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How a couple turned farmland into one of Yorkshire’s finest flower gardens

OASIS OF BEAUTY: Breezy Knees gardens at Warthill, near York.
OASIS OF BEAUTY: Breezy Knees gardens at Warthill, near York.
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A couple with no formal horticultural training have turned 20 acres of farmland in to one of Yorkshire’s finest flower gardens.

Mid-life crises take many forms, some of them destructive, but Colin and Marylen Parker put theirs to good use.

They shunned affairs, fast cars and fruitless quests to look younger for 20 acres of farmland.

Their plan was to turn the former potato and barley fields into a flower garden and plant nursery, which was wildly ambitious for a couple with no formal horticultural training. Fired by the thought of a life-change, and by a love of gardening, they were prepared for hard work and happy to get their hands dirty.

“Our friends and family thought we had gone ga-ga but we had always enjoyed visiting gardens and we loved plants and it’s what we wanted to do,” says Colin, a former pharmacist who, with Marylen’s help, ran two pharmacies in York.

The first eight years were spent preparing the land at Warthill, near York. The bare, windswept landscape was planted with hedging and 2,500 trees and shrubs to provide shelter for the plants they wanted to grow. Making it fit for flowers was a gargantuan task and led to them naming their venture “Breezy Knees”.

“I thought that up in the middle of winter,” says Marylen.

Now, 20 years on, Breezy Knees is breathtakingly beautiful and one of the biggest and best flower gardens in Yorkshire. It attracts enthusiasts from all over the country and beyond.

One awestruck visitor recently described it as a “glimpse of paradise” and gardening writer Roy Lancaster wrote: “What I saw exceeded all expectations and I was totally bowled over.”

It boasts a diverse range of vibrant borders, fountains, a lake, immaculate lawns and more than 7,500 different varieties of flowers and plants.

The planting was a matter of trial and error and involved a battle against the elements.

“Gardening is not rocket science. People are often put off by over-complicated advice from so-called garden experts, but all it takes is enthusiasm and a willingness to experiment.

“Don’t be afraid of failure. If a plant doesn’t thrive then just plant something else. If a design isn’t quite right, take another approach.” says Colin, who also recommends membership of the Royal Horticultural Society.

A good example is the standard advice for the light and sandy soil at Breezy Knees.

“The advice is to put manure and compost on the soil to retain moisture but we have found that it’s the worst thing you can do as it fluffs the soil up. It was better to let the soil settle down naturally,” says Colin, who puts bark on the soil to keep weeds out and moisture in.

After watering new plants for the first three weeks, he and Marylen leave it to the rain to do the rest. The couple learned the hard way that their part of the Vale of York has the one of the coldest climates in Yorkshire. Only the toughest of plants survive there.

“The cold air drops off the Pennines and North York Moors into the Vale of York. It is a frost pocket. We lost a quarter of a mile of privet one winter and privet is a tough old boot. We replaced it with laurel which puts up with the conditions. That’s called gardening by experience,” says Colin, who also cautions against some of the advice given by TV programmes.

“If you follow it half of your plants will die because most TV gardens are down south. They tell you to trim your penstemons three weeks before you should trim them up north.”

The perennials for sale in the Breezy Knees nursery have all been grown outside on site, so buyers know that they have been through a Yorkshire winter, unlike cosseted plants grown in polytunnels that are the staples in most garden centres.

They are hardy, like the couple who grow them.

“There have been a few other challenges,” says Marylen, who points to floods which led them to raising the soil level in some area. Rabbits and deer are also a problem. In the first year after planting, they ate 30 per cent of the stock.

They barely get a nibble now thanks to fencing so the gardens are pristine. It’s clear that a huge amount of effort has gone into the design.

The pathways are wide so that Breezy Knees is accessible for wheelchairs. May, June and September gardens have been developed, so that there is always something new to see.

There’s also a pretty cottage garden, raised beds, a rock garden, double border, Euphorbia and Achillea rivers and a meadow, along with a section named the “Rogues Gallery”.

It is full of plants that traditional gardeners hate, such as Persicaria and Mint. Other areas are just for fun and include a Stone Hedge, which is a hornbeam version of the Neolithic monument, and two enormous fibreglass wellies.

All the above, along with the nursery, are tended to by the couple and the equivalent of just two full-time staff.

It’s hard graft and any profit is put back into the business to fund new features, including the cafe run by the Parkers’ daughter, Holly.

“We do this for love of gardening not the love of money,” says Colin.

Breezy Knees Gardens (Common Lane, Warthill, York YO19 5XS) are open every day May to September 10.30am to 5pm. Dogs are not permitted (except guide dogs).

Adult entry is £7. Children (3-16) are £2.50 and a season ticket is £27. per person.

For more information on Breezy Knees Gardens and Nursery, go to
www.breezyknees.co.uk