When Gay and Jim Acres first moved to this plot in Ceredigion 40 years ago, there was no garden, just nine and a half acres of windswept, open moorland. A few mature trees surrounded a derelict building, and the land had no house, no access road, no hedge, no fence, no soil, just half an inch of peaty water over grey clay, with a small area of soil over solid rock.


Experts suggested that to even consider creating any kind of garden was impossible, as nothing, apart from willows if planted on humps, would grow.

That didn't stop this determined pair. After decades of hard work, they've created a stunning water garden that is unrecognisable from the space they inherited. We spoke to them to find out more.

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How have you transformed the garden?

Real gardens: transforming a challenging plot

We began by having a lake dug in the wettest area of the land, followed by several more ponds, interconnected by streams. No need for any liners, the water was simply there.

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We then planted thousands of trees, mostly willow and alder (Alnus glutinosa). We imported topsoil and many trailer loads of manure, and planted other trees and hardy shrubs, created hedges, and formed our own micro climate. We barrowed tonnes of stone to create paths, so that we and our barrows could move around the garden without sinking in the bog. The garden then grew out from around the lake.

Every year we have added more gardens, more garden buildings, garden art, and more and more plants. We opened for the National Garden Scheme in 2002, and the enthusiasm of our visitors has encouraged us to continuously add more features.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Real gardens: transforming a challenging plot

Fortunately, we thrive on challenges! The initial challenge was to gain some control of the water, creating a water garden that also contained relatively dry areas where planting would be possible.

Nowadays our biggest challenge is that the more we have created, the more there is to maintain, and we are continuously creating. We are only two, and we are getting older. One challenge in particular is the annual hedge cutting. Most of the hedges are planted on banks, and the longest one is on a bank alongside a stream. We have to put scaffold boards across the stream, propped up to get them level, and then more boards over the water running parallel to the hedge, so we are exhausted before we even start to cut the hedge (and have fallen into the water on several occasions)!

What have been the biggest successes?

Real gardens: transforming a challenging plot

When we first started on this garden, our aim was to raise our children with an awareness of, and a love for nature. We created a huge array of habitats for all kinds of wildlife, and the wildlife came. The number of species here has increased enormously since we started, and now our grandchildren, our visitors, and their children are learning about and appreciating the wildlife.

There are three areas of the garden that give the most joy to visitors, that have the biggest 'wow' factor. Firstly, the lake, as it is simply so beautiful and peaceful. It's still the centrepiece of the garden, with a gazebo on one side and Spanish garden on the other. Plus, it's host to so many species of dragonfly.

Secondly, the temple garden. The temple is so unexpected and fabulous.

And finally, the willow den. A little house under the willows, complete with fire place, cooker, furniture, a book shelf, where everything is handmade by us, and it includes a bit of magic – two of the books have secret compartments. We are very proud of all three.

What do you love about the garden?

We love to see the joy that the garden brings to our visitors. The children playing in the train, the tree house, the cave and the den, following the dragon trail, discovering the delights of pond dipping, enjoying the musical instruments, running around exploring, and finding fantasy and adventure.

The adults, discovering their inner child, or enjoying the beauty of the plantings, the lake and ponds, the garden art, the garden buildings, the woodland areas, the wildflowers.

The families, enjoying an opportunity to have an outing where there is something for everyone, even when four generations get together. The nature lovers sitting watching the dragon flies, the butterflies and the birds.

The people interested in the creative process, who love to be shown the workshops and the works in progress. All the wildlife who visit or share this garden, from insects to amphibians to birds and mammals.

Is there anything you'd change?

This garden is constantly changing. We keep getting new ideas, so we always have a new project or two on the go. As things deteriorate, we replace them with something sturdier. If I could go back in time and undo anything, however, there are a couple of thugs I regret planting.

Real gardens: transforming a challenging plot

Gay and Jim's garden can be visited through the National Garden Scheme, by arrangement. Find out more about about booking a visit.