Visits with interesting plants


Hever Castle with the boston ivy flaming red

‘This is the sort of garden you could visit every month and see something different each time’ Neil Miller, head gardener at Hever Castle since 2006, told me on my recent visit. He was giving a tour of the early autumn highlights to a small group of Garden Media Guild members (me and one other, along with PR Vikki Rimmer who organised the tour) and it didn’t take us long to see what he meant.

A brief history

As many people will no doubt know, Hever Castle was the home of Anne Boleyn’s family in Tudor times. Inside the house there are many reminders of the Tudor period, when rooms were cosily wood panelled and windows were leaded, tapestries covered whole walls and minstrels playing from ornate galleries were a must at parties. These Tudor features have survived largely thanks to William Waldorf Astor, who spent part of his huge fortune renovating, repairing and replacing artefacts in the house in the early 20th Century.

The Gardens

As well as renovating the house, William Astor employed Joseph Cheal and Son to transform the surrounding marshlands into gardens and parkland. The work included digging out a 38 acre lake – creating a new island in the process – building a loggia and extensive terraces complete with fountain modelled on Rome’s Trevi fountain, and collecting surprisingly mature trees from nearby Ashdown Forest, transporting them to the garden by horse drawn cart.

The 38 acre lake, loggia complete with small scale replica of the Trevi fountain, and part of the island created with soil dug out when the lake was created

He also went to extraordinary lengths to create the Italian garden, which he filled with an array of statues and other antiquities that he’d acquired when he was the American Ambassador to Rome.

Along one side of the garden, the Pompeiin wall was designed with a series of bays where some of these antiquities are displayed surrounded by plants. This year these include marigolds, a grape vine (Vitis vinifera), a well behaved olive (Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’), a well trained fig (Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’), agave, hardy palms, Acer palmatum dissectum group and an unusual relative of the grape vine (in the last two pictures) that was labelled as Ampelopsis brevipedunculata ‘Elegans’ (Porcelain vine). I didn’t know this plant so looked it up and according to the pictures I came across, the leaves should be variegated and more sculpted and cut than these. So I wonder whether it’s a different species, or has possibly reverted.

Urns from Pompeii in the Italian garden

William Waldorf Astor liked to create long views and vistas around the garden. Many of these are formed by the structure of the garden and the placement of some of the antiquities, but trees are also used to draw your eye along a view, as with the persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) and willow next to the moat, below, that help to create spectacular views on a still and sunny autumn day.

The garden also has more modern elements. The current owners, the Guthrie family, with Neil Miller and the gardening team haven’t been afraid to change things where needed and introduce new elements, offering something different for visitors to enjoy. Faith’s garden is a lovely example, mixing perennials with grasses in the prairie style. This linear garden runs between the Italian garden on one side and the moat on the other, in an area that used to be known as Diana’s Walk, after a classical statue of Diana that was placed there. At this time of year the biscuit colours of dried grasses and the white plumes of miscanthus catch the low sun, and verbena bonariensis adds some late colour to the many seed heads. All these plants will be left to provide cover and food for insects and birds over winter, before being cut down in early spring. They also plan to recreate this design on the other side of the moat.

A dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) lighting up a wooded area of the garden

And then towards the end of our tour Neil told us the story of the woodland garden. This peaceful wooded area was overrun with bamboo and wild garlic and had been untouched for a long time. Then one day when some of the gardeners were doing some work on one of the main paths, they discovered a stone step they hadn’t noticed before. They cleared further and found another step. Then they discovered traces of an old path leading on from these steps into a small valley, and looking back at the records, they realised that at one time there’d been a woodland garden here with a stream running through.

So the Guthrie family agreed to fund a restoration and replanting, which was well underway on the day we visited. The team consulted woodland and alpine specialists Kevock Garden Plants, who surveyed the area, drew up the planting plan, sourced the plants and are overseeing the planting. Work began last year and some plants, including toad lilies (Tricyrtis) already look well established. Many more woodland and alpine plants are going in at the moment, and the final sections on the other side of a stream will be cleared and planted next year. The current wooden bridges will also be replaced with bridges in the style of Monet’s garden. Seeing the amount of bamboo root that still covers the uncleared areas and watching the gardeners plant into banks so steep they were almost vertical you really got a sense of what a difficult project this must be, but I was really struck by the good humour and enthusiasm of the gardening team who were busy with the planting. It should look fantastic when finished.

What have I left out from our tour of the garden? Well quite a lot. At this time of year the herbaceous border was past its best, as you’d expect, the long bed of dahlias was looking a little sodden after heavy rain and it was never going to be the best time to see the huge, walled rose garden either. Plus there wasn’t time to include the lake walk, get lost in the yew maze or risk a soaking in the water maze……… I’ll just have to come back.

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