Finding sanctuary at The Butterfly Garden

Gardening is now being recognised as therapy but The Butterfly Garden has long helped those who are struggling with life. I chatted to its founder Chris Evans about this remarkable charity.

It’s impossible to walk through The Butterfly Garden without someone stopping me to talk. Students ask my name, am I looking for Chris, what’s the notebook for, and give me detailed accounts of how they plan to spend their day. When we eventually find Chris, our chat is punctuated by interruptions as they eagerly join in.

The Butterfly Garden
Students learn how to grow veg and flowers.

I’ve been visiting the scheme since its early days and yet the sheer scale of what it achieves with little more than goodwill and determination never fails to move me.

Like so many good ideas, it started by chance when a group of autistic children were taken to Dundry Nurseries, Chris’ family business, to talk to him about growing plants. Recognising how much they got out of the trip, he invited them back.

The Butterfly Garden
There are butterflies throughout the site.

“Then somebody phoned and said ‘I’ve heard about your project’ and after that I was lost,” he says with a smile.

The Butterfly Garden

At first, the scheme, which is open Monday to Friday, was confined to developing a garden out of unused land behind the Cheltenham nursery. That original ‘Butterfly Garden’ is still there but the work now covers far more and activities have moved into greenhouses and buildings, acquired through fundraising and donations.

The Butterfly Garden
A butterfly made from old CDs in the original garden.

The students have changed too. Although, The Butterfly Garden still helps those with autism, it now includes all learning disabilities, those who are physically disabled, people suffering from bereavement, stroke victims, those with dementia or mental health issues, and people dealing with alcoholism.

“It’s just about people coming together in the broadest sense. Everybody will have some struggle on their journey and it’s much easier to deal with it if you are able to share it.”

The Butterfly Garden
Composting is one of the gardening tasks.

Today, 15 years on, there are 243 registered students, with up to 60 on site at any one time, and Chris deals with agencies across the county from schools and colleges, to mental health services, social services, day care providers and GPs. Groups, including Help the Aged, a stroke group and Men in Sheds, use the facilities.

“It’s about cohesion and bringing the community together in all its guises. When you can do that you stick massive holes in prejudice.”

The Butterfly Garden
Chris’ multi-coloured coat and hat were a gift from a knitting group.

The Butterfly Garden has grown organically not with any overall plan but in response to a perceived need or a sudden opportunity.

Recycling began when someone dropped off a load of unwanted plastic flower pots.

“Some of the students just naturally wanted to tidy up,” says Chris. “They started sorting and tidying according to size and colour.”

The Butterfly Garden
A scarecrow in the first Butterfly Garden.

Deciding to see if they could be recycled, he discovered he’d need a recycling licence. Having obtained one, the charity now recycles everything from cardboard to old videos.

“People bring all sorts of random things in.”

A recent donation included a box of kilts and Loch Ness monster hats – Chris is exploring the possibility of turning the hats into glove puppets.

Sometimes, the donated goods are used by students; when I visited, the art room was full of poppies for a Remembrance Day display made from the bottom of old bottles and the insides of DVDs.

The Butterfly Garden
Some of the poppies made by students.

Art is just one of the ‘classes’ along with cookery, woodwork, craft, Zumba, drama – there’s an outdoor performance space – knitting and sewing, music and puppetry. Yoga and tai chi are held in the yurt. All are run by volunteers who just turn up and offer their services when it’s convenient.

In the same way, students are free to do what they want. Some may spend hours sorting horticultural plastic, knowing they can break off at any time. Others move from activity to activity. Some stay all day, others just for a few hours.

Gardening is still at the heart of The Butterfly Garden. There’s an allotment-style space where students learn how to grow flowers and vegetables and another area has been turned into individual allotment plots that the students ‘own’.

The Butterfly Garden
Some students have allotments.

“It’s not ‘This is your space and I’m going to tell you how to do it’. It’s all about ‘This is your space and you’re going to learn how to do it’. Some of them have had great crops this year.”

Meanwhile, Chris is experimenting with getting them to look after cuttings and seeds over winter in one of the greenhouses.

The Butterfly Garden
Plants overwintering in the greenhouse.

What was a wilderness at the end of the site has been turned into a wild garden by students, inspired by a poem by Robert Frost ‘The Road Not Taken’.

The Butterfly Garden
The wild garden has a choice of routes.

