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Herbaceous gardening at its best

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell have visited Knitson Old Farmhouse

The long view of packed flower beds

There is nothing formal or contrived about the garden at Knitson Old Farmhouse. It is herbaceous gardening at its best, with plants packed in so tightly that the soil is invisible. It rambles here and there, linked by stepping stones or narrow paths; seats in all sorts of places invite the visitor to relax and enjoy; wild flowers push up between their named relatives in an entirely acceptable profusion of colour.

Rachel and Mark Helfer bought the old house, then derelict, in 1960. Their helpful notes describe it as having a vegetable garden of virgin heavy clay and a flower garden of sloping wilderness with some apple trees at the bottom. This would have been enough to deter many, but Rachel’s upbringing with an organic gardener for a father and a mother who was a great nature-lover had obviously given her the urge to work with – and achieve the best from – what was naturally available. She describes the process as easy-care gardening, finding her own way of dividing time as necessary in order to bring up five children. What goes round comes round, though. Her family now give willing help in the garden, having no doubt absorbed a love of gardening almost by osmosis.

A colourful mix of plants in this view towards the house

Knitson is tucked in a fold of land close to Swanage and the coast. Although this garden catches the wind from time to time, it is very sheltered from frost. Plants keep growing and I was assured that as many as one hundred different plants can still be in flower on Christmas Day. A huge bonus is that many of them could well be in view from the house. Looking out of the kitchen window, where tea and cakes were being dispensed in aid of Farm Africa, the view was straight down through the garden to a Purbeck stone moon arch, bringing the enjoyment of the garden indoors at all times. There are packed flower beds throughout that view, additional shelter being provided by a high old wall covered in clematis and roses. Day lilies, tulips, paeonies and hellebores are ringed with marigolds and forget-me-nots, with the deep pink of wild campion nodding here and there. Penstemons and hollyhocks, poppies and delphiniums, have all formed clumps that ensure a succession of colour.

A garden as full as this one may look, and be described as, easy-care, but there is always ongoing work, and the annual cutting back is one job for which Rachel is grateful to welcome a second pair of hands. Many perennials need mid-season attention, often to prompt a second flowering, and I was reminded of a saying from my own family: ‘You can’t walk round a garden without bending your back.’

The garden merges naturally into the surrounding Purbeck landscape

There is the smallest of lawns – how very sensible – surrounded by yet more herbaceous planting. A few shrub roses give height, but the eye is drawn mainly by the mix of lilies and montbretia, phlox and hardy geraniums. A lonicera hedge is a wind-break for lavender and roses, ice plants, sisyrinchium and iris.

Rachel obviously has a good eye for contrasts, edging a narrow path with an unusual combination of black grass and felty grey lamb’s ears. Cerise pink thrift and lime-green lysimachia, too, are an eye-catching pairing. A bright splash of gold spiraea sits in a swathe of bluebells, and the heart-shaped leaves of epimedium combine happily with the feathery deep rust of fennel.

A Purbeck stone moon arch is a stunning focal point

The moon arch, a surprise built by the family, is only one use of local stone outside the house. During the 1960 renovations, sinks, padstones and field gateposts were all relocated into a garden that was gradually taking interesting shape. The stone had been retrieved from a nearby 1st-century Romano-British site and, feeling more than a little in touch with history, I went off in search of a pre-Roman side-handled quern that has come to light and is now positioned near the garden entrance.

Although the garden is not large, winding and interconnecting paths make it appear much more extensive. A mirrored arch with its reflection also adds an illusion of space. Two stands of elegant bamboo overhang a stepping-stone path, with hostas flourishing beneath at a point where the garden fades interestingly in and out of ‘wild’. Drifts of variegated grass around the old apple trees fit well with forget-me-nots and, just beyond the wire fence, sheep and lambs graze a small orchard.

All shades of green in the perfect sun trap

By the moon arch, a curved seat in a small gravelled area is the perfect sun-trap. Dark sage and vivid pink geraniums are surrounded by foliage in all shapes and all shades of green. Small plants have seeded in the gravel; everything is just bursting to spread.

Going through to the vegetable garden, cow parsley towers creamy-white over yellow potentillas and burgundy-foliaged berberis fills in beneath a weeping cherry. There is a greenhouse, a cold frame and a shade house in what is obviously a very productive area. The whole garden falls away from the house but the slope is more noticeable here, where raised beds have been formed and levelled out of massive old timbers. Raspberries and currants, rhubarb, peas and beans, potatoes, asparagus, strawberries and onions: all are testament to Rachel’s intent to grow nearly all that she needs.

I loved “Fe’s Garden”, complete with apology for its lack of progress due to small children. Yes, we’ve all been there.

Dainty Phlox subulata (moss phlox) ‘Kimono’ – a mass of colour and a perennial cushion of green

Back up at the house I studied the old walls, which are now clothed with climbers. Roses, iris and wallflowers keep the cottage feel going. Even the small pink and white daisies that have seeded in the crevices of the buttressing seem to have sought out exactly the right places. There is a small terrace and rockery leading down to the lawn, where those old sinks burst with plants and a collection of tables and chairs is very welcoming.

I had one last sit-down surrounded by a riot of tulips, before leaving with my selection from the plant stall. The answer, they say, lies in the soil. In this garden you can’t see the soil – and it works beautifully.

Happy violas massed in a container

The Old Farmhouse opens for the National Gardens Scheme and details can be found in the NGS Yellow Book or on the web site at www.ngs.org.uk. Visitors are also welcome by appointment, as are small groups of no more than thirty at a time. Contact 01929 421681.

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