Linda Viney visits takes a tour of the Chinese-inspired plot created by design expert Michele Martin in Southport

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 June 2013

Banana style seat fronted by spring planting and the moongate

Banana style seat fronted by spring planting and the moongate

Linda Viney

The Yellow Book lists hundreds of private gardens you can visit from grand country houses with acres to tiny urban plots, many only open for one day. It combines the chance to wander around other people’s gardens, eat delicious home made cake and pick up an interesting plant.

I went along to visit garden designer Michele Martin on her first opening for the National Garden Scheme. Despite the weather almost 200 enthusiastic visitors turned up to see this Chinese-inspired walled town garden in Southport. It features a moongate, mini orchard, vegetable plot, cutting garden and a fire pit.

Chinese gardens are usually entered from the house so you have to pass from the bright busy street into the hall which is kept cool and dark. This causes you to slow or even stop before entering the garden which means you enter at a slow pace. As visitors are unable to enter through Michele’s house, she has placed a tall bamboo at the far end of the side passage, enticing you down to discover what lies beyond. The Chinese look on this as a canape before the banquet.

This sets your expectations so the next room with the moongate is a bigger surprise. From here you have a choice of route, do you go through the moongate or follow along the yew hedge taking a small path leading down the side? Michele advised visitors to go down the side with a metal seat in a sheltered area. This followed the philosophy of leading through dark mysterious areas that contrast with lighter ones to create different moods. There are places to rest (bound feet can’t walk too far) and each seating area gives you the opportunity to look at a different picture and just stop and unwind.

Michele has a great passion for stylish outdoor spaces that have year round colour and interest to make people happy. She was brought up in the country and uses her understanding of nature, working with it rather than fighting it and trying be as organic as she can. With a scientific background she keeps up to date with the latest horticultural advances like using mycorrhizal fungi to prevent rose sickness.

Michele worked at Tatton as a volunteer. ‘I remember they took one look at me and couldn’t decided where I would fit in, so they gave me some paperwork. It wasn’t long before I was getting stuck in and getting my hands dirty shifting soil,’ she says.

Her own garden is a testament to her skill and many unusual plants have been grown from seed including a dwarf Black Mulberry and two types of artichoke. She planted 1,000 extra bulbs last autumn for her opening.

‘I added lots of early bulbs in case of a cold spring, tulips and forget-me-nots in case the weather suddenly warmed up with alliums to follow them in preparation for a heatwave! Teaching others how to create gardens with year-round interest meant I had to show I practice what I preach,’ she laughs. On the day the weather was very damp and cold but the garden still looked stunning and was much admired.

There were lots of ideas to inspire including some interesting small trees with more than one season of interest like the Amelanchier with early white flowers, bronze foliage and autumn berries, much more valuable than the flowering cherries. There is also a brilliant red barked maple and a crab apple with cherry red fruit from September to spring.

Moving on to the vegetable patch where she sowed last autumn for the ‘hunger gap’ and spring sowings for harvesting afterwards. She favours heritage vegetable varieties and the pea ‘Tall Telephone’ she claims is great for gardeners with a small plot and a bad back.

The mini orchard has 14 varieties of fruit including a peach, fig, blueberries and jostaberries - a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant. Apples are grown on different rootstocks so they range from a six inch high step-over apple to a large gnarled old Bramley whose produce disappears over the neighbour’s wall. ‘My elderly next door neighbour hadn’t cooked until the apples landed in his garden, I am now rewarded with crumbles!’ she says.

Michele’s secrets

Michele says the effect of a well designed garden should be like a good bath - refreshing to the spirit and inspirational, which is a good way to create a garden that you enjoy. Her garden is part trial ground, part playground and part showcase for ideas and because she is always having new ideas, it’s still work in progress.

You may have seen Michele at Southport Flower Show on the gardening panel and she is working at the moment to create a large show garden at this year’s Tatton Flower Show. It will show whatever the weather, people can still enjoy their garden. Michele, who also runs courses can be contacted on 01704 510160 or mobile 07792 783194. Email

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