Rare plants on show at a Blackmore Vale garden

Snape Cottage

Snape Cottage - Credit: Archant

Peter Booton visits a very special garden in the Blackmore Vale whose rare and unusual collection of plants has drawn admirers from around the world

Campanula latiloba

Campanula latiloba - Credit: Archant

A love of plants can be influenced by many things and for Angela Whinfield it was the books of popular children’s author Enid Blyton, which she read as a young girl. Blyton was a gift naturalist and this, Angela recalls, struck a chord with her own love of natural history.

As her interest in historical and old-fashioned cottage garden perennials grew, Angela began swapping old plant varieties such as primroses and pinks with friends and became an early member of the Cottage Garden Society when it was founded in 1982. She also joined the Hardy Plant Society and made regular visits to Kew Gardens where she met Brian Halliwell, designer of the Queen’s Garden at Kew specialising in 16th and 17th century plants which Angela was, and still is, very interested in.

Gradually Angela amassed a collection of rare, unusual and endangered plant varieties and when she moved from Harrow in Middlesex, with her husband Ian, to Snape Cottage at Bourton, North Dorset in 1987, the plant collection came too. “The plants and greenhouses travelled in their own lorry!” laughs Angela, who adds that there was plenty of room for her collection in the new garden as it didn’t have many resident plants to start with.

“The soil had been well cultivated and is a sandy loam with a pH of 7.3. It is also easy to work, unlike the heavy clay at Harrow.” A spring line runs through the sloping hillside garden and although parts of it remain wet all year round, this does have certain advantages such as the necessity for little or no watering, except for plants in pots.

Eryngium hybrid

Eryngium hybrid - Credit: Archant

Initially Angela concentrated on planting her large collection of pinks in a south-east facing raised border near the house as these prefer hot, dry conditions. The back of the bed was then planted with Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in front of which herbaceous plants were placed to shade the Hellebores once they had finished flowering. “Always try to emulate the conditions in which plants grow in the wild,” advises Angela.

Careful positioning of plants in situations where they will grow happily is key to the success of Snape’s garden and distinguishes it as a true ‘plantsman’s’ garden. “My aim is to please the plants,” says Angela. “If I get a new plant I always take it to the area where it will prefer to grow. Then I find space for it where it will look good with the other plants around it.”

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At Snape the plant is more important than the overall design and appearance. “I’m interested in form and texture so I’ve tried to make the garden different things on different levels for different people. We are fortunate to have a variety of situations here; moist shade, sunny and well-drained, dry shade and, that great rarity, moist, well-drained soil in sun. This enables me to grow a wide range of plants. I’m always experimenting and being surprised what will grow where.”

Superbly situated with far-reaching views south over the picturesque Blackmore Vale, Snape Cottage’s garden is also very wildlife friendly. “Ian and I are very keen on wildlife and conservation,” says Angela. “Nature lovers and conservationists like our garden because of the many different habitats we’ve created. We’re lucky to be on a woodland edge here, there are lots of flowers that attract insects which in turn feed the mammals living in the wood.”

Ladybird on Veronicastrum virginica

Ladybird on Veronicastrum virginica - Credit: Archant

In 1989 the Whinfields created a new feature in their garden: a wildlife pond that Ian laboriously dug out from compacted clay and builders’ rubble on a south-facing site not far from the house. The pond is planted with British native wildflowers and has proven to be a great attraction for insects as well as a breeding ground for newts and dragonflies.

Throughout the garden Angela has introduced lots of nectar rich plants to attract pollinators. Rather than relegate herbs to their own bed, Angela likes to plant them amongst the herbaceous. Having done so much to attract insects, it isn’t surprising that she strongly believes in organic gardening. “The more you interfere with nature, the more of an imbalance you create. I’ve never sprayed for aphids or black-spot or anything like that. Something always eats something else and I’ve always gardened like that,” she admits.

During the time they have lived at Snape Cottage, the Whinfields have spotted 62 different species of birds, including bullfinches, nuthatches, tree-creepers and marsh tits. “The birds eat us out of house and home at certain times of the year,” says Angela, with a smile.

Early spring is a particularly colourful time for Snape Cottage. Angela has inter-planted hundreds of snowdrops (for which Snape is renowned, they have some 400 varieties), old fashioned varieties of daffodil, miniature daffodils, colchicums and crocus. These, she says, associate well with her ferns and hardy geraniums.

Ian’s art-nouveau inspired sculpture in herbaceous bed with Astilbe

Ian’s art-nouveau inspired sculpture in herbaceous bed with Astilbe - Credit: Archant

The Whinfield’s delightful garden has opened for the National Gardens Scheme since 1989, yet curiously, the delights of Snape are better known abroad. Visitors have come from as far afield as the USA to admire this north Dorset garden.

However as 2015 draws to a close the couple are looking to move to pastures new, as Angela explains. “We both have chronic health problems (backs and knees) and don’t want to leave it until moving becomes a necessity. Ian and I are planning to move to a more suitable garden and bungalow in a nearby town. We have put Snape Cottage and its internationally-renowned plant collection and plantsman’s garden on the market with Humberts in Sherborne.”

Angela says it would be lovely if a keen gardener or artist bought Snape Cottage, but she is already looking forward to her next garden project.

“It will be an enormous wrench to leave what we have created over the last 28 years, but we feel the time is right to start a new venture and make a more manageable garden for our older age. I am really excited about the future as the bungalow we are moving to has been the home of an Alpine Garden Society friend and the garden is purpose-built and perfect for my new ideas!

The raised border showing Lonicera nitida Baggeson’s Gold, Santolina and Dianthus Eleanor’s Old Iris

The raised border showing Lonicera nitida Baggeson’s Gold, Santolina and Dianthus Eleanor’s Old Irish - Credit: Archant


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