4 Dorset gardens to visit this autumn

PUBLISHED: 10:41 12 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:41 12 October 2015

Red Oak quercus rubra - one of the many glorious specimen trees at Forde Abbey

Red Oak quercus rubra - one of the many glorious specimen trees at Forde Abbey


As the flaming displays of autumn light up the countryside, Edward Griffiths visits some gardens which are filled with colour from exotic and native trees

Forde Abbey & Gardens, near Chard

Founded by Cistercian monks over 800 years ago, Forde Abbey (which sits on the Dorset/ Somerset border) became one of the richest and most learned monasteries in the land. After its dissolution in 1539, the Abbey stood empty until 1649 when it became a private home. It is thanks to its subsequent owners that it has become the magnificent house and gardens it is today.

The ponds and cascades were laid out in the early 1700s by Sir Francis Gwyn. In the late 19th century Herbert Evans planted Californian redwood sequoia sempervirens, Douglas fir pseudotsuga and cedar calocedrus decurrens and Geoffrey Roper added over 350,000 trees in the early 20th century. The 30 acre gardens are now cared for by Alice Kennard, her father Mark Roper, her aunt Charlotte, and three staff.

October puts on a dazzling display at Forde Abbey: golden leaves, big as dinner plates, fall into the Great Lake from the huge red oak quercus rubra, by the Mermaid Pond a tulip tree liriodendron tulipifera adds a dash of gold with its yellow tulip-shaped leaves, and towards the stone-built ‘ha-ha’, the bright red leaves of the maple acer rubra ‘October Glory’ glow in the sun.

In the shelter of the walled Kitchen Garden there are colourful banks of dahlias grown for house flower arrangements, and several unusual plants including the five-petalled heads of the beautiful blue Brazilian Spider Flower tibouchina urvilleana.

Over in the herbaceous borders against the Abbey’s south wall there’s an impressive display from the pink perennial nerines bowdenii ‘Isabel’, a range of tender salvias including salvia patens ‘Cambridge Blue‘ and the tall salvia dombeyi with long scarlet-pendants. Late-summer bedding add more pops of colour including the deep-purple heliotropium ‘Marine’ and ‘Chatsworth’ dramatically backed by silver cineraria maritima ‘Silverdust’. A black and green vine vitus vinifera purpurea climbs between the leaded windows, and beautiful red-veined leaves of the castor-oil plant ricinus communis complete the picture.

All this aside it is Forde Abbey’s stunning specimen trees which are the stars of the show in autumn – they remain magnificent in their October and November plumage until the winter winds strip them bare.

• Autumn Colours Week is Saturday 24 October to Sunday 1 November

• Open: All year 10am to 4.30pm (last admission), and by appointment for group tours. Address: Chard, Somerset, TA20 3LU 01460 221290 fordeabbey.co.uk 

Mapperton House & Gardens, Beaminster

Lady Caroline Montagu, Countess of Sandwich, wife of John Edward Montagu the 11th Earl, told me how over the last 30 years they designed Mapperton Gardens to flow gradually from formal to wild gardens. And, as Lady Montagu revealed, it all happened without changing the existing planting very much. “We’ve put in lots of plants, but have lost others,” she explained, as she showed me around the formal gardens. “We’ve also defined the sharp areas and contrasted these with overflowing areas.”

Autumn-flowering plants grace the croquet lawn’s stone walled borders including itea ilicifolia with long catkin-like racemes of pale-green flowers, and the deep-purple clematis viticella ‘Polish Spirit’.

By the Orangery, a pale-apricot hybrid musk rose ‘Buff Beauty’ perfumes the air while inside there’s a colourful display featuring a stunning pink abutilon, a pale-blue plumbago and a shrubby begonia fuchsioides with glossy leaves and clusters of pale-red flowers.

The Fountain Court offers neatly clipped box topiary in the long flower borders. Over the stone paving, clouds of daisy-like erigeron karvinskiana tumbles down the steps and around the central fountain where stately stone urns feature the long yellow trumpets of some impressive brugmansias.

