Gardening on the Moor with Anne Swithinbank: A wild Dartmoor garden

Anne Swithinbank
Anne Swithinbank

Say ‘Princetown’ and most folk immediately think of the austere-looking prison built during the Napoleonic Wars.

Yet the highest village in Dartmoor is also home to the National Park Visitor Centre housed in the old Duchy Hotel, a favourite haunt of Conan Doyle. Here, you can learn the history of Dartmoor, enjoy exhibitions housed in the old ballroom and visit a tranquil wild garden, the Dartmoor Conservation Garden, depicting the various habitats, plants and features of the moor.

I was shown around by Garden Manager Pat Fleming and was immediately struck by how, given good structural bones, a garden composed entirely of native plants works well. Originally made in the late 1990’s on a yard behind the hotel, there is a good access path (suitable for wheelchairs) contours provided by Devon banks and a sunken quoin stone circle.  Supported by the Dartmoor Preservation Association and with the help of advisors and volunteers, Pat has been making steady improvements since 2015 by adding plants, seating, interpretation and slate labels.

Features include an original 4000-year-old burial cist (pronounces ‘kist’) from the days when hunter-gatherers turned to farming and the climate was more hospitable than today. The empty cist was originally excavated in 1879 by William Pengelly of Kents Cavern fame and exhibited in Torquay Museum. A similar Dartmoor cist at Whitestone Hill excavated in 2012 held cremated remains in a beautifully woven basket wrapped in meadowsweet and bear’s fur, so in the garden, meadowsweet now blooms nearby.

Ter Hill Cross has also found its way into the garden, as out on the moor it was being slowly destroyed by cattle and has been replaced with a more robust replica. These medieval granite crosses on high ground marked routes for monks and nuns as they traversed the moor from one abbey to another.

Key plants include downy birch (Betula pubescens) found in valley woodlands, also ferns, rowan, heathers and gorse. Knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil were flowering and setting seed in a meadow area and the flora of rocky outcrops is represented by dog violets (the food plant of fritillary butterflies) and wall pennywort.

Pat is finding bilberry or whortleberry challenging to establish but this is an important moorland plant and children were traditionally allowed two days off from school to gather the berries or ‘hurts’. A mini blanket bog resplendent with bog asphodel and lesser skullcap is a recent addition and the woodland section will be a spring treat when wood anemones, stitchwort and bluebells open.

This snapshot of the moor continues to develop as a place for learning and hosts talks and events including children gently using dustpans and brushes to collect and study insects. This is not just about the moor but teaches us all to interfere less in our gardens, keep food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars, flowers for pollinators and seed heads for birds.

This way our gardens join up into connecting havens for all kinds of wildlife. For news of events and activities go to


The beginning of autumn is a special time, when gardens are still full of growth, lit by fruits and leaves gradually turning colour. Summer flowering plants reliant on warmth begin to wane but there are plenty of late performers waiting on the sidelines.


  • In the veg plot, begin clearing beds of spent crops and weeds. Top dress with well-rotted compost as an alternative to digging.
  • Cut right down the fruited stems of summer raspberries, loganberries and boysenberries. Train and tie in new stems to fruit next year.
  • Start bulb planting with daffodils, hyacinth, scilla, crocus and alliums. Leave tulips until November. Plant into loosened soil so bulbs are buried by twice their own depth.
  • Take rose cuttings, of this year’s growth, 20-25cm(8-10in) long and insert them into a slit trench made in good soil, so they are buried by two thirds.
  • Tidy ponds, dredging decaying leaves and thinning overgrown plants. Find netting ready to cover the surface and catch falling leaves but make sure creatures can still drink and bath without tangling.

Five Favourites

Helianthemum ‘Lemon Queen’

Tall stems of lemon yellow sunflowers will reappear year after year on this hardy perennial.

Kniphofia caulescens

This fabulous red hot poker is an evergreen with blue-green leaves joined by nectar-rich orange and yellow pokers in autumn reaching 1m/3ft tall.

Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’

An evergreen shrub useful as a hedge or wall plant, with white spring blossom and masses of orange fruits.

Clerodendrum bungei

The glory flower makes generous clusters of fragrant pink flowers on shrubby stems to 1.8m (6ft). Produces suckers but I find this an advantage.

Grapevine ‘Madresfield Court’

I grow this muscat desert grape as a standard in a pot (under unheated glass in winter and spring) and along with flavoursome though pippy black grapes, leaves show warm colours before falling.