"There was a knock at the door,” recalls Tony Newton. “And there, standing at the doorstep, was a mother and daughter. They had travelled from Romania to see the garden and had walked for two-and-a-half hours to get to the house.
“We had no idea they were coming – they just turned up. Of course, we invited them inside for a cup of tea and to see the garden. They loved it. They were speechless. Then, as they were saying goodbye, they gave us a Christmas card and little Romanian calender as a gift. They’d brought them all this way just to give to us. It was remarkable.”
Tony and his wife Marie are sharing stories from the study of their home in Buchanan Road, Walsall. Gardening encyclopaedias line the shelves, their inbox is constantly pinging with emails and the kitchen’s full of homegrown veg, but, even though the clues are there, nothing can prepare you for the sight of their garden.
Many have tried to do Four Seasons justice in print, but, truth be told, there are not enough words in the dictionary to describe its beauty. As one top judge explained: “It is a garden like no other”.
It’s also a garden that has attracted interest from around the globe.
Just a week before, Tony and Marie had a visit from Sergey Kalyakin, editor of Russian gardening magazine, Sadovnik. He told them of their garden’s fame in his country and how his visit had been “a day that changed my garden-life”.
Vivid, luscious and impeccably detailed, Four Seasons has also graced the pages of China’s National Geographic and Floral Times, New Zealand Gardener and countless other international magazines and newspapers.
“It is an honour to be in these publications,” says former transport planner Marie. “We never dreamt for a second that it would get to this level. When we first started, we didn’t even think about opening the garden so this is remarkable.
“We’ve now had more than 10,000 visitors through the doors during our 70 open days since 2006 and have raised more than £34,000 for charity. We’ve had visitors from all over the world, 27 different countries in total, including Australia, Bahamas, Botswana, Haiti, Iceland, Thailand and Jamaica.
“But it doesn’t matter where in the world people are from, they all have the very same first reaction, which is ‘Wow!’.”
Tony and Marie, both aged 64 and with four grown-up four children, moved into their home in 1982. Neither has had any horticultural training and admit that the first 10 years of the project were “trial and error”. They’ve had no outside help whatsoever in transforming their quarter-acre plot into a Shangri-la of beautiful blooms, charming topiary, flowing water features and hidden nooks and crannies featuring everything from banana and palm trees to secret seating areas. Parts of Four Seasons feel like a tropical jungle, others like a calming Japanese garden: it is like being in another world all together.
Former GP Tony said it had been a labour of love: at times back-breaking work but thoroughly worth it. Over the years, the couple have brought in tons of soil, rolled in huge rocks to make pathways and features and even made their 54ft steam by hand (it had started out at 12ft but Tony admits to getting a little carried away).
But, with so much love, work and effort ploughed into the garden, do they ever feel nervous about opening it up to the public? After all, during their recent open weekend, more than 400 people poured through the doors. Any worries about damage to the lawn or precious flowers?
“Not at all,” says Tony. “The garden comes alive when people are in it – it takes on a new dimension. It’s wonderful to see people enjoying it, to see all your hard work pay off.
“We get wonderful feedback too. Our five visitor books are a joy to read: we get comments from all over the world, all different ages and types of people.
“Besides, we don’t see the garden as work. We enjoy it, it’s therapeutic. And it’s lovely to see it have that effect on others too. We get people who are bereaved, for example, and they like to sit down by the stream for a few hours and just lose themselves in the garden. They tell us they find it therapeutic too.”
The award-winning garden (it has countless gongs but titles including Winner of the Daily Mail National Garden Competition and Garden News’ Overall Gardener of the Year) has evolved to around 3,000 plants – only two of which were here when Tony and Marie moved in. But, now they are both retired, are they considering slowing down a bit?
“We are a little bit more relaxed,” laughs Marie. “We do have more of a ‘mañana’ approach to things these days but we’re still perfectionists and we still love it so we’re still out there all the time. We enjoy the garden ourselves and we enjoy seeing other people’s reaction to it. There’s another open-day weekend later this year (October 25/26 10-5pm) so we can’t rest on our laurels too much.”
“Absolutely,” agrees Tony. “We still love it. My favourite times are spring and autumn and I love to see the garden change with the seasons.
“To me, gardening is believing in the future. It’s about having hope and faith that, no matter what’s happening in life, things will always come around again and get better. To garden is to believe.”