Jane Moore meets Nyla Abraham, a Bath gardener whose garden has seen her through some hard times and has provided vital sustainance to her health and wellbeing
Our gardens are a welcome sanctuary, a haven from the pressures of the world. A garden is also somewhere where we can breathe deeply, ground ourselves and put life back in perspective. Gardeners all recognise that sense of a little oasis, a quiet space for tinkering and pottering that can be so restful and reinvigorating at the same time. We also love to see other people’s oases when we visit their gardens.
For Nyla Abraham, who is opening her Bath garden in Entry Hill for the first time this summer under the National Garden Scheme, it has become more than just a haven, it’s been something of a salvation.
“When I fell ill I realised just how beneficial gardening was to me,” she says. “I remember being very unwell one day and all I could do was hold on to the hose and water things slowly – but at least I was outside and doing something and that made me feel so much better about things.”
Nyla suffers from an autoimmune disease, a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Our immune system guards against germs like bacteria and viruses and when it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells, but in an auto-immune disease the immune system mistakenly identifies part of your body, such as your joints or skin, as foreign and releases proteins called auto-antibodies that attack healthy cells, so your body is literally at war with itself.
“I’m so glad I have the garden,” says Nyla. “If I didn’t have that to focus on I would focus on not feeling well. The garden is both a great distraction and a great comfort.”
Nyla and her husband began developing the garden when they relocated in 2014, but it was after Nyla became ill in 2017 that it became her focus.
“My husband would come back from work and we would ‘do the rounds’. I would slowly walk around the garden on his arm, and we would watch how the plants grew day by day. I would touch the petals on the Michaelmas daises and smell the roses,” she says. “Doing these things made me just happy enough to keep me afloat and stop me sinking into depression.”
It helped that Nyla and her husband Paul had chosen their house based on their love of the garden and the potential they could see in the outdoor space. They had also been keen garden visitors, taking in gardens in Cornwall and further afield.
“Paul and I love The Courts Garden in Holt, and Iford Manor. We also love the lush gardens in Cornwall and I think that’s what encouraged us to plant so many ferns and hostas in the courtyard.”
The courtyard, a cool and shady area next to the house, has been made into an oasis of foliage with ferns, hellebores and bamboos surrounding a mature magnolia. Beneath this on the gravel sits a collection of hostas in blue and white Chinese pots, giving the whole area an air of calm and serene loveliness.
The Chinese theme continues as you move through into the main garden as you are greeted by the three Pekin Bantams, delightfully named after Nyla’s gardening heroines: Vita, Gertrude and Beth.
The chickens have a free run of the garden, and what a lovely space it is. Immediately outside the conservatory is a young quince tree under-planted with herbs. A rustic post and rail fence sections off the main lawn lined with borders planted with cottage garden favourites such as asters and globe thistles. Here, too, is a lovely selection of young trees including the ornamental hawthorn Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’; crab apple Malus ‘Profusion’, lilac (Syringa), and silver birch (Betula pendula).
At the far end the garden becomes productive with a compact vegetable garden, shed and potting bench and a wonderfully wild mini-orchard with a swing seat that just begs to be sat on.
“We’ve tried to give the garden distinct areas with a feel and personality of their own,” says Nyla. “But we want it to look like it all blends together naturally too.”
The garden does this quite wonderfully, taking you on a lovely journey from one space to another with a mix of lush foliage, cottage garden flowers, box and yew hedges and quirky seating areas. Dotted through the garden are various inventive constructions made by Paul, which range from covered seating areas to a miniature greenhouse made from old windows. Since my visit, a hose tidy in a rustic cupboard has appeared on my wishlist.
THE JOY OF THE GARDEN
Sometimes, when the weeds are growing like wildfire and the slugs and snails are eating everything, it’s hard to remember how great gardening actually is. But we gardeners do all relish the unspoiled joy of the outdoors and, for Nyla, that’s what has kept her going. Although her condition is improving, it is a slow process and she still has good days and bad ones.
“Even the simple pleasures such as watching a bee going about its business collecting nectar were enough to make me happy inside,” she says. “I sincerely believe the garden stopped me from becoming clinically depressed and it helped me continue to live my life.”
I think we can all relate to those feelings in some way and it’s becoming far more recognised just how very important gardens and gardening are to people’s health and wellbeing.
I’ll leave it to Nyla to sum up what her garden means to her: “Even when I was still incredibly ill, I could see the garden growing and it lifted my spirits enormously,” she says. “It brought me so much joy and happiness, and it still does.”
The National Garden Scheme open day is on 8 September from 10am – 5pm, admission £3. ngs.org.uk
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener