Caroline Saunders, @farmhouse.gardener has a garden of about 1.75 acres on her farm in East Suffolk, we talked to her to find out how her love for gardening came about and how she manages her huge farmhouse garden alongside running her own garden design business.
How much of your 1.75 acres of land is gardened?
About half, the rest is a work in progress! Within the garden, I have a kitchen garden area, which works very much like an allotment, with beds for cut flowers, as well as some soft fruit and veg. I am working on developing various other areas, which were very unloved when we moved here five years ago.
Is gardening a profession or a hobby?
I still pinch myself to say this, but I now garden professionally as well as for my hobby. I previously worked in tech PR and marketing for many years, but after the second of our three children was born, I stopped work in that area. After our third child came along, an interest in gardening had been firmly established, and as we moved house three times in fairly quick succession when the kids were small, I had three opportunities to design gardens in our own houses, which I loved. I then began helping friends with their gardens, and by the time our youngest had started school, I had started studying my RHS Level 2, which I completed two years later. I then signed up for the WRAGS scheme, which is a programme that allows career-changers to spend a year working as part of a team on a large private garden. I also did a one-year garden design course at Beth Chatto’s Garden, and am now running my own garden design business. I usually have two or three local projects on the go at any one time, either full redesigns or overhauling particular areas of people’s gardens.
When did you start gardening?
I first got seriously interested in gardening when my husband and I bought our first house in London in 2005. It had a small garden, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. As soon as we were able, I drew up a plan, without really realising how much I didn’t know and created a garden we really enjoyed, and it snowballed from there!
Was gardening a thing in your household when you were growing up?
My mum has always been a very keen gardener with a really impressive knowledge of plants. My sister and I both remember going to visit lots of National Trust gardens during our childhood, and I have dim memories of being taken to an RHS show when I was very young, so I think it must all have been going in on some level. Luckily my parents live close to us in Suffolk now, so my mum and I often go to visit local gardens together, which is hugely enjoyable.
Who else gets involved with your plot? Is it a family affair?
The garden is definitely my domain – my husband enjoys getting on the ride-on mower, and having a good bonfire, but doesn’t get involved beyond that. I’m really lucky to have one day a week where our lovely neighbour comes and helps me, which makes a huge difference to keeping on top of a plot this size. Tony mainly does jobs like hedge trimming, looking after the grass and large machinery work. During lockdown, my two younger girls had a raised bed each to grow their own veggies, which they enjoyed, and my teenage boy is now proving very handy when it comes to wheelbarrowing mulch around, as long as it’s in return for some pocket money! I’ll take any help I can get!
Where do you get inspiration and gardening advice from?
My favourite source of inspiration is visiting other gardens. We are lucky to have some amazing gardens near us in Suffolk, and I have a couple of lovely gardening buddies who I go and visit gardens with, often going to Sussex, as we all love Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill.
I also love keeping up with the gardening community on Instagram. It’s so inspiring to see what other gardeners are getting up to – it’s also a good source of information about new plants, which can prove expensive!
What are you planning to grow this season?
I’ll be growing a mix of flowers for cutting and vegetables in the kitchen garden – we’ve narrowed the veggies down to the ones we really love and that taste better than shop-bought, but I always like to add something new that we’ve not tried before. This year I’ll be growing luffa sponges for the first time, and some new varieties of beans. I absolutely love sweet peas and Dahlias, and always manage to squeeze in a few new varieties of both of those. Elsewhere in the garden, I’ve just overhauled a large bed and replanted it with lots of ferns and shrubs and threading annuals through the bed which I’ve grown from seed, so I’ll be sharing the progress of all of that on Instagram.
How does gardening have an effect on your lifestyle?
Gardening, and being outside has become an absolutely essential part of my life. Growing and nurturing plants is so uplifting, and brings some much-needed positivity when the rest of the world can feel overwhelming. I also find if I have a couple of days where I have to be indoors at my desk, I start feeling incredibly claustrophobic. I definitely couldn’t go back to doing a desk job, the pull of being outside is too strong! There’s nothing quite like that feeling of mental and physical exhaustion after a full day outside, or the feeling of satisfaction you get from a job well done.
What do you find most challenging in your garden?
I have so many ideas for my garden, but neither the time nor budget to execute them! There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I’d like to, but I’m hoping as the years go by, more sections of the garden will go from neglected to beautiful. I’m getting there, slowly but surely!
What has been your greatest success?
Last year I went large with my sweet peas, after seeing the head gardener at the estate garden where I worked doing the same the year before. Using all the tips and tricks I’d learnt from him, I created a new bed which I dug out and filled with lots of rich organic matter and built my own row of sweet pea supports from locally grown hazel. I ended up being overrun with sweet peas from May to August when I finally gave up trying to keep on top of the cutting! I invited friends round to cut their own and was giving them away to anyone I could. It was amazing, I’m hoping to do the same again this year, it’ll be interesting to see if I can recreate it.
Any big growing challenges you plan to take on in the future?
We are very lucky to have a small area of woodland in one section of our garden, which was overrun with nettles and self-seeded sycamore when we moved in. We’ve slowly managed to clear it, and I now have a chicken run up there, but I’d love to turn it into a proper woodland garden. I’ve planted three multi-stemmed silver birches in a clearing we’ve made up there, but it’s a big job.
Three top tips you would give someone starting out?
Firstly, I’d recommend joining in with the amazing gardening community on Instagram – there are gardeners there specialising in every area of horticulture you can imagine, and people are so generous with the tips and tricks they share. Secondly, I’d say little and often will get you further than you think – break down big jobs so you’re doing a little bit a day, and you can make amazing progress. Finally, look into no-dig, pioneered by veg gardening guru Charles Dowding – starting up a garden, whether it’s an edible garden or a traditional space, doesn’t need to be backbreaking, and sustainable gardening is often much easier, less strenuous and better for the environment than some of the traditional methods.
Three people you’d recommend following on Instagram?
@katesinthegarden is always inspirational, showing snippets of Kate’s daily life as a head gardener at an estate in Surrey. Kate loves growing flowers for cutting and is so generous with her knowledge and takes the most gorgeous flat lay photos, complete with named varieties.
@arthurparkinson_ has an incredible eye for colour and container combinations, as well as writing some of my favourite gardening books. Finally, on the edible side of things,
@shegrowsveg is a mine of information, and is in the middle of the most amazing project, creating a sustainable homestead in the Suffolk countryside.
Any feedback on your experience of using Natural Grower?
I used Natural Grower for the first time on my sweet peas when you kindly sent me a bag of Natural Soil Conditioner last year, and the results were amazing! Growing organically is really important to me, so it’s good to know all the products are organic and peat-free.