Dorset garden: The Old Rectory, Manston
Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell explore the delights of a five-acre North Dorset garden
Published in September ’13
The Old Rectory at Manston is surrounded by its gardens, sheltered from the road by a shrub border with extensive ground cover from massed perennial geraniums. Behind the house are lawns beneath wonderful mature beech trees. Just to one side, though, a splash of colour behind neat box hedging marks the entrance to a walled kitchen garden. Judith and Andrew Hussey were pleased and surprised to find this area, as it hadn’t been mentioned at all in the particulars when they bought the house in 2003.
This is the only part of the garden where regular help is employed and, given its extent, one can see why. Large soft fruit cages are filled with all types of produce, much of which is used to make preserves. Espalier peach trees flourish along one wall and large standard fruit trees occupy the far end of the garden. A large greenhouse was bursting with tomatoes, sharing space with vivid pelargoniums still needing protection from the cold and wet.
On the outside side of one kitchen garden wall lies a beautiful herbaceous border. Judith has an interesting collection of old photographs that show the sheds that once filled this space. Their removal, plus the removal of a deep layer of soil, revealed a wide, old path of narrow brick slips. This now provides a most attractive foil for the border and leads further on to the wild flower meadow beyond.
The sheltering wall is ideal for roses, encouraging climbers to flower above the level of shrubs which give structure to the border scheme. The striking foliage of acanthus contrasts with fine-cut aquilegias. Blowsy white paeonies with yellow centres accompany purple alliums. Grey-leaved cistus is paired with yellow day lily. Peach foxgloves and blue catmint look good together, all intermingled with ice plants and alchemilla, phlox, achillea and geum.
Half-way along the border is a pretty seat with roses and honeysuckle clambering over a small arbour. The view from here across the wide lawn reaches a more formal layout that will eventually mature into garden rooms hedged in box and yew. Beyond the seat, stately cardoons and euphorbia, lysimachia, delphiniums and hostas are just a few of the plants that are massed into this colourful border. Several standard privets add a touch of formality and, given the box hedging and box balls at the entrance to the garden, one wonders about the work involved in this deceptively large garden.
When we visited, the wild-flower meadow on the other side of a low yew hedge was beginning to colour well, with yellow rattle in particular showing among the long grass. The meadow is left until July before it is cut for hay, to give the flowers time to seed. A seat mid-way along this border is positioned with four large terracotta tubs of lavender and gives a lovely view back to the house through an avenue of young Pyrus calleryana. This ornamental pear has white blossom and good autumn colour; this is a spectacular sight once the avenue matures.
The layout of the formal garden has been painstaking and there are several young parterres laid out on strong lines. Low box rings a massive stone ‘font’ full of colourful annuals, the whole making a centrepiece to box-edged quadrants that square the circle. A beech hedge screens the next parterre, where the central circular bed contains roses, lavender and alliums. Standard roses in the corner beds give height to what at the moment is a fairly low scheme but which will soon become significant. The garden is fortunate to have good alluvial soil, particularly as it is sandwiched between pockets of unhelpful, sticky Kimmeridge clay.
The beautiful trees screening the house from here have a mown grass path between, leading to wide brick steps down to yet another parterre sheltered by beech hedges. Standard variegated holly trees are set in squares of gravel, while two long rectangular beds each have three standard ‘Margaret Merrill’ roses as centrepieces, a floribunda rose with dark green foliage and pearly-white flowers. The rectangular beds are not just edged with box but it is also used to create a lattice that contains alliums, lavender, santolina and other small herbaceous plants.
A garden of five acres gives a lot of space for creation and Mr Hussey has taken advantage of this to plant for future generations. About 350 native British deciduous trees have been planted in a small woodland, which is already attracting the birds. Mown paths lead around the wood where a natural pond is, at the moment, almost hidden in foliage. ‘I can see yellow irises,’ murmured Judith, indicating the pond. It is clear that planning for the next stage of the garden is already under way.
Such a wealth of imagination has been used at The Old Rectory, transforming what was in effect a blank canvas into what is becoming a very interesting mature garden. The layout is there; the hedges are growing; trees are already filling in. The box however can be problematic. Judith has already had one major setback with box blight and told me that the only thing to do is to burn diseased plants immediately. She is reluctant to use fungicide as a regular spray so, with box succumbing to blight particularly in damper conditions, vigilance is essential. She clips by hand, disinfecting between each plant, which is time-consuming and labour-intensive.
There are many who wouldn’t even consider planting a formal garden like this, dismissing it as too much hard work. One suspects that more than one visitor to The Old Rectory, though, might well go home with a speculative glint in their eye. Just one small bed, perhaps? One low hedge of box spilling over with lavender, beneath a standard rose?
The Old Rectory, when open, is listed in the NGS Yellow Book. Please check before planning a visit so that you are not disappointed, and respect the privacy of the owners if they are taking time off.
GO WILD WITH FLOWERS
There is nothing more beautiful than a meadow of wild flowers waving gently in the breeze. Nature doesn’t have a problem with colours, heights or density. Flowers and grasses combine harmoniously and undergo apparently miraculous changes, with a wonderful display of scarlet poppies one year giving way gracefully to a take-over by cornflowers the next.
Those gardeners with enough land to sow a wild flower meadow are lucky indeed, but it hasn’t taken long for plant suppliers and nurseries to jump on the bandwagon and give even those with a small garden the opportunity to enjoy their own modest patch of wild flowers. This will not only attract vital pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies, but also encourage birds, moths, frogs and small mammals to make themselves at home.
One way to plant your own small patch of meadow is by sowing wild flower seed, but achieving the required mix and distribution is never totally foolproof. If you want an easier way out, try a wild flower mat. You buy your meadow in much the same way as you buy turf; in strips that just need to be unrolled.
There are many types on offer. One manufacturer produces plants already established on a fine net backing, which just needs to be unrolled onto prepared ground. Another type of mat is dug slightly into the ground and covered lightly with topsoil. One type reputedly contains 60,000 seeds in a 3 metre by 0.5 metre strip, including poppy, corn marigold, lupin, sorrel, lemon balm and flax.
The idea of a 50/50 mix of wild flowers and meadow grasses to kick-start a meadow is an attractive one. The grasses are carefully chosen to complement the flowers, not swamp them – and they have the bonus of having attractive seed heads too. Betony and cat’s ear, cowslip and lady’s bedstraw, ragged robin and tufted vetch are all included in the mix. Yes, it’s cheating, but if the ends justify the means – why not?