Weeded out from the rat-race

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Geography teacher Wol Staines starts his day in the greenhouse. He and his wife Sue show Stephen Anderton around their Essex garden. A great deal more work for very little more pay. It was this prospect which 20 years ago persuaded Wol Staines not to apply for headteachers' jobs, but continue teaching and to find other more diversely satisfying ways to complicate his life. Like buying a run-down 1930s cottage with a few acres of land and making a garden.

Not that Wol and his wife Sue knew a great deal about gardening in those days. But the will was there. The enthusiasm is certainly there. Who but an enthusiast would welcome a visit from a journalist on a day when the garden was to be opened under the National Gardens Scheme a few hours later, and 800 pairs of feet were about to descend upon the garden?

"Glen Chantry is a natural garden," he tells me, explaining that there are no ancient yew hedges, no deliciously crumbling brick walls, no manic arts and crafts tile-on-edge paving for photographers to capture for the rapture of the glossies. He is right. But there is more to making a house and garden than Homes and Gardens would have you believe.

Glen Chantry is a two-acre garden of meandering grass paths and richly-planted informal beds. The lynchpin to all the winding, colourful alleys is the house, which reappears at the top of the garden at every turn - if you can bear to look away from the attractions of the planting.

When I visited, the roses were at their peak. Swagged into trees, like the small pink 'Dentelle de Malines', or providing height at the back of a deep island bed like pale apricot yellow 'Graham Thomas', they are everywhere. Most are old or modern shrub types so perfume is ever present and the colours are worked in with great care. I especially admired a bed of almost black, double opium poppies, and maroon and white aquilegias, with a backing of the deep maroon rose 'Tuscany Superb'.

But foliage is just as important as flowers in this garden. There are two ponds in whose moist banks can be grown all those plants with wonderfully bold foliage, like rodgersias, rheum and irises. Linking them is a dry stream bed with banks of peat block terracing, and a large limestone rock garden.

Hostas are a feature of the whole garden, and are grown often with grasses to soften their solidity. On soil as gravelly as this the land has to be prepared especially well for plants to thrive, particularly those which enjoy a moist soil.

Five years ago Sue Staines gave up teaching to concentrate wholly on the garden. She runs a small nursery of alpine and herbaceous plants which, if it does not make a fortune, at least allows her to develop the garden as she wishes. It is open only on Fridays and Saturdays because, as Sue says, you cannot garden and sell plants at the same time. The garden comes first on the other five days. Wol Staines still teaches at The Boswells School, Chelmsford, but, by getting up at 6am, manages to get an hour's "sanity time" in the greenhouse.

Behind the house is the formal enclosed all-white garden. The Staines are well aware that it is now fashionable to sniff at all-white gardens. It is, after all, many decades since Vita Sackville-West made her influential white garden at Sissinghurst. But Sue Staines is unashamed. "It is my favourite part of the gardenIall white flowers and lots of foliage. In fact I prefer it when the roses are over and there is just a little less flower. More green."

And there are lots of roses. Climbing 'Iceberg' on the trellis walls, and a ring of chunky bushes of 'Katharina Zeimet' around the central fountain. But keeping the season going at full belt is the real challenge of a white garden, from the snowdrops and grape hyacinths in spring right through to the colchicums and lysimachia in autumn.

Wol Staines occasionally lectures on gardening now. He admits that scooping up and carrying the attention of an audience of 50 enthusiastic adults is child's play compared to 30 distracted teenagers. But have the Staines found any less work for the same pay? Glen Chantry garden is opened to the public for charity at least 12 days a year. "It takes 12 helpers to run an open day." Just as I left an enormous delivery of home-made cakes was arriving. It all looked like plenty of work to me.

Glen Chantry, near Witham, Essex. The garden is open on the same days as the nursery - every Friday and Saturday from April 12 to October 19, 10am - 4pm. Admission Pounds 1. Future charity openings 2pm - 5pm on August 11, August 26 and September 1.

Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity, Pounds 3.50 and Gardens of Scotland Pounds 2.50 available from bookshops.

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