Mary Benger describes gardening as ‘a hobby that just got a little bit out of control’. Talking to Seth Dellow, in an audio interview on the Marshwood Vale website, she remembers how on the day that she and her husband John first came to view Burrow Farm it was in thick fog. It was a small farm with corrugated roof buildings and a bungalow made from timber and asbestos, but it wasn’t until the day she moved in that she realised how spectacular the views were. Today it is known as Burrow Hill Gardens, a popular and beautifully landscaped thirteen-acre garden with superb views of the surrounding countryside.
‘I’ve always been keen on gardening and my father was a keen gardener’ explains Mary. ‘You don’t realise how much you’ve picked up in fact—names of various things. I was always encouraged to have my own garden and that sort of thing.’ Not long after they moved they had lunch with a neighbour who asked which one of them was the gardener. They looked at each other in silence until Mary piped up, ‘Well it looks as though I’m going to be the gardener, doesn’t it’ she remembers ‘and that was the sort of start of it.’
Born in Kent and then moving to Surrey to a farm run by her brother, working hard came naturally. ‘I think that’s where I had very early learnings about working hard. As you can imagine, a brother ten years older than me didn’t hold back if I wasn’t putting my back into things.’
She started around the outside of the house but gradually edged out into the field—‘just a couple of feet at a time’—until John got fed up with her taking so much of the field, so she decided to work on the old Roman clay pit. It was a bit of a wasteland with brambles, nettles and bogland she recalls, but Mary set to work on it and ‘that was really the beginning of it’. The spot had old oak trees and a gnarled field Maple as well as violets, primroses and bluebells and Mary thought it a shame that nobody else got to enjoy it. ‘So I really expanded from that’.
Although the first priority was building up the dairy farm, Mary remembers being inspired by a visit to a garden that also had a nursery and a tea room. ‘That is, to my mind, a perfect day out’ she says. ‘So that was my aim from the very beginning.’
She recalls how her vision may not have been entirely shared by John in the early days. ‘It wasn’t his favourite idea’ she says. ‘In fact he thought the whole idea was rubbish, but he gradually came around to it.’
Fully occupied with a milking dairy herd, John helped with moving heavy items etc, but as Mary tells Seth, ‘like a lot of farmers, they like to do things with machinery really, don’t they quite often’. She says they ‘don’t enjoy the fiddlyness of gardening perhaps.’ She remembers how if she needed the plough that would be alright ‘but if you actually had to pull weeds out that wasn’t his scene’.
Needing to make an access for the public Mary built a narrow walkway which expanded over the years. As the children grew up and she had more time the garden expanded even more. ‘Then of course when farming went into decline and the cows were going, that was my opportunity to really take in some of the fields’.
She developed what she likes to call the rose garden but says ‘there would be a lot more roses if it wasn’t for the deer which are constantly coming through.’ She sees that garden as a style she likes which is informal planting in a formal design.
After a visit to Chelsea Flower Show the year before the Millennium she bought a magnificent lead planter and began to think of a millennium garden. That was followed by a lake. ‘Gardens, of course, are sort of full of colour during the summer but when you come to September they can look a little bit tired and a bit past their best.’ She set out to create a garden that looked its best through September and October ‘before the autumn colour really started.’ She developed a mostly grasses garden which has been very popular. It features a sunken path through the middle ‘so the grasses are all taller than you are and you can’t sort of see out.’
The impact of Covid has been mixed at Burrow Farm Gardens. When people could visit again she could see how much they enjoyed it, both for the pleasure of being outside as well as understanding the benefits of gardening. ‘People who haven’t tried it before suddenly find a terrific boost to their wellbeing by just being outside’ she says. ‘Whether it’s visiting other gardens or in their own garden or allotment or whatever size your garden is, you can get huge pleasure from it.’ She also points out how relaxing it is being in a garden—‘unless perhaps it’s your own and you tend to see what needs doing.’ But even if you’ve had a hard day in the garden weeding and planting she knows that ‘there’s always a sense of achievement.’
She mentions how tough it was last April and May when the gardens were looking so lovely but nobody was able to come and see them. She decided to sell plants online and deliver within a fifteen-mile radius. ‘That went amazingly well and it kept us going.’ However, the great joy was to be able to ‘welcome visitors back again.’
Mary does have her favourites when it comes to plants but admits she is fickle. ‘It depends on the season’ she says. ‘If it’s the Spring I love the things that are flowering then. The Skimmia Kew Green has been a fabulous shrub round the garden.’ It’s also popular with visitors ‘absolutely wonderful scent and the bees love it.’ She also cites euphorbias as another favourite, ‘with the sort of limey green flowers’. Later on she likes the flowering cornices. ‘Roses I would like’ she says, ‘but the deer like them even more, so I have to limit those.’ She points to one that has been ‘nibbled right down—so disappointing.’ Much of the garden is colour-themed but the thing Mary doesn’t like is yellow and pink. ‘I just can’t marry those two together.’ She has placed things between those colours to ‘dilute’ their clashing.
Creating something so beautiful from ‘a waste land with brambles, nettles and bogland’ is an achievement that will be enjoyed by generations of visitors. Seth asked Mary what she thought her legacy would be. ‘Well you don’t think about that at the time you are doing it, but sometimes I do look around and think “Oh God everything that you can see I’ve planted”’.
Although she still decides on the placing of plants, Mary has help with planting now, ‘but for the first 50 years perhaps I planted every single thing that was here, and sometimes when you see these seemingly mature trees you think “my goodness I remember bringing that back in the car.”’
Seth describes it as ‘a permanent reminder of a creative individual whose love for the great outdoors continues to impress all who visit.’ At the same time Mary points to the great truth that every gardener knows. ‘It doesn’t matter what the weather is, you can always find something that needs doing.’
Seth Dellow’s full interview with Mary Benger is available to listen to on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website.