See inside this 'ever changing' garden which took 40 years to create

Beautiful manicured gardens at Quaker Farm, Spixworth, which will open for this year's National Garden Scheme on May 8

The gardens at Quaker Farm have taken Gill and Peter Cook 40 years to create - Credit: Gill Cook

The gardens around Quaker Farm, on the outskirts of Norwich, have been a labour of love for 40 years.

Owners Gill and Peter Cook moved to the property in 1975, just after they got married. At the time, Gill says it was a “rather neglected farmhouse and an even more neglected garden, with remains of an old apple orchard and a few shrubs”. 

But since then, the couple has transformed the one-acre space, complete with garden rooms, herbaceous borders and an avenue of shrubs.  

Gill and Peter Cook in their garden at Quaker Farm, Spixworth, which they open for the National Garden Scheme

Gill and Peter Cook in their garden at Quaker Farm - Credit: Gill Cook

Last year, as part of the National Garden Scheme, they opened it to the public. Thanks to “a brilliant team of helpers and cake makers”, they raised over £2,000 for local health charities. It was a “very happy occasion”, Gill says, and one “well worth repeating.” 

“Last year was the first time we opened for the National Garden Scheme,” explains Gill. “After an extremely cold start to May, lockdown lifted, the sun came out and it seemed like everyone suddenly was keen to get out and socialise.” 

Opening to the public was, in many ways, a long time coming. It has taken 40 years to transform what Gill calls a “blank canvas” into a series of inviting garden ‘rooms’. They’re full of interest and variety, carefully planted to ensure there’s something interesting to look at, year-round.  

Gravel garden featuring tulips and topiary at Quaker Farm, Spixworth

The gravel garden is one of Gill's favourite areas - Credit: Gill Cook

“One of the first things we did was to put some hedges in at right angles to the house to make the space less daunting,” Gill says. “By making arches in the hedges, linking one area to another, it immediately gave the garden more interest, as well as creating microclimates within the spaces.” 

Progress on the garden has been fitted in around other things, like raising children and working on the farm, enabling Gill - who says she has always had an interest in design - to really develop her ideas.

She’s taken inspiration from other people’s gardens, as well as from the seasons, and calls gardening an ever-changing canvas. “Once you’ve got an interest in plants and gardening it never leaves you and it is continually evolving,” she says. 

Beautiful woodland area with flowering bluebells at Quaker Farm, Spixworth

Bluebells in the woodland area - Credit: Gill Cook

“I think you only really take an interest in gardening when you have your own garden to look after. But it was only when the children got older that I had more time to develop my ideas. It’s a good thing to do things slowly and to think long and hard before doing anything too radical – some of my earlier decisions hadn’t really been thought out very well and got changed over the years.

“Many years ago I went to a talk by Penelope Hobhouse at the UEA. I remember her saying ‘I’m assuming you can garden, but I want to teach you to train your eye’. By the end of the talk I felt completely inspired, came home and could instantly see that a vista leading away from the house in the back garden would give it much more interest. Why had I never thought of that before!” 

Colourful spring tulips in the garden at Quaker Farm, which is open to the public on May 8 as part of the NGS

Colourful spring tulips - Credit: Gill Cook

Nowadays, one of Gill’s favourite spaces is the gravel garden, which she says was partly inspired by the work of Beth Chatto. “Each year is slightly different, but I aim to get a succession of interest throughout the year,” she explains. “I try not to control it too much, letting things seed if they like it there.” 

The woodland garden, which Gill created most recently, is different entirely. It’s now her favourite spot to wander through in the morning, armed with a cup of coffee, to see what has changed and grown, overnight. “There is a freshness about the different greens and clarity of colours, especially in the spring, that you don’t get in the rest of the garden. 

“There is something special about spring – seeing the garden slowly coming to life after the winter, and the bulbs you planted maybe six months ago (and occasionally even forgotten where you planted them!) starting their spring display.  

Spring pots on the patio at Quaker Farm in Spixworth, an acre garden which has taken over 40 years to create

Spring is one of Gill's favourite times of year - although she says she tries not to have a favourite! - Credit: Gill Cook

“I try not to have a favourite time of year, but it’s always rather sad when the garden loses that spring freshness. You have to make sure that there’s always the next plant, waiting in the wings, to look forward to once one season goes over.” 

Maintaining interest, particularly throughout the year, is a constant work in progress. “I’m always on the look out for plants that look good when there’s a bit of a lull in the garden,” Gill explains. Gillenia trifoliata, a “graceful, dainty plant for semi-shade or full sun with narrow-petalled white flowers”, is one of her favourites, along with Gaura lindheimeri, which “flowers for months on end and happily seeds around the gravel garden.” 

Keeping the spaces so well-stocked does take up time, though. Gill says she would love to grow vegetables but doesn’t realistically have the time, although she still makes sure there are lots of herbs available, particularly mint and parsley, and uses the greenhouse to grow cucumbers and tomatoes. 

Together, the couple have done pretty much all the work themselves, apart from an occasional bit of hard landscaping. It’s very much a team effort. “Peter is very hands on with making such things as raised beds, cold frames and especially the lockdown project of the treehouse for the grandchildren – as well as being pretty handy with a chainsaw,” Gill says. “Added to that is the regular maintenance of the grass and help with the heavy jobs, which require a bit more brute force. 

Completed treehouse in the acre-big gardens of Quaker Farm, Spixworth, which is open to the public on May 8

The treehouse was a lockdown project - Credit: Gill Cook

“We’re also very lucky to have a very experienced digger driver on the farm, Bob, who seems to effortlessly be able to shift soil around, cut out tops of trees and dredge the pond every few years.” 

The soil at Quaker Farm is generally light, she says, which means that the couple often have to improve its quality through mulching, and planting a shelter belt of trees has also helped to protect the space from the south-westerly wind. 

Gill calls herself a “fairweather gardener”, but is quick to note its benefits. “It certainly helped no end during lockdown,” she says. “Whereas I do not like to spend hours doing housework, it’s not the same in the garden. You can get totally absorbed in what you’re doing and once you get stuck in, all the things which are bothering or worrying you somehow don’t dominate your thoughts so much. 

“Sometimes when you go out, you’re not actually quite sure what you’re going to be doing. It takes a while to get stuck into a job and then, you know, time suddenly just goes and an hour or two later, you really feel you’ve achieved something. 

The woodland garden at Quaker Farm, Spixworth, which will open for the National Garden Scheme on May 8

The recently created woodland garden - Credit: Gill Cook

“Added to that it really is good exercise and makes you feel so much better at the end of the day – a nice sort of tiredness!”  

On Sunday, May 8, Gill and Peter will open their garden again for the National Garden Scheme, offering light refreshments and a chance for members of the public to explore Quaker Farm’s one-acre grounds.  

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