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Art and Design

PUBLISHED: 12:29 11 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

Art and Design

Art and Design

Creating a new garden led to a change of career for Helen Riches, but it wasn't by design. Philippa Pearson went to visit her in Saffron Walden to find out more

HELEN and David Riches first saw the garden of their house in Saffron Walden 15 years ago, and despite being very neglected and overgrown, the garden had an instant appeal.

'When we first saw the garden it was summer and despite the weeds, roses were blooming high up in the trees, it was quite romantic,'
explains Helen.

After moving from London, and a much smaller garden, they had rented a house in Saffron Walden while searching for the ideal home for their young family. Once work was underway in the new house, Helen and David started to tackle the garden, taming years of wilderness where brambles, ground elder and Japanese knot weed were threatening to take over the whole plot.

Despite this challenge and having a long narrow garden on a sloping site, Helen relished the time outside and spent every spare minute gardening. She trained and worked as a graphic designer and it wasn't long before her natural artistic instincts began to shape and nurture the garden. 'There were a few nice shrubs I kept, including some box which was pruned back hard and some old apple trees,' says Helen.

Good advice came in the shape of close friend Steve Elstub, then head gardener at Audley End. Soon, the garden took shape and the rewarding work encouraged Helen to enrol on a garden design course at the College of West Anglia near Cambridge followed by further courses at Writtle College.

The current layout of the garden was planned in 2004, after Helen had completed her training. While pleased with the existing garden layout, Helen wanted to split the plot up more so that not everything could be seen at once. 'I wanted to make it a journey to get to the bottom of the garden' says Helen, 'so I decided to split the garden into three separate areas.'

The area nearest the house has raised beds filled with architectural shrubs and interesting perennials using clever colour schemes. One area has a border using just yellow and orange coloured flowers. 'Most of my clients won't let me use these colours in their gardens,' says Helen with a smile, 'but I really like the range of plants in this colour spectrum.'

Elsewhere in the garden an old shed, which originally was right next to the house and moved to its present site in the re-design, provides a useful backdrop for Helen and David's collection of old enamel advertising signs. The middle area of the garden includes the original box shrub that Helen hard pruned not long after moving, now joined by other box topiary and mixed with choice perennials. Further down the garden an imposing iron gate from Helen's family farm in Northern Ireland marks the entrance to the area where David's office is situated. Here, raised beds are filled with plants that appreciate the dappled shade, giving highlights of colour and a relaxing feeling to the area.

Alongside Helen's garden design practice, (Front Door Flora), Helen has found her garden is a perfect venue for teaching garden design. She runs her popular courses twice a year. 'Students tell me the real garden location helps them relate to the design techniques that they learn on the course,' Helen says. 'This includes lots of nitty gritty horticultural stuff, as well as going on garden visits.'

The garden also earns its keep as a photographic location in connection with Helen's work as a gardening writer. Helen was very pleased to be named Practical Journalist of the Year in 2008 by the Garden Media Guild. Helen has the knack for transforming gardens into little plots of gold.

RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson is a garden designer and professional horticulturalist. Call 01767 651253 or email Philippa at

Garden cuttings
Essex horticulturists won coveted RHS medals at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July. Southend on Sea Borough Council won Silver-Gilt for their Pasture's Bye show garden, based
on a shepherd's garden on the shoreline and estuaries of southeast Essex. Hanging Gardens Nurseries from Writtle won Silver Grenfell for their Inspiring Spaces display, while
in the Floral Marquee, Gold went to Bushukan Bonsai from Hockley
and Silver-Gilt to Todd's Botanics from Coggeshall. Essex Carnivorous
plants from Benfleet won a Bronze Lindley medal for its display in the Plant Heritage Marquee and Essex Life garden writer Philippa Pearson won
Silver-Gilt for her Sadolin Nature To Nurture Garden.


Front Door Flora
90 Debden Road
Saffron Walden
CB11 4AL
01799 500426
Helen's next garden design course
is in October. The garden is not
open to the public.


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