The glorious garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Derbyshire Life visits Anne and Stephen Liverman’s garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

Anne and Stephen Liverman Photo: Derby Telegraph

Anne and Stephen Liverman Photo: Derby Telegraph - Credit: Ashley Franklin

As Kipling reminds us, a beautiful garden takes a lot of work. Just ask Anne Liverman. You can do just that in the final weekend of May: you’re invited to behold the work that has gone into the beautiful three-quarter acre garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton, where Anne lives with her husband Stephen.

It will be a poignant occasion: it marks not only the 30th anniversary of the Livermans opening as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) but also their 40th year at Dove Cottage.

As the NGS Derbyshire County Organiser, Irene Dougan, points out: ‘They have made an extraordinary contribution to our Open Gardens; theirs is a huge achievement.’

The glory of their garden is in its multifarious plants and shrubs amongst a maze of borders, a profound testament to Anne’s horticultural knowledge and skills. A lifetime lover of plants – she began entering flower arrangement competitions as a teenager – Anne got her first gardening job as an 18-year-old looking after the grounds of Tatton Mill. This was at a time when it was unusual for a woman to be pursuing a profession in horticulture.

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Combining work with fact-finding travel and studies – when learning about glasshouse production she would often play snooker with fellow student Alan Titchmarsh – Anne eventually returned to Derbyshire and moved in to Dove Cottage with husband Stephen in 1976. She began a wholesale florist business, taught horticulture at Broomfield College and regularly assisted her brother Tom’s business, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, in setting up his medal-winning RHS Chelsea Flower Show displays, which occasionally included flowers from Dove Cottage. Anne also became a popular voice on BBC Radio Derby’s gardening phone-in. As a broadcaster there at the time, I was constantly impressed by Anne’s ability to field any listener query.

We renewed acquaintance over two years when Anne commissioned me to photograph her garden throughout the year. I got a sense of a particular passion of Anne’s when she especially requested photographs not so much of individual plants but more of groupings. As she told me, ‘It’s the grouping of plants that enhances the qualities of the individuals.’

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As well as discovering this aspect of Anne’s gardening, a visit at the end of May will reveal to any aspiring or enthusiastic gardeners several keys to designing, cultivating and maintaining a garden. ‘Make it manageable’ is one important factor for Anne. ‘For example: we have a slatted fence on an outside margin as this allows light and air in and is far less vulnerable to wind damage; having plants grouped together to share conditions is good and makes an impact at the same time; and plants like hellebores that grow well in shaded areas flower early and look good together.’

Although hellebores won’t be on display, the end of May is a perfect time for an Open Garden weekend, as Anne explains: ‘It’s the first fresh flush of new growth, a time when the garden is most full of promise. The foliage is all fresh, so even on plants yet to flower, there is form. The alliums that I love are all out, plus geraniums and a favourite of mine, astrantia major. There’s even some late flowering tulips. It’s a time I love to share with other garden lovers.’

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton - Credit: Ashley Franklin

That love of sharing brought Anne and Stephen to open their garden for the first time under the NGS scheme in 1986. What do they recall of that weekend of 30 years ago? ‘An air of panic,’ admits Stephen. ‘As well as preparing the plants, they all had to be labelled. We had to put away the kids’ toys, put up notices, organise parking, provide teas, set up a plant stall and count out change for the various floats. All these became familiar tasks but at the time it felt like a lot of pressure! But then, as the gates opened and people came and enjoyed our garden, it all started to feel good. Family and friends gave us fantastic support and, at the end of the day, we enjoyed sharing a smashing high tea with all those who helped.’

Anne and Stephen will carry memories of other Open Garden weekends, in both sun and rain. ‘We had the occasional day,’ recalls Stephen, ‘when we all huddled under shelters and umbrellas or even took visitors into the house when a vicious squall turned to an intense storm. However, we had many gorgeous days when people got so relaxed they didn’t seem to want to leave.’

There has been the odd occasion when people didn’t want to leave without taking cuttings or seeds with them – and without asking. ‘Anne has always been incredibly generous with plant material,’ Stephen points out, ‘but a line has to be taken on stealing.’

However, Anne and Stephen are happy for anyone to come and acquire ideas and tips for free. ‘I would encourage any newly enthused gardener to come along,’ advises Stephen, ‘and that goes for any NGS garden. You can see plants and combinations of plants and apply them yourself. Most owners are happy to answer questions and Anne is particularly generous with her knowledge.’

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton

The garden at Dove Cottage, Clifton - Credit: Ashley Franklin

That knowledge extends to trees and shrubs, of which there is a fascinating variety at Dove Cottage. I recommend that you step into the woodland glade at the far end of the garden where you will see some striking Himalayan Birch Bark Cherry trees (Prunus serrula) with their shiny red bark.

In the years that the Ashbourne Arts Festival has taken place, Dove Cottage has also hosted Poetry in the Garden. They have decided not to hold the event this year, although there will still be poetry in the garden at Offcote Grange on 25th June.

As a ‘Thank You’ for their 30 years with the National Gardens Scheme – in which time they have raised £50,000 towards the various NGS charities – Anne and Stephen are to be awarded a sundial, which they hope to have on show during the weekend.

Having reached this milestone, Anne shows no sign of hanging up her trowel. As she declares: ‘Having a passion for plants and being outdoors frees the mind. You’re like a sportsman getting in the groove – you get to move in a unique dimension. Gardening sustains me, too. Also, a garden changes all the time and I still get that same excitement about seeing a beautiful flower appear in the garden that I did when I was young and it’s lovely, too, to see the trees we planted now mature and a garden we’ve nurtured through the years, knowing we did all that.’

‘And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,

You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.’

Dove Cottage is open Saturday 28th May, Sunday 29th May, 11am–4pm. Admission £4, children free. Tea.

This garden also makes a donation to the British Heart Foundation. Directions: 1½m SW of Ashbourne. Enter Clifton village. Turn right at the crossroads by the church. After 100yds turn left. Dove Cottage is the first house on the left. Post Code DE6 2JQ. It’s always well signed on open days.

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