The Formal Garden

Fridy Duterloo-Morgan, Curator Fridy Duterloo-Morgan Curator
Herbaceous planting in the Terrace garden at Castle Drogo, Devon

One of my favourite places at Castle Drogo is the formal, terraced garden. It is where art and nature meet. It looks, it feels and it smells different every time of the day and year. But what makes the garden at Castle Drogo stand out? 

The formal garden at Castle Drogo is a particularly important example of an early 20th century garden designed by Edwin Lutyens, with a planting scheme by George Dillistone. As such, it is one of a relatively small number of gardens of special historic interest included on the National Heritage List for England.  

Lutyens’s vision

The architect Edwin Lutyens is also well known for his garden designs. The carefully designed garden at Castle Drogo formed an essential part of Edwin Lutyens’s overall vision. As shown by his early sketches and subsequent drawings for the garden, the location as well as his ideas gradually developed over time. But, he decided early on that its layout should be determined by the use of bold geometrical shapes: squares, rectangles and circles. In response to the challenging topography of the site, he arranged these over a series of enclosed terraces set into the slope. The central axis is marked by a broad path with flights of steps to reach different levels. 

Lutyens is often described as the architect and designer of the British Empire. His garden designs in particular, show distinct characteristics and features of Indian and Persian gardens, such as symmetry, geometrical patterns, rills, canals, and pergolas for shade. 

At the time Lutyens worked on the garden for Castle Drogo, he was working on one of his largest projects: the town plan for New Delhi. The many gardens incorporated in that scheme, in particular that of the Viceroy’s Palace, show similarities with the garden at Castle Drogo. For example the distinct shape to the paths to either side of the sunken rose garden. 

The sunken rose garden at Castle Drogo
The sunken rose garden at Castle Drogo
The sunken rose garden at Castle Drogo

Dillistone’s Planting Scheme

Lutyens insisted his garden at Castle Drogo had a good quality, bespoke planting scheme. Most of Lutyens’s gardens have planting schemes designed by his close friend Gertrude Jekyll. But, unusually, that for the garden at Castle Drogo was designed by George Dillistone.
Despite being relatively unknown today, Dillistone enjoyed a successful horticultural career spanning over 40 years.  Born in the South East of England, his parents ran a nursery where he learned his trade before working for Wallace & Co., a successful Nursery & Garden Architects Firm.  

After working on the gardens at Castle Drogo for Julius Drewe, Dillistone set up his own business as a Garden Architect.  In 1930, he co-founded the Institute of Landscape Architects, later becoming its Vice-President.  

Dillistone was highly regarded in landscaping and horticultural circles, and wrote a number of books and articles, still popular with gardeners today. Dilistone’s planting plan for the garden at Castle Drogo, shows how Dillistone carefully grouped plants taking into account their colour, shape and height. Key plants include Iris germanica, Salvia nemorosa, Delphinium, Phlox, Aster, and Lupin.  

Dillistone’s planting plan continues to guide the gardeners at Castle Drogo today, in order to capture the spirit of his distinct design.