The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset Garden: The Old Vicarage, East Orchard

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a wildlife-friendly garden between Sturminster Newton and Shaftesbury

Lawns and borders are just one facet of what the Old Vicarage has to offer


When is a pond not a pond? When it’s a swimming pond. This lovely feature of the garden at The Old Vicarage comes into view as soon as you round the hedge that screens the drive from the garden proper. A couple of jam-jars and nets suggested that dipping in the sparkling water is encouraged and crested newts swim just below the water’s surface.
‘There are huge toads, too,’ says Tina Wright, the garden owner, ‘but they have usually all disappeared before it is warm enough for us to swim.’
Toads and swimming? The pond, which drops from 4ft deep at either end to 7ft in the centre, has a decked area for sun-bathing and is an essential part of Tina’s wildlife-friendly philosophy. It was shortly after she and her family moved into the house in 2002 that she joined the Dorset Wildlife Trust and was inspired to introduce features into the garden which would benefit a wide range of species.
A swimming pond needs running water and gravel beds that act as filters. Rainwater from the house gutters is piped below ground into an old Victorian well, from where it is pumped to provide the stream that gives the garden so much of its character. The small cascade that feeds this pond runs first across a gravel terrace of water-loving plants such as water cannas, iris and a striking lobelia ‘Queen Victoria’ with deep plum foliage. The plants draw up nutrients (which would otherwise remain in the water and encourage algae), then the clean water spills into the pond and drains slowly out on the other side through the gravels of a bog garden full of variegated iris and grasses, among others.
The water is then channelled into a narrow stream which chuckles along one side of the garden, crossed by small bridges and with its banks full of water-loving plants also well mulched in creamy gravel.  A grassy path runs alongside and snakes around a mature acer, which had obviously had a carpet of bluebells beneath it a little earlier in the year than our visit. As the stream reaches a wilder part of the garden it becomes edged with stone and vivid with yellow iris and candelabra primulas. Giant leaves contrast with delicate plants tucked in between as the water finally pours into a pond proper, clay-lined and bounded on one side by grass, buttercups and a fine stand of nettles, all providing food and habitat for bugs, bees and butterflies. A fine weeping willow overhangs the water, with viburnum and hostas nearby. The mix of cultivated and wild works so well.

Clockwise from top left: alstroemeria Apollo, dog rose, primula florindae, iris Sibirica, Morrocan toadflax (linaria macroccana) and a mix of flag iris and southern marsh orchids

The wild garden has a lovely stand of silver birch trees with a few purple-flowered shrub roses studding the long grass. Hellebores, snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and narcissi, fritillaries and bluebells all carpet the ground with colour as the seasons progress. This area is left uncut until late summer, encouraging seeding of some plants and the colonisation of bulbs. If you feel up to the climb, a high platform in a nearby tree gives a bird’s-eye view of the garden as well as the spectacular view to Duncliffe Wood further afield.
A nearby border is full of shade- (and damp-) loving plants; the grass underfoot is squelchy as one walks on it. Ferns, plumy astilbes, the broad leaves of rogersia, tall yellow spires of ligularia and giant burgundy stems of rheum are kept neat behind a narrow timber edge. Tina has a book of garden photographs which really allows one to appreciate the garden – the astilbes in particular as, the weather having been cold for so long at the time of our visit, the perennials had not yet caught up. The book is an excellent record of the maturing garden and shows how every season brings something special to enjoy.

