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Our Gin & Tonic Garden

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Where the Taw and Torridge rivers meet on the North Devon coast is the old boat-building village of Appledore, with its narrow streets of fishermen’s cottages jostling down to the quay.

Most of the gardens are pocket handkerchiefs, and many of the houses have no outside space at all – so Val and Gavin Robbins’ plot comes as a real surprise. Though less than 30-feet wide, it is almost 250-feet long. Val has exploited this by dividing it into a sequence of garden rooms, packing them with plenty of diversions to amuse during an evening stroll, as well as places to sit with a drink in hand…

Description: Our Gin & Tonic Garden

It may be only 30-feet wide, but Val and Gavin Robbins transformed their garden from an awkward space into the perfect place to unwind with a long drink

Not that creating the garden has been easy. When the couple arrived in 1979, it was so overgrown that they had to slash through a forest of brambles to find out what they’d bought. At the end of it, they found a narrow alleyway leading to a second garden even more overgrown than the first and littered with generations of rubbish.

Description: a curved path and raised wooden viewing platform encourage visitors to slow down and pause

Surrounded by evergreens and potted hostas, a wooden arbour is a comfortable spot from which to appreciate the formal font garden

Today, the old yard has become a formal garden swathed in climbers, while the dump is now productive – with fruit trained on the walls, veg in raised beds and two ponds teeming with wildlife.

“This is my sanctuary,” says Val. “I come here to sit and look out over the water, and it always makes me feel better.”

Introduce changes of mood

“I try to give each section of the garden its own distinctive atmosphere,” says Val. “So rather than being a corridor, the garden becomes a journey.” The starting point is a Cordoba-style patio garden with white-painted walls and colorful pots, followed by a cooler, more secluded dining area, presided over by the garden god, Pan. There is a hint of the Orient in Thai-style lanterns and a cloud-pruned cotoneaster, before you step into a green garden inspired by the parterres of Versailles.

Create focal points along the way

“If you have a narrow garden with a path down the middle, it’s easy to barrel down it without noticing what’s around you,” says Val. “So it’s nice to have diversions along the way to encourage you to go more slowly.” Her garden is full of quirky ornaments, some made by artist friends, some junk-shop finds. The heads that pop up all over the garden came from a hairdressing school, while an object resembling an exotic Asian palanquin, when turned the right way up, reveals itself to be a wine sledge from Madeira!

Borrow a view

A raised deck, known as “Gavin’s Folly”, makes the perfect gin-and-tonic spot, soaking up the evening sun while looking out over the boats bobbing in the estuary. “I love being by water,” says Val. “It’s never the same two days running. If you look out over a field, even though it changes with the seasons, it’s really always the same – the river here changes from moment to moment and tide to tide.”

Think big

One section resembles a French chateau garden in miniature – all swirling box hedges, formal topiary and rather grand statues. It’s important to think big in a small space, Val says, to counteract any sense of meanness. As she says: “The smaller the space, the more it pays to be bold. I find different textures and dramatic changes of scale make it feel so much bigger.”

Description: Val Robbins tending her plants

A clipped cotoneaster and a mosaic of flowers ease the transition from patio to green garden; Val Robbins tending her plants; a raised bed of succulents shows off their sculptural qualities and is easy to care for;

Val’s tips for a long, thin garden

Divide and conquer

To make the most of a long, thin space, break it up. “You don’t want to see everything at once,” says Val. “I’ve tried to create different sections with individual moods. And it makes the garden seem bigger.”

Screen play

If you don’t have much ground space, try trellis panels covered with climbers or fan-trained fruit.

Up and down

Varying the levels will also help to break up space – even a few inches can make a real difference.

In disguise

Blurring the boundaries of a narrow garden with plants or structures, so it sometimes appears wider and sometimes thinner, will make it feel less cramped.

Trick the eye

To prevent visitors from immediately seeing to the end of the garden, Val diverts the gaze upwards with trees and tall structures, downwards with paving details, and from side to side with captivating displays – tiny ponds and water features, clusters of succulents and even a fernery tucked under the viewing platform.

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