Clare Foster visits the Suffolk home of Tom Hoblyn, which, thanks to a year-round harvest of trained fruit trees and vegetables, is more than just a feast for the eyes...
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Tom Hoblyn's walled garden in the Suffolk village of Bardwell is his sanctuary. 'After a week of theoretical gardening in the office, designing gardens for other people, it's wonderful to bury my hands in the real thing at the weekend,' he says. Originally trained in agriculture, Tom was destined to take over the family farm in Cornwall, but realised quite early on that it wasn't for him. 'I was gardening for old ladies on the side and began to think that being a gardener was much more up my street,' he says. Deciding to follow his heart, he got a job as a head gardener before applying to do a three-year course in horticulture at Kew. Part of the course focused on garden design, with tutors including Christopher Bradley-Hole and Brita von Schoenaich, and Tom found himself increasingly drawn to this more creative side of horticulture.
After graduating, he worked on various projects with Christopher, as well as Dan Pearson, which gave him the break he needed to set up his own London-based design practice in 2001. 'My first job was in Chalk Farm,' he says, 'and before I knew it, I had worked my way down the street.'
In the beginning, London was where the work was, but Tom's reputation quickly spread, and soon he was getting commissions all around the country and also abroad. The city was no longer the centre of his universe so, in 2004, he and his wife Mary, along with their four children, decided to spread their wings and look for a house that was big enough to accommodate the six of them two dogs, two horses, half a dozen sheep and ump-teen chickens.
They settled on East Anglia and came across Mansard House, a sixteenth-century farmhouse with a distinctive mansard-roof façade added in the eighteenth century, set in three acres of land. The house barely got a look-in, however, once Tom realised that there was a small but perfectly formed walled garden buried under thick swags of ivy, now transformed from an overgrown yard into a well-ordered kitchen garden where every inch of space is put to good use.
Tom had always hankered after a walled garden for growing trained fruit trees, a skill that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family. His grandfather grew and trialled apples for East Malling Research in Kent (one of the country's leading horticultural research centres) and was awarded an OBE for developing the dwarfing rootstock for apple trees. Tom remembers his garden from childhood - 'stuffed full of fruit trees' - and now he is growing some of the same old varieties in his own garden. His pride and joy is a collection of around 40 varieties of apple, pear and peach trained as espaliers, cordons and fans around the old walls.
'There's something incredibly satisfying about training trees,' says Tom. 'I love the routines, the clipping, the different strings and twines you use.' He bought his trees as one-year-old maidens and trained them himself, and he recommends doing this rather than buying ready-trained trees, which will inevitably limit your choice of cultivars and may not be quite the right shape for the space you have planned for them.
'Training your own trees is easy,' he says. 'Fruit trees are very forgiving if you make a mistake.' He prunes twice a year, building up clusters of fruiting spurs along the main stem of the tree, and training the branches along canes in the required shape. Having learned fruit identification from one of the country's leading fruit experts, Harry Baker, he has a discerning taste for apples and selects only those with the best flavour. 'Newton Wonder', for example, is a dual-purpose apple that is used for cooking early in the season and then as a dessert apple, as it sweetens through storage. 'It's got a marvellous history,' says Tom. 'It was a chance seedling found growing on the thatched roof of a pub in Newton, Derbyshire.'
The rest of the walled garden is divided into sections with low box hedges and a long ironwork tunnel used to support a mixture of sweet peas and climbing squash or cucumbers. 'This garden is all about food,' says Tom. 'Everything has to be edible. I love cooking and I'm always trying out new things.'
When he first started the garden, his aim was to grow unusual crops that couldn't be found in the supermarkets, but increasingly he is growing a bit of everything, so that the family can come and help themselves to something from the garden at almost any time of the year. Having worked on a biodynamic farm, he describes his approach as 'lazy organic, slightly biodynamic'. He explains, 'I don't have the time to be completely biodynamic, but I borrow some of the principles from it. We have our own sheep and chickens and I make my own compost. I plant green manures and grow marigolds with my tomatoes, and also rely heavily on Mother Nature's predators to help lessen pest damage - with mixed success. Bantams, for example, are very good at eating asparagus beetle but also love pea seedlings.'
Although his garden is a very private space, occasionally Tom invites clients to his house to see the walled garden. 'Most clients want to grow fruit and vegetables somewhere and it's great to be able to bring them here to show them what you can and can't do,' he says. 'I've noticed a distinct increase in the number of people wanting to grow their own produce in recent years.' His own garden, which he describes as 'part smallholding, part garden, part wilderness', is a testament to his love of nature, with woodland, meadow and water to keep the sheep and chickens, and a host of other wildlife happy.
It is in the walled garden that you will find him early on a Saturday morning, pottering about in the greenhouse in his dressing gown with a cup of tea. 'The act of gardening nurtures the soul,' he concludes. 'It's a little act of worship that keeps us anchored and respectful of our environment.'
Thomas Hoblyn Landscape and Garden Design: 01359-252056;