Exploring the Japanese themed Little Croft garden in Fleet

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 March 2020

Carefully placed rocks and planting around the pond Photo: Leigh Clapp

Carefully placed rocks and planting around the pond Photo: Leigh Clapp

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Graham and Pauline Bowyer have transformed their garden into a peaceful haven using the Japanese garden principles of aesthetics, pleasing sounds and restful stillness.

Little Croft in Fleet is an unexpected delight, something a bit different to the norm for an English town garden.

When Graham and Pauline Bowyer moved to the 1930s property in 1981 with their three young boys the priority was to have a garden large enough for the usual activities, such as kicking a football and riding bikes. “The garden particularly was considerably larger than the post-war estate house that we lived in previously and the location was great, with easy access to station, town centre and schools,” Graham recalls. “The area behind the house was filled with huge rhododendrons and laurel; the trunks were sufficiently large that in one I built a platform for the children to climb up onto. Beside the house was a lawn with central rose beds and an expanding weeping willow. The roses tended to puncture the footballs, so an early project was to remove the roses and fill in 
with lawn.”

The land had once been an apple orchard and two old trees remained, appreciated not so much for the few apples they still produce but for the attractive moss on their branches that is enjoyed by the birds. When the boys had left home the needs of the garden changed and it was a passion for Japanese garden design that has informed the transformation. “After our first trip to Japan we came back fascinated by the gardens we had seen and with a determination to learn more about them,” says Graham. “The first Japanese element was built after our second trip to Japan in 2005. This was the gravel garden in front to the garage. It has since been rebuilt to improve on our initial efforts, but retains the original concept, and some of the original features, such as the water basin. We joined the Japanese Garden Society, bought books, attended workshops and started to learn as much as we could. In my ten trips to Japan, 2002 to 2019, I have visited many gardens, both famous and others that are little-known.”

Two further projects over the years have seen the creation of a stunning pond garden, with carefully placed rocks and planting, designed by friend and expert Robert Ketchell, a professional Japanese-style garden designer and builder, and a hidden tea garden approached on stepping-stones through an entrance gate. “There was never a whole garden plan,” says Graham. “Each area has been developed separately, but with an understanding of the context in which it sits, that is the rest of the garden, the house and the neighbouring properties.” Both keen gardeners, Pauline and Graham have shared this passion and interest in gardening throughout their marriage. “Pauline has had some formal training in horticulture from Merrist Wood and Sparsholt,” says Graham. “Beyond that we learn from others and especially from members of the Japanese Garden Society on aspects of garden design and maintenance in the Japanese style. Pauline and I have also attended the Japanese Garden Intensive Seminar at the Research Centre for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage in Kyoto. I give talks to local gardening clubs; showing pictures of a variety of Japanese gardens and talk about the design, the planting, the maintenance as well as a little about the historical and cultural context.”

Stepping stones in the tea garden  Photo: Leigh ClappStepping stones in the tea garden Photo: Leigh Clapp

There have been challenges along the way, the first was to develop a style that drew on Japanese design and practice, but would work in the local context using locally sourced materials. With plants and materials that were different to what would be found naturally in Japan is was more about the ethos and feel of the Japanese style that the couple wanted to emulate. “Our garden is not a copy of anything found in Japan. But what we have attempted to do is build a garden that we enjoy, and we hope others will too. It serves our lifestyle and interests. Clearly there are elements that are inspired by Japanese gardens, the pond and stream, the tea garden and the gravel garden. Beyond that the way we prune our trees and shrubs throughout the garden draws heavily on Japanese gardening practice.”

The soil is thin, poor, free-draining and dries out quickly so homemade compost is added every year greatly improving the condition. “Another challenge was learning how to place rocks, not just the aesthetic arrangement, but also how to move objects that are too heavy to lift,” says Graham. “I have broken two sack trolleys, but they are readily replaced. I am extremely careful about the stress I put on myself! I am still learning the art of rock placement, and we are extremely grateful for the help and advice from Robert Ketchell. Pruning is another area of continuous learning. We use a naturalistic style, one that for the most part emphasises the natural beauty of the plant, rather than forcing it into some unnatural shape.” Acers grace the garden, azaleas and rhododendrons shine out amongst layered foliage in various shades of green, and stands of golden bamboo catch in the sunlight. Sound is of the gently trickling of water and the whole ambience is one of peace and calm.

“One of the joys of the Japanese-style garden is that they can have something to delight us in all seasons,” they enthuse. “We have sought to do this, partly by building structural elements, fences, gates, rocks, lanterns, that change little throughout the year. But also by selecting plants that provide interest throughout the year. For instance there are plants somewhere in the garden that are in flower in every month, others have fantastic autumn colour, some have exciting sharp green new foliage in the spring, some evergreens have increased in significance as the deciduous plants around them shed their leaves for the winter. Our garden is our piece of paradise; we hope visitors when we open through the National Garden Scheme will find it a place of tranquillity as well as beauty. We really enjoy meeting other garden enthusiasts, and delight in sharing our garden with them.”

Iridescent azaleas Photo: Leigh ClappIridescent azaleas Photo: Leigh Clapp

Good to know

Little Croft, Fleet, GU51 4LA

Little was proposed to be open by arrangement through the National Garden Scheme April to May, groups of ten to 30.

However, the restrictions imposed to combat COV-19 will likely affect all NGS open gardens.

Check the website for updates ngs.org.uk

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