Based on a figure of eight, it has objects, such as a green-painted bicycle, along the route, making each journey different, according to which path you choose.

The Butterfly Garden
A painted bicycle is alongside one path.

Having managed to buy a piece of ground alongside the nursery, Chris and the students created The Butterfly Garden Meadow, which is open to anyone to use. A carefully constructed path makes it accessible to those with limited mobility, while making two ponds and planting 350 trees mean it attracts a range of wildlife; visitors are encouraged to take photos and add them to a folder recording what’s been seen.

The Butterfly Garden was turned into a charity some years ago to safeguard its future and distance it from the nursery business. Although the charity occupies land behind the firm, the two are separate: students don’t grow for Dundry Nurseries and the nursery staff don’t work for the charity. Instead, flowers and veg grown by the students are either taken home or shared with other organisations; recently some plants were used in the garden at the town’s Sue Ryder home.

The Butterfly Garden
The meadow is gardened for wildlife.

All this work is funded through donations – both of goods and time. There’s a ‘bring-and-buy’ shop, run on an honesty box system and a café, that fills in the gap when the nursery’s main café is closed.

Over the years, local firms have donated the time and skills of their staff to build raised beds or fundraise. The charity extends its facilities to anyone who wants to use them and has hosted everything from NHS team meetings to lunch clubs.

“We want people to feel they can integrate with us.”

This sense of non-judgemental inclusiveness extends to the students. Anyone can turn up and join in regardless of age or need, there’s no charge and no need for a referral by another agency.

“We’re open to everybody,” says Chris, adding, “Sometimes there’s a problem you cannot see.”

For more information, visit The Butterfly Garden website

Dahlias break out

For years, I’ve kept my love of dahlias safely contained. Trying to grow them in borders proved impossible as plants disappeared overnight thanks to the resident slugs and snails. Instead, I had just a few in pots – more successful but high maintenance and deeply frustrating as time, cash and space limited my choice. This year, the temptation – fuelled by seeing dahlias in almost every garden I visited – proved too great and I decided to have another go at growing them free range.

Starting a cutting garden was my excuse to grow more.

The excuse was starting a cutting garden – what better than dahlias for that late summer vase of flowers? With that in mind, I chose colours that would work together and with the rooms I planned to put them in.

There are many ways to judge a dahlia: shape, colour, number of flowers and, if you’re planning to cut them, length of stem.

‘Furka’ produced the most flowers.

Two of my choices scored highly in every category: ‘Furka’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Furka’ is a beautiful white cactus-type dahlia. It produced dozens of flowers with long, straight stems.

‘Totally Tangerine’ was the best for length of stem and I loved the dazzling colour and crinkled centre to the anemone blooms. Possibly the only drawback was that it didn’t seem to last as long once cut.

‘Totally Tangerine’ has a wonderful crinkled centre.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is another beauty with white flowers tinged with a hint of green. However, it didn’t have as long a flowering season as ‘Furka’. Perhaps it will be better next year.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is a winner.

I also liked ‘Zundert Mystery Fox’, which had neat dark orange flowers and long, straight stems. It was not as prolific as some of the others but well worth growing.

‘Zundert Mystery Fox’ was more beautiful than its name.

The most disappointing dahlia was ‘Nicholas’, which produced only a couple of flowers before the first frosts. The large, somewhat loose, blooms were also difficult to use with another flowers. A shame because I did like the colour.

‘Nicholas’ was the most disapppointing.

The very best colourwise was ‘Henriette’ a beautiful creamy ivory with hints of peach. Her downfall was the stem. The semi cactus flowers are large and need a reasonable length of stem as a counterbalance. All too often the only way to achieve this was by sacrificing another bud slightly lower down.

‘Henriette’ was my favourite colour.

There was a similar problem with ‘Labyrinth’, a mad whirl of pinky-orangey petals that reminded me of an exploding Catherine Wheel. Again, the head size didn’t match the length of stem I could cut, meaning the flowers easily tipped in a vase. Perhaps it was my lack of skill at growing, or my lack of nerve when faced with cutting off yet-to-develop flowers.

‘Labyrinth’ is a mad whirl of colour.

The dahlias never actually made it to the cutting bed, as I hadn’t the heart to dig up sweet Williams that were still flowering to make room. Instead, the dahlias gradually took over the cold frame, getting ever bigger in the pots that I had started the tubers off in and sending roots out into the ground.

