Set tranquilly in Minstead in the New Forest, Furzey Gardens is a haven for both people and wildlife. You may not have heard of this rather secret woodland garden with its cosy thatched tea room, productive garden, unusual plants, meandering paths and even tiny fairy doors to delight the younger visitors.

Originally designed in 1922 by the then-owner Bertram ‘Bay’ Dalrymple, son of Scottish aristocrats, in the naturalistic style of the period, they spread out over eight acres around a sixteenth century cottage on a sloping site and have been planted for year-round interest. More than £7,000 (about £300,000 today), a very considerable sum in those days, was spent in clearing the rough gorse heathland before tons of good topsoil was brought in to provide perfect conditions for the collections of rhododendrons and azaleas, alpines, specimen trees and shrubs brought back by famous plant hunters of the day.

Great British Life: A sundial makes an attractive focal point (c) Leigh ClappA sundial makes an attractive focal point (c) Leigh Clapp

As with many large private estates, after the heydays of the 1920s and 30s, and some 16 gardeners, the estate started to decline. After Bertram’s death during the war, the property was inherited by his brother, Captain Reginald, who later died with no children, passing the estate to his 14-year-old godson.

During the 1950s and 60s it became an impossible task to maintain the gardens to their original standard, paths became overgrown with brambles taking hold across the landscape. By 1972 the decision was made to sell off the garden for housing. Fortunately the Reverend Tim Selwood was able to purchase the property with an aim of creating an environment for horticultural therapy and then set up the Furzey Gardens Charitable Trust in 1973 to enable the garden and house to be used solely for the benefit of the community and learning disabled people in particular. They work closely with their sister charity Minstead Training Trust and today the gardens are not only open for the public to enjoy, but are also outdoor classrooms for the wonderful work the Trusts provide for horticultural training to adults with learning disabilities.

Great British Life: An equestrian scarecrow adds a touch of fun (c) Leigh ClappAn equestrian scarecrow adds a touch of fun (c) Leigh Clapp

Horticulture was the first enterprise and other strands have developed. Students are actively involved in all aspects of the garden, taking cuttings, making compost, propagating, and growing on, pruning, mulching, building paths and the surplus of veg is sold at the shop.

‘The garden has supported people with learning disabilities for 35 years, helping them make friends, learn skills and be more independent. Gardening is hugely beneficial to the people we support, but also has benefits for us all. Having your hands in the earth has a calming effect, and taking note of the changing seasons and rhythms of nature is good for the soul,’ comments the estate manager, Andrew Bentley.

Great British Life: Buy some plants to take home (c) Leigh ClappBuy some plants to take home (c) Leigh Clapp

The gradual process of restoration and augmentation has allowed both original plants to be admired, the palette extended, and new areas created, including a boardwalk, tree houses, tiny fairy doors, the productive garden, wildlife meadows and a children’s play area introduced.

I first became aware of the garden when I saw their Gold Medal show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2012, the first show garden to be built by a learning disability team, and designed by TV presenter Chris Beardshaw. Students shared their memories about Furzey to help Chris formulate his design, created glass rhododendron leaf sculptures, helped plant and also manned the garden during show week with beaming smiles and great enthusiasm for the buzz that is Chelsea. This atmospheric show garden was transplanted back at Furzey, overlooking the lake, and has become one of the highlights in the gardens.

Great British Life: A boardwalk gives an elevated view (c) Leigh ClappA boardwalk gives an elevated view (c) Leigh Clapp

Furzey Gardens, which celebrated its centenary last year, is well worth supporting for its valuable work and the variety of garden delights. This is a garden for strolling and enjoying the changing seasons, from early spring bulbs, through the vibrancy of summer to autumnal hues.

‘Visitors often comment on its unique feel as a place of relaxation, quirkiness, and escape from the pressures of daily life. It’s a safe place where children can run free and for adults to find their inner child!’ adds Andrew.

Great British Life: The latest scarecrow celebrates the coronation (c) Leigh ClappThe latest scarecrow celebrates the coronation (c) Leigh Clapp

In high summer the cottage garden style potager, complete with characterful scarecrows, and herbaceous borders sing with colour and life. At my visit the scene was one of golden echinacea blooms, tangerine dahlias, clouds of candy pink cosmos and voluptuous hydrangeas. Children were delighting in the thatched tree house play area and in particular discovering the tiny fairy doors hidden around the gardens carved into the base of tree trunks or nestled under bushes. Apparently there are forty of these secret fairy doors, though I was struggling to find more than five! I think you need to get down to a child’s level to discover them all! So find the child in you and pop along to Furzey Gardens this month.

Pay a visit

Furzey Gardens, Minstead, Lyndhurst, SO43 7GL

Open 7 days a week (10am-4pm), March to end of October.

Suggested ticket donations, Adults £9.50, child 5-16 £5.50, under 5 free


Great British Life: Golden echinacea (c) Leigh ClappGolden echinacea (c) Leigh Clapp

Get the look

• Budget your gardening spends and use best value plants.

• Opt for prolific flowering plants, such as cosmos, nasturtium, salvias, echinacea, sunflowers, sweet peas and dahlias.

• Feed and deadhead to encourage more flowering.

• Plant en masse and in swathes.

• Mix ornamentals with your edibles.

• Mulch plants to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

• Soak your plants once a week rather than daily. Water at dusk to reduce evaporation and try to water the soil not the leaves.