Daily Mail National Garden Competition 2017 

  • This year our National Garden Competition is in its 25th year
  • Despite challenging weather delightfully the standard of entries are still high
  • We have had late frosts in spring, followed by very hot and dry conditions
  • Meet the four finalists: Kath Stratton, Val Howells, Linda Kidd,  Martin Thurston
  • The winner will be announced in the Daily Mail’s Weekend magazine next month 

For over two decades, the Daily Mail has scoured the country every summer to find Britain’s best amateur garden. This year our National Garden Competition is in its 25th year, and we’re delighted to say that the standard of entries shows no sign at all of flagging.

‘Weather conditions haven’t been easy in 2017 – we had late frosts in spring, followed by very hot and dry conditions, all topped off with downpours in July and August. 

Despite this we were overwhelmed with entries,’ says judge Hamish Webb, who oversees the contest with garden designer Tim Sharples. ‘This has been a vintage year for the competition and the gardens that were entered were of a very high quality. We shortlisted 12 of them, and deciding on the four finalists was no easy task.’

All finalists will receive a coveted blue plaque to put in their gardens, and the winner will scoop £2,000. Below, Constance Craig Smith introduces the gardens that made the final cut. The winner will be announced in Weekend next month – but which garden would you pick?

A PLANT-FILLED PARADISE BURSTING WITH WILDLIFE 

For over two decades, the Daily Mail has scoured the country every summer to find Britain’s best amateur garden. Meet the four finalists for the 25th year of the competition Kath Stratton (pictured), Val Howells, Linda Kidd and Martin Thurston

For over two decades, the Daily Mail has scoured the country every summer to find Britain’s best amateur garden. Meet the four finalists for the 25th year of the competition Kath Stratton (pictured), Val Howells, Linda Kidd and Martin Thurston

Kath Stratton, 68, is now retired, after working part-time in sales while raising four children. Her husband Clive, 73, runs a company selling sailing yachts. They live near Southampton.

Gardens are supposed to make you happy, but Kath Stratton’s plot has sometimes reduced her to tears. ‘There have been times when I’ve sat at the kitchen table and told my husband I just couldn’t go on,’ she confesses. ‘Making this garden has been a huge challenge, with a lot of blood, sweat and, yes, tears! Although Clive is not a gardener, he has always encouraged me to keep going.’

The Strattons moved into their house eight years ago, and their first job was to refurbish the 23-year-old property. Once that was done, Kath started to tackle the 75ft by 65ft garden. 

‘I knew it was going to be a challenge because it was a mass of overgrown woody shrubs and laurels and the site slopes quite steeply,’ she says. ‘What I didn’t realise was that the soil was full of rubble, and the previous owners had covered everything with a liner and put bark chippings on top. There wasn’t a worm to be seen.’

Kath decided early on that she wasn’t going to be influenced by other gardens. ‘I wanted to do it my own way, even if that meant making lots of mistakes. I deliberately stayed away from gardening books and horticultural programmes on television, and I have to confess that there have been a lot of mistakes and plant fatalities along the way. 

One of Kath’s top tips for anyone starting a garden is to invest early on in young trees

One of Kath’s top tips for anyone starting a garden is to invest early on in young trees

But after spending so many years concentrating on my family, I wanted to do something purely for myself, just the way I wanted.’

The garden is divided into tiers and Kath set about clearing it one tier at a time before tackling the impoverished soil. ‘When I cleared the first level I got a bit of a shock because it looked so big. I realised I was going to need many more plants than I had first thought,’ she says.

She had brought a few plants from her previous garden, like an orange begonia and a huge hosta which she calls ‘the mother of all hostas’, which has been divided and replanted all over the garden, but most of the planting is new. 

One of Kath’s top tips for anyone starting a garden is to invest early on in young trees. ‘They give scale and shape to a garden and if you buy a small tree it’s not that expensive – and they soon grow a lot bigger.’

At the top of Kath's garden is one of her favourite features, a gazebo whose interior is lined with shells. ‘It’s rather magical and children, in particular, think it’s like something out of a fairy tale' she says

At the top of Kath’s garden is one of her favourite features, a gazebo whose interior is lined with shells. ‘It’s rather magical and children, in particular, think it’s like something out of a fairy tale’ she says

The garden is very densely planted with a beautiful mixture of shrubs and flowering plants. Clipped box, potentillas, lavateras, azaleas, ceanothus, cordylines, hebes and hydrangeas mingle with agapanthus, heucheras and hardy fuchsias to create a tapestry of colour. ‘I wanted the garden to flow, not to be divided into distinct areas,’ Kath says.

In among the plants are a variety of statues which she has chosen to complement the garden, rather than to stand out as features in their own right. 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID 

 ‘Kath’s artistic flair shines through, with the myriad carefully placed sculptures, pots and shell creations. 

This garden is a lesson in subtlety and we love Kath’s garden mantra: 

augment nature, don’t try to dominate it.

At the top of the garden is one of her favourite features, a gazebo whose interior is lined with shells. ‘It’s rather magical and children, in particular, think it’s like something out of a fairy tale.’

