The former pop star turned designer explains to Jill Turner how she created a garden at a sheltered home.
A chance meeting in the village pub got Kim Wilde committed to one of her biggest and most satisfying gardening projects. Kim's actor husband Hal returned from an evening at the local to tell her that one of their neighbours had been looking for someone to design a garden for the elderly at a nearby sheltered housing project and he had volunteered Kim for the task.
The pop singer turned TV garden designer said: "I was pretty shocked at first. I'd done a few things with the Better Gardens and Garden Invaders programmes and private jobs for family and friends, but I didn't really think of myself as a proper garden designer."
When she saw the site at Herts, she was even more taken aback. The Bury is a large, originally Jacobean but now Georgian-fronted grange surrounded by once beautifully landscaped formal gardens, now mostly overgrown. The Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust, which owns the property, had cleared a lawn and some allotments but the rest was largely wild. Kim's aim was to create a sort of woodland walk where the 63 elderly residents could wander, and a garden where they can relax and just enjoy the outdoors.
Kim says: "The idea was to give them somewhere to go, to take a bit of exercise, to congregate and to relax. I wanted to include lots of different elements to encourage them to come out into the garden."
The short walk is themed, from the pagoda entrance to the gazebo at the end, both of which will eventually be covered with climbers.
Kim, 39, adds: "When I came it was a fright: choked with nettles, overgrown saplings, elder, brambles. A real tangle. But I was lucky. All my friends from the pub - who are in its gardening club with me and Hal - came mob-handed one morning and we got it cleared.
"We kept many of the originals, like the old sycamore trees, and found some treasures as well including an original box shrub, a laurel and a laburnum hidden in the undergrowth. We also borrowed some planting from next door, clematis which peeped over the wall."
The cost of renovating the garden should have been £15,000 but many plants, materials and labour were provided free of charge. A local garden centre donated the water feature and a local craftsman gave the owl sculpture that nestles in the undergrowth.
Kim made the garden sensual with running water and lots of fragrant plants like osmanthus, mahonia, choysia, wisteria, jasmine, roses, honeysuckle and violets. She also included a lot of seating: benches, an arbour and the gazebo, where the residents could relax.
Kim had included a gravel path in her design but she knew this would have to be level for those who were less mobile. So she laid hoggin - a sticky clay and sand mix which hardens to create a solid base - under the gravel and edged the path with split larch poles to contain it. For low maintenance she laid a weed mat under the bark chip beds to keep weeds under control.
The singer, who has two children - Harry, two, and seven-month old Rose - studied horticulture at Capel Manor College in Enfield, north London and her own garden is a mixture of vegetables, wild flowers and more traditional plants. She says: "I started garden design really because I bought a house with nothing but a piece of land attached and had to create something. Once I got started, I found I had a bit of a flair for it. I studied at art college when I was younger and I see gardening as an extension of painting, only better because what you create is living.
"Gardens have a wonderful effect on people. The spirit of place is very powerful and with gardening you can transform a bleak and messy place into something people can take real joy from."
In every garden she creates Kim plants a little piece of her own joy as a trademark signature. Her favourite plant is the red clover trifolium which she has in her garden at home. "The reason it's my favourite plant is because when I met my husband and pointed out this plant one day he was so impressed that I knew the Latin name that he thought 'that's the girl for me'! It's been symbolic for me ever since." At The Bury Kim's signature trifolium repens purpurascens nestles near a tub planted with colourful spring, summer, autumn and winter bulbs, which will flower each season and provide constant colour.
Although the garden is private the housing trust is allowing access to patients of a local hospice and villagers who helped in its transformation. It is due to be formally opened today by Kim's father, Sixties pop star Marty Wilde. Heather Stanley, the home's manager, says: "The residents are over the moon and sneaked out into the garden long before the opening. We are so humble that the village has given us so much and so grateful to Kim. Everyone adores her.
"We don't know what to say but we had a plaque made and that really says it all." The plaque reads: "She who plants a garden, plants happiness."
RURAL PURSUITS: When Kim is not meeting design challenges like the sheltered home walkway she is kept busy tending her own large garden