Beyond the fountain is a long pergola clad with wisteria and climbing roses including Lady Montagu’s favourite deep-crimson ‘Parkdirektor Riggers’. Climbing the high south Red Wall, the delicate pale blue flowers of clematis ’Wyevale’ contrasts with the magenta spikes of erigeron involucrate ‘Bethellii’ in the long border.

All trace of formality disappears at the Wild Garden and Arboretum, probably Victor Montagu’s finest addition to the gardens. Here your eyes are met with a feast of colour - there are orange and red stewartia pseudocamellia, and several maples including the red-leaved acer rubra and the yellow acer saccharinum. Lady Montagu plans to fill any gaps with white-flowered magnolia delavayi, flowering cherry and solanum jasminoides for more seasonal colour.

For a tree that offers all year round interest she recommends the Golden Rain Tree koelreuteria paniculata. “It has everything you need, with elegant leaves, flowers in August and foliage turning yellow in autumn.” Another favourite is the paper-bark maple acer griseum, with the bright orange-red peeling bark, which you will find near the corner of the croquet lawn.

• Open: March to 31 October daily 11am to 5pm (except Saturdays) and by appointment for group tours

• Address: Mapperton, Beaminster DT8 3NR 01308 862645 mapperton.com

Frankham Farm, Ryme Intrinsica

We visited this garden back in June but its well worth a second visit in the autumn because its owners, Susan and Neil Ross, have planted their extensive gardens with trees and shrubs guaranteed to produce glorious autumn colour.

In the Paddock, the spindle euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ is ablaze with brilliant red leaves and pink fruits opening to reveal orange seeds. Over in the Orchard there is a flaming display from a yellow-orange Japanese maple acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ and a stunning beech with glorious red and yellow leaves.

Amongst the many specimen trees in the South Plot arboretum is a red oak quercus rubra, a stunning Black Gum tree nyassa sylvatica with leaves of ranging from red and yellow to green, and a huge dogwood cornus kousa chinensis with bright red-purple leaves. More drama is added by a Dawn Redwood metasequoia glyptostoboides from China, a Giant Redwood sequoiadendron giganteum from California and a peeling silver-bark eucalyptus.

In the main garden’s herbaceous borders colour is provided by red and cream-flowered salvias, pink and white schizostylis, Michaelmas daisies, dahlias, alstromerias, and fragrant pink roses. On the barn wall, a huge crimson glory vine vitis cognetiae displays spectacular red-purple leaves and, finally, the yellow flowers of winter jasmine jasminum nudiflorum are already blooming.

• Open: Sunday 11 October 2 - 5pm

• Address: Ryme Intrinseca, DT9 6JT 01935 872819

Minterne House and Gardens

Minterne House has been the home of the Churchill and Digby family for 350 years. Set within 1,300 acres of beautiful Dorset countryside, it offers spectacular views down the Minterne valley and an impressive collection of rare and exotic plants.

The valley was landscaped in the manner of Capability Brown in the 18th century, and the gardens are laid out in a horse-shoe design, with a chain of small lakes and waterfalls and streams. Capability Brown’s idea was that everything should look natural, and although it was man-made, it should seem as if it just happened. He never wanted straight lines and avenues, and his vision revolutionised the English domestic landscape.

Family diaries reveal that Robert Digby described the gardens in 1768 thus:‘The valley is very bare, the trees are not thriving, and the house is ill-contrived and ill-situated’. With issues like this to deal with it’s small wonder that he would ride over to Sherborne where Capability Brown was working on Sherborne Castle’s gardens and pick his brains. The result was that the small stream was dammed to create the lakes and cascades, the square gardens were swept away, and lots of trees were planted.

During Victorian times when plant hunting was at its height, explorers travelled through China, Bhutan and the Himalayas in search of botanical specimens. Seeds collected were shared amongst the sponsors, and so countless new species were introduced to English gardens. The vast majority of the exotic species at Minterne were propagated from seed brought back by these plant hunters including many from the Himalayas. These were carefully planted amongst the many indigenous trees.

Today you can wander along 1.5 miles of paths through the valley, and enjoy the rare and fine trees of Minterne, many of which are ablaze with spectacular autumn colour in October.

• Opening times: Minterne Gardens are open daily until 9 November 10am - 6pm. Admission £5 (children under 12 free). Dogs on leads welcome. More details.minterne.co.uk


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