Photographs by Jerry Harpur
Written by Elvin McDonald
It has been 17 years since Amanda and Simon Mehigan moved from London 150 miles southwest to West Dorset and set about civilizing 5 acres that was more pine plantation than garden. “A previous gardener had worked for the forestry commission and had spare conifer saplings that he planted, covering at least two-thirds of the plot,” Amanda says. “The whole garden was dark and gloomy. Clearing all that was a nightmare I thought would never end.”
Fortunately, the couple’s garden dreams sustained them. Simon, a barrister, and Amanda, a restorer of art on paper, had done their homework. “Before we had a garden of our own, we spent a lot of time visiting gardens like Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Barnsley House, and Beth Chatto,” Amanda says. “I’ve always been interested in gardening—my parents and both sets of grandparents were all keen gardeners. Simon has been interested since his twenties.”
The overall design of the garden came about piecemeal. “I knew we wanted formality around the house to give structure all year with plenty of evergreens,” Amanda recalls. “We drew a rough sketch of what we wanted for the contractors. The rest—like the bog garden and even the rose arches—was planned out on the ground. Simon is especially keen on structure and early on wanted a central axis from the house right to the end of the garden.”
The result of their collaboration is a classic English-style garden—boxwood-edged beds, yew hedges, and exuberant plantings. Beyond those areas, the planting is more naturalistic, and there is much less obvious structure, although there is some—avenues of hornbeams and other trees, for example. “For flowers in the less formal areas, we are largely reliant on self-seeders,” Amanda says.
She also let the site impose a bog garden. “That area of the garden was so wet,” she explains, “that when the pine trees were there, it ran with water in the winter. I could have put in drainage, but we decided to go with what we had. Digging the stream helped, but parts are still very wet, and I had to plant bog lovers—for example, bog primulas and water iris—that give a light and airy effect. ”
The potager is divided into manageable plots with gravel paths and boxwood for structure. “We have strawberries and raspberries, which do well in our damp climate, and we’re growing black cherries in our new fruit cages.”
An unusual feature of the garden is the thornery, inspired by one Sir Humphry Repton established at Woburn Abbey in the early 19th century. He had “every species of thorn that could bear the climate,” Amanda says. “We like hawthorns and have at least 20 varieties.”
The garden houses echo the shapes of the yew topiaries. “We use them to store tools and garden furniture,” she says, “and Simon has been known to take a nap in one.”
Simon does most of his work at home, but he takes the train into London about once a week. Amanda worked full-time as an art restorer until about two years ago and confesses that now “the garden has rather taken over. We spend every spare moment we can in the garden, doing some gardening task or thinking about it and
enjoying the changing seasons.”
The Mehigans open their garden to visitors for the National Gardens Scheme in May and early June. “After mid-June, we can relax and let it all go a bit—and get out and visit other people’s gardens,” Amanda says.
Where: Old Rectory, Netherbury, West Dorset, U.K.
Conditions: Heavy clay and fertile sandy clay, mild and wet climate
Highlights: Classic English garden with exuberant plantings, formal topiary, and
a memorable bog garden and thornery.