Kent head gardeners on the year ahead

PUBLISHED: 13:54 10 January 2016 | UPDATED: 13:54 10 January 2016

The Heraldic Garden at Penshurst Place

The Heraldic Garden at Penshurst Place


With 2016 designated The Year of the Garden, Kent Life asks seven of Kent’s head gardeners to reveal their top trend tips for 2016

Godinton Garden, Viv Hunt

With 12 acres of gardens to look kafter, Viv has plenty of variety to inspire her, from the walled ornamental potager, roses, a delphinium collection, shrubberies, herbaceous borders, wild areas to the formality of the Italian garden.

“I’ve been here 16 years, it was my first job after training at Hadlow College, initially as under gardener in my first year, then head gardener.

“What I think is a joy is doing bits of everything, it’s a nice project, nice people to work with, and I feel quite attached, it’s almost like my own garden,” she says.

The gardening team consists of two full-time gardeners, a full-time trainee apprentice through the Professional Gardeners’ Guild and up to 12 part-time volunteers, with everyone kept busy restoring, consolidating, maintaining and implementing new projects, including renewing paths, a new layout for the rose garden, working on stretches of the long border, and a more accessible wheelchair route.

“I love doing topiary, and am trying to do more clipped accents mixed into the borders,” Viv adds. In addition to being out in the garden, Viv is involved in organising educational school visits and creative workshops. Take a look at the website for opening times, events and workshops to inspire your gardening this year.

Godinton House and Garden, Ashford, TN23 3BP, open March to November,

2016 trend tip from Viv: “I think it’s nice to be able to combine formal clipped topiary with more naturalistic planting such as soft waving grasses.”

Groombridge Place, James Cordingley

Newly appointed to the position of head gardener, James Cordingley, who has a BSc (Hons) in Horticulture from Writtle College, previously worked as assistant head gardener at Penshurst Place and at Herm Island, near Guernsey.

He will be only making subtle changes at Groombridge at first as he observes the seasons through the garden. He has a passion for plants and a special interest in historic gardens, enjoys also visiting National Gardens Scheme gardens, and is a South and South East in Bloom judge.

“We will be treading carefully with the historic nature of the garden. The walled garden is listed and to start with we will be keeping the lawns shorter and concentrating on weeding, edging and maintenance, improving the framework of roses, dividing herbaceous perennials and I will be introducing more colour in the next few years, for instance with lots of tulips,” he explains.

The team includes two full-time and two part-time gardeners to care for the 5.5-acre garden, along with a forest team for the estate. Having additional help through volunteers is something James will also be looking at introducing in the future and he believes strongly in getting all ages involved with horticulture.

For details of events, including guided walks, and opening times so you can pop along and have a chat to James about the progress and see the gradual development, keep an eye on the website.

Groombridge Place, TN3 9QG, open daily,
2016 trend tips from James: “I think that growing vegetables to cook will continue to be popular, as will herbs. I believe that plants with hot vibrant colours will be popular too, such as Salvia ‘Blue Enigma’.”

Hadlow College, Alex Rennie

2016 marks 20 years for Alex as head gardener at Hadlow, having also initially trained at the college. He oversees a team of 10, plus volunteers and students.

“The gardens of Broadview Gardens of eight acres are one part, plus there are 10 acres of sports fields and other sites as Hadlow is set over three campuses, in total some 70 acres.

“This gives a big variety; a range of students, garden shows, a good range of plants and different aspects of horticulture, garden design, parks and garden management and domestic gardens,” he explains. The Broadview Gardens include display gardens built by students of the college, so there are always some changes and something under construction, which adds to the interest for visitors.

“This year we are working on the rose garden and relocating the vegetable garden. We are always tweaking, trying better plants, and improving the hungry stony, free-draining soil as we irrigate only newly planted things. The ethos is to show a range of styles, some formal, some park-like, meadows, some natural areas for countryside students; we are always trying to keep up.”

One of the specifications is to include a lot of winter interest, which includes snowdrops popping up under the shining stems of cherries and the National Collection of hellebores, along with their own breeding of Hadlow hellebore strains.

