Mark trained in horticulture at the RHS Gardens Wisley and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He has been a Head Gardener to a large country estate and Gardens Adviser to the National Trust during which time he studied for and gained a Masters in the Conservation of Historic Gardens and Cultural Landscapes at University of Bath. He is now working freelance in the design of gardens for private and commercial clients and as a mentor to professional horticulturists.
Gardening must surely vie for a place as one of the oldest professions in the world. In the UK there is a deep heritage of gardening, evident today in the many gardens associated with historic houses and country estates. It is possible, as a visitor to an historic garden or as an owner, to experience and tread the ground upon which the activity of over five centuries of gardening, as far back as the medieval and monastic period, has occurred.
A common thread that weaves through this gardening heritage, is the skill of a gardener. With a gentle and creative hand, skilled gardeners have built, cultivated and maintained gardens to meet the needs and desires of their owners for centuries. Whether it was as a show case of the latest gardening taste, to cultivate a collection of rare plants or to reflect the owners own personality.
The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now in the ownership of the National Trust for over fifty years, were created together by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson between 1930 and 1962. They can be said to run through the veins of any gardener for their beauty and application of high horticultural practice.
The Orchard at Sissinghurst
But the gardens at Sissinghurst maintained by professionals were perhaps not the gardens that amateur gardener Vita created. When Troy Scott-Smith took the role of Head Gardener for Sissinghurst in 2013, he started to question how closely the gardens reflected Vita. He commissioned research to better understand her original vision and found that the gardens had evolved overtime as a series of small projects undertaken in-house and when finances allowed.
This reminder prompted a project to re-imagine the gardens as if Vita and Harold still owned them. It has involved the completion of garden projects, such as Delos, a garden of Mediterranean plants inspired by their visit to Greece, which had been abandoned due to the cold aspect of the site and lack of available plants at the time.
Planting of Delos at Sissinghurst October 2019. Designed by Dan Pearson Studio
Meadows around the Oast houses have been re-introduced, as have over a hundred rose cultivars that Vita had grown in the rose garden. Most significant was the change that Troy had to instil in his garden team about how to garden at Sissinghurst. This was to create the sense of a garden with plants that had colonised a ruin rather than one that had plants being cultivated within one. Allowing rambling roses to billow with apparent freedom over walls, loosening the cutting regime of the box hedges and encouraging seedlings to grow in wall crevices and paving joints.
It had taken fifty years of Trust ownership, more than Harold and Vita’s 30-year tenure and three Head Gardeners for the decision at Sissinghurst to reinstate the gardens as a closer representation of their ownership, the significance of which had sparked their original acquisition for conservation by the Trust.
Renovation pruning of the weeping pear in the white garden Sissinghurst.
This doesn’t suggest that maintenance of the gardens during the intervening years had been wrong, as they were maintained to an exception standard of presentation. It does highlight the role that research has in making informed decisions about a garden, the responsibility of any owner to carefully manage change and evidences the art and creativity of gardening in historic gardens.
To learn more about gardening in historic gardens or to find a gardener with experience of and training in historic gardens you might like to contact the following:
Garden Masterclasses – https://www.gardenmasterclass.org
Learning from the Experts – https://www.learningwithexperts.com/experts/dr-audrey-gerber
Professional Gardeners Guild traineeship – https://www.pgg.org.uk/the-professional-gardeners-guild-traineeship/
Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme – https://hbgtp.org.uk
Gardens and Landscapes in Historic Garden Conservation Edited by Dr Marion Harney Published by Wiley-Blackwell 2014
Rooted in History: A Garden Conservation Manual Published by National Trust