About Marwood Hill Gardens

Marwood Hill Garden is located in a steep valley in North Devon, and contains much to surprise and delight both enthusiastic gardeners and casual visitors. From the moment the first snowdrops poke their little noses through into spring until the rich autumnal tints and shiny fat berries of autumn, there is so much to see throughout the year.

The magnificent display of blossom from the massed camellias and rhododendrons is followed by a stream of colour in the bog gardens, as carpets of primulas and iris in all the colours of the rainbow burst forth.  The National Collection of Astilbes follows in a foamy symphony of pastel hues and hydrangeas on the hillside. Other highlights include the picture-perfect Wisteria Arbour and Herbaceous boarders.

The team at Marwood garden keep wildlife in mind, and believe that providing habitats for them is extremely important. Tucked away around the gardens are piles of branches and mounds of leaves, home to lots of lovely bugs and beasts.  Kingfishers are regular visitors to the lakes, and the areas of rough grass provide both food and hibernating sites for the young of many butterflies and moths. Not only a haven for wildlife, the gardens are also the perfect environment to explore, get back in touch with nature and be inspired.

The Development of Marwood Hill Gardens

A Brief History of Marwood Hill Gardens

Excerpts taken from Dr Smart’s notes written in 1999

When I bought Marwood Hill in 1949, this was, of course, the Georgian House which is now known as Marwood House. At that time, we had no mains water, drainage or electricity and the garden had been very neglected over the war years and consisted of a front lawn by the house, the walled garden across the road and a small area around totalling less than 2 acres. There was a ripple row of bamboos above the walled Garden.

The removal of these by undermining and then work with the two-bill and removal of large laurel hedges and sundry trees, such as a badly shaped monkey puzzle, involved considerable work.There was just one consolation. When I first saw the house it was filled with bowls of Rhododendron nobleanum, which alone almost persuaded me to buy the house. It was the only plant of any merit in the garden, but unfortunately it died the year after from an acute attack of Honey Fungus.

My first gardener, name of Pardoe, worked for me for a day or so a week and made me feel linked with history as he had been in the Navy and was involved in the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the century.The walls of the walled garden, inside and out, were planted solidly with cordon and espalier apple trees, largely Early Victorias, which are not keeping apples, and there were two smallish areas of apple orchard and a large free standing apple store. The work of pruning, spraying, storing and eventually throwing away rotting fruit proved too much, and after a year or two we had to grub the whole lot out and start again.

In the early years I established herbaceous borders in the front garden and a double one down by the outside of the walled garden. Then by clearing the front lawn of plantains, etc., we got the garden respectable enough to open it for the National Garden Scheme for one Sunday a year. The borders had to be protected from the surfeit of rabbits at this time with wire netting, but I managed to keep them off the iris and dahlias below the walled garden and plant hydrangeas.

The first planting in the wettish area alongside the stream was of bamboos which had been taken out of the main garden. This was followed by somewhat haphazard planting of small trees and shrubs in the extremely rough neglected pasture land, including trees such as pines grown from seed brought back from Portugal, silver birch, cherries which we budded, and an assortment of rhododendrons and other shrubs.

The only precaution that I took was to keep the more important plants separated and these were always surrounded by disposable plants with comparatively short life spans; for instance I used broom as a nurse plant for rhododendron and Magnolia dawsoniana, which I planted (after seeing it in the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco) between a pine and a cherry.

As the magnolia grew, so the side branches of the two ‘nurse trees’ were taken off and they were then taken out altogether. I have kept up this practice with success throughout but made one ghastly error when I planted Metasequoia too close to Magnolia weisneri. I have been unwilling to remove either as the magnolia was one that I had successfully propagated as an air layer and to which, therefore, I had a sentimental attachment. I have regrettably had to leave the two to compete and so far it is alright.

In 1972 I had the present house built for me, and sold the old Marwood Hill as Marwood House; I had been opening the Garden as Marwood Hill Gardens and selling plants under that name, so took the name with me to the new house.

