The unsung Minterne Gardens is tucked away in stunning Dorset countryside at Minterne Magna , where magnolias and rhododendrons tower over small streams in spring making it the best time for a visit.
The Himalayan woodland garden at Minterne House in the village of Minterne Magna is saddled between Dorchester and Sherborne on the A352 in Dorset. The gardens surrounding the Edwardian Arts and Crafts house built in the local Ham Stone designed by Leonard Stokes in 1905, were landscaped in the style of Capability Brown who was involved in the landscaping at Sherborne Castle.
The hills surrounding Minterne are chalk but crucially the woodland garden is situated on green sand and, coupled with the dappled shade of the beech trees and the humus from fallen decayed leaves, creates an ideal environment for acid loving loving plants like rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias.
The richness of the acidity of the soil ensures that the plants produce a spectacular show of deep coloured flowers.
The Himalayan themed gardens are laid out in a horseshoe over a mile long behind the house which are adorned with rare plants from well known plant hunters such as Kingdom Ward, George Forrest and Edmund Loder who were partially sponsored by the Digby Family under the aegis of the Royal Horticultural Society.
After the American War Of Independence in 1768, Admiral Robert Digby had decided to employ redundant sailors on his estate to carry out all the landscaping including creating small lakes and cascades as well as using the ballast from the retired naval ships to create boulders along the valley and around the stream to create a natural look. It’s incredible to think that Digby’s foresight set the foundations of a man made garden we see today.
Today, the Hon. Henry Digby is involved in running the estate and garden and very much believes in successional planting for the future generations of Digbys to enjoy. He is justly proud of the botanical collection held here at Minterne and its history.
Mark Bobin, the head gardener, showed me around the grounds. He and I were startled that we actually knew of each since I knew his father, Derek Bobin, who was the head gardener at Bateman’s in Sussex, and who was instrumental in forging my interest in horticulture.
It’s a small world in horticulture.
Crucially the young Mark’s playground was at Sheffield Park in Sussex where Bobin senior worked as a gardener renowned for its rhododendrons and this background will prove to be invaluable in furthering the garden’s development.
One of the things about woodland gardening is that there are very few books to instruct you on how to manage an ornamental woodland.
It’s a relaxed style of managing the woods, almost intuitive. Mark’s tip on creating a natural look here is to “shape shrubs carefully to achieve a natural look, standing back throughout the process to get different angles”. It’s getting the balance of creating a garden that appears natural but structured with a diversity of plants showing interest throughout the season.
Brambling is an ongoing task here as well as the judicious pruning of shrubs. The glades are strimmed to encourage wildflowers and butterflies.
As you would expect, bird life here is abundant and bird songs are evident everywhere you go.
As for most most woodland gardens, spring is the best time to visit with snowdrops making their appearance in February, followed by primroses, daffodils and bluebells carpeting the valley floor with drifts of candlebra primula in the wetter areas of the garden. Osmunda regalis, (Royal Fern) unfurls its fronds in spring.
The paths criss cross the valley taking the visitor around different levels where you can catch glimpses of the pastoral scenes of sheep grazing contently by the river edge on the other side of the woodland.
The main path takes you around a more level route around the valley which follows the stream, cascades and pools to the picturesque Eleanor’s Bridge built in 1785. The man-made water features at Minterne create a sense of serenity with the sounds of trickling water falls which can sometimes be noisier in wetter weather. The water edges are softened with assorted ferns (Osmunda regalis), Gunnera manicata, Persicaria, Alium, Rodgersia, Primula and so forth.
In honour of the plant hunters, Mark, at the time of my visit, was creating a clearing on a slope looking out across fields to create a hut in a Himalayan vernacular style for visitors to enjoy. The area will be planted with appropriate plants from that region including dwarf rhododendrons, sorbus and betula.
Minterne has an eclectic collection of choice rhododendrons which is mentioned in The Rhododendron and Camelia Year Book 1956 produced by the Royal Horticultural Society. The large leaved rhododendrons are very much in evidence and R. falconeri, R.millotum, R. macabeanum and R sinogrande are just a few of these here.
Minterne also has some wonderful examples of trees such as Davidia involucrata otherwise known as the Pocket Handkerchief Tree, Parrotia persica with its fiery autumnal colours, Japanese flowering cherries for their flowering brilliance in the spring to gladden anyone’s spirits, acers, and the white flowering Stewartia pseudocamellia.
To me this garden is on a par with some of the great gardens in Cornwall renowned for their diverse botanical collections of rhododendrons and coupled with the connections of prestigious plant hunters, this is a garden that will appeal to serious plant enthusiasts and amateur gardeners enjoying the tranquillity and ambience of Minterne.
Mark’s tip on creating a natural look is to “shape shrubs carefully to achieve a natural look, standing back throughout the process to get different angles"
Plants of particular interest in March and April are the deciduous pink flowering Magnolia campbellii which flowers before the leaves develops, the large leaved white flowering Rhododendron pravernum, Pieris taiwanensis with its white flowers, Prunus sargentii with its brilliant rose pink flowers in spring and its fiery autumnal colours in the autumn, and Arum maculatum, commonly known as Lords and Ladies or cuckoo pint.