Looking fabulous


- Credit: sub

WORDS: Rebecca Pow


- Credit: sub


- Credit: sub

After a summer flurry of colour many gardens are winding down for autumn and preparing to shut up shop for the winter.

Not so Forde Abbey, near Crewkerne, where autumn is a not to be missed season.

In the gloriously romantic acres of garden surrounding the former Cistercian Monastery, you will be bowled over by the sheer amount of colour in the herbaceous borders, the dazzling autumnal trees and in the walled vegetable garden you will drool over the array or late vegetables (all used in the Undercroft Café for sustaining soups and home made dishes) edged by row upon row of vibrant flowers.

This is a brilliant place for an enjoyable autumn amble whilst at the same time picking up ideas for adding autumn interest to your own garden.

Forde Abbey may seem a lavish and grand place, but the extensive gardens are tended by a very small, hard working team and the majority of plants are grown from seed by Alice Kennard, who runs the enterprise where her family have lived for five generations and her aunt, Charlotte Roper.

One of the keys to the autumn colour is the use of a wide range of annual plants all started off from seed indoors in the spring.

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“I’ve always tried to grow annuals” explains Charlotte Roper, “because they give a huge amount of colour in the summer and into the autumn and most people just want perennials that go into the autumn and forget about how useful annuals can be.

“People are very complimentary when they see them and are often surprised at all the late colour! It’s purely from seed sowing in the spring, so it’s economical. I

“’ve learnt it all by trial and error though, often learning from mistakes or things that happen by accident that turn out to look good.”

Favourite annuals include sunny yellow bidens, purple heliotropes, rich red snapdragons and blue echiums, which the bees and butterflies love.

Lines of orange arctotis flame and unusual white venidium ‘Zulu prince’ attract much attention in the kitchen garden so much so that they are clearly labelled because everyone wants to know what they are.

Similarly the exotic looking, fast growing climber, Mina lobata sporting yellow and red flowers is a stunner. It originates from Brazil and shares the same botanical family as bind weed, (convolvulaceae) which makes its speedy, twinning growth habit understandable.

The colour palette during autumn is one of brilliant, bright colours, all the shades attracting Alice Kennard like iron filings to a magnet.

“There’s no plan, we just grow what we like and mix it all in. I like vulgar colours. The bright things and we use them to help get the borders looking fabulous in the autumn right through until the first frost,” she says.

One of Alices’ star plants is the relatively little used, but gorgeous Mexican Sunflower (tithonia rotundiflolia) taking pride of place in the herbaceous border running the length of the long pond.

It’s daisy like heads up to 8cm across, on tall stems shine out like beacons in the late summer sunshine. These are mixed in amongst burnished orange heleniums, purple eupatorium, Michaelmas daisies and tall ornamental grasses. All the plants grow through an ingenious system of netting put in position earlier in the year providing support for the plants as they grow so that staking is not necessary.

View the kaleidoscopic border with the centenary fountian spouting heaven ward in the background and it will take your breath away.

It took me quite by surprise when it suddenly sprang into action, holding me mesmerised, the same goes for all the visitors.

The centenary fountain, put in during 2005 is the tallest powered fountain in England and goes off at a set time each day. Do make a point of catching it on your trip.

Just as the annuals are interspersed throughout the garden for autumn, so too are dahlias stalwarts of this season. These include the delicate pink Gerrie Hoek, brooding dark Arabian Night, frivolous Giraffe and orangey pink Yvonne. Charlotte has perfected the art of dahlia care down after many years of practise. The flowers came late this year owing to the cold May and June but they finally arrived in style.

She says: “They are such good value plants, I love them. The secret is not to let them flower too soon. I pinch the flowers out until the plants are at least 4ft high otherwise they go into flower and make a strappy plant. This way there is a nice lot of growth before full flowering takes place.

“It’s also a good way of avoiding blackfly as the little creatures lurk in the axils where the buds develop.”

Many of the trees in the grounds show wonderful autumn colour too notable amongst them being acer rubrum ‘October glory,’ the tulip tree, turkey oak and the regal lime trees gracing the driveway.

You can visit any time during this season of fruitful harvest or aim for Autumn Colour Week, from 20-31 October when the garden is characteristically at its dizzy best (although of course this depends on the vagaries of the weather so do check the website).


Forde Abbey favourite dahlias:

Dahlia giraffe

Dahlia Edinburgh

Dahlia gerrie hoek

Dahlia Yvonne

Dahlia cherry wine

Dahlia Arabian night

Charlotte’s top tips for dahlia care:

-Lift dahlias after first frosts when the foliage is really black.

-divide tubers into small pieces with a spade. The smaller the tuber the better as they seem to develop more flowers.

-Store in boxes with newspaper, sand or sawdust. They must not dry out totally or they will shrivel.

-Plant dry dahlia tubers out at the end of April, cover with fleece if cold.

-Pinch out flower buds until plants are tall and strong before leaving to flower fully.

Sowing Annual seeds for Autumn Bedding:

-Sow seeds in spring into seed trays. Place on heated mats as directed to aid germination if necessary.


-Plant out at the end of May/early June.

Favourite plants to grow from seed for Autumn Bedding:


Echium ‘blue bedder’

Heliotrope ‘chatsworth’

Heliotrope ‘marine’


Antirrhinums (snapdragons)


Arctotis flame

Venidium ‘Zulu prince’

Mina lobata

Other general tips:

Don’t cut borders back until spring. It makes the plants stronger and is good for wildlife.

Make a framework of tight netting on posts, place over borders in late spring for plants to grow through as support.