It takes your breath away when you step through the threshold and find a full blown garden packed with the purples and pinks, greens and blues of an early summer idyll.
The backdrop is soft brick walls – and the inspiration and sweat of a team of talented volunteers.
For years the Walled Garden in Little Plumstead, north-east of Norwich, was a wilderness of man-tall brambles and nettles. Two years ago it was completely felled except for three protected trees. Today is simply glorious – full of delphiniums, geraniums, lilies, roses, oriental poppies, Canterbury bells, ornamental carrots, globe artichokes and a hundred more burgeoning and blooming beauties.
Paths separate parts of the garden and meander through flower beds. There’s a Stumpery and Ferny Corner, a small orchard and meadow of wildflowers, espalier fruit trees lining the walls, a new Victorian style greenhouse, fragrant herbs bordering taller plants, and a peaceful sense and chorus of color throughout.
Any season will be beautiful, with planting that will delight year-round. Sugar snap peas will soon be climbing the waiting bamboo frames. Today, volunteers are planting snowdrop bulbs to brighten up the garden in the middle of winter.
A new Victorian-style greenhouse has just been installed, replacing the greenhouse where a team of gardeners once grew exotic plants for the hall’s owners.
Funded by a charitable foundation, individual donors, crowdfunding and proceeds from plant stands and events, it will be a retreat from inclement weather for the volunteers, a home for magnificent plants including a tropical bougainvillea and a giant dahlia from Peru, a place where unusual plants are grown for the garden and for sale and conducting community events and workshops.
To one side of the garden, sun-protected chairs and tables extend from the pretty cafe onto a patio area and lawn. Behind it is a community shop with a plant stand.
The Garden, Cafe and Store are designed together to be self-sustaining – the Garden brings customers to the Cafe and grows Cafe ingredients and supplies for the Store; the shop and cafe bring customers for each other and volunteers to the garden; and all proceeds went back to the Walled Garden Community Shop and Cafe.
“We run this as a business, but any money we make goes back into the business,” said Andy Carty, chairman of the nonprofit that runs the project. “None of them alone would make money, but together they will.”
The garden was created by volunteers in just two years. But there is nothing new about the site.
Botanist Richard Hobbs lives nearby and, just like in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novel The Secret Garden, used to peek through a small wooden door into the walled garden – and dreamed of what it might become.
A gifted gardener with a particular interest in bulbs, the former director of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust oversees the national collection of grape hyacinths and is an expert on the snowdrops collected by Heyrick Antony Greatorex from nearby Witton. The snowdrops planted in the walled garden are Greatorex snowdrops which were donated by a Wymondham grower.
Richard first saw the garden almost 30 years ago when it was a very popular part of the hospital grounds. He was also one of the people close by who knew the abandoned garden could be restored to its former glory.
It dates from at least 1855 when it was included in the sales information for Grand Plumstead Hall, which was described as having ‘a most fertile walled garden, well planted, and the high walls overgrown with choice fruit trees’. They are spacious and tastefully laid out and surrounded by noble oaks, beeches and other forest trees.”
The walled garden became part of the site of a large new hall built in 1889. Forty years later the hall became a hospital for people with learning disabilities and the garden was used by patients and their visitors and for charity events.
After the hospital moved out of the hall in the 1990s, much of the property was sold for housing. The manor house was destroyed by fire in 2016, but the walled garden survived, its once-tended flower beds and lawns obliterated by thornbushes.
Thanks to the vision and commitment of a team of enthusiasts, the garden is now owned by the local government and is managed by a non-profit association.
Volunteers planned the new walled garden, researched its history and visited similar gardens for inspiration, sought grants to fund the initial work, and then laid out the garden week by week, month by month.
“Our aim here was to give the garden a Victorian feel, a formal structure with informal planting. We made the decision to make it a flower and cut garden rather than a vegetable garden,” said Richard. “It was also planted for bees and butterflies and is absolutely alive with them at the moment.”
In the orchards, cowslips, daffodils, dog daisies and seed-grown orchids grow beneath trees dotted with old-fashioned fruits like medlar and quince and native apples like Norfolk Beauty and Norfolk Russett.
Almost everything has been planted in the last two years, but three trees survived the hospital years, a Victorian rose was saved and patches of Jimsonweed keep appearing. “It was used by the Victorians as a sedative and is also hallucinogenic. I suspect it was used by the hospital,” said Andy, chair of the management committee.
There are also more harmless herbs – marjoram, borage, angelica and sweet cicely growing around taller vegetables, shrubs and flowers. The rhubarb is used in the café and sold in the shop, but the stately flowering carrots are purely decorative.
The other side of the small door through which Richard once looked into the deserted garden is the old hospital graveyard. Up until the 1970’s people were buried here in unmarked graves and Richard and Andy would like to look after this area as well and perhaps convert it into a memorial garden.
The volunteers meet twice a week. They range from absolute beginners to seasoned gardeners, and from children coming with their parents to people in their 70’s and 80’s.
The shop and cafe have a few paid staff alongside their own teams of volunteers, but anyone who works in the garden does it for free – rewarded by the joy of being a part of creating something so beautiful.
“I love being here early in the morning or late at night mowing the lawn, it’s really magical and the light is so different at different times of the day,” Andy said.
The reaction to the garden, cafe and shop has been extremely positive and Richard said: “I really thought we were trying too hard but we pulled it off. I think it exceeded all expectations.”
Norfolk’s own secret garden, created by visionary volunteers, works its magic whether it’s a first-time visitor or a second volunteer in a week.
The garden and café are open seven days a week, with the café open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm and Sunday from 10am to 3pm, and the garden workers meet every Wednesday and Saturday. New volunteers are always needed. thewalledgardenshop.de