Broadview Gardens, TN11 0AL, open year round, College,

2016 trend tip from Alex: “Vertical garden and farming systems are becoming more popular, as is a naturalistic style.”

Hever Castle Gardens, Neil Miller

Head gardener at Hever for 10 years, Neil’s journey to horticulture was a complete antithesis from his previous career. “I had a previous life as a City of London Lloyd’s insurance broker, unfortunately I was made redundant in the recession of the early 1980s and then decided to have a career change and carry out my underlying passion to become a gardener.

“I trained at the ‘old-fashioned’ adult evening classes where I obtained my City and Guilds and RHS Qualifications in Horticulture, the rest, as they say, is history!” Neil’s team comprises eight full-time, two part-time, one trainee and four part-time volunteers.

The varied gardens at Hever Castle give lots of scope to inspire. “I feel that they stand out to be rather special because we like to be different in our planting schemes, we do not necessarily plant as the ‘norm’ and like to experiment somewhat.

“I feel when the visitors tour the gardens they should see something a bit different from other gardens, the diversity of the areas also stands out, everything from Edwardian topiary to Italian gardens to Tudor gardens. The most enjoyable part of my job is talking to visitors and sharing and swapping gardening tips and ideas,” says Neil.

2016 will see the continuation and expansion of the new herbaceous prairie border and opening up some new vistas around the lake. ‘Like most gardening jobs, mother nature is totally in control, dictating when we can do certain tasks, listening to positive comments made by our visitors is always a highlight of the job.”

When Neil has time he too loves to visit other gardens in Kent. “My all-time favourite is Tom Hart Dyke’s World Garden at Lullingstone, it’s a must for everyone to visit. I also love walking around Westerham, Chartwell is also fantastic and The Grasshopper on the Green in Westerham is a great watering hole,” he adds.

Hever Castle and Gardens, TN8 7NG, open through year, see website for details,

2016 trend tip from Neil: “The need for people to have functional gardens will be on the up, plenty of fruit and veg growing maybe with the incorporation of grape vines and hops. The interest in beekeeping will, I feel, also prevail.”

Hole Park, Quentin Stark

“I’ve been head gardener for 15 years at Hole Park. I like working outdoors and seeing the seasons; how the light changes, the planting coming alive in the early morning mist, colours on leaves, being part of it, seeing the garden evolve and develop over a long time,” says Quentin.

The garden has been home to the Barham family for the past four generations and is set in more than 200 acres of superb parkland. Absolute highlights have to be the sea of iridescent bluebells in spring and the autumnal blaze, but a visit throughout the open season is well worthwhile.

In summer the borders burst into colour, while the exotic border with grasses, towering cannas and kniphofias draws the eye in late summer into autumn. “The exotic border has a lot of very common quite tough plants and I’d encourage people to have a go, have confidence to bring colour into their garden,” he adds.

“Gardens should never stand still, plants die and need replacing, ideas are discussed with the family, the garden develops while keeping a nod to the past. For example, in the 1930s there was a big dahlia border and now we have more dahlias again,” he explains.

The heavy clay, slightly acidic soil allows a palette of rhododendrons, camellias, roses and lavender, with a new, wider stepped lavender border being a recent addition. Assisted by one full time and one part-time gardener, with volunteers welcome, Quentin continues to add to the garden with increased plantings, such as bedding, tulips, plectranthus and tree dahlias. “I’d say it’s quite subtle development.”

Hole Park, Benenden, TN17 4JA, is a private home and opens from spring to autumn on selected days, see website for details,

2016 trend tip from Quentin: “Gardening is such a personal thing, follow your interest and run with it. Vegetable growing continues to be popular as does naturalistic planting.”

Penshurst Place, Cory Furness

For the past eight years Cory has been overseeing the Grade I listed gardens at historic Penshurst Place, home to the Viscount and Viscountess De L’Isle and dating back to the 14th century.

Originally from New Zealand, Cory came under the spell of UK gardens on his gap year and then returned after training, to a gardening position at a private home in Surrey, before moving across to Penshurst Place.

“The Dunedin climate is actually very similar to the UK and lots of plants from here are grown in the Dunedin Botanical Garden which has close links to the UK,” he says.

