To drive to Chilcombe is an eye-stretching experience. The lane dips then climbs away from the A35 soaring to a high plateau and spreading the coastline of all Lyme Bay before you with an extravagance that makes you feel that nature might have gone just a little over the top in the natural beauty department. Over to the left, behind a screen of beeches is an area of outstanding not-so-natural beauty, the celebrity garden of the artist John Hubbard. And alongside that is the astonishing secret garden of the celebrity garden’s gardener, Andy Lane.
It is a baffling and thrilling contradiction: a sub-tropical garden on an east-facing hillside in a place whose very name invites a shiver. Andy’s day job next door is largely a matter of maintenance these days — high maintenance, obviously – on the structural design laid out by John Hubbard and last month’s Yarn-featured gardener, Patrick Niven all those years ago, while his own space is a work in progress.
Approached through a narrow gateway to a concrete path, the garden is immediately jaw-dropping. Here are towering Musa Basjo plants, Japanese hardy bananas which may not bear fruit but make a powerful exotic conversation with the cordylines and phormiums at their feet and give the neighbouring viburnums, which were planted long before them, a glamour denied them in less rarified company.
Andy is cheerfully nonchalant about the health of this non-native flora: “A couple of echiums didn’t make it through the cold winters two or three years ago. The bananas took a bit of a battering over the winter and during the storm last week but by the end of the summer, they’ll be huge. It’s a lot colder further down the hill. The bottom of Mr Hubbard’s garden is a bit of a frost pocket.”
So the warmer uplands (and thanks to the aforementioned beeches, Andy’s garden tends to lose most of its sunlight by the afternoon) provide a comfortable home for the spectacular rice paper plant, Tetrapanax Papyrifer and its majestic cousin T. Papyrifer Rex whose emergent leaves could themselves be flowers. The huge foamy Crambe cordifolia, native to the Caucasus, has done particularly well this year after a disappointingly fallow period.
Around a corner is one of the garden’s treasures, a young maple, Acer Griseum, once a specimen at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens so sickly that it was destined for the compost heap, rescued by Andy who worked there at the time and fostered in a pot in his small back yard in Weymouth. When he moved to Chilcombe six years ago, the maple took root in the loamy soil and flourished so that today it is some six feet tall and developing the bark which makes it a star; for now it has the look of chocolate caraque but in the fullness of time it will mature into the shiny, nubbly trunk you can’t keep your hands off.
Turn another corner and you are in a land of ferns and hostas — all manner of ferns but especially the golden-green shuttlecocks, their leaves, which appear to have their own internal light source, fanning outwards from a central core. And look, over there: a twisted hazel — a purple twisted hazel — spotted in and immediately snapped up from a nursery on the Dorchester Road in Upwey.
Much of the garden is influenced by Andy’s five years at Abbotsbury but he is no exotic purist. Dotted amongst the foliar spectacle are enormous multi-coloured aquilegia grown from a packet of seeds whose specific name he forgets, which he bought in Groves. Later in the summer, dahlias, single, star-shaped blooms, will appear as much to emphasise the greenery as for their own sake.
Further down the garden behind the house the view opens up again, south towards Puncknowle and eastwards to the hills above Abbotsbury where quarrying activity has entertainingly left a luminous scar shaped like a polar bear and here, in the thoroughly English tradition, Andy has planted roses — or tamed the existing ones.
It is hard to believe that all this has been achieved in barely six years. Andy has never drawn a plan or sketched out a planting scheme. His predecessors in the garden favoured the wilderness effect so what he faced initially was not so much a blank canvas as a bit of a challenge — hugely relished after his tiny patch in Weymouth.
His method is to isolate a chunk of garden each autumn, clear it, consider its virtues and its hostilities and replant accordingly. The loam sits on a bed of clay and the slope of the Chilcombe hillside allows free drainage, which, in these competent and experienced hands, gives an astonishing flexibility to the whole. Every hard surface is peppered with pots of dahlias or canna lilies ready to go into the ground when their time comes. You might have thought that after a working day spent in the Hubbard garden, it would be quite nice to put your feet up but that is not the way Andy sees it. A narrow, deep-set path, mined out of the garden last winter, leads to a weedless vegetable patch and imperial-size compost heaps which meet all the garden’s needs for nourishment. And there’s next winter’s section of the project: a fallen tree to chop and stack; a luxuriant hedge of elder and sycamore to lay and a whole new chunk to plant with proper respect to the existing imposing gunnera.
“Trouble is,” Andy says, without much audible sign of regret, “every time you get another part of the garden done, you’ve got more maintenance to do and less time to do it in.”