Cupressus Arizonica is one of a number of conifers used to great effect

Deeper into the garden, the gravel mulch of the waterside beds changed to bark mulch. Tina says that she uses seven lorry-loads of mulch every year and it takes a week for just one of those loads to be spread. This is gardening on a grand scale, but she does have some help and the results are very worthwhile. The bark is also used on the path, which meanders through the trees and shrubs that skirt the wild garden, through euonymus, deutzia, cornus, wiegela, holly and tree paeonies. Magnolias do well in the shade, with hellebores and heuchera proving lighter under-planting. The path leads to a small grotto dripping with water in which ferns are flourishing.
One could easily overlook the Sheraton Bug Hotel, so neatly is it tucked into the wilder garden.  Tina has stacked a pile of old pallets and incorporated pierced bricks, small terracotta pots, timber and tiles, some crevices stuffed with straw. It is a wonderful habitat for spiders, ladybirds and lacewings with room for beetles, frogs and hedgehogs beneath. Also nearby is a raised bed enclosed by logs and an old fallen tree trunk surrounded by more nettles and hedgerow plants. No wonder so much wildlife is attracted to the garden, including many birds.
Having enjoyed the wild garden one finds a rose-covered pergola; R. ‘Etoile d’Hollande’ and the rampant R. ‘Rambling Rector’ were poised ready to bloom, then the shaded walk leads to a terrace surrounded by a wide rill, in which two lovely tree sculptures drip water from their leaves. A deep pink clematis (‘Abilene’)  graces one patio container, red Clematis ‘Kermesina’ scrambles opposite. The latter is a viticella clematis; these have smaller flowers, but more of them. Both are suited to a shadier aspect. The most eye-catching container plant, though, is R. ‘Blue for You’. This floribunda has semi-double lilac-blue flowers that are a real show-stopper.

Borders are packed with interest… and a huge amount of bark mulch

Wide borders next to the house burst with shrubs and perennials. Hydrangea petiolaris and Virginia creeper give height to the planting, with more hydrangeas, alliums and nepeta below. Vivid poppies provide a focal point. Massive cardoons had been cleverly supported with coppiced branches, with Magnolia grandiflora towering above. Two rectangular box-edged beds nearby are packed with pale roses. Three large island beds – you can be generous in a garden of this scale – are bulked out with large shrubs but kept pretty with more delicate perennials in between. Day lilies, iris, allium, euphorbias, acanthus; no opportunity has been missed to make the garden as colourful and interesting as possible. This summer display will give way to stunning autumn colours before a winter snowfall transforms it yet again. Spring will reappear with hundreds of tulips – and East Orchard’s wildlife will once again start to enjoy the vision of a gardener who has kept them especially in mind.
When open for the National Gardens Scheme, details of The Old Vicarage can be found in the Yellow Book. Children and dogs are welcome. Please check on dates before you make the journey to East Orchard. ◗

If you would like to build a bug hotel in your garden, structures can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. A very easy way is to use timber pallets as a basis, the main structure then being created with minimum effort on your part; all you need to do initially is stack, but bear in mind that natural or reclaimed materials will be more appealing both visually and in the possibilities they provide for wildlife to book itself in.
The basic structure should be on level ground, ideally in half sun and half shade. If pallets are being used, place the first one upside-down to provide larger openings which might tempt hedgehogs. Other pallets are then stacked on top, each supporting the next, until the hotel is perhaps three or four storeys high.
Filling in the gaps is where the creativity comes in. Keep heavier materials at the base, slotting in old roofing tiles, pieces of slate and stones to ensure ideal conditions for frogs and toads. They breed in water but spend much of the year out of water, sheltering in a cool, damp environment. Old, pierced bricks look attractive and are full of ready-made holes for insects.
Search around for pieces of dead wood which will quickly become honeycombed by wood-boring beetle larvae. Woodlice and centipedes will collect beneath the bark and you may go out one morning to find a spectacular fungus adding unexpected colour. Dead leaves are usually readily available and can be tucked in, perhaps wedged with a handful of hay or straw. A flowerpot filled with straw can also be used and forms an excellent venue for a hibernating mouse.
Even if you are not really a ‘creepy-crawlie’ lover, they are an essential element in any garden, doing their bit to reduce undesirables such as aphids. Lacewings and their larvae are great aphid-eaters, as are ladybirds, which love to burrow into piles of dry sticks or leaves. A lacewing suite can be made with a roll of corrugated cardboard pushed into a waterproof sleeve, such as the body of a plastic drinks bottle. A sleeve of plastic bottle, or even a short length of plastic drainpipe, can also be filled with hollow stems like bamboo. Bees will quickly find their way into this.
Once your bug hotel is ready, think about the planting around it. Anything that attracts butterflies is appropriate, such as a buddleia, or a clump of nettles if that idea doesn’t offend your gardening sensibilities. It won’t take long for wildlife to discover the latest ‘des res’.

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