To Kath’s delight, the garden is now bursting with wildlife. ‘There is a proper ecosystem. We have frogs, which eat the slugs and snails, and dragonflies; at night we have bats swooping around the garden, chasing insects, and there’s even a hedgehog.’ 

She takes great pleasure in sharing the garden, which will be opening under the National Garden Scheme next July. 

‘I made this garden for me, but knowing that other people enjoy it – and that the competition judges like it – makes it even more special.’

EXOTIC PLANTS ARE TOP BANANA HERE… 

Thirty years ago, when Val and Roy Howells (pictured) bought a 1950s house with a garden measuring 110ft by 40ft, their intention was to grow lots of vegetables and a few flowers

Thirty years ago, when Val and Roy Howells (pictured) bought a 1950s house with a garden measuring 110ft by 40ft, their intention was to grow lots of vegetables and a few flowers

Val Howells, 69, a retired local government employee, lives with her husband Roy, 70, a retired toolmaker, in Styvechale, Coventry. They have two children.

Thirty years ago, when Val and Roy Howells bought a 1950s house with a garden measuring 110ft by 40ft, their intention was to grow lots of vegetables and a few flowers. Somehow those plans changed and now the garden is almost all given over to flowers and foliage, while Roy goes off to his two nearby allotments to grow his fruit and vegetables.

‘We’ve completely changed the garden since we came here; there was hardly anything worth keeping,’ says Val. ‘We’ve kept working on it and it’s still developing. I’d say it’s only in the last few years that we’ve felt it’s anywhere near completion.’ 

Nearest the house is a conservatory and a pretty patio with pots of bamboos and cordylines; beyond that is a Chinese windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, which has grown to three metres, and the first of the garden’s four water features.

Roy and Val have been opening their garden to the public since 2003, first for local charities and then for the National Garden Scheme

Roy and Val have been opening their garden to the public since 2003, first for local charities and then for the National Garden Scheme

Val – who calls herself ‘the colour co-ordinator’ while Roy is the hands-on gardener – loves exotic plants, and her collection includes a banana, the rice paper plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer, and more palms. 

There are also interesting trees like amelanchier, catalpa and Acer palmatum ‘Garnet’, whose feathery leaves turn a bright scarlet in autumn, as well as a good collection of grasses: Val particularly likes the giant feather grass, Stipa gigantea. 

A Japanese area is planted with ferns, bamboos and a silver birch, while the gazebo near the bottom of the garden is smothered in honeysuckle and jasmine.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID 

‘This is teamwork at its best, and together Val and Roy have created an exceptional space. 

This is a classic British garden, outstanding in how it suits the site and how well it is gardened.’ 

There are plenty of flowers like roses, clematis, geraniums, plumbago, passion flower, dahlias and lilies, but Val firmly believes that colour in the garden shouldn’t just come from flowers. 

‘The acers are fantastic for all the different shades they offer, like red, green and yellow. We also get pools of yellow from the grasses, and beautiful dark purple from the leaves of shrubs like cotinus.’

Roy and Val have been opening their garden to the public since 2003, first for local charities and then for the National Garden Scheme, and many visitors comment that this is a garden with real ‘wow factor’. 

Despite this, Val had to have her arm twisted by her sister to enter the competition. ‘I didn’t think we stood a chance, so to be a finalist is a real thrill,’ she says.

A JAPANESE HAVEN-IN LANCASHIRE 

For more than a decade, Linda Kidd has had a dream: to create a Japanese-style garden that would provide the sort of calming, meditative space she craved

For more than a decade, Linda Kidd has had a dream: to create a Japanese-style garden that would provide the sort of calming, meditative space she craved

Linda Kidd, 61, who has two grown-up sons, works in a hardware store. She lives near Kirkham in Lancashire.

For more than a decade, Linda Kidd has had a dream: to create a Japanese-style garden that would provide the sort of calming, meditative space she craved. ‘I’ve been in this house 20 years and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve achieved my ambition,’ she says. ‘Finances, lack of time, raising my sons… it all got in the way. But now I’ve done it!’

Linda’s garden is remarkable, not least because the grandmother of three has done almost all the work herself. ‘I don’t just work in a hardware shop, I’m a dab hand at DIY,’ she jokes. 

Although she had help with the larger construction projects, she has laid paths, dug a pond, moved rocks and done all the planting. ‘It’s been hard work but I’ve enjoyed it all,’ she says. ‘In summer I get home from work and then I’m out in the garden until it gets dark.’

'I only entered the competition at the last minute, and I’m shocked and overwhelmed to have got through to the last four,’ Linda says

‘I only entered the competition at the last minute, and I’m shocked and overwhelmed to have got through to the last four,’ Linda says

Her garden is a generously sized 50m x 30m. ‘I’m lucky to have so much space,’ Linda says. When she took over the garden it was knee-high in nettles and brambles, so she cleared it and created cottage garden-style borders. ‘There were trees for my children to climb, and plenty of space for them to play in, but it took a lot of maintenance and wasn’t very tranquil.’

