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Our work at Emmetts Garden

A garden volunteer kneeling in the lower Alpine area at Emmetts Garden in Kent
Garden volunteer at Emmetts Garden | © National Trust Images/Heather Broughton

The garden team at Emmetts Garden are always busy taking care of this special place. Find out about the work the garden team is doing to restore the garden to its original design, and how we care for the plants so loved by our visitors.

Restoring the historic garden

A long-term project is under way at Emmetts Garden to restore the North and South Gardens to Frederic Lubbock’s original 19th-century designs. Following Lubbock’s death and the subsequent change in owners through the years, much of these areas grew untamed and the original designs became clouded.

The South Garden project

Lubbock’s original design for the South Garden was for his rare plants to be presented like an exhibition, following William Robinson 'Wild Garden' idea of planting trees and shrubs set in grass with naturalized bulbs underneath them. Visitors today are able to see past, through and under each specimen, catching a glimpse of other plants in the distance and the landscape beyond.

In 2007 a box of antique black and white images was discovered at the neighbouring Chartwell showing the South Garden in the 1920s. By looking at these, along with historic maps and literature, we were able to compare the garden then and now, and created a plan for restoring the garden to its former glory.

To start with, we reduced the size of the huge, overgrown plants and took out extra layers around the original specimens. Every plant has a character in its growth, form and habit and we tend to each one carefully, trying to keep it perfect. 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.

'A good understanding of William Robinson’s gardening precepts will be paramount in order to bring the current garden projects close to the intention of the original design. This understanding will not only will help to keep Lubbock’s legacy alive, but also to ensure that the garden thrives and adapts to the pressures of increasing visitor numbers.’

– Ignacio Silva, Head Gardener at Emmetts Garden

The North Garden project

Unlike the ‘wild’ scheme of the South Garden, with trees and shrubs set in grass, the North Garden, or Shrub Garden as it was historically called, the specimen shrubs are interplanted with herbaceous plants and bulbs in a way that corresponds closely to William Robinson precepts for creating a garden of flowering shrubs.

Later owners obscured much of that framework. Lubbock’s bog garden was lost, a bank of rhododendron hybrids hid many of the views that were originally intended, and overcrowding made it difficult to appreciate the individual specimens that were meant to be highlighted.

Drifts of replanted lupins and cistus, as well as hebes and daphnes, can now be seen as you look up the slope towards the house. We have created a viewing platform, giving views of the North Garden that hadn’t been seen in years, and we are planning on increasing this area in the future with the addition of some comfortable seating.

Other specimens grown by Lubbock have also been reintroduced, including fragrant azaleas, colourful kniphofia (more commonly known as red-hot pokers), gentiana, ferns and iris. Work has already come a long way to restore the pond that was filled in during the 1930s.

A vibrant rhododendron in flower in the south garden at Emmetts Gardens, Kent
Flowering rhododendron in the South Garden | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Caring for the rhododendrons and azaleas

With over 130 varieties of rhododendron and azaleas at Emmetts Garden, each spring sees a remarkable display of colour when they bloom.

Our garden team carries out a regular cycle of pruning after the trees have flowered in May, removing any old woody stems from the main specimens. This also includes the lifting of the skirts, or underside branches, to allow better air circulation and movement through the plants, which helps to control pests and diseases.

Throughout the year we also make a few passes through the rhododendrons, taking off 'black buds' – a fungal spore disease – that stops the flower from opening. If needed, treatment for white cell is carried out to deal with any outbreaks.

Caring for the cherry trees

Most of the cherry trees at Emmetts Garden are native to Japan. There are nearly 30 of these trees nestled between the Rock Garden and Wildflower Meadow.

Each of the blossoming cherry trees in the tulip meadow used to be carefully formed into the shape of a lollipop. Cultivating trees in different architectural shapes was a gardening technique used for centuries and thanks to a discovery of stereoscopic glass slides dating to around 1910, we know this is how they were originally grown by the Lubbocks.

Unfortunately, shaping trees in this way every year isn’t healthy for the trees and can affect the blossom, as well as promoting pests and diseases. The trees will now be allowed to grow and develop their natural shapes to ensure their health and a good blossom display for years to come.

View of Davidia Involucrata Vilmoriniana Dove Tree (or Ghost Tree, Handkerchief Tree) shrubs and trees in the South Garden at Emmetts Garden
The Handkerchief, or Dove, tree in the South Garden | © National Trust Images/Jerry Harpur

Regrowing historic specimens

Emmetts original handkerchief tree is sadly in decline owing to root plate compaction, as some grass footpaths historically ran over this area. As this special plant is irreplaceable, cuttings have been sent to the National Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre (PCC), where a direct copy will be grown from the parent tree.

We’ve sent over 1,000 cuttings to the 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 Lubbock’s original planting scheme and we’re hopeful they can help us source what’s missing.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

An image of a person sitting on a bench with their back to the camera looking out over a view of a wooded hill in front of them


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