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Dorset Garden: Cottesmore Farm, West Moors

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a garden that bears the imprint of both its creators

Vibrant clumps of phlox are eye-catching in the borders

West Moors may seem an unlikely place to find oneself in the tropics, but the exotic foliage and sizzling colours at Cottesmore Farm are reminiscent of botanical gardens much nearer the Equator. On an August afternoon that is hot but threatening rain, which is equally appropriate; many visitors carried umbrellas to shelter their sun hats if the heavens opened. The plants that pack this garden of over an acre look as though they would happily soak up either option, massed luxuriantly in what is described as a ‘his and hers’ garden of contrasts.
Paul Guppy and his wife Valerie have opposing ideas on what makes a garden, but they have agreed to disagree in a combination that works remarkably well. Paul indulges his passion for exotics while Valerie, having recently been presented with a mist propagator, has been taking advantage of her husband’s expertise while learning how to increase herbaceous perennials.
‘I left school and went to work for Trehanes, who are known for their camellias,’ says Paul. ‘After eighteen years I moved to Compton Acres, who were looking for a propagator, and am now working with Poole Council, based at Upton Park.’
Paul’s years in horticulture have ensured he is in contact with many others in the same field; his love of exotics having taken hold at an early stage. He has become a collector of plants from other parts of the world, all now thriving in what was once a cow field. This garden, which looks as though it has been established for very many years, but it only started to be planted in mid-1996, when Paul and Valerie moved to the bungalow. Its apparent maturity is due in part to sheltering trees, including silver birch and eucalyptus which provide shaded areas, but also keep out the wind and trap the heat.

Green is interesting when leaf size and shape are well mixed

When Cottesmore is open to the public, entry is through the palm garden. Wide grass walks separate generous borders packed with tall screens of bamboo and grasses. There are more than one hundred trachycarpus – fan palms – their stout trunks adding to the impression that this garden is much more mature than it is. The tropical foliage is offset by bursts of colour from achillea, day lilies and kniphofia (red hot poker), with an occasional spray of purple verbena held aloft on stiff stems. The bamboos add colour, too; Phyllostachys aureasulcata ‘Aureacaulis’, the golden groove bamboo, is particularly beautiful with its sulphur-yellow stems catching the sunlight. The formal palm walks enclose a circle of palms, underplanted with euphorbia and ferns, yellow and orange crocosmia.
Massive gunnera overhang the path, their spiky stems and leaves just waiting to catch the unwary. Gunnera are more usually associated with water gardens, but these survive so well as the ground is very wet. In setting out the garden Paul included a network of land drains, fed by the wide channels at the edge of each border. The drains can be tapped in several places to provide water for irrigation. Gardening always comes back to basics; you have to come to terms with your land and its conditions.

Hedychium densiflorum 'Stephen', spectacular foliage as well as flower spikes

Paul began by marking his proposed layout on the field site, digging out a spade’s width of turf around each area to be cultivated. The proposed beds and borders were then treated with weed-killer and, when the grass was well and truly brown, he turned in the edges a little more, piled the old turf in the centre and began his own planting on the top: ‘I just let the worms do the work,’ he says, smiling. Collections of plants were already planned, with species from Chile and Brazil together; Florida’s allspice close to a sweet pepper bush.
Moving from tropical to English countryside at its most beautiful, a small wild flower meadow still has plenty to attract butterflies, even as late as August. Identification cards gIve a tantalising glimpse of what might be seen with patience and luck: small tortoiseshell, painted lady, small copper, holly blue or marbled white, perhaps.

Well known to Guardian crossword fans, the monkey puzzle tree: Araucaria araucana

Then there is the colour. A sizzling explosion of magenta, orange, red and yellow announces Valerie’s love of herbaceous plants, especially phlox. Tawny heleniums and scarlet monarda stand between lilies in big bold clumps. Astonishingly, this part of the garden was only laid out in 2012; until then, Valerie had kept rabbits on it. The fertiliser was obviously potent, as all the plants are huge and look well-established. There is a very dainty corner of pretty cosmos and lychnis, a huge tub of fuchsia, and the more exotic creeping in with a bed of massed day lilies, cannas and palms.
It is the phlox that steal the show, though. Valerie admitted that she hadn’t counted the number of different varieties, but added there were more than five with variegated foliage alone. The propagator is, she says, her pride and joy. No division of clumps for her. Why split a plant into two, when you can have many more? Valerie’s secret is the Chelsea chop, cutting back herbaceous at the end of May to prompt a second, more compact, flowering. When the phlox are chopped, the tops go into the propagator to quickly increase the number of plants. This is a side benefit to visitors as, in a bursting plant sales area, there were several dozen phlox in all colours for sale.

Clockwise from left: The tri-colour foliage of Coleus 'Wizard Mix' creates an impact throughout the season, Pelargonium 'Pink Capricorn', Crocosmia 'Mars' and Phlox 'Frans van Tol'

There are gentle touches in this garden, too. A welcome seat is flanked by tubs of heuchera and two small obelisks of roses are ringed with lavender. A patch of Busy Lizzies was tucked in at low level, including a very new blue variety which Paul has also added to displays in Upton Park.
When a cup of tea beckons, follow the signs through a gate into the small garden that surrounds the bungalow; there is just room to edge along the path as the bungalow is almost buried in flowers. Large pots of vivid geraniums line the walls, clipped evergreens give height as they rise above waves of monarda, crocosmia and yet more phlox. The small lawn lies beneath old apple trees and buddleia alive with butterflies, a pretty arch supports clematis and honeysuckle while a bird bath in a box hedge enclosure does its bit for wildlife. Even behind the garage, plants rule and this sheltered seating area is close to the small greenhouse that produces so much. Potted heucheras line the path here; not an inch of space is wasted.
On the way out, a monkey-puzzle tree stands adjacent to deutzia, rhus and bottlebrush bushes; on a palm walk that is easily missed on the way in, the trunks are fronted by two layers of tight hedging as the breeze moves the bamboos and rustles the palm leaves.

Trachycarpus fortunei: the Chusan palm

Cottesmore Farm was open for the National Gardens Scheme and is scheduled to open on 27 July, and 10 and 17 August this year, but do check in the current Yellow Book. There is plenty of car parking adjacent and the main garden is suitable for wheelchairs. ◗

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