A Quart in a Pint Pot

Rosemary Niven in her and her husband Patrick's Marshwood garden
Rosemary Niven
Caroline Dilke visits the garden of Patrick and Rosemary Niven

How does a gee-whizz gardener, used to managing a famous space of several acres, adapt to retirement and a smaller plot of land?

Over 21 years, to 1991, Patrick Niven created a garden at Chilcombe House, home of the artist John Hubbard, that was to become a Mecca for experts such as Christopher Lloyd, as well as celebrities including Prince Charles, the Duchess of Westminster, and the actor Irene Worth.

“On our best day, we sold £1,000 worth of plants from trestles,” Patrick remembers. “The garden was open twice a year in June, and on special occasions. People paid to come to support the Yellow Book. We’d have queues. One time, a taxi full of people came from London, and it waited to take them back.”

‘On our best day, we sold £1,000 worth of plants from trestles’

A deckchair and summer house in the Nivens' Marshwood garden

John Hubbard has fond memories of Patrick’s work.

“He was phenomenal as a gardener,” says John. “No one has measured up to what he could do with a day’s work. He did all his weeding with a little hoe, and didn’t miss a trick. He discovered Salvia patens ‘Chilcombe” (a rare variety, probably a lucky cross between two established ones, which was named after the garden.)”

But all good things come to an end and Patrick and his wife Rosemary, now in their eighties, have since ploughed their expertise and loving care into the plot behind their bungalow in Marshwood.

Patrick did not start his career as a gardener. Demobilisation, after serving in World War Two, found him looking for a job.

After a stint in the police he tried his hand at farming, as a herdsman and record-keeper. But gardening had always been his hobby, and a course on horticulture enabled him to turn it into a profession.

When the couple eventually moved to Marshwood in 1985, they found the area behind the house was grassed over — “and we filled a great sack with bones”, Rosemary recalls. But the lack of structure turned out to be an advantage: they could plan the space from scratch.

Looking down the garden towards the view of the Marshwood Vale

They bought an extra bit of land to bring the plot up to almost half an acre, and noted what they had: a beautiful view of Bettiscombe church nestled in the Marshwood Vale, with Pilsdon Pen in the distance.

“We saw a blue hydrangea,” Rosemary says. “So we assumed our soil was ericaceous. We went round with a stick, putting it in, standing back, to work out where to plant what.”

View of the Marshwood Vale from the bottom of the garden
View of the Marshwood Vale from the bottom of the garden

The acid soil favoured camellias, rhododendrons and pieris. But most important was the lovely view: the garden needed to frame it. They planted roses along the far fence, and tall camellias to left and right.

‘I don’t believe all this “red doesn’t go with blue”. Just grow what you like’

“You have to be careful with the height of plants,” says Patrick, “so you don’t end up with the biggest ones at the front.”

Rosemary adds: “I don’t believe all this ‘red doesn’t go with blue’. Just grow what you like.”

Close-up of red flowers in Rosemary and Patrick Niven's garden

And she is careful to explain: “We are plantaholics. Our garden is a showcase for the plants we like. It has flowering plants to give pleasure for 12 months of the year. Each shrub or border is planned to please us, the gardeners — it is not a showpiece for others.”

Visiting the mature garden now, it is astonishing just how many features the Nivens have fitted into the area, while maintaining spaciousness and seclusion.
A stout washing-line with iron posts and wires, once an eyesore, now supports a hedge of wisteria. Somehow, there is room for a productive vegetable plot, three greenhouses, a summerhouse and plenty of places to sit out in sun and shade.

With advancing age, the couple now need help with mowing, hedge-trimming and the pruning of the rose arbour.

Inside the Nivens' greenhouse
Inside the Nivens’ greenhouse

“But we work in the garden for half an hour every day,” Rosemary says. And the small but well-stocked greenhouses offer plenty of scope for pottering, even in poor weather. Glancing in, you see dozens of potted geraniums awaiting their moment, and neat regiments of seedlings.

In the house, bookcases groan under the weight of gardening books, some of which are signed by the authors and include references to the famous Chilcombe garden. The Nivens particularly recommend two for the aspiring gardener: Garden Graphics: how to plan and map your garden, by Gemma Nesbitt; and The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd.

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