The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Dairy House, Melbury Osmund

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a garden where hard work has paid off

How long does it take to create a garden? It must depend to a large extent on the raw materials. The old yards of the Dairy House didn’t offer much in the way of encouragement when John and Elizabeth Forrest laid out their plans in the mid-1990s. Large quantities of stone and broken concrete had to be removed and the heavy, waterlogged clay encouraged to drain with the addition of loads of gravel. The bedrock rises almost to the surface here, pushing the water up to such an extent that John is convinced each of the fruit trees in the small orchard is growing in a sump; staking is proving very necessary to keep the trees upright.

The perfect place for a quiet moment

The perfect place for a quiet moment

The garden has defied the odds, however, and has developed into a delightfully pretty setting for the old house with its wisteria-clad balcony. The main garden has beds and borders with small shrubs and carefully placed trees. The countryside views are wonderful; no-one would want to interrupt those. Next to the house there is a small paved terrace backed by the wisteria and with a vivid yellow fremontodendron spread on an adjacent wall. Containers brim over with colour, including a beautiful dark blue agapanthus, with lavender and other small plants tucked into cracks and crevices. A deep plum viticella clematis was smothered in flower; smaller flowers, but more of them. Good value!

Annual cosmos is ideal for filling gaps in borders

Annual cosmos is ideal for filling gaps in borders

A long border carries the eye down to a lovely old stone wall that crosses the garden, decorative gateposts the perfect invitation to whatever lies beyond. The border has small shrubs for height including viburnum, weigela, laburnum and magnolia. Tall coral plumes of Macleaya cordata wave above its soft grey-green foliage. This can be a thug, but is well worth the effort of keeping it in check. Front planting includes geraniums and heucheras, any potential gaps filled with feathery cosmos. A silver weeping pear is the perfect full stop.

A good yellow border

A good yellow border

To the other side of the gateposts a corner is filled with a pond with water-lilies, bog plants, and a small rockery. A stone seat is placed where the musical rippling of the water can be enjoyed. The pairing of a mesh snail sculpture near a perfect potted hosta has to be tongue in cheek! A Judas tree by the pond is just the right size at the moment but, having planted one in my own garden about five years ago, I fear it might outgrow its welcome. They are such beautiful trees, with their early deep pink flowers on almost bare branches.

Beyond the gateposts is the vegetable garden, as attractive as it is productive. Two charming knot gardens are the surprise, edged with box and mulched with gravel. One has a small bay tree, lavender, sedum, and alliums. The other has a centrepiece of pink and violet salvia beneath tall purple verbena, with silver santolina and lavender filling in the corners. The large fig leaves on the wall behind enhance the colours, which are a gorgeous combination.

Salvia coccinea

Salvia coccinea

The vegetable beds are all surrounded by timber edging, which keeps the grass very neat. It all looks so immaculate. Rhubarb and marrows burst out of one bed. There are artichokes and peas in another, with broad beans and spinach nearby. There is room for sweetcorn and potatoes with bushes of soft fruit for good measure. A wigwam of sweet-peas provides flowers for cutting and a bed of marigolds must be doing the reputed job of keeping pests at bay, as the vegetable look in tip-top condition. This is not a huge area, but it is amazingly productive.

‘Miss Wilmot’s Ghost’, one of the best sea hollies

‘Miss Wilmot’s Ghost’, one of the best sea hollies

Moving back up towards the house, I was struck by the clever use of foliage and harmonious grouping of colours. Sword-shaped leaves of giant montbretia and the strap-like foliage of day lilies go well with spiny cleome, the annual spider flower. A creamy-peach rose is placed adjacent to dark berberis, deep pink hydrangea and a cloud of pale blue nigella. On the whole, vivid colours have been avoided; just a splash here and there. There is a good yellow border, with golden rod, various yellow daisies and the acid yellow verbascum. A small variegated hedgehog holly gives all-year interest.

One of two charming knot gardens

One of two charming knot gardens

At the top of the garden there is another kitchen corner, complete with tomato-filled greenhouse. Raspberry canes are tucked in between a mass of tall verbena and several astoundingly tall hollyhocks. A handful of scarlet poppies is one of the few vivid touches in the garden. Where the lawn slopes down gently towards the house, a paved stone circle has been set level in the grass, with lavender surrounding a small sundial.

Lavender surrounds a small sundial

Lavender surrounds a small sundial

I loved the clump of silver sea holly backed by a shiny metal flower sculpture, an inspired pairing. Wispy – and whispering – bamboo grows sensibly confined in an oriental-style container. Back on the silver theme, Eleagnus x ebbingei ‘Quicksilver’ is an eye-catching small shrub now on my shopping list. Its sweetly-scented white flowers alone make it a worthwhile addition to any garden, but add foliage that gleams in any light and it is a stunner. The other plant which was causing comment among many visitors was Nicotiana mutabilis, a tall, branching annual with small flowers. It is big enough to fill in all sorts of gaps, but delicate enough not to overwhelm its neighbours. Easily grown from seed, it is available from Thompson & Morgan.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of York’ will flower until the frosts

Dahlia ‘Bishop of York’ will flower until the frosts

John and Elizabeth were very happy chatting to everyone and answering the barrage of questions that an Open Garden usually provokes. I am sure that many, like me, will have gone home with at least one new idea for their own plot. We may not actually put the plan into action – but for a few brief sunshine hours, the intent is there. Perhaps that is no bad thing. The garden, after all, reflects the gardener. I know John would agree, as when I complimented the couple on their achievement he told me that the Dairy House garden had been created just to please themselves. There was absolutely no doubt that it was pleasing everyone else as well.

The garden was open in late July under the National Gardens Scheme but as dates and times – and intentions – may change, please check the Yellow Book for current information.

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