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Sue Arnold's all-white woodland garden

29 April 2016 ( 05 July 2017 )

When retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition, deprived writer Sue Arnold of almost all her sight, the only flowers she could see in her beloved garden were white. So she fought back by planting a woodland full of them.

Sue Arnold in her all-white woodland garden. Photograph by Paul Stuart
After being deprived of most of her vision, writer Sue Arnold created an all-white woodland garden. Photograph by Paul Stuart

‘But whatever happened to the bluebells?’ I said to whichever child had been designated to help Granny Sue through the brambles. 

The annual Easter Sunday family walk had got as far as the bend in the stream behind the cottage. After living there for 40-odd years I know every inch of the way despite the fact that I’m losing my sight even faster than my marbles. No bad thing really. By the time I’m completely blind I’ll be too gaga to care.

I’d better quickly fill you in. I have RP, retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary complaint which, over the past few years, has reduced my vision to around 4%. I’m not complaining – no, of course I’m complaining, I never stop whingeing and feeling sorry for myself. And then I think of my sister who has been blind since she was six and never ever bumps into doors or knocks bottles over or goes out wearing odd shoes. Like me.

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I’m still in the denial stage. I pretend I can see because, frankly, it’s easier. ‘Yes Jilly, they’re wonderful,’ I enthuse when my opinionated style-and-good-taste guru of a friend shows me her new Gothic stained-glass dining-room doors. Which doors? What dining room? I wouldn’t recognise Princess Beatrice if she sat on my lap. Well, maybe I would if she was wearing that hat.

So anyway now you know how things stand and how bitterly I miss no longer being able to read or drive. Or, unless I’m concentrating very hard, pour myself a large glass of red wine without spilling it. The other thing I miss is my garden. Correction, my late mother’s garden. 

Until she moved into the granny annexe we made for her in the cottage, we didn’t have a garden. My excuse was that we had six children and full-time jobs and didn’t have time for gardening. And anyway the kids loved playing Indians in the five-foot high bracken that used to be the lawn. Sooner than you can say kaukh shweh (a deliciously fragrant Burmese chicken and coconut curry: my mother was Burmese), she had turned the wasteland round our house into a wonderful garden.

Lawns, brick paths, steps leading to quirky terraces on different levels, wonderfully fragrant roses, wisteria, jasmine, honeysuckle climbing furiously along the railings in front of the house, yellow daisies the size of frying pans fighting for space alongside crimson peonies, orange marigolds, pink hydrangeas, purple lavender.

My mother adored colour. Flowers don’t clash, she advised Jilly, who regards anything brightly coloured in a garden as common. When my mother died eight years ago we pushed her yellow Mini into a flower bed, opened up the bonnet and boot, removed the roof, filled the whole car with soil and planted it with the brightest flowers we could find. We don’t need an address any more. Everyone knows the house with the flowering yellow Mini.

Find out more about using colour in your garden

The onset of retinitis pigmentosa

It must have been about three years ago that I began to realise that I couldn’t really see the flowers in the garden any more unless I actually pulled one towards me and stuck my nose in it. Even the pyrotechnic planting in the Mini and, come to think of it, its brilliant yellow paint, looked dim, drab or dreich as my Scottish husband would say. No longer being able to see flowers, especially the ones in Mum’s Mini, was somehow even worse, even sadder than not being able to drive or read.

The bluebells – or rather the lack of them – were the final straw. We have photographs of all of our six children and seven grandchildren up to their waists, their necks, in bluebells in the woods behind the house. For some reason blue is the colour I find hardest to distinguish. The easiest is white. 

One night after a party when everyone had either gone or found somewhere to sleep, I finished clearing up and went out into the garden. That’s funny, I thought. I didn’t know we had outside lights over there. Or has someone put lights round that bush? I could see big glowing white balls at the corner of the steps leading down to the back lawn, it was where we had planted one of the umpteen white hydrangeas we had bought for two of our daughters’ weddings. I went down to investigate. The closer I got the brighter the lights became. They weren’t lights, of course. They were gleaming white hydrangea flowers big as buckets, their luminosity and brilliance in sharp contrast to the dark green foliage surrounding them. It was my Eureka moment.

The sloping woodland between our house and the stream wasn’t ever part of my mother’s garden. It was more of a jungle with, because of the steep slope, long thin trunks of closely packed oak, ash, maple, hazel and birch fighting for space and light, under whose great dark canopy vast clumps of brambles, nettles and rotting logs waited to ensnare you.

I’d been wanting to cut a bramble-free path through the jungle to the stream and the bluebell wood for years. Those 90 watt white halogen hydrangeas effectively opened my eyes. If I ever wanted to see flowers again they’d have to be white. But where? My mother’s garden was choc-a-bloc. What about the wood? If Vita Sackville-West could plant a white garden at Sissinghurst, why shouldn’t Granny Sue plant a white woodland in Killinghurst?

Find out how to grow hydrangeas

White woodland flowers
White flowers clockwise from top right: Japanese snowball tree, handkerchief tree, Mexican orange blossom, white periwinkle

A white woodland garden

Enter Sean Hitchcock, arboriculturist extraordinaire, the only tree man who looked at my wood and didn’t advise me to chop most of it down. It would be criminal to get rid of that field maple, for instance; it was a magnificent specimen, tall and straight with a perfect canopy. Give him ten minutes to look around, said Sean, and then we’d make a plan. First we should work out where the path through this white arboreal Eden of mine should go and then decide what to plant where. That was it really.

The good news was that, being windy leafless November, it was easier to clear the undergrowth, dig out the path, make enormous bonfires. While Sean did that, I got Jilly to drive me to plant nurseries in search of white trees, shrubs, flowers and ground cover suitable for a steep-sloping, west-facing wood with heavy clay soil. Not a whisker of common-or-garden colour anywhere. Silver birches, white hornbeams, handkerchief trees, white rhododendrons, Mexican orange blossom, Japanese snowball bushes, snowdrops and, of course, hydrangeas. Loading them into the trolleys I could almost hear Vita’s approval.

The bad news is that everything was planted too late to bloom that first spring. And I’ve been advised that handkerchief trees can take up to 15 years to produce those glorious, drooping, double-damask dinner-napkin blossoms.

PS. Sean has just told me that underneath the brambles there were some azaleas, probably orange, which he didn’t have the heart to remove. Oh, dear. Jilly won’t be happy.

Sean Hitchcock can be contacted on 07785 917 993

Sue’s favourite white flowers

Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata)
White hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Grandiflora’ and H. paniculata)
White rhododendron (R. auriculatum)
Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata)
White periwinkle (Vinca minor f. alba)
Japanese snowball trees (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum and V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’)

Find out about white flowers for your garden

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.