Also in 1972, Malcolm Pharoah came from RHS Wisley as my Gardener, and since then we have developed the garden together so that now he is Head Gardener. This has proved possible with the income from admission charges and the sale of plants that we have propagated from our own material. Having collected a very wide collection of plants from many parts of the world, trees, shrubs, herbaceous and alpines, we have a large collection to draw from.

Around 1972, I was retiring from full-time medical practise, and (with more time available for gardening) I took advance of an opportunity to buy an extra 12 acres of land downstream from the second lake. This lead to the next phase of development of the Gardens.  Progressively, parcels of the land were added to the cultivated garden, as and when the extra sections could be coped with, and the remainder was let out for sheep. We started with the Bog Garden, which is a great feature of the Garden from May when the primulas start, and carries right through to October with the Astilbes, including the National Collection, accompanied by Rodgersias and Iris Ensata and followed by Hemerocallis, Lythrum, Lobelias, Ligularia, Inula, etc.

A bog garden has to have large masses of any individual plant to be effective and we are fortunate to have the space to do this. The stream through the Bog Garden adds considerably to its attraction by having frequent small waterfalls to provide both sound and sparkle. If it is possible, as in the middle lake, to place slightly bigger fall of water to face the prevailing light from the south, the sparkle of the falling water complements its cooling sound.

The lowest lake was constructed in 1982, the folly and scented arbour in 1986, the final slope being planted with trees in 1987.

At the same time two shelter belts were planted. With a valley and the prevailing wind coming straight up from the west, it is impossible to achieve complete protection but gradually as the planting of trees on each side developed, they began to mutually support one another. I found that an original planting of maples, which I thought might protect the magnolias planted at the same time, acted in reverse and the magnolias did well in full exposure whereas the maples were very reluctant.

Another surprise was that camellias here do very well in exposed positions, unlike the accepted position that they require partial shade. I planted a hedge of Camellia Donation after seeing this done at Pukeiti Gardens in New Zealand. This can be kept almost like a privet hedge and is a joy for over a month in the spring when it is covered with flowers. I also grow Camellia reticulatas with the largest flowers of any camellia in the teeth of the gale with great success, covered with flowers and seeding freely afterwards. Both sides of the valley have now been planted up with collections of trees and shrubs, many of them rare.

There is a collection of eucalyptus of different species together with birches which give a very good mixed effect, one deciduous and the other evergreen. The birches get very green from algae and are therefore cleaned with warm water and detergent early in the year. I also plant white anemone blanda for the spring and cyclamen for the autumn under these trees. I am very fond of the bark of trees and the more trunks there are, the more bark, hence my preference for multi-trunked trees rather than the standard. Both sides of the valley have now been planted up with collections of trees and shrubs, many of them rare. Magnolias are planted throughout the garden, some of them mature Himalayan trees which give spectacular displays in February and March, frost permitting, and many others which continue to bloom throughout the seasons according to their species.

I was slightly surprised to read up from our list of plants that I grow over 80 different magnolias, some of them admittedly still small. I particularly like the Jury hybrids from New Zealand which have Campbellii blood in them and have the great advantage of blooming at a young age and with huge flowers at shoulder height originally and do not require a helicopter to see their bloom.

A sloping garden has advantages from some points of view as one can select the situation of a plant so that you can look up into the bloom of pendulous flower from below and conversely down into the bloom of an upright flower. Hence I like to plant hellebores on a bank or wall above the eye so as to be able to look up into them as with the Erythroniums.

As mentioned above, the lowest lake was put in in 1982, and beside it sited a Scented Arbour, with a seat surrounded by honeysuckles, the Spanish broom, a Philadelphus and a highly scented small shrub rose hedge. The folly at the lower end of the garden with the cherub in it was put in to come at the end of the vista and has groups of Betula jacquemontii, 3 to a hole so that the trunks may join up without the danger of splitting at the base as they mature. Beyond this there is the latest development of a wild garden where plants may be allowed to grow which would be too obstreperous elsewhere.

Visitors to the garden this year have commented on the fact that I plant hydrangeas in the same hole as another tree. This does save space and provides another season of flower in late summer. After all, you see this happen with different plants in the wild and I see no objection to doing it in the garden.

