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Discover the Picturesque garden at Scotney

Written by
Andrea BennettSenior Gardener, Scotney Castle
A sea of pink rhododendrons with Scotney's mansion house at the top of the hill
A sea of rhododendrons and kalmia in the garden at Scotney | © Amanda Glubb

Scotney is one of the best remaining examples of a garden designed along Picturesque principles. Discover what this actually means, see how each part of the garden combines to create a beautiful whole, and learn how the garden team care for it.

A garden for all seasons

Here at Scotney there is so much to enjoy in the garden: a moated castle with surrounding borders, a quarry, sweeping lawns for the perfect picnic, stunning trees, glorious rhododendrons, a Victorian icehouse and boathouse, a walled garden, and a network of hardsurface paths so you can explore whatever the weather.

As well as being a historic garden with the oldest parts of the original castle dating back to the 1300s, we also care for this landscape with nature in mind as the whole garden and wider estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The lawns around the house are one particular area where you can see one of the rare species we look after. Here, in April and May, you will find Green-winged orchids in bloom.

There is something to see in every season; the jewel-like flowers and blossoms slowly awaken the garden in spring before the rhododendrons Scotney is famous for put on their grand display. In summer, the herbaceous borders and roses burst with scent and colour while the meadow areas buzz and hum with bees and insects. Autumn is ablaze with the vibrant hues of our varied collection of trees and shrubs either lit by the low autumn sun or glowing from beneath a shroud of mist. And even in winter the frosted forms of seedheads, the majestic structures of the trees and the frozen moat make an icy scene of winter beauty.

Other features to enjoy are the quarry garden, heather-thatched icehouse, chalybeate spring, Victorian boathouse, redwood trees and the walled garden.

Scotney mansion house with spring colour
The Scotney mansion house framed by spring colour | © Amanda Glubb

What is a 'Picturesque' garden?

Historically, English gardens were very formal and symmetrical but gradually this changed as other styles gained popularity. In the 1700s the style we now know as the 'English Landscape Garden' was developed by designers like William Kent.

Kent introduced a naturalistic approach far from the rigidity and formality of previous styles. Sir Robert Walpole said of Kent: “He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden”. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown started his career as an under gardener for William Kent and his style continued the natural theme but, with his vast sweeping lawns, grand lakes and trees arranged in belts or group,s his style lacked the character of Kent’s designs which included structures like follies and hermitages.

Two key figures at the height of the Picturesque movement in the late 1700s were Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight; both were harsh critics of what they saw as the stark and bland style of ‘Capability’ Brown.

In gardening, the term Picturesque is a concept that is difficult to define and explain but it largely refers to the idea of applying the techniques, composition and style of 17th-century European landscape painting to garden design. During the Grand Tours of the17th and 18th centuries men and women of means travelled through Europe to experience stunning and dramatic landscapes and grand gardens. They saw beautiful scenery but also began to appreciate the more intimidating and awe-inspiring views too. Edward Hussey III travelled extensively in Europe and would have shared these experiences.

This idea of getting away from beauty in the conventional sense and seeing the beauty of more wild and naturalistic settings is vital to the Picturesque. Returning home from their travels, owners of grand estates tried to replicate the scenes that so inspired them. Here at Scotney, Edward Hussey III had some of the essential elements of these dramatic and characterful landscapes already with the creation of the quarry. On the advice of Rev Gilpin's nephew, William Sawry Gilpin, who helped create the garden at Scotney, he partly demolished the old castle as he began to build the new house.

The Reverend William Gilpin wrote essays on Picturesque landscapes and believed that if any buildings were to be incorporated into a scene they should be partly dismantled to soften harsh outlines.

The Picturesque is not about being picture-perfect but celebrates the irregularities and imperfections of nature and its effect on even man-made structures. Gilpin believed that different areas of nature did not abruptly change but gradually merged and so too must the aspects of a Picturesque garden landscape. Between the neatness of a house and the wildness of the surrounding land the garden was the Picturesque middle ground where the two combine and blend seamlessly and incorporated elements of both.

