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Scotney Sub-tropical Garden

A view to a window of Scotney Castle ruins
On the other side of this ruined wall a new garden is being created | © Gary Cosham

Tucked away behind the arches of the ruined castle lies a sheltered inner courtyard. Taking advantage of its mild microclimate, the garden team at Scotney are creating an experimental sub-tropical garden in this historic environment.

The Scotney story

Thanks to the vision of Edward Hussey III, the gardens at Scotney are celebrated as one of, if not the, pre-eminent examples of a garden design inspired by the Picturesque Movement. As an important part of this vision, the old castle was deliberately partially ruined. The more romantic and interesting elements of the castle's historic architecture were highlighted as a result. The new mansion house was sited above the old castle on a small plateau and the garden filled with new ‘exotic’ non-native species of plant - such as the rhododendrons and azaleas Scotney is now renowned for. This horticultural vision of Edward Hussey III and of William Sawrey Gilpin, alongside the architecture of Anthony Salvin, combined to create one of the most perfect Picturesque ensembles in England.

Edward Hussey III’s son, Edward Windsor Hussey, continued to develop the gardens. At the old castle he installed a marble Venetian well-head and a font, which he purchased while on a tour of Italy in the early 1900s. The well-head still sits at the centre of the old castle lawn. The font, following extensive conservation work, is being placed within the new sub-tropical planting scheme, marrying the old with the new.

When Christopher Hussey and his wife Betty inherited Scotney they continued to cultivate the gardens, introducing further new species and planting schemes. Christopher was very much aware of the significance of Edward Hussey III’s original Picturesque design and any additions to the garden he and Betty made respected and reflected this original spirit.

During all these phases of garden design, the small enclosed garden compartment on the site of the former great hall in the east range of the old castle, where the sub-tropical garden is to be planted, was not greatly developed. Hidden behind the partially-standing walls of the 17th-century parts of the old castle this interior space did not perform any visual function in Picturesque vistas that run from the new mansion to the old castle and through the wider landscape of the surrounding park.

Why the new garden?

Over the stewardship of three generations of the Hussey family at Scotney, the gardens have always been improved and renewed. Now we will add our own layer of horticultural renewal in an area of the garden previously overlooked as we work on our project to create a sub-tropical garden in the old castle ruins.

Designed with a sustainable future in mind, all the plants selected for the new garden compartment have been chosen due to their ability to withstand the effects of climate change. In Kent and South East England, we are already seeing established, native species struggling with the changing patterns of rainfall, extremes of temperature and of wind, and with disease brought on by climate change. The sub-tropical garden will be a test case to see how, with the careful and innovative introduction of resilient species, we might guarantee the long-term future of a historic garden such as Scotney.

Sketch of old castle subtropical garden plan
Gardener's sketch of the planned old castle subtropical garden | © Helen Park

It started with a dig

Creating a new garden within the ruins of a scheduled ancient monument is not straightforward as we are not permitted to dig more than 30 centimentres without the area having been thoroughly checked in advance. So, in summer 2023 as part of the preparation process, Scotney staff and volunteers carried out an archaeological dig in the courtyard under the close and watchful eye of the National Trust regional archaeology team and Archaeology South-East. After the dig, the planting holes were back-filled and marked ready for further groundwork and planting this spring.

Planting scheme

The planting will echo and continue the adventurous spirit of the Hussey family. Introducing new non-native plants will not only create a visually exciting space within the old castle ruins, but will be a test case to see how carefully introducing new plant species might guarantee the long-term future of the historic gardens during a period of climate change.

The ruins of the Old Castle create a sheltered environment, where plants are shielded from the elements, allowing us to experiment with some tender species which might suffer elsewhere in the garden.

We are creating this garden with plants that have attractive foliage such as hostas, begonias, and Japanese ferns. Into the archaeological test pit spaces will go the larger structural plants: Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Rex', tree ferns Musa basjoo and Dicksonia antarctica, and Cordyline australis 'Torbay Dazzler',

Design sketch of the old castle subtropical garden
Initial design sketch of the old castle subtropical garden | © Helen Park

With thanks to National Trust Cultural Heritage Curator, Dr Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, and to lead gardener on the Scotney Castle sub-tropical garden project, Helen Park, for their input compiling this article.

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