Helen Brown Interview, Devon Winner of Nation’s Favourite NGS Garden '21

Plantswoman Helen Brown has been gardening at Little Ash, her home near Honiton, Devon, since 2000. “My aim is to create a wildlife haven without compromising on our own requirements of the garden,” she explains.

For Helen, that means having plenty of room to accommodate her passion for plants: favourites include purple-leaved plants such as Physocarpus ‘Diablo’ and Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, tactile grasses and long-flowering perennials. Close to the house are treasures that need more cosseting than those plants further out in the garden, such as an expanding collection of salvias, hedychium and delicate alpines in a raised bed.

The garden slopes towards the River Otter, the eye drawn down the gentle sweep of lawn by a group of three granite rollers. At the bottom, a natural stream keeps the Alder Grove damp enough for moisture-loving arisaema, podophyllum, primulas and trillium to thrive, while in summer, mini meadow areas are full of wildflowers such as bird’s foot trefoil, wild carrot, orchids and yellow rattle, to the benefit of bees and butterflies.

The overall effect is naturalistic, with densely planted borders of intermingling plants combined to great effect “I always ask my visitors to look closely, or they might miss something special!” says Helen.
We met Helen to find out more about what inspires her and how she came to develop her award winning garden.

helen brown

Were you an enthusiastic gardener before you moved to Little Ash?

Helen has always been a keen gardener - so keen in fact that when they first moved to Little Ash over 20 years ago Helen’s husband, Brian, drove over with two cattle trailer-loads full of plants from their previous home!

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

Did you inherit a love of gardening?

Growing up in the country she vividly remembers the local shows where there would be competitions for the best miniature garden, or wildflower posies in jam jars. Helen credits both her parents for instilling in her a love of plants. Her mum taught her about wild plants, and Helen’s father, who taught Rural Science, did the same - she inherited many treasured wildflower books from them - and as well as being teachers, they ran a fruit, veg and flower shop, so there was lots of information which Helen realises she absorbed young. 

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

Does your family share your passion?

Brian appreciates the garden and, being a farmer, is very handy with a chainsaw and a digger! Recently, Helen was delighted by a visit from her daughter, who has moved into a house with a small garden, in Bristol. She said, “Mum, I’ve been to the garden centre!” and revealed what she had in the car - a familiar scene that took Helen back to when she first started buying for her own garden. It’s a particular joy to know that, as a teacher, Helen’s daughter has been talking about growing sweet peas on Zoom with her pupils!

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

Which are your favourite parts of your garden?

Alder Grove is an easy choice as Helen’ favourite part of the garden, which is a damp, shady area, burgeoning with life - There is new stuff popping through all the time.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

Are there any particularly challenging spots?

Helen reflects that the Alder Grove in itself is challenging as it can become sodden in parts while at other times of the year, of course, parts of the Alder Grove will be completely bone dry, which is yet another challenge. The annual sequence of challenges from hungry rabbits, pheasant, pigeons, Roe deer and moles are a theme! There is a frequent requirement to use up-turned hanging baskets, and other wire structures to deter them all grazing on everything.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change?

Helen would love to take the garden out of a frost pocket - late white frosts means she can’t put anything out until at least 20th May.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

Which gardeners and gardens do you most admire?

Keith Whiley’s garden at Wildside (near the Devon village of Buckland Monachorum), is an absolute joy, says Helen. He has a naturalistic planting style, and the garden is a plantsman’s dream with no bare soil - every space utilised. Created from one acre, he has made a perfect environment for plants.

Do you have a garden or gardening tip you would like us to pass on?

Helen’s top tip is that she only digs to take out plants, or to put things in! Also, Helen recommends wood ash from the fire to create a crown around the outside of hostas to protect young hosta shoots from slugs.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

When did you become aware of the NGS?

I used to visit NGS gardens back in the 1980s, when I was an Agricultural Lecturer and had just bought my first home.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden

What structures do you most rely on in the garden?

Our metal arches are are very important to the look of the garden which were installed after the original wooden ones disintegrated.

What will you use your £100.00 Agriframes voucher for?

I am looking forward to having some obelisks specifically for clematis.

helen brown Devon winner NGS garden