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

The garden and estate at Scotney are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which means there are important habitats, plant species, insects and animals within the garden that we look after.

The lawns around the terraces used to be mown regularly but when the rare Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) were found in these lawns their management changed to allow them to spread and flourish. We treat this area as a wildflower meadow cutting it once a year and removing the cuttings to prevent the soil becoming too nutrient rich as these orchids prefer a poorer soil. Each May, when the orchids flower, we have to count them; numbers at the moment are around 3000. The seeds of the orchids rely on a partnership with mycorrhizal fungi in the soil to enable them to germinate; these special fungi would be destroyed if herbicides or artificial fertilisers were ever used.

Hazel dormice inhabit the woodland edges of the garden and are monitored by our ranger team as are the populations of great crested newts, dragonflies, moths and butterflies. We also have an interesting collection of mosses, liverworts and lichens, mainly found in the quarry.

Herbaceous border at Scotney Castle
Herbaceous border at Scotney Castle | © Amanda Glubb

The Old Castle

The gardens around the old castle are a delightful place to sit and take in the unique beauty of the borders and roses that frame and climb the ruin.

The herbaceous border has a variety of perennials including salvias, roses, geraniums, geums, euphorbias, achilleas and Michaelmas daisies. This border was once overshadowed by laurels but these were removed and the overhanging yew branches pruned back to allow more light and space to expand and improve the border.

The herb beds in the central round of lawn are planted with a variety of herbs and each bed has a colour theme, blue, pink and yellow. In 2023-24 we renovated these beds to redefine their shape and improve their drainage. There are photographs in the Scotney archives that show the existence in the early 1900s of a small round bed between each curved bed. We have now reinstated these circulr beds and planted them with thymes.

In the centre of the herb beds is the Venetian marble well-head which was brought back from Italy by Edward Hussey III. In 2021 it underwent some cleaning and repair work.

The Inner Courtyard is the small, narrow garden that sits within the shell of the 1600s addition to the Elizabethan extension and medieval Ashburnham tower. Here you can see windows, bricked-in doorways and old fireplaces. The lower windows are smaller and would have looked from rooms such as the beer cellar and pantry; above are the much larger and grander windows of the rooms used by the family. This sheltered ruined courtyard will be planted up this spring to transform the area into a sub-tropical garden.

The moat around the castle island is covered in waterlilies throughout the summer and dragonflies can be seen darting over it. If you are very lucky you may spot the Kingfishers. In spring and summer you may see the gardeners working out from small rowing boats, and in autumn we carry out any maintenance of the moat and cut back the marginal plants. Look out for the Victorian boathouse too.

The Quarry

Some of the sandstone for the main house was quarried from here, leaving behind the hollow that is the quarry garden. Edward Hussey III refers to a ‘saw pit quarry’ in the Specification of Works for his builder which suggests there was already a smaller saw pit or quarried area here before the building of the house began. Edward Hussey III created a garden within the quarry, making features of the dramatic rock faces, creating steps and enhancing the area by filling it with interesting plants. His diaries record the marking out of paths in 1840 and in March 1841 he supervised planting of shrubs.

The most significant plants in the quarry are the Ghent Azaleas planted by Edward Windsor Hussey in the early 20th century. Ghent Azaleas are hybrids between several types of rhododendrons and were first hybridised by P. Mortier, a baker from Ghent in Belgium in the 1820s. Their flowers are very strongly perfumed and each spring fill the quarry with scent.

Other notable plants in the quarry are Snowflake (Leucojum vernum) in early spring, followed by Turkish Squill (Scilla bithynica) and then later the unusual purple-pink flowers of the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) emerge. In summer, the beautiful blue flowers of the willow gentian (Gentiana asclepiadea) line the steps and stone terraces as you descend into the cool damp of the quarry.

