The Flower Garden and its restoration
Gardening was of all my employments that in which I succeeded best; though even in this I did not suddenly achieve perfection. I began with lettuces and cauliflowers, next to melons. Then I purchased an orange tree, to which, in due time, I added two or three myrtles.
William Cowper was a keen gardener and there are many nature observations and references to gardening in his poetry and letters. Indeed, his garden was a constant source of solace and encouragement to him, especially during his bouts of depression, and for nineteen years he grew a wide variety of plants at Orchard Side in Olney.
The Restoration of the Flower Garden is a project aimed at cultivating mainly those plants growing in Britain prior to the poet's death in 1800. This includes, of course, native plants, herbs brought over by the Romans, and Crusaders returning home from the Holy Land, as well as the plant collectors bringing back plants from the New World before and during the poet's lifetime. Careful research is undertaken to ensure only the earliest varieties of those pre-1800 introductions are used.
Cowper's love of wildlife and nature is reflected in the pond area of the garden, specifically designed by Sue Fisher, as was also the planting along the West Wall, in order to attract birds, butterflies and other creatures to this organic garden.
The restoration work was begun in 1994 with a generous grant from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust with professional input from Sue Fisher and the late Ken Hollinshead. The ongoing work is now financed through plant sales and undertaken by volunteer gardeners, who are always pleased to answer visitors' questions.
The existing hard paths were retained for good access to the whole garden and suitability for wheelchairs. The plant labels, yellow with black lettering, being the most suitable for visually impaired visitors, give details of the Latin name and common name of each flowering plant in its season, with the date of introduction to this country.
In the second garden at Orchard Side is William Cowper's Summer House, which he called his "verse manufactory", as he wrote much of his poetry and prose in the peace and seclusion of this garden.
Over the fence is Guinea Orchard and beyond it, the Old Vicarage, former home of the Revd. John Newton (author of 'Amazing Grace'), and the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Cowper and Newton paid the owner of the orchard a guinea a year (£1.05p) for the right to cross between their two gardens when they visited one another.