Exploring the atmospheric gardens of Nettlestead Place near Maidstone

PUBLISHED: 15:57 01 October 2020

Mist brings a sense of timelessness to the ancient manor house

Mist brings a sense of timelessness to the ancient manor house


Immerse yourself in the atmospheric gardens at Nettlestead Place, where the past and present meet in a plantsman’s garden | Words: Leigh Clapp - Photos: Leigh Clapp

There has been a home on the site of Nettlestead Place for more than 1,000 years. Bordering a pre-historic trackway, the atmospheric manor house you see today of weathered stone with mullioned windows has witnessed many changes.

In the 17th century part of the 13th-century medieval house with its adjacent Saxon church was demolished for building material. It was even used as cattle byre, before a process of restorations in the 1920s brought it back to life as a home.

To frame the house, gardens were also laid out, including an avenue of Irish yews along the drive and a formal rose garden. Of particular note were the large medieval fishponds on the south face of the house, with Kentish ragstone edging and a low hedge.

Sunlight enlivens stands of pampasSunlight enlivens stands of pampas

The ponds were also restored as a fascinating feature that allows shimmering reflections of the mellow stone and surrounding planting.

This short-lived phase came to an abrupt end however, when during and after the Second World War the gardens again fell into a state of decline.

The process of restoration was then undertaken enthusiastically by Roy and Annabel Tucker, who had a particular interest in land and nature. They bought the property in 1977 and moved down from London to begin work.

Salvias, asters and rudbeckias add colour among the grassesSalvias, asters and rudbeckias add colour among the grasses

Embracing the wonderful open country views was important to them both while also introducing a wider plant range.

Turning the loss of more than 40 trees from the 1987 hurricane into an opportunity for careful assessment of the garden was a further impetus for change.

Their first steps were to plant a native woodland with oaks, alders, ash and hawthorns at the farthest end, create more hedges and take the opportunity to develop new island beds.

Clumps of grasses shimmerClumps of grasses shimmer

With neutral, fertile, well-draining soil and a relatively mild climate, a large range of plants could be used to reawaken and enhance this sleeping beauty of a garden.

The aim was to create different areas with a wide palette of long seasonal interest while also embracing the far-reaching views, with the result that redeveloping and extending the existing garden more than doubed its size.

Over the years the garden has evolved with a co-operative effort between the owners and their gardener. Roy is very much in the driving seat for the main gardens while Annabel concentrates on the vegetables and fruit areas.

Delicate webs among the traceryDelicate webs among the tracery

Head gardener Anthony Bradshaw also plays a key role in the creative partnership. “We go around the garden discussing vistas and shapes.

“I enjoy poring over catalogues and sometimes I accompany Anthony to nurseries. We work very well together as he has a great amount of energy, enthusiasm and is always imaginative,” says Roy.

Across the 10-acre garden is a wide palette of plants in different areas, all sitting well in the landscape and blending with the mellow tones of the ragstone architecture. As autumn sets in, the medley is one of tawny russets, muted crimsons and parchments.

Ballerina skirts of cosmos dance in the slightest breezeBallerina skirts of cosmos dance in the slightest breeze

The herbaceous border garden in particular reaches a crescendo of interest in late summer to autumn, with textures and hues in large ethereal swathes from the final flowers, seedheads and wafting grasses in a delightfully wild, textural medley.

“The layout is planted in an island-bed design, giving a chance to wander among the plants rather than along a straight edge,” explains Roy.

Movement from swaying grasses, such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and Stipa gigantea, in combination with Sedum ‘Matrona’, Verbena bonariensis, Salvia uliginosa and other late-season perennials, stands out against a backdrop of evergreen hedges, trees and shrubs.

Autumnal hues in the herbaceous gardenAutumnal hues in the herbaceous garden

Towering stands of miscanthus catch in the slightest breeze, their feathery seedheads backlit by soft sunlight.

Purple heads of Cynara cardunculus (cardoon) and Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Blue’, golden rudbeckias, pink Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinstern’ and massed sedum flowers form an interwoven tapestry.

Tall varieties aren’t confined to the back of borders; instead they can be in the centre of beds or in beds on their own.

Vistas through Verbena bonariensisVistas through Verbena bonariensis

Using layers of different heights of grasses and perennials down to ground-cover planting allows you to feel totally immersed in the effect.

“I am keen on grasses as they are quite architectural, the colour you get from chrysanthemums and I love a lot of the salvias, such as S. guaranitica and patens; we always try them even though they are tender,” adds Roy.

Also of great beauty are the shimmering vistas of Nettlestead Place itself, often shrouded in mist, enhancing the mystery of reflections in the large pond, especially the foliage of an acer on the turn, echoing the tones of the roof tiles.

Take a moment to enjoy the sceneTake a moment to enjoy the scene

Around the water’s edge are diverse plantings, such as strappy Phormium tenax, hostas and Cortaderia selloana (pampas grass).

A path leads around the expanse of water and seats have been strategically placed to make the most of the views.

Further areas of interest include hips in the rose garden, terraces of alpines, island shrub beds, a young pinetum, a species bamboo garden, a thuja maze and a collection of acers.

Annabel and Roy have created a lovely all-season gardenAnnabel and Roy have created a lovely all-season garden

“One is rather spoilt having a large garden as you have the advantage that you can have parts of interest at different times of the year,” says Roy.

“The camellias are wonderful from January to May, the shrub interest is early as well and then from June, the herbaceous borders shine through to autumn.”

As well as being a venue for weddings, Roy and Annabel have been sharing the garden with visitors through the National Garden Scheme for around 20 years.

Head gardener Anthony Bradshaw continues the garden's ethosHead gardener Anthony Bradshaw continues the garden's ethos

“We are over-busy, but I do enjoy the open days when they happen, it gives us something to work towards,” he says.


- Nettlestead Place, Nettlestead ME18 5HA

- Open through the National Garden Scheme on 4 October, 2pm-5pm

- Please check both websites as you may need to pre-book, nettlesteadplace.co.uk and ngs.org.uk

Jobs to be done

- Early flowering, naturalised bulb displays such as daffodils and crocus can be planted now

- Keep early flowering shrubs such as camellias and rhododendrons well watered in dry spells to encourage good bud formation

- This is the time to collect ripe seeds to dry and store to replenish your garden. Leave some on the plants for the birds that visit

- Don’t deadhead roses that produce decorative hips, as they are also a useful source of food for wildlife

- Good time to add some new trees or shrubs

- Continue to harvest onions and dry for storage. Allow them to dry on the soil surface

- Sow spring cabbage, endive, winter lettuce, spinach, radish and sprouting broccoli

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