This April, we're celebrating our new book of the month, The National Trust School of Gardening by Rebecca Bevan. Publishing on 1 April, this practical and inspirational guide to gardening includes examples of best practice from National Trust gardens, plus tips and wisdom from head gardeners.
In July 2019, author Beccy spent a few days visiting some of her favourite gardens in Sussex and Kent while researching the book. In this blog, we find out why this trip was so special and how it influenced the book.
An afternoon at Monk’s House, East Sussex
My first stop was Monk’s House in Rodmell, once home to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. They bought this unassuming cottage in 1919 as an escape from London and were drawn to it because of its well-stocked garden. During the years they lived there, the garden gave them great pleasure and they made many improvements, with Leonard becoming a keen gardener.
I've been to Monk’s House before and sensed its magic, but I wanted to spend more time there, identifying the characteristics that make it so special and how past and present gardeners have managed to keep it lively and interesting, while staying true to the spirit of the garden Leonard and Virginia created.
The team at Monk’s House clearly love it even more than I do and have a sensitive way of caring for it, ensuring the house is filled with vases of flowers from the garden, plants are allowed to splay over the narrow paths and signage is kept to a minimum. The apple orchard is especially magical and it’s easy to picture Virginia at work in her writing room beneath the trees.
Touring gardens in Kent
I left Sussex the following morning and drove into Kent, pulling over for big fat Kentish cherries in a layby. Passing near Chartwell, I couldn’t resist stopping briefly to admire the kitchen garden, marvelling at the Achillea ‘Summer Pastels’ which was spilling out romantically from under a line of old trained trees.
Then I called into Bateman’s, East Sussex, former home of Rudyard Kipling, to meet Head Gardener Len Bernamont. There was lots to see, including a magnificent show of floribunda roses in the Rose Garden which, rather wonderfully, was designed by Kipling himself and created using prize money from his Noble Prize for Literature in 1907.
Len and I also spent some time discussing the vegetable garden, which he has converted to a ‘no-dig’ system. He highly recommends this for reducing weeds and producing healthy, flavoursome crops and I can vouch for his success, as the delicious salad I had in the café at Bateman’s was packed with fresh produce from the garden.
I then headed to Lamb House in Rye, which, like Monk’s House, features in one of the chapters of the book. This impressive town house has a very private garden hidden behind tall walls. For many years it was not open to visitors but, once it is, Gardener Guy Pullen has exciting plans to restore it, making the most of the mild, sheltered growing conditions.
Guy has started with the small kitchen garden, taking less than a year to wrestle the bramble-covered plot back into order, with soft fruit, cut flowers and neat rows of vegetables. Guy is very busy, as he also works at Sissinghurst and other gardens in the area, and so is the perfect person to share advice on vegetable growing when time and space are in short supply.
A summer’s morning at Sissinghurst, Kent
The following morning was the highlight of my trip. I met Guy and his colleague at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent early, before many visitors had arrived. It was such a privilege to be there on that perfect summer’s morning.
The focus of our meeting was climbers and wall shrubs: the role they play in the garden and how they are maintained. Every ‘garden room’ has its own collection clothing its walls: roses, clematis, figs, Japanese quince and myrtle planted by Vita Sackville-West herself, as well as some new and experimental ones like weeping indigo and porcelain berry, planted by a succession of talented head gardeners.
It was a long journey home that afternoon, but my head was full of inspiration which I couldn’t wait to put down on paper.
Written with the help of our gardeners, The National Trust School of Gardening is a practical guide for garden development designed to inspire both keen novices and experienced amateurs. Each of the 12 chapters include snippets of 300 years of horticultural history, a case study from a National Trust garden, plus tips and unique gems of wisdom from their head gardeners.
I hope readers of The National Trust School of Gardening enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
About the author
Rebecca Bevan has been a Royal Horticultural Society advisor and has written for The Garden Magazine and the Telegraph. She has been a contributor on BBC Gardeners’ World and Gardeners’ Question Time. She also worked as a Gardens Researcher for the National Trust and is currently an independent consultant.