The late show: Knebworth House gardens
PUBLISHED: 12:06 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:06 30 September 2014
Traditional and exotic late-summer colour is in abundance at Knebworth House gardens. Philippa Pearson tours the borders with head gardener Kelly Baker
The romantic exterior of Knebworth House with its turrets, domes and gargoyles is the perfect backdrop for the 25 acres of gardens and parkland that surround the building. The gardens have evolved over time and the present layout dates largely from the Edwardian era and bears the hallmark of one of the 20th century’s leading architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was connected by marriage to the Lytton dynasty – owners of the stately home.
Lutyens simplified the ornate Victorian garden by creating a sunken lawn bordered by twin avenues and a central square of pollarded lime trees. ‘We prune the trees every year in February,’ says head gardener Kelly Baker as we take a tour around the garden ‘it’s a major task, but we use hedge cutters, which are kinder to the trees and makes the job easier.’ Kelly advises that the original method of pollarding the lime trees was to prune each individual twig back, which was not only labour intensive but also weakening the trees. Kelly and her small team of gardeners are busy renovating Lutyens’s overall design while adding new planting and features. Adjacent to the Sunken Garden, the Rose Garden blends modern bush roses with older varieties, flanked on each side by deep herbaceous borders and strategically placed Lutyens shaped benches to sit awhile and admire the display. Kelly and her team have renovated many of the rose beds, removing old soil and replacing with new to reduce rose sickness that can prevail when replanting roses. ‘We’ve incorporated lots of our homemade compost into the borders,’ explains Kelly. This certainly seems to have done the trick as new plantings are thriving.
Lutyens incorporated a yew hedge to divide the Rose Garden from other areas and this also provides a setting for the ornate Victorian statuary that was originally on the Sunken Lawn. A cool and tranquil corridor with shade-loving plants awaits as you leave the billowing roses and explore more garden delights including the Yellow Garden with its cloud of yellow day lilies encircling a pond. Kelly has replaced the box hedge here with the shrubby honeysuckle Baggessen’s Gold lonicera nitida which blends perfectly with the planting scheme. Nearby, a long pergola walkway has been renovated to Lutyen’s design and new planting incorporated. The elevated position is also a good place to view the blue and silver planting in the Brick Garden, so-called because of the brick pathways.
Popular in Victorian times, wilderness gardens were an alternative to formal planting areas and the seven acre one at Knebworth has many rare and unusual trees and shrubs including 20 different hawthorn species, giant Californian redwood trees and the beautiful snowdrop tree helissia carolina, which is covered in snowdrop-like blooms in spring. You’ll also find something rather unexpected and prehistoric as you wander around (and would certainly have surprised Lutyens) – as grazing, eating and swimming among the fine trees are 70 life-size dinosaur sculptures. To create a more ‘natural’ habitat for these impressive beasts that draw in crowds (and especially children) to the gardens, Kelly has added exotic planting, including tree ferns and other flora. ‘I’d like to put in some wollemi pines – known as the dinosaur tree,’ she says, and goes on to explain how the pine, one of the rarest and oldest trees in the world, was around at the time of the dinosaurs. More exotic planting dazzles in the late summer sun by the Walled Garden where exotic plants like banana, castor oil plant and crocosmia mingle with buddleja, phlox and roses. ‘I wanted to show how easy it is to blend exotic planting into a border,’ explains Kelly, ‘so there is around a 50-50 split of exotics and traditional planting here.’ Inside the Walled Garden there’s a mix of colourful and unusual fruit and vegetables, an area of edible flowers and a wide strip of wildflowers grown from seed by the old greenhouse – a magnet for bees and butterflies. Knebworth has one more gem tucked up its gardening sleeve, the Herb Garden. Tucked away like a little secret garden, this tranquil spot was designed by the eminent Edwardian plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll in 1907 as a wedding present for the then owners, but the plans were mislaid, only re-appearing in 1980. The garden is in the exact spot she had planned for it and uses plants indicated on her design.
Loved by artists, children and visitors from around the world, the gardens at Knebworth House are the perfect place to enjoy glorious late summer colour and some inspirational planting.