The first Japanese feature to be built was the circular moon gate, built of granite setts, through which you enter the garden. After learning that her uncle had a pile of unwanted rocks in his garden, Linda moved them into her own. 

‘Some of them weighed 60-80kg, and they all had to be moved several times until I found the right place for them,’ she says. 

She dug out a pond, complete with a waterfall, and made a stream which flows through the garden into a second pond.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID 

‘Linda is a master of surprise. She has embraced Japanese gardening and created a space that’s fit for a samurai. 

It is both beautiful and true to its origins.’ 

 ‘It wasn’t easy getting the flow of water right,’ she says, ‘but it worked out in the end!’ A Japanese bridge, made of hard redwood, provides a beautiful focal point.

Many of the plants Linda has chosen are native to Japan. ‘My favourite time in the garden is June, when the last cherries are still flowering and the rhododendrons, azaleas and irises are full of colour,’ she says. 

‘Autumn is also beautiful, because the acers give such wonderful bursts of red, orange and yellow. But I love the garden right through the year. It looks completely different in winter – you can see the structure much more clearly.’

Having made the garden in such a short time, Linda hasn’t had much of a chance to enjoy it, but she has now built a secluded teahouse where she can relax. Not that she’s resting for long – she now has plans to redo her front garden.

‘I only entered the competition at the last minute, and I’m shocked and overwhelmed to have got through to the last four,’ Linda says. ‘It’s been a very personal project so it’s wonderful that the judges have liked what I’ve done.’

THERE’S THEATRICAL FLAIR AT EVERY TURN 

Martin Thurston has lived in Essex since 1977 but it wasn’t until 20 years ago, when Fabrice Aru moved in, that the garden really took off

Martin Thurston has lived in Essex since 1977 but it wasn’t until 20 years ago, when Fabrice Aru moved in, that the garden really took off

Martin Thurston, 66, a retired British Transport Police officer and Fabrice Aru, 52, an actor, live in Chigwell in Essex

When Fabrice Aru got the phone call saying he was one of the finalists in the Daily Mail’s National Garden Competition he was understandably confused, since his partner Martin Thurston had entered without telling him. 

‘I did it on the spur of the moment and I didn’t really expect us to get anywhere so I decided not to raise Fabrice’s hopes,’ Martin laughs. ‘Once he’d got over the surprise he was thrilled.’

The couple’s house was built in 1904 and its sloping garden measures 16m by 4.5m. Martin has lived here since 1977 but it wasn’t until 20 years ago, when Fabrice moved in, that the garden really took off. 

Fabrice explains, ‘I had a dream one night of how the garden could be. I woke up with a terrible headache and the only thing I could think about was starting work on the garden’

Fabrice explains, ‘I had a dream one night of how the garden could be. I woke up with a terrible headache and the only thing I could think about was starting work on the garden’

‘It was a pretty boring garden with a lawn, a path down one side, and conifers,’ Martin says. ‘Fabrice has the knack of visualising how a garden could look and he wanted something completely different.’

Fabrice explains, ‘I had a dream one night of how the garden could be. I woke up with a terrible headache and the only thing I could think about was starting work on the garden.’ 

Over the next few months he ripped up the lawn, replacing it with paving stones and gravel, and terraced the slope, creating three different levels.

It was hard work as he and Martin discovered that mountains of rubbish had been buried in the garden, including a bicycle and the remains of a fridge. 

 Although Martin helps out, the garden is almost entirely Fabrice’s domain, and as befits an actor he has a distinctly theatrical style of gardening

 Although Martin helps out, the garden is almost entirely Fabrice’s domain, and as befits an actor he has a distinctly theatrical style of gardening

At one point Fabrice thought he had cut through a mains water pipe, but the gush of water turned out to be an underground stream which nobody had known about.

Although Martin helps out, the garden is almost entirely Fabrice’s domain, and as befits an actor he has a distinctly theatrical style of gardening. 

He has a passion for topiary and also loves dramatic statement plants like tree ferns and fatsias. 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID 

‘Martin and Fabrice have coped with a difficult site by working with nature, judiciously pruning and trimming almost every plant with immense attention to detail. 

They’ve made their garden a horticultural Tardis that punches above its size.’ 

Much of the beauty of the garden comes from the effect of the contrasting foliage; he grows magnificent hostas, ferns and several different types of heucheras.

The elegantly curved stairs leading down from one level to the next are flanked by a handsome pyracantha that’s ablaze with orange berries from late summer into autumn. 

There are also plenty of flowers: in spring there are masses of snowdrops, crocuses and fritillaries, followed in summer by roses, clematis, blue aconites, and urns and pots filled with pelargoniums. 

‘If I really don’t like a plant then Fabrice won’t buy it, but he’s in charge,’ says Martin. ‘He’s the one with the imagination. He’s also a total perfectionist.’ Fabrice spends almost all his free time in the garden and in summer he gets up at 5am to work on it. 

‘I like to get every detail right,’ he says. ‘I trim individual leaves, not just branches. I hate leaving the garden, because if I’m away I worry about it. It may be small, but it brings us a lot of happiness.’ 



Courtesy: Daily Mail Online

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