Over the 25 years it’s been running, the Daily Mail’s National Garden Competition has shown how many wonderful gardens there are in Britain.
For many of us, it’s our gardens that have kept us going this year, so it’s not surprising that the standard for 2020 was so high that the judges, led by renowned garden designer Tim Sharples, had a hard job whittling the 2,000 or so entries down to just four finalists.
‘It amazes us that we still flush out such fantastic gardens after all these years,’ says judge Hamish Webb. ‘The final four are all so different, yet perfectly reflect their creators. One thing we heard again and again was that gardens had saved these folk during the lockdown.’
Our winner will receive £2,000 and the legendary winner’s blue plaque. Read about the four finalists here, and decide which would be your choice.
The judges’ verdict will be announced at the end of September in Weekend.
A TASTE OF JAPAN IN SOUTH YORKSHIRE
Terry Wallace, 84, and his wife Rita, 80, both worked in supermarkets before retiring. They live in Sheffield.
‘We’ve lived here for 52 years. The house was a year or two old when we bought it, and the garden was just lawn front and back,’ says Terry.
‘We started working on the garden within a week of moving in, even though we were also working on the house and didn’t have much money to spend.
Terry Wallace, 84, and his wife Rita, 80, both worked in supermarkets before retiring. They live in Sheffield
‘We were so impatient to get started. The front garden and the back garden are quite different. We call the front garden, which is about 21ft by 30ft, our Spanish Garden.
‘It has a 16ft tall palm, and colourful plants like fuchsias, lobelias, agapanthus and pelargoniums.
‘There’s a small trough with a pool and some of my collection of bonsai. It’s popular with the neighbours – we get lots of nice comments as people walk by.
Japanese statues nestle among Lobelia cardinalis in the back garden – and Terry says they get lots of nice comments as people walk by
‘The back garden is slightly bigger and has a different feel. It’s largely inspired by my love of Japanese art and my admiration for Japanese gardens.
‘I’ve never been to Japan, although I feel a connection with it.
‘There are a lot of Japanese-style ornaments and figures, little pagodas and statues, which I made myself from concrete, and rocks and stone which I’ve brought into the garden, carrying them all myself.
What the judges said
‘A truly individual and life-long project, marrying an eclectic range of gardening influences to create a very personal and beautiful oasis.’
‘My grandchildren – Rita and I have a total of 18 grandchildren and great-grandchildren – can’t believe I used to carry all that weight myself.
‘One of my passions is for bonsai. My oldest is 45 years old and I have about 16 of them.
‘It’s a long process because you have to carefully trim the roots, but if you know how to do it you can miniaturise all sorts of interesting plants.
‘One of my favourites is a little walnut which I found sprouting in the wild.
‘I brought it home and now I’m growing it as a bonsai.
‘There’s colour from crocosmias, fuchsias, cannas, hardy geraniums and the beautiful red Lobelia cardinalis, shown off against a background of trees, shrubs and climbers. I love conifers because they are such good subjects for topiary.
‘The Boston ivy and Virginia creeper give wonderful colour in autumn, and in late spring a wisteria flowers over an arbour.
‘We also have ferns, grasses and of course acers – you can’t have a Japanese garden without them.
Agapanthus grow in the front garden, along with uchsias, lobelias and pelargoniums
‘Sometimes the most unusual plants give you the most pleasure. Years ago I found a blackened stump of laburnum and I brought it home on my motorbike, thinking I’d use it as a shelf.
‘After a while I noticed, to my amazement, that it was sprouting, so I started pruning to give it a good shape. It flowers like mad and always makes me smile because I was convinced it was well and truly dead.
‘There are two ponds, planted with waterlilies and yellow mimulus, and a waterfall. The water attracts newts and frogs, and in summer we have lizards sunning themselves too.
‘I’ve put a lot of work in over the years but I’ve never regretted a minute of it. One of Rita’s friends describes our garden as “a little piece of heaven”. That sums up how we feel about it. During lockdown it was very hard not seeing family, but the garden has been our salvation.
