Visit to Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens

29 Sept 2010

The Professional Horticulture Group South West visited Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, Dorset, on 8 September 2010.

Curator Steve Griffith explained that the garden started as the walled kitchen garden to supply the nearby Abbotsbury Castle (now demolished), which was built in 1765 by the first Countess of Ilchester. A generation later, the third earl added ornamental gardens around the kitchen garden around 1808. The next Earl, William Fox-Strangways, a botanist much travelled in Europe, introduced many more plant species, and the gardens thrived until the outset of World War 1. Then, like so many gardens at the time, it was neglected when the labour force went off to fight, and became an overgrown woodland.

Some restoration started in the 1970s but a major storm in January 1990 felled many trees and led to the decision to rejuvenate the site and turn it into both a sub-tropical garden and visitor attraction. Situated on a sloping site about 400m inland and some 30m above sea level the gardens benefit from a mild maritime climate. The contour and tree cover provide extra protection enabling a wide range of species to be grown. Last winter proved a major test with temperatures falling to -7oC by the coast, and -15oC inland.

The gardens and the nearby village of Abbotsbury are located on a narrow outcrop of distinctive ironstone rocks laid down in shallow turbulent seas around 155 million years ago in the Jurassic era. This gives the soil low nutrient status and pH but with inherent good drainage further increasing the range of plants that can be grown. Steve explained that, although the garden benefits from the year–round protection afforded by many mature evergreen Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex), the 1990 storm had demolished much of the shelter belt that protected the garden. The first task therefore was to replace this shelter and then set about adding to the collection.

Using the varied slopes of the site and by judicious felling of trees it has been possible to encourage the plants of the understory and to create a wide range of microclimates suitable for a variety of geographical flora. Steve explained that the gardeners try out sub-tropical species that others would not attempt, to see if they survive. Frequently they are successful. The gardens thus boast many exotic species including palms, bananas and even tender succulent species. They are currently experimenting with Australian Banksia and South African Protea.

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens Much of the recent development has been concentrated on opening up vistas to broaden the visitor experience. For example a 'window' has been cut through the tree canopy to create a viewpoint to St Catherine's Chapel on a nearby hill. However the main work has been the cutting of a wide walkway to the top of a hill overlooking Portland Bill, the sweep of Chesil Beach and the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Lyme Regis. Although currently flanked by the rather bare trunks exposed when the walkway was opened up, rows of Magnolia campbelli and Magnolia soulangiana have been planted along each side, which in time will provide a magnificent avenue.

The result of all this hard work has been a true plantsman's garden, a major visitor attraction for the Dorset Coast and even a chosen excursion for cruise ships calling at nearby Portland Harbour.

Peter Grimbly, Horticulture Group Chairman

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