In the winter of 2000, there was a landslip in the quarry and work was carried out to repair the side of the quarry affected and create terraces. Above these terraces is the steepest side of the Quarry; each year contractors abseil down the rock face to weed and maintain it. The anchor points can be seen along the path that runs along the top of the quarry.

At the other end of the quarry is a section of stone known as the ripple bed in which can be seen the the ancient sea bed and the footprints of an iguanodon, however weathering has made these prints a little difficult to see now. Christopher Hussey mentioned this area in his guidebook of Scotney:

“The history of Scotney begins, or at least becomes visible, in the Mesozoic geological age. In the farther part of the quarry can be found the ripples left on the sand (now stone) by a receding tide of the great Wealden Sea that stretched from hereabouts to Belgium. Iguanadons, giant lizards 20 feet tall, that browsed off tree-tops, lived here then and left their footprints in the sands, fossilised impressions of which have been found: two can be seen deposited in the ripples”.

The Walled Garden

The Walled Garden was built between 1837 and 1839 to provide fruit, vegetables and flowers for the Hussey family. It is exactly one acre in size and its unusual octagonal shape gives maximum wall space for growing wall-trained cordon and espaliered fruit trees. In the Victorian period the sheltered environment of walled gardens gave the gardeners who looked after them the opportunity to create a microclimate. This meant that they could supply the household with fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year, but also meant they could nurture some tender and exotic varieties too.

Our Walled Garden was in full productivity from 1840 to 1970 when it was given to the National Trust. In 2011 a project was launched to bring it back into productivity. We rediscovered and resurfaced the old paths, unearthed plant lists and plans in our archives, and researched and planted old varieties of fruit trees. We created beds and box hedging to edge the paths and gradually the Walled Garden was brought back to life.

We continue to keep the Walled Garden in cultivation today and since the project to restore it began we have developed it further every year. The fruit trees trained along the walls have established well. There are currants, gooseberries and raspberries in the fruit cages and you will find a small herb garden to sit in and enjoy a quiet moment among the fragrant herbs. The cut-flower beds bloom in abundance and provide colour from spring to late autumn. Our vegetable beds produce a wide range of edible crops from asparagus and rhubarb early in the year to the bright and beautiful selection of pumpkins and squash in the autumn.

West Glade

In this area of the garden you will find some of our finest trees and one of the tallest is the Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum), planted in the 1850s. Opposite, in the border is the Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).

This area used to be known as the 'Tall Trees' area until the storm of 1987 blew many of them down. Among those lost were a Korean Fir (Abies koreana) and a Cut-Leaved or Fern-Leaved Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Aspleniifolia’). The Korean Fir in the West Glade today is one of three planted after the storm; this is the only one that survived. The two Cut-Leaved Beech are seedlings from the tree that was blown down.

Other trees and shrubs of interest here are the Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera), a gift from Wakehurst Place, Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis), Rosa ‘Wild Edric’ and Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’.

The Sweet Bourne stream runs along the edge of the garden here and you will see the inlet that runs from this and feeds the moat.

Scotney old castle tower and moat
The old Ashburnham tower and moat at Scotney castle | © Amanda Glubb

Caring for the garden

With so many species relying on us for their survival the way we garden is very important. There are various methods and techniques that we use and timing is also key. Some of the things we do can be used in your own gardens to help encourage wildlife and increase biodiversity. We leave many of our grass areas to grow long and only cut them once a year. We mow our lawns less frequently and raise the cutting height of the mower allowing flowers like daisies (Bellis perennis), Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and clover (Trifolium repens) to bloom, which in turn support pollinating insects.

We only clear leaves from the paths and lawns and let them make a natural mulch on borders and under trees. We ensure that what we grow offers a food source for pollinating insects, birds and mammals but variety is crucial. By choosing flowers with different shapes for the different insects that visit and having a wide range of bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees help to provide nectar through the majority of the year, not just the summer.


Scotney Sub-tropical Garden 

Discover our plans for new sub-tropical garden at Scotney nestled within the inner courtyard of the old ruined castle as part of Scotney's work to mitigate against the effects of climate change.