From stately homes to home sweet home: Get inspired by National Trust gardens

Whether your garden is a 20-acre estate or a modest window box, you can make it fit for a stately home with some ideas from the experts this summer.

With more than 220 parks and gardens in their care – the largest collection of historic gardens and parks in Europe – National Trust gardeners know a thing or two about horticulture and we’ve picked their brains for design ideas you can transplant from their places to yours.

The Trust’s Director of Gardens and Parklands, Andy Jasper, says: “The Trust’s gardens and parks cover every imaginable period and style, which makes them a great sourcebook for gardeners looking for ideas. You can’t recreate Stourhead at home, of course, but you can take away so much inspiration – from sublime plant combinations to clever use of colour. With our gardens at their summer peak, now is a great time to visit and create a little piece of the Trust on your own patch.”

Pick up a copy of the Daily Mirror / Daily Express from Friday, July 21 until Sunday, July 30 to get a free family day pass to use at over 200 National Trust locations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland not included. Click here for further details.


Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

Author Vita Sackville-West and her politician husband Harold Nicolson fell in love with Sissinghurst Castle and created a world-renowned garden, one of the highlights of which is the ‘White Garden’. Head gardener Troy Scott Smith says there are advantages to creating a single-colour ‘room’ in your garden, not least that it narrows the choice of plants which can sometimes be overwhelming.

Troy explains: “It’s said that Vita and Harold made the White Garden where it is because it was where they ate in the evenings and the white flowers illuminate themselves at dusk whereas reds and oranges and yellows would fade away.”

He cautions that white flowers go brown quite quickly and so Vita and Harold used not only white but greys and green.

Troy suggests anyone creating a single colour garden uses plenty of foliage for texture and plants that have an ‘architectural presence’. “Go for spiky, or tall spires – foxgloves, lilies, delphiniums or lupins, for example – those that have a presence beyond the flower.”

To add scent and an extra splash of colour, Troy recommends adding plants like spring tulips or summer lilies in the gaps that appear as perennials finish flowering, and adding easy-to-grow annuals, such as gypsophila, cosmos, omphalodes and poppies. “Used in large numbers they can be really effective, giving a wash of one colour that can be quite dramatic.”


Hill Top, Near Sawrey, Cumbria

Beatrix Potter’s home is a classic cottage garden hosting, side by side, not only flowers and shrubs but vegetables. Senior gardener Pete Tasker says the golden rule for a cottage garden is that there are no rules.

“The trick is not to let it look too designed. It has just got to look like it has developed over time,” he says.

“You have got your backbone of a few shrubs and then quite a few perennials mixed in with some annuals and then we mix in the vegetables. Beatrix would have a little flower border and then suddenly there would be a bed of potatoes, or cabbages or something. Wherever she had space she would put something in.

“With gardens there is always something dying off, or not doing very well, and you have a bit of a gap. She would go,’ Oh, I’ve got these plants. I’ll put them in here and see what happens’. There is a lot of trial and error in cottage gardening. It is mainly going for a mixture and not having too much of one thing but small amounts of plants dotted around, and trying to have a succession of flowering times throughout the season.”

Using bold vegetables like fennel, artichoke or cardoons like they were perennials makes a statement, continues Pete, and vegetables left unharvested often boast their own impressive flowers.

His other tip is always to use natural materials available locally. He adds: “If we are growing sweet peas or something, we’ll grow them up hazel sticks we have gathered while managing the local wood, rather than using bamboo poles or plastic netting.”


Mottisfont Abbey, Romsey, Hants

More than 500 varieties of rose bloom in the abbey’s famed walled garden at its June peak. You might not aspire to that sort of collection but, according to Mottisfont gardener Clair Fuller, there are roses to suit every space. “If your garden is small then you need to check what the ultimate height and size of a rose will be,” she says.

“We have a pillar rose – ‘The Pilgrim’ – which does not grow taller than 8ft and we literally climb it up a pillar. It doesn’t even arch over so it takes up very little space and it’s a repeater. Ramblers are wonderful but they are big and take a lot of managing.”

Clair says: “Your garden does not have to be sunny to grow roses. It can be east or west-facing so it can have morning sun or evening sun, but if it is north facing a rambler rose will flower better because they are more vigorous. A tea rose will not like a north facing wall.”

Roses like nutrient rich soil but are very hardy, Claire adds: “If it is sandy I would pack in a lot of compost or, even better, manure. If you have clay, that’s fine. Roses can handle it, but they won’t do very well on really shallow soil with a chalk bed.

