesign the garden every year,” says Karen. “All through the summer I am thinking what would work better in terms of companion planting and of course soaking up inspiration from my visits to other gardens, flower shows and gardening blogs.”
There is a more poignant story behind the garden and Karen’s dedication to it.
The house was especially adapted for the couple’s son, Jake, who had muscular dystrophy and was confined to a wheel chair. Jake was able to take advantage of the hospice at home scheme at J’s Hospice and his nurse, Bev Barclay, would always schedule her visits for the last appointment of the day so that she would have time to walk around the garden with Karen.
While enjoying the garden herself, Bev was also able to see the huge benefits it gave to Karen’s well-being and mental health. It was Bev who first raised the idea of a public opening of the garden, raising money for the hospice.
When Jake died in 2014, it was the garden that helped Karen through her darkest moments and her decision to open the garden for the National Garden Scheme the following summer gave her a goal to work towards. “After we lost Jake, knowing that I had agreed to open the garden that summer, gave me a focus and stopped me sitting around and crying all day. I had committed to opening and had to get on with it. So really, the garden has had a huge role in keeping me going.”
In the spring following Jake’s death, Karen discovered a seedling of a tree dahlia which she couldn’t identify. It turned out to be a cross between Dahlia excelsia and Dahlia ‘Blue Bayou’ and, after communications with the RHS Dahlia committee, it was recognised as a new variety and officially named Dahlia ‘Jake Mann’. The plant remains close to Karen’s heart.
The huge benefits to be had from gardening and the therapy from getting outside and digging continue to shape Karen’s life. She is creating new paths through the garden which will provide more space for her innovative design skills. She will happily spend all day outside throughout the year and derives comfort from the routine and continuity that it provides.
A garden of this significance deserves a fitting title and it is about to be named Kamala. While the first three letters are Karen’s initials, kamal means lotus in Hindi and is another nod to her Indian heritage.
Karen continues her support for the National Garden Scheme, the charity’s focus on donating to nursing, hospice and health charities including Hospice UK is just where she wants the money raised from opening her garden to go. She will be opening her garden twice in 2020 and also opens her garden to groups by arrangement in July and August. Details of her garden and when it is open can be found here