The secret garden

Eric Rawcliffe and Sharon McDonnell's garden at Lower Green, Poulton le Fylde.(garden will soon be open to the public for charity).
Eric Rawcliffe and Sharon McDonnell's garden at Lower Green, Poulton le Fylde.(garden will soon be open to the public for charity).
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Blink and you may miss the garden – from the outside. There’s no apparent sign of it at the front of the former 18th century farm labourer’s cottage in the heart of Poulton.

Park opposite, and you find yourself peering at the property, in pursuit of a decidedly hidden gem, and wondering whether the satnav or A to Z map has slipped up again. A secret garden, indeed.

Green Farm Cottage is in one of the most built-up residential areas of the historic town. Some 13 houses fringe the back garden of No 42 Lower Green.

But not one actually overlooks the half acre, which offers such an abundance of flora and fauna. Certainly not in its entirety. There may be an alluring glimpse from a top window when the window blows, and the tall trees part briefly to grant a vision of a garden abloom with beauty, but that’s as good as it gets until an open day on Sunday, June 19, 10am to 5pm, admission by donation, to charity, of £3 (accompanied children free). Consider it an investment in quality of life.

It is the first time this beautiful garden has featured in a nationwide scheme offering admission to more than 3,700 private gardens across England Wales.

It is the only local garden to make the grade, flying the floral flag for the Fylde coast in the Lancashire section of the National Gardens Scheme.

It really does beg the question... why not more? There are other beautiful gardens locally. Some are in the running for the Blackpool in Bloom awards, deadline for entries July 1, entry forms available from The Garden Place, Cropper Road, Marton, Sunday and Monday, and local libraries. Another, Over Wyre way, regularly opens, privately, for charity, each year, but has yet to join the NGS. Others could be contenders.

The NGS is one of the most prestigious umbrella organisations for gardeners who want to share the fruits of their labours with others. In the past 10 years, it has raised £26m for nursing, caring and gardening charities. It does so by encouraging gardeners to open their gardens to visitors for a day or two each year. Size does not matter, most NGS gardens being no larger than a typical back garden.

It’s a coup to be included, because what all the gardens, listed in the NGS Yellow Book, have to offer is at least 45 minutes of visitor interest. Forty five minutes? I lost two hours there... and had to summoned back to the office by bosses.

This garden is the result of generations of hard work, much of the redesign of the old fruit farm down to former owner Joyce Watkins, now living on the Wirral, who will be over for the open day at the invitation of Sharon McDonnell and and Eric Rawcliffe, who bought the property three years ago.

Sharon works three days a week at her hairdresser’s, Enigma, in Layton. Eric’s become a full-time gardener, “Sharon’s labourer.” He does the heavy duty work, root and tree clearance, pruning, weeding, growing from seeds or cuttings, and daily mowing... the manicured lawn a relative newcomer, carved out of a failed vegetable plot, nurtured in the last two years by a chap who’s a champion crown green bowler.

The couple met by chance, both widowed in their 50s, little expecting to love again. They have been saying it with flowers ever since. Roses, highly scented, are a shared passion.

Sharon, who didn’t have a garden in her milltown childhood, finally got her dream, a proper garden, not a yard, when she moved to Carleton.

When she and Eric, retired ICI electrical engineer, set up house together, Sharon’s one condition was they got a large garden. Eric grew up in the area, used to catch his school bus outside Green Farm Cottage, and scrump the apples there, so knew all about the secret garden. When the workload outgrew Joyce it came on the market – Eric hoisting Sharon above the back fence to glimpse the hidden garden.

“It was love at first sight,” she admits. It’s been a labour of love ever since, pretty much full time, the pair giving up summer holidays to see it through the growing season.

Last year they opened the garden to locals, advertised via a notice outside, and 100 filed through, raising several hundred pounds for cancer charities (cancer having claimed Eric’s wife’s life).

The visitors all said one thing as they entered the life enhancing garden. Wow. Some set up camp for the day – to Sharon’s delight. “I love talking to other gardeners – anyone who’s interested.” Both she and Eric are members of Knott End Garden Club – the only club that met at a time to suit them. “You learn so much from other gardeners.”

The NGS guide calls it a “formal” cottage garden but the warmth of the welcome belies the formality. The garden’s a joy, a sprawl of colours, climbers, scents, sounds, sensations, complete with resident duck, Mildred, and her brood, who dropped by one day last year, and chose to stay. Can’t say I blame her...