Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a Persian garden which was started as recently as 1995 but has matured into something that transports you to the other side of the world
Published in September ’09
A substantial old former rectory tucked in next to the church in a small Dorset village is not where you might expect to find a Persian garden, but Corscombe House gives the garden visitor quite a few surprises. Mr Jim Bartos has used the ‘separate room’ principle to excellent effect with high, dense hedges of different types ensuring that you explore the garden never quite sure what is round the next corner. The garden was started in 1995 and has matured beautifully in the intervening years.
The yew-hedged approach along the side of the house is full of luxuriant greens, with huge hostas and hydrangeas spilling over the path. Low clipped hedges in a four-square feature are a preview of the box parterre behind the house where, with the church tower just beyond the boundary, the first ‘room’ of the garden comes into full view. The dark green of the box contrasts with light gravel paths and many of the plants contained by the hedging are light in colour. Pale salvias and nicotiana are spiked with alliums, while rosemary adds a fragrant touch. Tubs span the seasons with summer lilies and dahlias pushing up ready for later flowering.
The wide borders to the lawn are packed with shrubs clipped into large balls and elegant mounds, some variegated, with ferns filling in behind. Deutzia and philadelphus keep the colour scheme light, in foliage as well as flower. In contrast, clipped yew cylinders stand to attention on the lawn like dark exclamation marks. A flight of wide steps leads up to the next part of the garden and, in the distance, a flint obelisk suggests there is yet more to see. To each side of the steps are blue and white borders bursting with delphiniums, cat mint, tall campanula, geraniums, white dahlias and marguerites. Mr Bartos told me that this was the summer scheme. Later in the year the borders take on a different appearance, with asters.
Up through the beech hedge, then, to a beautiful long pool with red water lilies. Four terracotta tubs of crimson dahlias stand at the corners. The pool is flanked by eight hawthorn trees, globular heads on trunks that have become beautifully marked and lichened with age and which are reflected in the water. A small rose-covered pergola is the ideal place to contemplate the symmetry and peace of this part of the garden.
The borders either side of the pergola are an explosion of colour; red, orange, purple, vie with each other for dominance. Day lilies and alstroemeria spread over antirrhinums and dahlias; montbretia shouts at lychnis; plum-coloured rhus sits at the back and tries to calm it all down, but is fighting a losing battle. Scarlet bergamot and peach abutilon jostle with deep purple. Red is the one colour I do not plant in my garden but I went home re-thinking, working out where I, too, could have such a bed of fireworks. Close planting ensures everything stays more or less upright, with clever placing of twig supports that are hardly noticeable as the border matures.
Heading once more towards the obelisk, through yet another dense and sheltering band of hedge, I found a wild meadow and orchard with apple and pear trees. The view of gentle countryside from the obelisk accentuates the colour just left behind. Looking back, one can appreciate how the garden is using different levels of land, with subtle banking easing the walk from one area to another.
There is an immense copper beech tree off to one side and, eager to see ever more, I turned back towards the house and found shallow grass steps down into a so-English patch of ground. The beautiful tree has a swing hanging invitingly, with a mown path through the long grass leading the way past six clipped willows. Clematis scramble up through the hedges and a sturdy pergola marks the entrance through decorative iron gates into the vegetable garden.
This productive area is about as far removed from a standard ‘pea and bean’ patch as it is possible to get. There are more pergolas, solid no-nonsense structures covered with roses, clematis and honeysuckle, one featuring a splendid yellow glazed pot of massive proportions. Frilly clumps of lettuce ‘Red Fire’ contrast with emerald green curls of parsley. Purple and white sweet peas together with cat mint pick up the colour of purple kale. Feathery asparagus is set off by compact box hedging. Vivid orange cucumber flowers flourish adjacent to pale green cabbage heads. Espalier fruit trees are making good use of the wall, where a fig tree, too, is enjoying the sun and shelter. Tucked into one corner, a small bed of ripening raspberries exactly echoed the colours of the nearby abutilon. It is all as pretty as it is edible.
Having left the intriguing idea of a Persian garden until last, I set off once more past the hostas towards the front of the house. Put a hosta in a garden and someone always mentions slugs. These were no exception. It might be worth passing on a tip I read just a few days later. Use slug pellets regularly, advised the unrepentant gardener, and start on 14 February, Valentine’s Day, as that’s when the slugs are emerging and getting ready to reproduce. It seems a little unkind to link the day of love to slug eradication, but it is an excellent aide memoire. Think Victorian cards and all that lace. Do you really want another season of hostas like that?
I couldn’t imagine anything as unpleasant as a slug in the Persian garden. Newly-planted, it has yet to mature, but is already enchanting. Enclosed by hurdles and an old stone wall, it is on different levels, with two gentle slopes and a flat central area with pool. A small patio with seats is surrounded by a trellis pavilion shaped with a clever suggestion of Eastern promise. I could just imagine white filmy drapes in the still heat of a scorching day – but trellis is undoubtedly more practical in Dorset.
The pool has that Eastern essential, a fountain. Water gently spills out of the prettiest flower-shaped bowl onto a wide plinth before seeping back into the depths. White gravel reflects the sun and eight lemon trees in huge terracotta pots are a wonderfully exotic touch. During the winter they are protected in the adjacent greenhouse.
The planting in the garden is simple, geometric and very effective. The four corners have upright olive trees as central features, opposing corners being filled with blue-flowered lavender and lemon-flowered santolina; a clever combination of fragrant flowers and foliage. A hedge of white roses stands in front of the greenhouse, a hedge of pink along the wall, while four scarlet rose bushes mark the outer corners.
I spent time sitting, looking and comparing the garden to a Persian carpet with its blend of subtle colours, the rippling water giving an illusion of shimmering silk. Add those white billowing drapes and let your imagination run riot. You could be transported to the other side of the world.
The garden was opened by Mr Bartos as part of the National Gardens Scheme. Check the Yellow Book if you would like to visit.