They say a change is as good as a rest and I think Mark Porter would agree. The change in his life was certainly radical. Formerly CEO of the European division of a global IT company, Mark took early retirement and turned designer, horticulturalist and joint-creator of a three-acre garden with his wife, Jackie.
The couple has lived in Hampshire for over thirty years, and it was in 2001, when they moved to The Down House in Itchen Abbas, that they discovered the major project they’d been looking for. This labour of love subsequently led to Mark becoming Regional Chair of the National Garden Scheme charity (NGS) for South East England. His passion for sharing his enthusiasm for horticulture earned him a seat as a Council Member for the RHS and, more locally, Mark has been Chair of the gardening club, The Valley Gardeners, for nearly seven years.
Mark showed me an aerial photo of their home from that time which clearly illustrates the staggering amount of work they have done to both house and garden over the years. He remembers well the night when a storm demolished the old stable block. Back then, the garden was just a field which had been used for grazing.
Mark and Jackie started creating the garden by constructing a sunken ‘room’ with a surround of oak posts and rope, which are festooned with climbing roses in the summer, an idea gleaned from a visit to Hidcote, one of many gardens that inspired them. Then in February 2007, Mark and Jackie opened a small part of the garden to the public – a meander through a spring carpet of snowdrops- in aid of PCaSO, a charity for prostate cancer support.
A couple of years later a friend suggested they opened their enlarged garden for the National Garden Scheme. What followed was a stringent assessment by the NGS, who decreed that the lawn was not up to standard! But by 2009, aided by gardener Brian and after a lot more physical work and planting, the garden was approved and opened to the public under the NGS for the first time.
Not only has the garden grown, but so has its popularity. On NGS open days Mark and Jackie may welcome as many as two hundred visitors. This year the NGS celebrates 90 years of opening gardens for charity, raising £200,000 last year in Hampshire alone. Visitors come from as far as Devon and Wales to visit the garden, sampling tea and locally-made cake in the barn where the stables once stood.
In early spring there’s a woodland walk through varieties of snowdrops, English crocus and hellebores, with a connecting bog garden and wildlife pond. Passing a statue of an elegant lady reading, you find yourself in a sunken garden beside a pond and fountain, with a quiet seat to contemplate this secret space.
From there, wander along an avenue of yew hedges toward the main lawn bordered by hornbeam, to the well-tended ornamental, vegetable garden. Further on are 150 grape vines close to the house, with glimpse of another thousand vines planted in the meadow beyond with help from Alresford Rotary. In 2015 Mark and Jackie produced 400 bottles of The Down House wine.
For me the most striking part of the garden is in the bottom meadow where the garden meets the Pilgrim’s Way and eventually the River Itchen. Two large curved borders have been planted with willow and dogwood which in March provide an incredible display, their tall, leafless branches coloured black, purple, amber, golden yellow and parchment. The cuttings from these plants are quick and easy to grow and Mark often distributes them to friends and neighbours.
Turn away from these colourful borders and you are presented with perhaps the most striking image in the garden, two groups of white-barked birch trees. They stand in stark contrast to the green of Hampshire, but far from looking out of place, they take on an almost spiritual resonance. One is so tempted to sit amongst them, as Mark and Jackie often do but only after Mark has gently scrubbed the bark to ensure no algae or lichen ruin the white colour!
To walk through Mark and Jackie’s garden is a delight. Not only do you wander through the seasons but also through a cleverly designed series of ‘rooms’, each with its own distinct atmosphere and vista. Whether you are looking at the garden from the house or the extensive terrace, where summer seating is set out below climbing wisteria, or from within the garden landscape itself, there is a new, surprising view which leads you this way and that. This journey looks very naturalistic, with not a bedding plant in sight, but has taken years to create.
Mark may spend up to nine hours in his greenhouse some days; then there are the one hundred and fifty pots to water using collected rain water, and plants to move to give an ever-changing feel to the garden, along with the ongoing general maintenance.
With all that and the co-ordination of work for the NGS, the Valley Gardeners and his position at the RHS, Mark has ‘willingly swapped one career for another’, and couldn’t be happier. While Mark Porter may not rest very often, it’s all done for the love gardening.
The Down House Garden is next open for the NGS on 3rd September 2017 including ‘Walks and Talks’ and wine tasting. Full details of this and the other 140 open gardens in Hampshire can be found at www.ngs.org.uk
Written by Gill Grant