Words Sarah Langton-Lockton Photographs Lisa Valder
‘I’m a plantaholic,’ admits Violet Croll, roaring with laughter and without a hint of apology. ‘If anyone offers me plants, I never say no.’ At their previous property, a new-build house in Borden, near Sittingbourne, she and her husband Shane simply ran out of garden space: ‘We needed more land, that’s why we moved.’ What she did not say was that she is a brilliant plantswoman, who has the greenest of fingers and a substantial collection of cups won for her daffodils, dahlias and roses at local horticultural shows.
In 2009, in the village of Dunkirk, a few miles east of Faversham, Violet and Shane found a handsome 1960s bungalow that had been extended upwards, achieving an elegant symmetry with its high-rise, half-acre garden. From the third floor there is a view of the estuary. ‘On a good day you can see the boats,’ says Shane. The garden the couple have made, once neglected woodland overgrown with brambles and ivy, now ascends the hillside in densely planted tiers. Immaculate lawns offer routes through the maze. No corner is without towering plants radiating health. At its summit a row of enormous chestnut trees provide a protective boundary and shelter for the chicken run. The tall trees were a particular attraction for Shane. ‘I come from Essex, near the Epping Forest. Trees are part of my life,’ he says.
When they moved in there was work to be done. ‘Several bonfires and months later,’ recalls Violet, ‘we finished clearing some areas, then started to obtain a feel for the flow of the garden and how it could be improved.’ In winter the steep slope was slippery, so steps were built, then paths made, forming a circuit that followed the flow, connecting the woodland with the garden and creating planting zones and terraces. There are three greenhouses bursting with produce and nursery benches for growing new stock.
Violet’s gardening career began on a balcony in London where she grew dahlias. In Borden she had an allotment. A woman of considerable energy, she was also the site warden. Early retirement provided new opportunities. A fellow allotment holder, who showed roses at the Royal Horticultural Society’s shows at Wisley, suggested she join the local horticultural society. He was her mentor, providing encouragement and practical advice. A perfectionist, he was known to put umbrellas over his dahlias. Violet took to the competitive world of plant shows with enthusiasm. She won her first cups in 2008 and now has an impressive collection. A regular winner now at Hernhill Horticultural Society shows and Painter’s Forstal Gardeners’ Club, ‘I’m most proud,’ she says, ‘of the cups from Borden – I’ve got 13.’
Violet learnt to disbud her dahlias, removing the smaller side buds so that the main flower can achieve its prizewinning potential. She lifts her dahlias after the first frost in November. They are stored in the garage, potted up in February and planted out in April. They thrive on chicken pellets and comfrey juice, which she makes herself. She enters all classes but her favourites are the cactus and pompom varieties.
Violet describes herself as the head gardener. Shane, with undue modesty, says he is the gopher and chief weeder, although Violet also weeds before a show – ‘standing up,’ she says. It is Shane who is responsible for the deftly crafted structure of the garden, including water features, steps and terraces and raised beds.
Violet is philosophical about the alternating experiences of triumph and failure that are the lot of the avid gardener. ‘If I plant something and it doesn’t feel right in its position, I move it. What doesn’t work, I try again.’ Essentially, though, she has an instinct for matching the right plant to the right place, making a hole for a climbing rose pruning, which then obligingly thrives, or persuading a blackberry and a vine to clamber in harmony on a pergola opposite the front door. Pest-free vegetables, with pot marigolds, Calendula officinalis, as their companion plants, grow unblemished in raised beds. Dahlias and runner beans happily share a tight space. ‘Where there’s density there are no weeds,’ explains Violet. ‘I plant by feeling,’ she says. ‘The plants know I love them.’
Ask most gardeners what their favourite plants are and they’ll come up with four or five. Violet reels off 40, all in glorious evidence in her remarkable garden. They include her particular favourites, acers and hostas, also euphorbias, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, camellias, epimediums, eupatoriums and ginger lilies. On a mid-August visit Faversham Life admired the towering veronicastrums, huge ferns and astilbes and a gigantic gunnera in the damp garden, the day lilies and crocosmia and, of course, in splendid multitudes, the magnificent dahlias.
Soon, Violet will be ordering dahlia tubers for next year’s shows and planning the gardening year ahead. Her garden now is still at its peak despite the vagaries of the weather. It opens for the National Garden Scheme three last times this season: today, Friday 20, Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 August, from 11 to 3.30 each day. Pre-booking is essential at www.ngs.org.uk. Admission is £5 for adults and children are free. Dogs on short leads are welcome.
57 Stoney Road
Text: Sarah. Photographs: Lisa