This Dorset garden is an atmospheric showcase for grasses in autumn, says Louise Curley
For many gardens November is the tipping point into hibernation as flowers and foliage fade. At Knoll Gardens in Dorset it’s a different story. Home to thousands of grasses, the renowned naturalistic planting is reaching its crescendo right now. The four-acre garden had its beginnings in the early 1970s when the first nursery on the site was established on a carrot field and a scrubby patch of land. In 1994 Neil Lucas came to the garden and nursery and has since established one of the country’s most extensive collections of grasses.
‘Right plant, right place’ is very much the approach at Knoll, where planting is dictated by the soil and climate, rather than trying to grow unsuitable plants that will never thrive. The garden is also the perfect showcase for plants on sale in its award-winning nursery, and offers visitors the chance to see these plants growing in a garden setting, with inspiring ideas for planting combinations.
Although primarily known for its grasses, Knoll used to be a private botanic garden and as a result it also has an impressive range of trees and shrubs. The delicate white, bell-shaped blooms of the Australian snowdrop tree (black sassafras) announce the arrival of spring as their delicate scent fills the air. Summer highlights include herbaceous perennials and hydrangeas, but it’s late summer when Knoll hits its stride, with herbaceous perennials such as sedums, asters and the wafty stems of Verbena bonariensis forming drifts of colour.
Spectacular autumn hues from trees such as Gingko biloba and shrubs like Hydrangea quercifolia light up the gardens with a fiery glow. The collection of spindle trees (euonymus), which thrive on the free-draining sandy soil, put on an eye-catching display of vivid crimson and scarlet. Impressive specimen trees include one of the best willow oaks in the country, cork oaks and a collection of magnificent eucalyptus.
The Dragon Garden consisted of bedding plants, formal hedges and lawn when owner Neil Lucas first came to the site more than 20 years ago. It’s now been transformed so that a single path weaves through a swathe of grasses and perennials, which create a tall meadow effect. At this time of year, late autumn sunshine enhances the warm browns, golden honey and bleached blonde tones of the grasses and early morning frosts highlight the structural shapes and seedheads.
The vast range of grasses includes low-growing pennisetums that tumble over paths to towering miscanthus and calamagrostis. One of the most effective planting combinations here is the native grass Molinia caerulea planted in drifts along with perennials such as persicaria, scabious and sanguisorba.
Although grasses are mostly associated with large-scale naturalistic planting schemes, such as those created by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, smaller easy-care beds have been created at Knoll to show that they can be used in a more modestly sized plot.
Knoll Gardens is an impressive place to visit whatever the season, but at this time of year, with the seedheads and skeletons of the grasses and perennials catching the sunlight, it’s a place that shows how there can be beauty even in the dying embers of a garden.
Five minutes with... Knoll Gardens' owner Neil Lucas
Neil Lucas has been the owner of Dorset-based Knoll Gardens and its award-winning nursery since 1994. His passion and knowledge for a naturalistic planting style and ornamental grasses has led to multiple gold medals from RHS Chelsea
Q. How did you come to be at Knoll? I was working and living down in Devon, and we saw an advert that said the gardens were for sale. So we – my mum, dad and myself – decided to buy it. Horticulture has always been important in the family. My grandfather, in particular, was very much into plants and especially his delphiniums. Some of my earliest memories come from summer holidays with him in his garden and watching him exhibit at the RHS Halls in London.
Q. How big is the team? We have one full-time gardener, so we practice what we preach with low maintenance. We do also have half a dozen or so volunteers who come in on a Friday morning.
Q. What are the main seasonal jobs? We’re a late-season garden, so we peak in interest in the second half of the year. This means we cut down in early to mid-spring and do a spring clean preparing the borders, doing any maintenance and mulching. We weed in summer and then do any structural projects later in the year.
Q. In November what are you working on? November is still our peak time in the garden, so we won’t be doing a lot to the borders. But what we do try and do before Christmas is to complete one or two planting jobs. If things haven’t worked so well, there’s a gap in a border or we’ve decided to do something in a different way, we’ll take up the plants, move them around and replant.
Q. Do you have a favourite part of the garden? This year I do rather love the Dragon Garden. We took out a hedge about a year or so ago and did a lot of new planting, so it’s much more expansive now. It’s a bit reminiscent of a prairie.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? Running a small business is always highly demanding of personal time. Actually finding time to do all the necessary jobs and to be able to leave a little bit for the one or two jobs we might like to do, such as planting new areas, is always tricky.
Q. What’s the best bit of your job? Playing with plants, seeing new combinations and seeing them grow and develop. It’s a real thrill to see a plant that’s happy and successful and settled into the garden.
Q. Do you have any future projects that you’re planning to carry out? Our eucalyptus lawn is relatively old, the trees have got too big and are casting a lot of shade, so we’re going to redevelop that over the next few years, which will be quite a big project for us.
Location: Knoll Gardens, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (4pm Nov-Mar). Closed from 22 Dec 2017, reopens 1 Feb 2018
Contact: 01202 873931; www.knollgardens.co.uk
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