A Dorset garden: Frankham Farm, Ryme Intrinseca
Susy and Colin Varndell visit a garden half a century in the making
Published in March ’15
This 3.5-acre garden, hard by the Somerset border in the central west of the county, was created back in the 1960s by the late Jo Earle. It features a wide variety of plants and situations, allowing the visitor to amble around, going from one distinct area to another. Jo was obviously a great plantswoman as most of the trees and unusual shrubs are labelled. Many of these plants were first brought back to this country as seeds. Jo and her husband travelled widely and brought these seeds home from their holidays, which they then nurtured, each according to its needs, then finally planted in a suitable habitat around the farm.
The garden has grown ‘organically’ over the years. The predominant philosophy was that the garden was to appear random but was actually well designed and organised. The visitor may want to assess the success of this strategy on their visit. An additional source of interest and pleasure as you move around the garden is the appearance of unusual structures: iron and wooden which all appear to have a story to tell. But the overall effect is that this small working farm is a real family affair and has been for years, starting with Jo and her husband back in the 1960s up to this day, when the family continues to love and cherish it.
When first approaching Frankham Farm one gets the impression of entering a working farm, up a track with a farmyard at the end, then one’s attention is drawn to the fact that the farmyard is incredibly neat and tidy; can this really be a working farm? On questioning Susan (Jo’s daughter) it became apparent that the yard has always been kept spotlessly clean, as it is now, and although there are cows here on a ‘bed and breakfast’ basis, most of the farm is arable and the yard would be rather busier in August and maybe a touch less tidy. One’s attention is also drawn to the farm buildings, which are covered with beautiful climbers and every nook and cranny is stuffed full of flowers! Not your usual farm yard at all.
The journey around the garden begins by entering through the gate by the side of the farmhouse which, when opened, reveals a wonderful colourful vista. A large, neatly kept lawn spreads out before the house with richly planted herbaceous borders encircling it. The house has a patio filled with pots of vibrant plants in front and, looking out over the lawn, one can see the cows nonchalantly munching in the field beyond.
The field has a park-like feel to it, with many single trees dotted about. These are apparently the result of acorns brought back by Susan’s parents and carefully nurtured over the years. Fences had been erected around the saplings to prevent the cows from feasting on them. Jo loved oaks, preferably exotic, and she would collect acorns from around the world, wherever their travels took them. She even collected acorns from China, and grew them on successfully. When large enough, these oaks were planted, all labelled with their names, where they were from and the date they were planted. Jo thoughtfully left instructions on the care of some of the plants for posterity. Susan emphasises that her Mum had no training in horticulture; she just loved plants. And Susan, although rather overwhelmed by her mother’s skill with plants, takes great delight in continuing the family tradition, loving and caring for the garden with a passion, just like her mother.
As one walks across the lawn in front of the house towards the field it is apparent how important the upright features and plants are, forming the backdrop to virtually all the herbaceous beds. As Jo Earle always loved growing clematis, unsurprisingly, there are many varieties here, all carefully labelled, and some self seeded, growing up any vacant wall. The herbaceous borders themselves are crammed with plants creating a sumptuous cottage garden feel. At one time, Susan’s mother used to raise and plant many annuals in the borders but now, with time at a premium, Susan tries to preserve the feel of her mother’s design by curtailing the big perennial brutes which like to spread and keeping them to a manageable size.
The vegetable plot is a veritable mixture of all sorts. Beautifully laid out in sections but with a variety of flowers popping up, to create an informal array of colours and textures, the upright structures give form to the vegetable garden, which would otherwise be lacking in such dimensions. In fact the vegetable plot is as enchanting as any other part of the garden with pergolas and arches supporting a variety of climbers. Cistus, roses, poppies and eccremocarpus mix together with the fruit and vegetables. Even the miniature box hedge around the vegetable area adds to the feeling of structure.
The South Plot, reached through the vegetable garden, has many oak trees as well as an embothrium. This Chilean fire bush, as it is also known, has an abundance of showy tubular red flowers, enabling one to understand its alternative name. In the South Plot watch out for the large carved pinecone adorning the spinney floor. In Spring this area is a spectacle with all its camellias, azaleas, cyclamen and bluebells followed by the wisteria and magnolias, and in June the philadelphus.
In the shelterbelt, or windbelt, which protects much of the garden and house from the ferocious south-westerly winds, paths lead the visitor around. Scots pine trees tower above and various cornus fill in down below. This belt of trees was planted to help slow the force of the wind. Common spotted orchids are beginning to colonise through the woodland with seed blown in.
The orchard, which is tucked away round the back of the farmyard, has ‘Pink Lady’ apples growing. This is rather unusual as they are generally not grown in the English climate, preferring Australia, whence they originate, where there is plenty of sun and where this apple variety is the first to produce blossom and the last to be harvested. The introduction of yellow rattle, a semi-parasitic plant, in the orchard sward is aimed at weakening the growth of the grasses to enhance the biodiversity.
You need to give yourself plenty of time to investigate this garden as you won’t want to miss anything. And ideally you will make repeat visits to get the benefit of all the seasons in this varied paradise; the teas, which are prepared and served by the villagers, are also reportedly well worth sampling. ◗