Littleham House Cottage Garden

PUBLISHED: 11:49 18 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

The pink and yellow blooms of Tulipa saxatillis

The pink and yellow blooms of Tulipa saxatillis

Jan Barwick explores a classic cottage garden in Exmouth, Devon

Straight lines are not something that figure in Pat and Phil Attard's Exmouth garden, but things were quite different when they took over the garden some 22 years ago. "We bought it from an ex-farmer, Bill, who was a very good plantsman and maintained the garden very well - and passed us on some very unusual shrubs - but it was square and he loved regimentation."

Regimentation is certainly not a word to describe the gardens at Littleham House Cottage now, where straight lines are softened by plants tumbling over the path edges, and grass or gravel paths lead in sweeping curves to tantalisingly secluded garden 'rooms', which make the space seem very much bigger than its three-quarters of an acre size. So successful have the Attards' improvements been that the garden has caught the attention of more distant eyes. It's been covered in Amateur Gardening, has been mentioned in the Telegraph and was one of the first chosen to feature in the BBC2 Open Gardens series, which visited National Gardens Scheme (NGS) entries that were open to the public. For the last few years it's been open several times a year through the NGS scheme, although in 2009 Pat is taking a break and the garden will be open only by appointment.

Although Pat has a multidisciplinary ecology and natural-science-based degree, and over the years has taken a number of horticultural courses, including one in garden design, she claims that she gardens intuitively rather than by instruction and that, ìlike Topsy, the garden has just grown.

"When we first came here I was working full time so one of the first things we did was to take out all the good plants, which we put in a shady area on polythene and actually filled in a lot of the borders with grass just so we could easily maintain it. And then as I had more time we started buying in new plants and moving the existing ones to more permanent positions."

They started the developments working close to the house: "because I wanted to be able to see things all the year round. One of the first things we did was the rockery by the conservatory which really improved the view from inside." Near the house too is the spring border, another early improvement, where snowdrops, anemone and narcissi compete for attention beneath scented Osmanthus delavayi and Viburnum burkwoodii. Later in the spring, wisteria growing across a gracious curved wooden arch takes over the fragrancy role. Cyclamen also thrive in the borders near the house, autumn-flowering C. hederifolium inherited from Bill, now supplemented with coum varieties for spring colour. "Really good-value plants," says Pat.

As the work progressed further, Pat tackled the square borders, using hosepipes to mark out curves and filling the resulting shapes so that, when in their full flush of summer growth, there's a riotous cascade of colour. They also softened the edges of Bill's rectangular pond, which in March is enhanced by drifts of papery white Narcissus 'Thalia', and where later in the summer the graceful stems of Dierama - angel's fishing rods - appear to dip down into the water.

Pat is definitely a collector when it comes to choosing plants. "But I'm getting better," she laughs. "I used totally to buy the plant because I loved it and then found it a place, but now I look for plants that fit a particular space - whether for damp or shade or whatever. I do have good intentions - like having colour-co-ordinated regions, and I've got much better at planting for impact."

In general Pat's philosophy is that the plants have to look after themselves. "I'll nurture them for a year or so, and if they don't like the conditions they're in, then that's it, they're out!"

I'm not so sure that this would apply to her favourite salvias. "I love them. I have a collection of about ten that came from Bicton and they do really well here." The scarlet flowers of the tender Salvia gesneriiflora are witness to this, a vivid splash of colour against March skies. "I had it in a pot, but it did nothing, so I took a chance and put it in the border here, and it's grown huge and flowered right through the winter."

Pat runs her garden mainly on organic lines, using natural predators to deal with the pests, and compost from an extensive rack of bins screened by trellises for mulches and soil improvement. A wormery is another development that uses waste to brilliant effect. "The liquid fertiliser that comes off it is fantastic for the potted camellias," she says.

A fertile fruit and vegetable garden, with raised beds and a permanent arch over which beans and sweet peas scramble, delivers year-round productivity. Wildlife abounds here, with a medley of birds visiting regularly, thrushes co-opted to deal with the slugs, five species of bumble bee which nest in the bank ("although they've been having a hard time recently"), and masses of butterflies. Pat's quite prepared to share her fruit and fig harvest with the blackbirds and will leave seed heads all winter to encourage the goldfinches in.

Littleham House Cottage's garden is a private and personal space, designed to provide food and spiritual succour to its owners, but what Pat has achieved over years of hard work and loving attention is a little horticultural gem that she thoroughly enjoys sharing with other people. If you get the chance (and it will be open again next year through the NGS), it's one not to miss.

Pat's tip if you're taking over a new garden. "Be patient. Give it a full year before you do anything drastic. If you dig it over you may destroy all sorts of lovely things without ever knowing they're there. Live in it a bit so you can see what comes up, find out where the sun goes... where the best places to sit out are, and gradually come to know how you want to use the garden."

Littleham House Cottage Garden is open this year only by appointment. Call Pat Attard on (01395 266750).

Other Spring Gardens to Visit this Month

If you fancy a springtime walk in a delightful 30-acre, valley-bottom setting, with daffodils included, Heathercombe Gardens at Manaton on Dartmoor ((01647 221350) will be opening from 2pm-5.30pm on 29 March.

Sherwood Gardens at Newton St Cyres ((01392 851216) is one of the best magnolia hotspots in the region, and they'll be at their best this month. Open every Sunday in March from 2pm-5pm.

Chapel Farm House at Halwill Junction is another NGS garden with March opening (Saturday 14th), offering half an acre of landscaped garden plus woodland. Additionally, there's a bonsai collection and nursery attached with speciality Japanese plants ((01409 221594).

More details of the above and other gardens open are in the NGS book available from TICs and garden centres.

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