“They are very deep rooted so they will look after themselves as long as they can get their roots into the soil.”

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Bodnant Garden, Tal–y-Cafn, North Wales

North Wales might not seem sub-tropical but at Bodnant they have a thriving collection of exotic plants in The Deep Bath – a sunken hollow surrounded by a series of walls which give it shelter.

Head gardener Ned Lomax reckons you don’t always need sub-tropical conditions to grow sub-tropical plants, or even a sheltered hollow like they have at Bodnant.

“The general principle of a sub-tropical style of gardening is to use a lot of mixed textures with big leaves and bright colours,” he says. “But also to get that exotic feel while using quite a high proportion of pretty hardy plants because, otherwise, there is a lot of time and work and money spent and then you get a bad winter and it all turns to mush.”

A backbone of bigger, hardy plants will grow a micro-climate and shelter each other’s roots so they will be less prone to drying out. Ned continues: “They hold the moisture in the air and make the humidity and then, generally, other plants are much happier there.

“Also the leaves can absorb the heat and cool the air so it’s a more pleasant place to sit in your garden.

“Once you have that framework you can start tinkering with more tender plants and that’s where the fun comes in, seeing what you can get through the winter. You are going to have successes and failures and you try again each year.”


Hidcote, Chipping Campden, Gloucs

If you have the space to divide your garden into different ‘rooms’, the areas linking the varying styles is also important.

At Hidcote, the Lilac Circle is a perfect example and a centre-point of the garden. It’s a circular patch of grass with a brick-paving surround and four quarters of beds outside the circle, edged with lavender. Behind the lavender are irises and then the lilacs and ceanothus (Californian lilacs).

Head gardener Lottie Allen says it is a good example of using a very small palette and, rather than using lots of different plants, choosing just a few and using them en masse.

“It sounds simple but if you use a small palette of plants and they all flower at a similar time there will be just one wow moment in the year,” she explains.

“We have got some ground cover plants of Lathyrus vernus (Spring pea) in the spring and then as the lilacs come up and they are flowering the irises follow suit. It’s a bit like an orchestra, with one coming in and then the next and the next and it sees itself through to September.” The other key, she says, is to have contrast and texture in the varied plants and to have an interesting background – like the tapestry hedgerow of copper beech and evergreen holly behind the Lilac Circle – or a great view to look out on.


Packwood House, Solihull

The mingled style of borders in Packwood’s Carolean garden requires a lot of labour and horticultural skill, but the effects are spectacular.

Head gardener Abigail Gulliver says: “The key thing about the borders is the density of planting, and, a bit like music, the repetition and variation. So we have key large plants repeated throughout the border and they tend to be evenly spaced.

“Then, around them, will be another layer of plants – like geraniums or filipendula – and they will also be repeated, but not like a bedding scheme where everything is evenly spaced. They will be densely planted – herbaceous perennials as well as annuals and climbers.”

Annuals like rudbeckias, and shorter-lived perennials like Argyranthemum ‘Jamaica Primrose’ to spread and fill any gaps and create a sense of flow.

“What you don’t want is to see any soil,” says Abigail, who suggests mateur gardeners tailor plants to suit the size of their borders. Packwood boasts tall sunflowers, but smaller varieties can achieve the same effect in more compact beds. By repeating plants, some thrive immediately while others face competition and different stages of growth create a sense of flow.


Osterley Park and House, West London

The team who have restored the formal gardens at Osterley from an overgrown wilderness back to their Georgian grandeur know how to make the best of every area and containers play their part.

Head Gardener Andy Eddy believes the most humble garden space can be brightened by the right potted plants.

He suggests always using peat-free compost and says today’s peat-free composts are much improved, and lighter than alternatives, which might be a consideration if your garden space is a balcony. Andy says terracotta pots look best but can be expensive, so the team at Osterley often put the plants at the front of a display in terracotta, but put taller plants, like lilies, at the back in cheaper less attractive pots which are hidden. Slow release fertiliser keeps your potted plants fed throughout the summer, and if compost spills messily from your pots when you water, sprinkle gravel on top to keep it tidy. The most important question is ‘Which plants?’ Andy says: “It’s always a subjective choice but your local garden centre will have a great range and the staff are pretty knowledgeable.

“If you’ve got a windy balcony they can offer you certain plants; if you’ve got a really hot, sunny garden they can offer you succulents and things like that; and if you’ve got a shady garden then maybe fuchsias would be better. Just ask.”

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