Rock Garden seminar at Nymans

Charlie Bancroft, Gardener Charlie Bancroft Gardener
Rock Garden experts gather at Nymans

Nymans held its’ first ever networking day for rock garden experts on Thursday 9 November 2017. Experts from around the country gathered to share their knowledge and experience with representatives from organisations such as the Alpine Garden Society, RBG Kew and Edinburgh as well as other National Trust gardens with a rock garden in their care.

Rock garden experts discussing Nymans Rock Garden
Rock garden experts discussing Nymans Rock Garden
Rock garden experts discussing Nymans Rock Garden

Restoring a heritage rock garden

The purpose of the day was to discuss heritage rock garden restoration;  sharing plans, hints and tips. We welcomed Dr John Page (Alpine Garden Society) and Joanne Everson (NT Horticultural Botanist) as keynote speakers.

Nymans is beginning a project of restoring its rock garden, so this knowledge sharing is vitally important in helping us move forwards.  The rock garden was originally commissioned by Ludwig Messel in 1898, shortly after he purchased the Nymans estate in 1890.

Nymans Rock Garden
Nymans Rock Garden
Nymans Rock Garden

A brief history of rock gardens

Following the industrial revolution, both books and publications became more readily available on a variety of topics, including horticultural specialisms. The educated classes were thirsty for knowledge, understanding and the collecting of specimens.  An increase in foreign travel, especially on Grand Tours, meant this was more achievable than ever before. Furthermore this was a golden era for plant collecting, with botanical trips and expeditions bringing back new plants to the UK.  

Following the Fashion

From grottos to ferneries, creations using rocks were already underway in gardens, although confined to the wealthy few. James Pulham and Sons were the ‘go- to’ firm for both the design and execution of a rock garden.  Some of the first rock gardens in the country were to be found at:

  • Chelsea Physic Garden (1772)
  • Hoole House (1830s)
  • Chatsworth House (1840s)
  • Kew (1867)
  • RBG Edinburgh (1870)
  • Nymans (1898)

Rock gardens developed in popularity throughout the 1850s with Ellen Willmott, a friend of the Messel family at Nymans, appointing James Backhouse of York to create a deep gorge alpine garden at Warley Place. Wilmott was part of the gardening circle of friends and contacts that the Messels cultivated locally and which also featured William Robinson at nearby Gravetye Manor and the Loder family at Leonardslee who featured a rock garden within their grounds.

" The view of the surrounding country from this point is grand"
- Garden Life magazine, August 5 1905

The rock garden at Nymans was built at the height of the gardening craze where the challenge of growing rare, unusual and beautiful plants to show visitors and fellow green fingered friends was sought.

Research for the current project

Researching the look and feel of the original rock garden involves a cast of characters and reference to archive material. Nymans is celebrated for its unique plant collection. Set within a community of other gardens of the same era, Nymans may demonstrate the same horticultural fashions but did not necessarily follow suit in design.

Alfred Parsons

Parsons was an artist, illustrator and landscape painter who visited Nymans and painted the rock garden between  1914-1916. His paintings provide a useful record of how the rock garden looked at its peak of perfection and helped inform the 2011 partial restoration. The paintings give a useful indicator of the colours and overall impression of the rock garden in its heyday . You can see both paintings by Parsons on display in the house when it is open between March and October.

William Robinson

Robinson owned nearby Gravetye Manor close to Nymans.  He was known to have visited Nymans on several occasions and is thought to have influenced some of the planting styles throughout the garden.

" After I walked round with you the other afternoon in your rock garden…I was very much struck by the groups set in velvet turf"
- William Robinson
Muriel Messel
Muriel Messel
Muriel Messel

Muriel Messel

Ludwig Messel and James Comber started a list of plants grown at Nymans which Muriel Messel finished following her father’s death. The resultant ‘A Garden Flora’ is an important source of information regarding the plant collections at Nymans during the first 28 years of Messel garden ownership. Plant labels held in the archive were also used to determine a list of plants that grew in the rock garden.

Plant Hunters and collecting trips

Leonard Messel sponsored several plant hunters collecting trips.  George Forrest  (1873-1932)  collected alpine plants from the Yunnan province in China. Frank Kingdon –Ward (1885-1958) embarked on many trips to the Far-East and visited Nymans in May 1924 just before (or possibly after) a collecting trip to Tibet.  Harold Comber (the son of HG James Comber) 1897 – 1969 worked at Nymans for a couple of years then went on two collecting trips to the Andes in 1925 and 1927. There he wrote to his Father about the plants he’d observed, making reference to alpine plants.

What now?

Over time, little work was carried out on the rock garden following the devastating fire of 1947. Shrubs were left to grow and some of the original rocks removed. 

One of our first jobs is to address the weed problem and the soil suitability. From there we’ll move onto a survey of the area. We’ll then be able to collate a plant list, design and plant the area on a bed by bed basis, addressing each one individually with regard to the condition of the soil, any pernicious weeds and how the current the plants marry up with plants list collated from historical sources.

In January 2018 Head Gardener Stephen Herrington and Gardener Charlie Bancroft travelled to Tasmania to collect alpines, following in the footsteps of Harold Comber's original trips of the 1930s.   

For more information please contact