‘I don’t know how we’d have coped without it.’
Bryan Jackson, 78, is a retired railway worker. He lives in High Bentham in North Yorkshire.
‘My parents bought this house in 1963. It’s right by the railway line and it used to belong to one of the railway bosses,’ says Bryan.
‘I went to work on the railway when I was 18. I’ve always been a hands-on person. I love making things.
‘Over the years we acquired extra bits of land and the garden is now three-quarters of an acre.
Bryan Jackson, 78, is a retired railway worker. He lives in High Bentham in North Yorkshire
‘A lot of the land we bought was very rough, and it’s amazing what I’m still digging up from the soil – all sorts of rubbish.
I started by creating paths, putting in paving, levelling the ground and planting fruit trees. At the bottom of the garden I made a pond, with a stream and a waterfall.
‘I’ve never had an overall plan, I just knew that I wanted great, sweeping beds of perennials. Bedding plants are all right, but they only last a year.
I wanted big plants which would make an impact, flower year after year, and look good from April to September, so it had to be perennials.
‘I particularly like heleniums, such as ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’. It’s reddish yellow and it goes on and on flowering.
‘I have lots of phlox, verbascums, geums, rudbeckias and salvias, all plants that give masses of colour.
Brian’s garden is now three-quarters of an acre. He says he particularly likes plants with lots of colour
‘When you have bright colours you need a good background of green, so I’ve planted plenty of trees, especially conifers, and grasses.
‘The contrast of foliage and flowers works well. I grow a few things from seed, like Lychnis coronaria, which has flowers in white, pink or purple – it’s always changing colour so you never know what to expect.
What the judges said
Bryan has skilfully used the shape, form and colour of a broad range of perennials to create a living tapestry, with colour and interest at every turn.’
‘Another passion is roses.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by them and I have about 80, all different varieties.
‘Scent is very important. I can’t see the point of a rose without fragrance.
‘I love ramblers and climbers, though you have to be careful as they can get too big.
‘I grow white ‘Rambling Rector’ and it’s got so huge I have to keep cutting it down or else it would take over the garden.
‘Lockdown has been a great excuse to spend even more time in the garden.
‘I think the work has paid off and recently I thought to myself, ‘By gum, the garden’s never looked better.’
‘Now lockdown is over I can have folk round and it makes me happy to see them wandering round.
‘My sister Dorothy entered me for the Daily Mail National Garden Competition, I’d never have thought of entering myself.
‘I’m a keen walker, but if I’m not walking I’m in the garden. In summer, I just come in for meals and otherwise I’m out in the garden until it gets dark.
‘There’s always something to do. I want the garden to be better every year and I’m already thinking about next year and what I can improve.
‘The thing about gardening is that it doesn’t just keep your body fit, it’s also good for your mind. You’re always thinking ahead and planning, designing things in your head. You’re never bored if you have a garden.’
A CUTTING ABOVE
Pam Gray, 74, and her husband Barry, 78, live in Woking in Surrey. Before they retired, Pam worked in a garden centre and Barry was a plumber.
‘We bought our 1930s house 32 years ago,’ says Pam. ‘When we moved we brought some plants with us from our old garden but at first we mainly grew vegetables, which is Barry’s great passion; he used to enter his produce in the local shows.
I’m keener on flowers and foliage. Barry does the lawns, the pruning and the veg – all the hard work! – while I do the watering, planning and the propagation.
Pam Gray, 74, and her husband Barry, 78, live in Woking in Surrey. Before they retired, Pam worked in a garden centre and Barry was a plumber
One of the many seating areas Pam and Barry have created in their luscious green garden
‘The front garden measures 39ft by 27ft and we like it to be a riot of colour. In spring it’s filled with bulbs, wallflowers, pansies and primroses, and in summer it’s overflowing with bedding plants.