Realising the sweet Williams were not willing to budge, I decided to use some spare corners of the veg beds for the dahlias and they spent the rest of the summer season alongside the brassicas and carrots.

‘Henriette’ got very tall.

This late entry into their final beds was, I think, the reason why they fought off predators. By the time they were finally planted out, the dahlias were strapping plants – ‘Furka’ and ‘Henriette’ eventually stood around 4ft tall and needed careful staking. Quite simply, I think they frightened the slugs.

Of course, having broken out there is no way the dahlias will be contained again. This year’s tubers have been dug up and are now spending the winter in the greenhouse in pots of sand, while I’m starting to work my way through the dahlia catalogues and websites. Having started with creams, oranges and white, the pinks and purples are looking very tempting.

IQ Quarry Garden lives on after RHS Chatsworth

Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brooke’s award-winning IQ Quarry Garden has found a new home at the National Memorial Arboretum. He talks about the challenge of moving a garden and the responsibility of designing for the future.

Paul Hervey-Brookes’ re-imagined IQ Quarry Garden may not be facing the scrutiny of RHS judges but he is just as nervous about how it’s received.

IQ Quarry garden
The IQ Quarry Garden won top honours at RHS Chatsworth

The garden, which won gold, Best in Show and Best Construction at RHS Chatsworth, has been re-designed for a site at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, giving it a life span far beyond the norm for a show garden.

“It’s one thing to win the medals we did at Chatsworth but it’s another thing to have a garden that you know has the potential to be there for two or three generations,” he says. “There’s a weight of responsibility knowing generations of designers will be judging my work.”

IQ Quarry Garden
Paul Hervey-Brookes

The move to the NMA is fitting as the garden was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Institute of Quarrying and the arboretum is on the site of a former sand and gravel quarry. Yet, despite the move being planned from the outset, the garden’s future use did not influence Paul’s design for the inaugural Chatsworth show.

“What I wanted from the start was that we would re-purpose it rather than just plonk it down brick by brick.

IQ Quarry Garden
The new garden occupies a long, narrow site.

Indeed, the two sites could not be more different. The Chatsworth garden was a large rectangle – one of the biggest RHS show gardens ever built – whereas the new space is a long, narrow and sloping piece of land.

“I was really keen to use a site that nobody else wanted,” explains Paul, who was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the IQ for his work, the first person not involved in the industry to be given the Institute’s top honour.

Taking key elements of the original garden, including paving, seats and the striking rusted wall by Stroud sculptor Ann-Margreth Bohl, his aim was to create something that gives an emotional break between memorial gardens.

IQ Quarry Garden
The striking sculpted wall is one of the elements that has been reused.

“It’s so that it’s not one very emotionally consuming garden space after another. It is much more an area to sit, think and rest or just walk through.”

While the planting follows the same semi-naturalistic style of the Chatsworth project, there is far more of it, and wide grass paths and level hard landscaping mean it is accessible for those with reduced mobility.

Reusing show gardens is preferable to their otherwise rather brutal demise in skips but it does come at a cost.

“It makes it really expensive,” says Paul. “Once you know things are going to be re-purposed you’ve got to be as careful taking them out as you were putting them in, which is time-consuming and costs a great deal more.”

IQ Quarry Garden
The IQ’s motto: ‘the fruits of the earth for the children of men’.

Much of that cost has been looking after the plants since the Chatsworth show in June. The hard landscaping was stored near the NMA but the trees and plants went back to their original nurseries to be repotted and grown on.

“The nurseries don’t really like doing it simply because they know the stress the plants go through. They really need to go in the ground after the show and be allowed 18 months to recover. Trying to nurture them back into looking good at the end of the year is quite a challenge but it was all part of the deal.”

Meanwhile, Paul called in the same construction team, headed by Gareth Wilson, to rebuild the garden: “I thought it was important to have the same contractor who understood the lifting and shifting the first time around to see the project through to the end.”

IQ Quarry Garden

It’s not the first time the Stroud designer’s work has found a new home. His first Chelsea garden was won in a competition and is now installed at a house in Hemel Hempstead while plants from his two Chelsea gardens for online fashion retailer BrandAlley were sold for charity and the hard landscaping given to community projects.

“I don’t think the physicality of a show garden is important at all but it’s really important that stuff is reused because otherwise it’s an incredibly wasteful kind of journey.”

Tomatoes: tried and tasted

It’s been a fantastic year for tomatoes. After last season’s blight-hit summer, I’ve had a bumper crop, managed to dodge disease and discovered some great new varieties.

Growing tomatoes is more of an addiction than an annual crop for me, one of the first edibles I attempted and something that takes over not only the greenhouse but large parts of the garden.

This year, I grew nine different varieties, some old favourites, others seeds and plants I had been given to trial by different seed firms; you can read about the beginning of the season in ‘Tomatoes – a Growing Addiction’.

The sunny garage wall is ideal for tomatoes

As in other years, I put two or three of each variety into growbags in the greenhouse – a way of safeguarding a sample of everything against blight. The rest go into pots and are lined up against the sunny back of the garage. This year, somehow, I ended up with more than 50 plants.

In a very non-scientific test, I put one plant into a pot filled with Dalefoot’s Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads, and another into one filled with my homemade compost mixed with some Soilfixer SF60; both products were sent for me to trial.

Did they make a difference? All the plants fruited well. The Dalefoot compost was definitely slower to dry out and the plants grew strongly. My own compost dried out quickly but the added boost of Soilfixer product did see the plants growing as well as any of the others despite the frequent ‘drought’ conditions. Next year, I will try mixing it with some of my usual multi-purpose, peat-free compost.

‘Sweet Aperitif’

So, what of the all-important taste test? Again, a subjective measure but then taste always is.

For many years, ‘Sweet Million’ was my cherry tomato of choice but this year I was given seed for ‘Cherry Baby’ by Unwins and ‘Sweet Aperitif’ by Thompson & Morgan. ‘Cherry Baby’ was a definite winner with the family. Dainty fruit with a really sweet flavour – they were often eaten before they had left the garden.

‘Cherry Baby’ proved a winner

‘Sweet Aperitif’ produced slightly firmer fruits with a good flavour but not as sweet as ‘Cherry Baby’.

Although the name, ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, suggests one of the smaller fruiting tomatoes, actually they are larger than the others. Sent to me by Thompson & Morgan last year, it wasn’t particularly popular with the family but, as I had seed left, we decided to give it another try.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ starts off purple

The colour is amazing, starting off purple and ripening to a deep red. We didn’t like them raw – not sweet enough and with a tougher skin – but this season we tried cooking them and they were much better with a good flavour.

We preferred ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ cooked

Likewise, we decided ‘Montello’ from Marshalls is better cooked although it is sold as a baby plum tomato. For us, the texture was too ‘mushy’ for eating raw – great pan-fried, though.


‘San Marzano’ from Franchi Seeds (a seed I bought) is sold as a cooking tomato, one that Italians use for pasta sauce. Mine never seem to get as big as the picture on the packet suggests but they are reliable and have a good flavour.

‘San Marzano’ is a classic Italian variety

One of the tomatoes I had been particularly keen to try was ‘Heinz 1370’ from the Dobies’ Rob Smith Range. A heritage variety, it is the tomato behind Heinz Tomato Sauce. It produced enormous fruit that were perfect for cooking – easier to skin than smaller varieties, good flavour and you need only a few for most recipes. I was sent plug plants to trial but am hoping to try growing these tomatoes from seed next season.

‘Heinz 1370’ produced enormous fruit – seen here with ‘Sweet Aperitif’

Another good cooker is ‘Principe Borghese’ from Franchi Seeds (another variety I bought). Again, the size makes it easy to skin – no fiddling around with hundreds of tiny tomatoes.

I was also sent plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’ by Thompson & Morgan, which proved to be another tomato with an interesting appearance. The stripy skin is quite thick but the flavour is good and it certainly gives a different look to a salad.

‘Red Tiger’

Finally, my favourite tomato last year was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ from Franchi Seeds and it didn’t disappoint this season. Not the prettiest of tomatoes but little beats it for versatility or flavour. It’s one of the few big tomatoes that I like raw and it also cooks well – delicious roasted. It is definitely on my must-grow list for next year.

And what of the blight that hit many parts of the country? I did get some early in the season on a few tomatoes that I put into the main vegetable beds when I ran out of room and pots. They succumbed by mid-summer and were quickly removed, luckily before it spread to the rest of the crop. I’ve tried growing tomatoes in the ground in various sites in the garden over the years and each time they get blight. I won’t be trying again.

‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ is still the family favourite

As for the rest of the crop, a few of the outdoor tomatoes were showing signs of blight by early October so we picked the fruit and cleared the lot. The greenhouse has only just been emptied and then only because it’s needed for other things.

There was a little green fruit left to ripen and that is now safely in the kitchen, gradually turning red.

One of the best things about tomatoes is that they are a versatile crop. You don’t need huge amounts of space – I potted up some tumbling varieties into a hanging basket for my Mum – and they really are something that tastes so much better fresh.

Seed and tomato plants were sent in exchange for fair reviews by Unwins, Thompson & Morgan, Marshalls and Dobies.

A taste of heritage apples

With Apple Day approaching, I’ve been out to Snowshill Manor to find out about their heritage apples.

It’s the names as much as the flavour and sense of history that appeals to me about heritage apples. ‘Hoary Morning’, ‘Cat’s Head’, ‘Cow Apple’, somehow, they all seem so much more interesting than a mere ‘Granny Smith’.

Yet, few, if any, ever find their way to supermarket shelves and often the only chance you’ll have to sample them is at a specialist event.

heritage apples
Who could resist an apple called ‘Hoary Morning’

Snowshill Manor has been growing heritage apples for many years; collector Charles Wade is known to have had an orchard at the Cotswold manor and it was replanted with more than 50 different apples between 1994 and 2001.

heritage apples
Snowshill Manor is celebrating harvest this month

“There aren’t any lists so apples that were interesting, unusual, old and rare were chosen,” explains Vicky Cody, who runs the garden at the National Trust property.

heritage apples
Snowshill grows more than 50 varieties of apple

The result is an eclectic mix of eaters and cookers with some from the Gloucestershire area and others from further afield.

heritage apples
The ‘Cow Apple’ was found on a Gloucestershire farm

Among the local varieties are the wonderfully named ‘Cow Apple’, so called because the seedling was found growing in a cow pat on a Gloucestershire farm. It’s a general purpose apple that is particularly good for mincemeat as it keeps moist when in the jar.

heritage apples
Ashmead’s Kernel has a hint of peardrops

Then there’s ‘Severn Bank’ a sharp-flavoured Gloucester apple that was first recorded in 1884; ‘Gloucester Royal’, a sweet eating variety from 1930; and ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, another local fruit dating from around 1700, with a peardrop flavour.

“If you like a russet, it’s got that sharp flavour. It’s delicious,” says Vicky.

heritage apples
‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ is another with an unusual flavour

Another with an unusual flavour is ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, which as the name suggests has a hint of pineapple. ‘Egremont Russet’, which was first recorded in 1872, has a rich, nutty flavour, while ‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ has a slight taste of strawberry.

heritage apples
‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ is said to taste of strawberry

One of the oldest varieties grown at Snowshill is ‘Court Pendu Platt, which is believed to be Roman in origin and first recorded in about 1613. Meanwhile, ‘Flower of Kent’ is said to be the apple that gave Newton the idea of gravity.

A more recent variety is ‘Discovery’, an August fruiting apple and one that I grow. It has superb flavour and intense white flesh but doesn’t keep and needs eating fresh-picked.

heritage apples
‘Cat’s Head’ is an old cooking variety

And you shouldn’t go by looks alone. ‘Jenny Lind’ doesn’t seem very appealing but has a fabulous flavour.

“I was very surprised when I tried it. She’s a beauty.”

When it comes to growing, Vicky says heritage apples are no more difficult than modern varieties. She recommends planting in October or November or waiting until February or March.

heritage apples
Flowers and veg make a harvest display

Dig a good-sized hole and put in some well-rotted manure or good compost. Firm the tree in well and add a short stake, set at an angle, allowing the top of the tree to move slightly in the wind, which will encourage better roots.

“As it grows, keep checking the tree tie to make sure it’s not rubbing.”

heritage apples
The cow byre is the ideal setting for the apple display

You’re unlikely to get a crop until the tree is a few years old but then you can enjoy your own taste of history.

During October, Snowshill Manor displays fruit from its heritage apples in the old cow byre and there is fruit for sale.

There are also weekend demonstrations of crafts, including making bee skeps and candle-making.

For more information, visit the website.