Ideas for your garden from the National Trust

Stealing tips from National Trust gardens is a popular pastime. Now a new book makes it even easier.
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Those of us who have visited the romantic White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent are likely to have planted a silvery weeping pear or Iceberg rose in homage, while the fiery Red Borders at Hidcote Manor in the north Cotswolds have caused many a gardener to catch a serious dose of scarlet fever.

Such is the influence of our National Trust gardens, which are celebrated in Design Ideas for Your Garden, a new book by design historian Jacq Barber. 

She provides us with inspiration not just from the magnificent borders, potagers and orchards but from the head gardeners, too. "What captivates and inspires us is not always the grand vistas," she says, "but the unexpected delight found in small details that can be brought into any garden, whatever its size."


Capture the beauty of the Cherry Garden at Greys Court with a winter flowering cherry. Image: NTL/Stephen Robson

The Cherry Garden at Greys Court, Henley-on-Thames, for instance, might dazzle you in spring with its walkway canopied by arching branches scattering blossom like confetti beneath, but you can capture the vision, suggests Barber, by planting the suitably small winter-flowering cherry on your own patch. 

Moreover, you can have a head start on Greys Court, because Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis Rosea starts flowering in late autumn.

If you visit just one garden this season, make it the sensational Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, where you will be assailed by scents from seasonal gems such as Christmas box, witch hazel Pallida and Viburnum bodnantense Dawn, and might be tempted to set up a fragrant winter corner of your own. 

You will also discover the Tibetan cherry, with gleaming bark like polished mahogany — Barber suggests the paperbark maple Acer griseum, with chocolate-brown bark and autumn foliage, for smaller gardens — and marvel at the veritable forest of white-barked Himalayan birch, as magical as Narnia.

You can give that impression, smaller scale, by planting a multi-stemmed Betula jacquemontii in container or ground, and by taking the advice of Anglesey Abbey head gardener Richard Todd: "To maintain the whiteness of the bark, wash silver birch with water and a soft brush in early December, ideally using a pressure hose — but be careful not to get too close as this risks damaging the bark."

With our city's microclimate, and in warm, sunny spots, we can grow exotics such as canna, ginger lilies and Mexican sunflower; for inspiration, visit the Banana Garden at Overbecks, in Devon, where head gardener Cat Saunders suggests, in cooler, shadier spots, planting hostas and ferns then scattering Impatiens naturalistically throughout, to give the flavour of a tropical rainforest.

Or if you fancy bringing in the wildlife, take a tip from Osterley Park, where beds of red and white valerian, sweet rocket and purple toadflax attract bees and butterflies.

Roses are a main attraction at NT gardens, notably Nymans, Mottisfont Abbey and of course Sissinghurst, where the stems of sumptuous antique roses are bent on to chestnut poles and pliable hazel hoops to make shapely shrubs. It's worth visiting off-peak to take note and pictures of the all-important corsetry. 

Alexis Datta, Sissinghurst's head gardener, says: "Training roses on to hoops or arches by bending the boughs to put them under pressure not only looks good, it forces them to flower more prolifically."


Steps at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria, show how plants such as the Mexican daisy should be left to self-seed. Image: NTL/Stephen Robson

Underpinnings rule in the NT borders too, but the gardeners get these in place before the perennials need propping, in early spring, with a home-made cage of woven pea sticks through which the plant grows and is held firm. In the gardens of the National Trust, aside from self-seeders like the pretty, promiscuous Mexican daisy Erigeron karvinskianus, nothing is left to chance.

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