‘We use hundreds of them every year and as we garden on a modest budget I grow almost everything that is planted in the borders and in the containers from seed and cuttings, supplemented with a few plug plants.
What the judges said
‘This is living proof that gardening without pesticides is an achievable and productive option.
Every area of Pam and Barry’s garden is beautifully planted and well cared for.’
‘Starting in February, I take about 1,000 cuttings of tender plants and in late spring our three greenhouses are so full I’ve developed what I call the ‘greenhouse shuffle’ to edge past all the plants.
‘We get lovely comments about our front garden from passers-by, but I think they’d be surprised to see the back, which is quite different.
‘It’s about 80ft by 35ft, with trees, shrubs and perennials, often with the emphasis on the foliage and fragrance.
‘Even in winter we have scents and colour from mahonias, sarcococcas and callicarpas.
‘As you enter the back garden there is a lawn area and a pond, and a winding path which leads down the garden – Barry made both the paths and the pond.
‘The garden is our passion and we spend most mornings working out there.
‘We’ve made sure to put seats everywhere so we remember to sit and enjoy what we’ve created.
‘We’re thrilled to be shortlisted and it’s lovely to be able to share our garden with Daily Mail readers.’
Pam grows most of her flowers either from a cutting or from seeds. The couple say they’re thrilled to be shortlisted
A JUNGLE HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE
Richard Smithson, 63, and his wife Sharon, 66, live in Chesterfield in Derbyshire.
Richard manages a woodland conservation project for adults with learning disabilities and Sharon works in human resources.
‘Sharon has lived in our 1930s semi-detached house for 28 years, and I moved in five years later,’ says Richard.
Richard Smithson, 63, and his wife Sharon, 66, live in Chesterfield in Derbyshire (pictured in their garden)
The couple transformed their boring square lawn and concrete drive into a magnificent haven of dozens of different plants
‘The garden had a square lawn, with narrow borders and a concrete drive that went the length of the garden, leading to an old garage. We realised it had great potential and began transforming it.
‘Our garden is very much a joint project.
What the judges said
A little bit of Cornwall finds its way to the Midlands.
Exotic and colourful planting is combined with great use of space in a relaxed and contemplative hideaway.’
‘I began gardening at an early age, encouraged by my grandad, and on leaving school I worked for the Leeds parks department.
‘Sharon has a love of nature and an interest in textiles, which shows in the way she weaves plants and colours into the design.
‘The garden is 40ft wide and 50ft at its longest.
‘We both wanted to move away from straight lines and have a natural, organic flow.
‘We really wanted the garden to feel like a tranquil extension to the house, and to have year-round interest with plenty of evergreen shrubs.
‘We love plants with big leaves, and visits to Cornwall and the Eden Project have helped inspire us.
‘Sharon is brilliant at planting in layers and filling in the gaps so there is very little room for weeds.
‘The garden changes a lot over the seasons.
‘In spring we have a woodland feel, with camellias, rhododendrons and pieris, and ground cover of wild garlic, bluebells and hellebores.
Some of the Smithsons’ plants have a sub-tropical feel. Richard says: ‘The garden is a sanctuary for us too and it’s been even more important for us during the last few months. It’s helped keep us going’
‘In summer it becomes subtropical, with foliage plants such as tetrapanax, cannas, bananas, a grape vine and begonias, along with ferns, bamboos and gunnera. In autumn the leaves of the acers turn a fiery red.
‘We’ve encouraged climbing plants to enhance the jungly feel; it makes the garden look a bit wild, but for us that’s part of its appeal.
‘We’re so happy that this space is a haven for wildlife, with a visiting hedgehog, frogs, damselflies and many varieties of birds.
‘The garden is a sanctuary for us too and it’s been even more important for us during the last few months. It’s helped keep us going.’
Have you transformed your own garden during the pandemic? If so, send some before and after pictures with a brief description and your contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish the best in a forthcoming issue.