The South Garden project at Emmetts Garden

Views across the Kent Weald from Emmetts Garden

Emmetts Garden is a small site with big plans. A long term project is underway in the South Garden to restore this area of rare and exotic plants to a closer representation of Frederic Lubbock’s original design. Hear from Head Gardener, Matthew Scott, about the work he and his team have undertaken.

The South Garden was originally laid out in the 19th century by Emmetts’ owner Frederick Lubbock, a passionate plantsman who chose this spot to place some of his most extraordinary species. 

Rare and exotic plants were collected from China on plant huntsman expeditions and arranged as a garden art form. This ‘gallery exhibition’ allowed visitors to see past, through and under each specimen, catching a glimpse of other plants in the distance and the landscape beyond. 

Returning to the original

When a garden’s owner passes away it doesn’t take long for their original design to become clouded. Throughout the mid-twentieth century much of the South Garden was allowed to grow untamed. Some rhododendrons have grown 45 feet high and 60 feet wide.

In 2007 a box of antique black and white images was discovered at our neighbouring property, Chartwell. They showcased the South Garden in the 1920s. Underpinned by historic maps and literature, we were able to compare the garden then and now. Over the next few years our aim is to restore Lubbock’s original design.

A long term project

We started in 2014, reducing those huge plants and taking out the extra layers around the originals. We look at exactly what’s there and decide what we want to cut or keep, giving us the opportunity to pick the best from the clusters that’ve sprung up.

Lantern tree in flower in June at Emmetts Garden in Kent
Lantern tree in flower in June at Emmetts Garden
Lantern tree in flower in June at Emmetts Garden in Kent

It’s then about gardening each specimen to regain that perfect look and feel. Every plant has a character in its growth, form and habit. Rhododendrons, for example, should keep a compact shape like a cloud. If left alone they can get quite long and leggy so we follow the three Ds: pruning out dead, diseased or dying wood, ensuring everything’s grown to its premium.

We’re already beginning to look at logistics for this winter; removing those giant plants from a small site requires careful planning. Last winter we were able to take out four specimens including some that were very tall, giving us back views through the garden.

Restoring what we’ve lost

We’ve sent over 1,000 cuttings to the Plant Conservation Centre (PCC). From each they’re able to grow on another 20, preserving the original stock. We’re not sure how every specimen will respond so this gives us some insurance. 

The PCC will also help us restore the collection; we have about 60% of the original planting scheme so we’re hopeful they can help us source what’s missing.

A mountain snowdrop in the sunshine
A mountain snowdrop in bloom at Emmetts Garden
A mountain snowdrop in the sunshine

Our end goal is for visitors to be able to appreciate each of these magnificent plants, showcased at their absolute best. Our work will also restore the vista across the South Garden, drawing visitors through the garden, better defining the whole area, opening up new routes and viewpoints to enjoy.

A rewarding role

Being a National Trust gardener is about conservation, preservation and making sure our site is as well presented as possible. This project captures that perfectly. 

There’s not an area we’ve left untouched in the time I’ve been here. We’ve opened up areas for visual impact, for light and sight, planted around 7,000 bulbs, de-brambled the bluebell woodland and resurfaced paths. There’s also a huge five year project underway to renovate our North Garden.

" There’s not an area we’ve left untouched in the time I’ve been here. Our regular visitors are pleased with the results we’ve achieved; interacting with those visitors and our volunteers is my favourite part of the job."
- Matthew Scott

Our regular visitors are pleased with the results we’ve achieved; interacting with those visitors and our volunteers is my favourite part of the job. Learning from them about what they enjoy, what’s working well and what we could do better, is important to me. 

There’s a charm about Emmetts; it’s very small, very quaint and people genuinely love it. The Head Gardener role at a place that’s so special is a challenge, but an exciting one.