PUBLISHED: 20:30 17 September 2013 | UPDATED: 20:30 17 September 2013
It all started when Charmaine Cox happened to mention to her daughter that the garden was looking quite lovely and it was a shame that no one else had the chance to see it and its interesting plants. Within hours, Charmaine's daughter had spoken to Susan Copeland, the Essex county organiser for the National Gardens Scheme, and the very next day Susan came and met with Charmaine to see her lovely garden and the deal was done; The Lembic became one of more than 70 gardens open in Essex as part of the NGS calendar.
‘It all happened very quickly, before I’d really had time to think about things,’ laughs Charmaine, ‘but I am glad we open the garden to visitors, as it’s lovely to share it with other people.’
The Lembic opened last year for the first time and raised more than £1,200 for NGS charities over their three openings. The mature half-acre garden sits in a quiet cul-de-sac in Shenfield near Brentwood, on top of a hill and at the highest point in Essex according to Charmaine. Together with husband Fred, the couple moved here in 1968, but the garden was originally laid out and planted in 1934 when the house was built.
‘All the trees in the garden are now mature,’ says Charmaine as we walk around looking at towering oaks, maples, horse chestnuts, beeches, silver birches and pine trees. One of only a handful of gardens open in Essex during October, the changing hues of the trees provide an autumnal backdrop to set off the borders at this quieter time of the gardening calendar.
Charmaine began to spend more time in the garden when she retired 10 years ago and maintains it with Fred (they are both in their 80s) and occasional outside help with trimming the holly hedge.
‘Fred does a great job looking after the lawn,’ says Charmaine, ‘and I tend to look after everything else. I’m out in the garden most days.’
The soil, unusually for Essex, is sandy loam which provides the acidic content ideal for growing rhododendrons and azaleas. The mature specimens planted in the 1930s are stunning in May, so the garden is also open then and in early June for visitors to enjoy the colourful blooms to which Charmaine and Fred have added camellias to complement the existing planting. Walkways have also been added between shrubs while a sculpture surrounded by garden seats offers a quiet spot for contemplation and admiration of the garden.
Homemade compost and leaf mould are added to enrich the sandy soil to help retain moisture while some of the larger stones and rocks found in the soil have been used as decorative features around the garden. Sandy soil combined with a big root system means planting under the trees is not always easy.
‘It is quite challenging to find things to grow in these conditions,’ says Charmaine, ‘and after a lot of experiment, I find that epimedium and dicentra do quite well.’
Another challenging aspect in the garden is larger pests. ‘Squirrels, moles, Muntjac deer and badgers also like the garden,’ says Charmaine. ‘They can do a lot of damage. Squirrels are always eating any bulbs I put in, while other plants are dug up. To deter them, we find a jet of water helps.’
Gardeners are always faced with challenges, but with trial and error coupled with lots of patience, most of them can be overcome. The Lembic has grown with Charmaine and Fred over time and they have achieved a garden that has matured and blossomed, whatever challenges it has faced.