SWEET AND LOW

Vera Fisher's garden, 400ft further down in the shelter of the valley, cleverly echoes Hidcote's 'garden room' concept
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The Independent Online
Though the village of Mickleton is less than two miles from Hidcote, it is some 400ft lower. Nestling at the foot of the north-western escarpment of the Cotswolds, it escapes the worst of the winter weather suffered higher up. This means that in the village, spring flowers can bloom up to three weeks earlier than at Hidcote, and when it is snowing in the big garden it is often raining at Mickleton, or it might even be dry.

Eight years ago Vera Fisher and her husband, both keen gardeners, bought a modern house in the village, with a west-facing back garden measuring 55ft by 44ft, and a smaller plot at the front. Of all the gardens I visited for this series, this was the closest to an average size and shape, with no natural features to set it apart from the ordinary. It represents middle England both geographically and in spirit. Hundreds of thousands of householders have similar spaces behind their houses and garden in roughly similar conditions: what makes gardening creative and engrossing is the contrast between their many ways of treating them.

When her husband died two years after they moved in, Vera continued to develop the garden they had planned together. The first thing they had done about the landscape was to bring it into their field of vision. When they moved in, a row of Leylandii (Leyland cypress) trees, 15ft high and growing fast, separated the garden from the minor road behind. Apart from blocking the view into the fields behind, the trees also took away a lot of light.

Leylandii, long popular garden trees, regularly attract abuse in print and on the air nowadays because of the depressing effect they can have on its surroundings and on anything trying to grow near it. As the fastest- growing conifers, they have their uses - protection against wind and noise - but Vera decidedly did not want her new garden dominated by them; so out they came. Now a single ash tree frames her vista of the world beyond.

"I wanted the view of the fields and cattle across the road," she says, "and I wanted the sun to get into the garden." In that important sense, her gardening philosophy is the opposite to that of Lawrence Johnston, the creator of Hidcote's garden up the hill. Where he turned his back on the landscape, Vera has incorporated it as a backdrop to her design. There are other respects, though, in which the positive influence of Hidcote can be detected in her garden.

Even in so comparatively small a space, she has taken on board the "garden room" concept. "I particularly want not to be able to see the whole garden at once," she explains. Thus, to enjoy the principal area for shrubs, close to the back fence, visitors have to enter the garden and follow a path between bushes.

Shrubs, grown for shape and foliage, are the dominant features of the garden. Vera is especially fond of those with variegated leaves - two aucubas (spotted laurel) and a pieris, for instance. For the leaves to colour properly, these need the sunlight afforded by the Leylandii massacre. She has found a camellia that does not mind the alkaline ground but, unlike at Hidcote, she has not brought in acid soil to allow her to grow rhododendrons, whose bright colours are not to her taste.

"I don't like a garden that is like a municipal park," she says. "I don't really do much with bedding plants, though I've quite a lot in the greenhouse - especially begonias - because I cut them up and keep getting more of them. I love propagating."

Several of her plants were acquired from the shop at Hidcote - one of her earliest purchases, the orange-flowered climber Tropaeolum speciosum, a member of the nasturtium family. She bought it before finally deciding to take away the Leylandii, with the idea that it would climb up among the branches of the trees, lending them a welcome touch of colour. When the trees went, the tropaeolum stayed and now brightens some of the darker- coloured bushes in the shrubbery.

She has, as far as is practicable in the space, organised the garden so that the focus switches from one bed to another at different seasons. Her summer bed, to the right of the house, includes phlox, polemonium (Jacob's ladder), a white semi-double Anemone hybrida (Japanese anemone), campanulas, a dark red chaeonomoles (flowering quince) and some delphiniums her husband bought.

The garden at the front of the house, featuring an elegant silver birch, is designed to be at its best in spring and early summer, with anemones giving a splash of colour beneath early-flowering skimmia, pieris, fremontodendron and other shrubs. In June the striking flower heads of cotinus appear.

Vera enjoys seeking out unusual plants, and Hidcote is just one of her sources of inspiration. "I started with easily obtainable varieties but we have garden club outings to specialised gardens and nurseries where we can buy really nice things. One thing the club doesn't do is organise visits to Hidcote. We expect our members to go there themselves." ML

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