I am very inclined to follow nature as far as possible and to plant where the plant is likely to be happy and, although I can admire it when practised by others, I do not want to have what I describe as a contrived garden with very carefully arranged colour. One never really notices clashing colour in the wild and there are very few occasions when it offend me in the garden. I can only remember one disaster with an amusing result. This was when I planted the very scarlet coloured Rhododendron shilsonii alongside the mauve pink Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’. The smaller plant was the rhododendron so I moved it to the other side of the valley. The next year – disaster! I had forgotten that there was another Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ which flowered for the first time. There is a happy ending, however, as M. shilsonii is now happily ensconced at the far end of the garden.

I have most of the plants in the garden labelled, partly for the sake of my own flagging memory but in addition with the garden open all the time, I am sure that it cuts down on the taking of cuttings without permission or even the theft of plants as visitors can write down the name of the plant they fancy and either hope to buy it in our sales area or find it elsewhere.

People are inclined to ask me what will happen to the garden after my time. I could not afford to give it to the National Trust, and I do not like the idea of a Trust because so often people look over their shoulder and say “What would he, or she, have done?” I feel that if I provide the structure of the garden, whoever follows could follow whatever was their favourite planting and with luck could afford to run the garden on the basis of visitors paying for admission and sale of what has now become a collection of very many unusual plants which are being propagated. It is, I suppose, possible that The Lottery, Heritage or other body may in the future feel that a garden which I have developed over half a century may be worthy of some support with what is, after all, in some ways a botanic garden as well as being a private one that is now enjoyed by so many visitors from home as well as overseas.

Victoria Medal of Honour awarded to Dr James Smart, 1st November 1994

Words spoken at the presentation:

Jimmy Smart is a Doctor and I feel that his patients must have been made to flourish with the same strength and good health as his plants so that he could spend much time in his garden as in the surgery.

Your chronicle of horticultural achievement has many pages and in particular we single out your great knowledge and collection of Camellias including those that you have bred, some of which have been given an Award of Merit. You have travelled much in Australia and New Zealand and we owe to you the introduction from these countries of many plants to Britain.

But your finest achievement is at Marwood Hill in Devon where you have created a great garden, combining your deep knowledge of plants with a sense of taste and artistry.  There your many important plant collections, including the national Collection of Astilbes, are enjoyed by thousands of visitors who may be lucky enough to be infected by your enthusiasm and joie de vivre and an energy which at 80 promises well for the continued expansion of Marwood Hill Garden.

This Victoria Medal of Honour is given to you because we recognise you both as a supreme plantsman and a great gardener whose generosity has given pleasure to thousands of other gardeners

The Victoria Medal of Honour in Horticulture (VMH) was established in 1897 with the assent of Her Majesty Queen Victoria in perpetual remembrance of Her Majesty’s glorious reign, and to enable the Council to confer honour on British horticulturists. 63 recipients hold the medal at any one time reflecting the years of HM Queen Victoria’s reign.

The Jimmy Smart Memorial Bursary Fund

This was set up in memory of Dr Jimmy Smart VMH, MBE and announced in July 2004, so that more working gardeners would be able to take trips ‘down under’ to further their horticultural knowledge of Australian and New Zealand plants.

The Fund aims to encourage experienced working gardeners, particularly those with specialist plant knowledge and who work with (or take responsibility for) National Collections, to see those plants either in other collections or in the wild and possibly to add to them.

The Royal Horticultural Society administers the Jimmy Smart Memorial Fund. For more information contact the Bursaries Administrator of the RHS Bursaries Committee on 01483 212380 or visit their website.

Dr Jimmy Smart died in May 2002 aged 87 leaving the garden to his nephew, John Snowdon. It remains a private garden, not a trust or a registered charity and all income received from admission charges, plant sales and the garden tea room are vitally important to enable us to keep the garden going and open to the public.

In ‘The English Garden’ in March/April 1988, Dr Smart had written, “My ambition is to ensure the garden is a source of pleasure to visitors”. The current team working at Marwood Hill retains that ambition.

Notes regarding further development of the garden in the more than two decades since the Dr Smart died can be read on the wall, at the South East corner of the Walled Garden.

Our intention is that developments, adaptations and enhancements will continue over subsequent decades.