A wonderful mixture of gardens open to the public to raise funds for National Gardens Scheme charities. Among them is this stunning plot at Hognaston. Lynne Dixon enjoys a sneak preview.
WHEN I tell you that Peter Gardner has his own hostalry, you're probably going to assume two things.
One, that he runs a pub. And two, that I can't spell for toffee. Well, to tell you the truth, I'm rather leading you up the garden path here. For Peter is actually a hosta fanatic – and a hosta, in case you don't know, is a resilient foliage plant with flowers that are often fragrant.
In the spectacular country garden that he and wife Jean have painstakingly created together in the pretty Derbyshire village of Hognaston, Peter has planted around 300 varieties of this plant valued for its attractive leaves in a plethora of different colours, shapes and sizes.
Jean, with a mischievous grin, calls it his hostalry. This plant thrives particularly well in dampish soil and the aptly named Gardners have turned part of their one-and-a-half-acre plot into true hosta country.
Says retired chemistry teacher Jean: "Peter has grown hundreds of these thriving foliage plants from little sticks over the past 15 or so years."
They're a truly green-fingered pair who describe themselves as "plantaholics". "We love sharing our garden with other people, which is why we started opening it to the public under the National Gardens Scheme six years ago, raising more than £5,000 for charity."
On Monday, their beautiful garden, stunningly revived from its long winter slumber, will open to public gaze once again, followed by a second opening on Wednesday, July 16. But expect to see a lot more than hundreds of hostas if you pay them a visit this spring or summer. For the Gardners' garden is a wonderful melange of flower beds, borders, lawns, woodland, winding paths and ponds.
One of its most magical features is the crystal clear tumbling water of the Henmore Brook, which borders their garden at Hognaston. The water gurgles, splashes and flows soothingly round the edge of their garden under an ancient stone bridge, creating an idyllic scene that many of us would envy.
On the banks of the brook, Peter and Jean grow a multitude of plants in the acid soil, including collections of colourful primulas, daffodils, red, pink and white rhododendrons, azaleas, skimmias and pieris. Also edging the brook are scores of self-set trees like ash, alder and silver birch, interspersed with hawthorn and blackthorn.
Acers also abound, a particularly special one being an acer priseum which has a cinnamon coloured bark that naturally peels off. "This is quite a special tree which really glows in the sunlight," Peter tells me. "It's fairly rare and rather expensive!"
Peter and Jean, both former teachers, met as teenagers in their home town of Burton and have been married for the past 47 years.
Jean, 70, was head of science at Abbots Bromley School until her retirement 10 years ago. Peter, 71, worked for Staffordshire Outdoor Education Centres and still looks after the expedition side of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme at Abbots Bromley School. "My classroom has always been the outdoors," he says.
They moved to Hognaston from Penkridge, a small town between Stafford and Wolverhampton, when sons James and John "fled the nest" to go to university. James is now head of geography at a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, while John is a vet in St Albans.
Say the couple, who have five grandchildren aged between ten and 18 months: "We decided when the boys left home that it was the ideal time to up sticks to a place where we could enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the countryside. We absolutely fell in love with this garden."
As they show me round prior to its public unveiling, the couple explain that they have totally transformed the garden since moving to Tilford House, a 1970s property, 20 years ago.
They've made it into an informal garden where the lawns are definitely not manicured to within an inch of their lives. Little statues – Peter calls them "garden fripperies" – appear here and there amid the trees to add a decorative look, while seats are scattered in various picturesque spots. But a sense of countrified natural informality prevails, which suits the location and surrounding environment of the garden perfectly.
Jean says: "What you see is mainly Peter's work. He's the landscape architect and I look after the weeding. But we both share the planting."
Peter explains that the low-lying garden is in a dip in relation to the surrounding area. "It's on the valley floor so you can't do much with it in winter because there is often standing water. It is also a frost pocket so we have a short growing season.
"Our busiest time in the garden is March and April when we clear up winter debris and get everything ready for spring. Our garden comes to life in late March and is in full leaf by May."
Over the years the couple have planted lots of trees to create woodland areas, including oaks, several kinds of birch, field maples, plum and mulberry. Peter is fond of his towering poplars. "Yes, they can be quite invasive, but I love them. If you have the space they are wonderful things."
The pair add that they also "keep making the flower beds and borders bigger because we just love plants". In pursuit of unusual ones they travel far and wide, one of their favourite haunts being a specialist nursery called Ashwoods, two hours drive away at Wolverhampton.
"We also buy from plant fairs at Chatsworth, Culland Hall in Brailsford and Felley Priory in Nottinghamshire."
As we journey round the garden, Peter and Jean point out some of their favourite trees, including a corkscrew hazel, several witchhazels, numerous magnolias and a styrax, sometimes called the snowdrop tree because in summer it bears little white hanging flowers.
Daffodils and pretty pink and yellow primulas abound everywhere, along with a riot of anemones and bluebells. "We also have around 40 different varieties of pink, white and purple hellebores, along with over 100 types of clematis."
Peter's latest project has been to create an Alpine raised bed planted with saxifrage, gentian, dwarf rhododendrons, daphne and iris.
Their garden has five ponds, two of them ornamental and three dug out by Peter in areas that naturally collect water. Fritillaries, with their cream, white and purple bell-shaped flowers, flourish around the water's edge, along with iris, hostas, primulas, willows, yellow marsh marigolds and skunk cabbage with its big white and yellow flowers. "Anything that thrives in damp conditions grows well in this garden," Jean says.
But it isn't only wetland plants that inhabit this area. "We have two mallards who have taken up residence in the ponds."
The garden is a haven for wildlife like frogs, badgers, foxes and pheasants. There are also nesting boxes for visiting birds including blue tits, woodpeckers and nuthatches. Two greenhouses, a potting shed and a couple of toolsheds provide working space for the couple, who offer plants for sale on open days. They also have a vegetable garden where raised beds yield onions, kale, garlic, celery, broad and kidney beans, leaf beet, leeks and cauliflowers. In their orchard they grow soft fruits including blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and cherries. "We freeze a lot of the fruit to make pies and crumbles and also make jam," Jean tells me. "I make cakes for our open days, but I have to admit that baking isn't my favourite occupation!"
So how much time do the couple devote to their beloved garden? "Actually, we don't need to spend as much time on it as you might think," says Peter. "But we're by no means obsessive gardeners. The great thing about our garden is that it's so closely planted it doesn't take too much maintenance once the season starts."
Tilford House garden in Hognaston will open for NGS charities on May 5 and July 16 from 2pm-5pm, £3, children free. Home-made teas available. Groups of visitors welcome by appointment from May to July. Call 01335 372001.