Garden of solace that grew into a winner: A spectacular oasis that helped pull its owner through tough times has been named top of the plots this year
This summer, Phil Torr was working in his garden at Margaretting in Essex when two strangers turned up asking to see it. ‘We had a charity open day coming up and they’d got the date wrong,’ he says.
‘I explained the garden was closed and they looked so disappointed – they told me that they’d been cooped up in a flat in London right through lockdown. I thought, ‘Hold on, you’ve had this garden to yourself for over a year. Why not let them enjoy it?’
The couple spent several happy hours exploring the garden and told him they felt revived by its beauty. Phil, who’s 68, knows all too well how important a green space can be for your mental health.
Working on his garden has helped him get through some very tough times, which makes it all the more satisfying that he has won this year’s Daily Mail National Garden Competition.
Phil Torr, 68, (pictured) who lives in Margaretting, Essex, has been chosen as the winner of the Daily Mail’s National Garden Competition
‘It’s the first time I’ve ever entered the competition – friends encouraged me to have a go – and I was delighted just to get through to the last four,’ he says.
‘To actually win and get this recognition for the garden in the pages of the Daily Mail is more than I ever dreamed of.’ The competition judges were particularly impressed by the creativity and the skill with which Phil has created several distinct and beautifully designed garden areas.
Phil bought his imposing Georgian house, called Peacocks, in 1998. ‘I was living nearby and I was friendly with the owners so I had visited the house but I never dreamed I’d be able to buy it one day. When it came up for sale, it was too good an opportunity to miss – it is the ultimate house renovation project.’
The garden was completely wild and overgrown but Phil and his wife Sarah focused initially on restoring the house. Sadly, Sarah died from cancer in 2008, leaving Phil with two small children – Charlie, now 21, and Henry, 18 – and working on the garden became a source of solace and gave him a project to focus on.
When he retired from running a steel shipping business a few years ago, Phil became totally engrossed by the garden.
The grounds are extensive but he has concentrated his energies on three areas in particular. Two derelict tennis courts, which were swamped with weeds and brambles, have been incorporated into the garden. Phil wanted part of the space to be a classic English country garden and, with the help of a friend, he rebuilt the walls and paths using 20,000 bricks.
Inspired by gardens like Sissinghurst in Kent, Phil has included a central sundial, a bug hotel, a fountain, a pond and a summer house, and planted the garden with colour themed beds, backed by elegant high hedges.
Phil created wildflower meadow after being inspired by a visit to Great Dixter in East Sussex. Pictured: A bug hotel for insects
‘There’s wonderful wisteria, followed by my beloved roses in mid-June and then in late summer it’s full of agapanthus, another plant I can’t get enough of,’ he says.
Phil bought some magnificent Indian wooden doors and has used them to divide this garden from the next area which he calls ‘the Garden of Peace and Reconciliation’.
He explains, ‘The news seems to be dominated by stories about terrorism and political violence and I wanted to use the garden to express my wish that all faiths could get along.’
The beautiful rill-like water feature is in the shape of a cross, although it also evokes the famous Islamic gardens of the Alhambra in Spain. There is a medlar, a tree which was brought over from the Middle East and was very popular in England in medieval times, a Hindu plaque and a pagan Green Man. This enclosed space has a wonderfully tranquil, contemplative feel and is a favourite with visitors.
He created the wildflower meadow after being inspired by a visit to Great Dixter in East Sussex. Starting in spring, it’s awash with cowslips and narcissi and, through summer, is studded with a variety of wildflowers – 27 in all – which act like a magnet for bees and other insects.
‘I’m quite proud of it,’ Phil admits. ‘It’s worked as well as I hoped it would.’
Phil admits that he’s a ‘dictator’ and doesn’t give his wife Carol an opportunity for much input into its development. Pictured: An ornament adorns the flowerbeds
Phil is now remarried and is stepfather to Max, 24. His wife Carol, an artist, loves the garden, even if she isn’t allowed too much input into its development. ‘I’m a dictator in the garden,’ Phil laughs.
‘Carol does make suggestions and a few are taken on board. Luckily she is very patient about being a ‘garden widow’ and she was even more delighted than I was about winning the competition.’
As well as the legendary blue winner’s plaque, Phil will get a £2,000 cheque, which he plans to spend on creating a knot garden. ‘I saw one recently in Cornwall and thought I’d love to have one, so I knew at once what I was going to do with the money.’
The garden at Peacocks will be open next year for charity under the National Garden Scheme (see ngs.org.uk) and he hopes many visitors will come – on the correct day, of course – to enjoy it.
‘I love sharing it,’ he says. ‘Winning the competition has inspired me to work even harder on it. There’s plenty more I want to do here.’
Phil hopes many visitors will come to see his garden when it opens next year for charity under the National Garden Scheme. Pictured: The rill-like water feature