Penshurst Place: One of the oldest private gardens in the UK

PUBLISHED: 16:34 29 April 2020 | UPDATED: 16:34 29 April 2020

The vista across the Italian Garden (photo: Leigh Clapp)

The vista across the Italian Garden (photo: Leigh Clapp)


Enjoy spring at Penshurst Place, one of the oldest privately owned gardens in the UK, with records dating back to 1346

April is a month of blossom and bloom, sunshine and showers and a lovely time to stroll the gardens at Penshurst Place.

With the grand stately manor as a backdrop, the 11 acres of formal Grade I-listed gardens and 48 acres of grounds stretch out with plenty to explore.

Focusing on the gardens, stroll the paths to discover a series of hedged rooms, each with its own highlights in different seasons.

My favourite areas in spring are the 16th-century grand Italian garden directly in front of the house with its immaculately trimmed parterre filled with tulips; this year it’s sulphur-yellow ‘Jewel of Spring.’

The formality of the Italian Garden suits the grand houseThe formality of the Italian Garden suits the grand house

Then, in contrast, I love the naturalness of successions of bulbs dotted in long grass in the Nut Garden and the trellises with a canopy of crab apple blossom above. It’s a wonderful idea to emulate, with snowdrops followed by daffodils and tulips, accompanied by primroses, cowslips and carpets of bluebells. Another idea to borrow is the use of containers planted with tulips and pretty companions that you will find as you journey through the garden rooms.

Later, as summer approaches, the famous peony border that stretches 100 metres and is resplendent in tones of pinks and crimsons is the definite star attraction.

Chinese herbaceous Paeonia lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’, ‘Albert Crousse’, ‘Lady Alexander Duff’ and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ absolutely shimmer with their big, blowsy flowers and are set off by evergreen hedging and effervescent wildflowers in the orchard.

Roses then continue the show in the Union Flag Garden and Rose Garden. Herbaceous mixes with irises in the George Carter-designed Jubilee Walk and textural planting in the Lanning Roper, as well as a blue and yellow-themed border, carry on the carefully planned planting, most of which is grown on site.

Tulips fill the parterre beds in the Italian GardenTulips fill the parterre beds in the Italian Garden

At any time of the year the Heraldic Garden with its heraldic beasts, symbols of the Sidney family, atop brightly coloured poles is a unique and fun space

all ages will enjoy.

Overseeing these historic gardens is an important task, a co-operative effort between the owners, Lord and Lady De L’Isle, and the gardening team.

Head gardener Tony Wiseman has been at Penshurst since 2015, starting as deputy head gardener and taking on the lead role three years ago.

Crab apples bloom in the nutteryCrab apples bloom in the nuttery

With 20 years experience in both the charitable sector and with historic gardens, he brings a depth of knowledge and a clear passion for Penshurst.

“The first named gardener was Master Curties in 1446,” he says. “My role is part of that line of people who have managed and developed the garden over the intervening 673 years. Like Dr Who, the face changes, but there is always a head gardener.

“My role has all the benefits of a private garden but with clear direction from an owner and a public garden with a wide range of people being able to see and share their impressions.”

Tony shares my own favourite areas at this magical time of year. “Spring in the Nut Garden with species narcissi and tulips, bluebells and primula in the longer grass, the freshly mown paths and the bare frame of the pergola before the roses and climbers get away are a particular highlight for me.”

Tulips pop up in the long grassTulips pop up in the long grass

There are always new plans and the tweaking of planting to be carried out. The Jubilee Walk has been completed recently and work has begun on reclaiming a small terrace from bamboo.

“It will take a while and we will be looking to new planting,” says Tony. “We have lots of options at this point and will present to them to the family before any decisions are made.”

To complete your visit there are two places where you can eat – the Garden Restaurant and the Porcupine Pantry – plus there are also popular adventure play areas for the children, parkland, a woodland trail, gift shop, nursery, toy museum and, of course, the fabulous house to tour in all its historic splendour.

Crab apple blossom heavy on the boughCrab apple blossom heavy on the bough

A potted history

Built in 1341 by Sir John de Pulteney, much of the house remains in its original state

1392 defensive crenellated curtains enclose the manor in response to threats of foreign invasion

1401 King Henry’s IV’s third son, John, Duke of Bedford owns Penshurst, then passed through various owners

Dainty crab apple blossomDainty crab apple blossom

1521 Henry VIII owns Penshurst and uses it as a hunting lodge

1552 gifted to the Sidney family

1599 Queen Elizabeth I visits

1849 Philip Sidney, 1st Lord De L’Isle inherits

Budding blossomBudding blossom

1946 Penshurst Place opens to the public to help pay for restoration work following wartime damage

1991 current owner, Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle inherits

Containers of tulips are a spring highlightContainers of tulips are a spring highlight

Tony’s top tips

Mix it up, as well as the tulips we planted crocus, eranthus, iris and narcissi all early flowering

Use containers to bring flowers into areas without room in the beds or where squirrels will eat them in the ground.

Head gardener Tony WisemanHead gardener Tony Wiseman

Try to concentrate spring planting in clear areas of the garden to get a greater effect and keep cost down.

Don’t forget plants with good winter colour for the very early part of the season. Grasses can be left and work with bulbs.

If you have small bulbs that need to be close to the surface in beds, remember to mulch little or not at all over them to prevent them being too deep below the new bed level.

[Plant of the month][Plant of the month]

Plant of the month - Euphorbia

Zingy lime green in the spring garden

Can be annuals, perennials, shrubs or succulents

Small flowers within cupped bracts

{jobs to be done]{jobs to be done]

Find out more

Penshurst Place, Penshurst, nr Tonbridge TN11 8DG UK

House, gardens and grounds: adults £12.50, child £6.50

Gardens and grounds: (10.30am-6pm), house (12pm-4pm)

Easter event: storytelling 12 April (12pm-3pm)

Growing notes

Full sun

Well-drained soil

Propagate by division in early spring

Cut back flowering shoots in late summer/early autumn

Highly toxic by ingestion

Wear gloves when handling as sap may irritate skin and eyes

Jobs to be done

For a continuous display of flowers this summer, annuals can be sown now, such as petunias, lobelia, nasturtium, limnanthes and lobularia

Divide clumps of perennials to propagate and put supports in place ready for plants to grow through

Stay on top of weeds and take a critical look at your garden for any gaps that need filling

Have a wander around your local garden centre to find some new perennials, shrubs and trees to add fresh interest to your garden

Many shrubs will benefit from a trim to shape and encourage new growth

Hard prune cotinus, buddleja and other fast growing shrubs that flower on new wood

Continue outside sowing of broad beans, mangetout, beetroot, lettuce, carrots, Swiss chard, parsley, peas, spinach and herbs. Plant asparagus crowns and onion sets. Plant out second-early potatoes early April and maincrop varieties end April.

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