Enthusiasm shines from Cory as he talks about his role at Penshurst. “Although this is an historic garden it is still very much a family garden, among the oldest in private ownership, and you have the sense of being part of the 700-year legacy.”

Highlights abound in the different garden rooms, from the famous long peony border which has its own mailing list, or the Heraldic Garden with painted poles topped with symbols of the family, to the Union Flag garden which can be seen from planes flying out of Gatwick.

“Each different area has elements which I find quite a draw to that space, from the wildness of the nut garden to the formality of the Italian garden. There’s always something happening and I know the right time to appreciate different areas, have an awareness of the seasonality of the garden. Working through each area you leave small footprints in the 700-year history.”

Projects of renewal or subtle changes, discussed with the family who feel the importance of leaving a mark as their ancestors have done, are undertaken with the long-serving team of six. These include continuing the evolution of the garden, from the yellow and blue border last year to planting around the bear and porcupine topiary heralds and improving the Lanning Roper border.

There are challenges that occur such as an ongoing problem with honey fungus in the crab apples and apples, which could be a topic to discuss with Kent head gardeners via the Professional Gardeners’ Guild.

Penshurst Place, TN11 8DG, is open weekends mid-Feb then daily April to November, with the gift shop, pantry and parkland open all year.

2016 trend tip from Cory: I think because 2016 is The Year of the English Garden and the tercentenary festival of Capability Brown, there will be a big push to plant, with a non-traditional feel using foliage and texture as opposed to flowers.”

The Salutation, Steve Edney

Also trained at Hadlow College, as well as arboriculture at Merrist Wood, and with the RHS advanced certificate, Steve has been head gardener at The Salutation in Sandwich for 10 years.

“I also spent 12 years working as a gardener for various employers gaining proficiency in a range of tasks, that ‘on the job’ learning was invaluable, before I became a head gardener,” he explains.

The gardens have been transformed by the present owners, Don and Steph Parker, who bought the property in 2003 and the hard-working team of Steve and his three gardeners, one student and volunteers, have suffered a major flooding catastrophe in 2013, but are back blooming again.

“A collaboration of things; the people, the design of the site, its history and well-known designer, Sir Edwin Lutyens and inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, the plants and an ambitious garden team, make the place special,” says Steve.

“The garden has become my plant playground. My passion has always been flowering plants and how combining them creates not only colour succession but also evokes emotion in the viewer. Plant-driven design is the best fun.” Steve

Challenges are mostly ensuring the process of work schedules are set twice a year to make sure everything gets done, and selecting the right plants for the silty soil that is very dry in summer.

New for 2016 is a 130-foot border to trial dahlias for garden worthiness. “We also have one of the largest collections of dark-leaved dahlias in the country, and over winter we have been adding new planting to the main mixed borders. Since the flood we have completely changed them, having lost 15,000 plants,” he comments.

Finding time to visit other gardens and catch up with other gardeners is important to Steve. “I call them creative development days and often take members of the garden team with me to give them a chance to see how other gardens work.

“I think because I am in a town garden I always enjoy visiting larger gardens with borrowed landscape views, such as Hole Park and Goodnestone is also a favourite as it was the first garden I visited as a child with my grandparents,” he explains.

The Salutation, Sandwich, CT13 9EW, is run as a hotel and the garden is open to the public through the year, see website for details,

2016 trend tip from Steve: “ I don’t follow trends in gardening, 22 years ago when I started in the world of gardening a tutor told me, turn everything to the green side (organic, sustainable etc) and ‘it costs money to send water up hill,’ - all these things are still true today.”


2016 Yellow Book

Here’s a special offer for Kent Life readers. To purchase a copy of the 2016 Yellow Book, published each February, that lists all the wonderful gardens open through The National Gardens Scheme you can order at the offer price of just £9 (rrp £12.99), including postage and packing to UK addresses, via the website and use the code KLYB16.

The Yellow Book is the essential county-by-county guide to the thousands of welcoming gardens in England and Wales, many of which are not normally open to the public. Your visits also help an array of charities, with the NGS having donated in excess of £24 million in the past 10 years.

Offer valid until end July 2016. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

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