Hopetoun House: Wall-to-wall brilliance in an extraordinary 12-acre former kitchen garden, and an inspiration to keen amateurs everywhere

Inside the early-18th-century walls of Hopetoun House, West Lothian, bold planting schemes and original designs are providing an exciting new use for this 12-acre former kitchen garden, discovers Noel Kingsbury. Photographs by Claire Takacs.

‘I wanted it to look as if it has always been there,’ explains Skye, the Countess of Hopetoun, of the garden she has been making since 2008 at Hopetoun House, where she lives with her husband, Andrew, Earl of Hopetoun, and their four children. ‘People would come in,’ she adds, ‘and see that the planting is contemporary, but that the hedges were there and I had merely smudged the lines… It should look as if it has evolved, belongs and is appropriate.

‘There are times and places,’ Lady Hopetoun continues, ‘when I like people’s grand modern statements, but I don’t want to do that here. I want something that feels gentler… not that everyone likes my planting, indeed, some of my family don’t like what I have done.’

Hopetoun House, just outside Edinburgh, may have an estate with an extensive 18th- and 19th-century landscape and a 12-acre walled former kitchen garden that dates back to the early 1700s, but it has only a very limited history of having anything strictly ornamental within its walls. To make such an addition to an important historic property is bold, but Lady Hopetoun is bold, as well as very energetic and very hands-on.

The billowing perennials and repeating grasses achieve the balance of appearing contemporary, yet as if they have always been there, helped by the delicate Mexican daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, which seeds within the stones . The gardens at Hopetoun House, West Lothian. ©Claire Takacs

This is clearly a garden influenced by contemporary planting ideas that emphasise perennials, but there are more formal features that provide an effective contrast using traditional elements, such as yew, box and beech. The 3½ acres of the new garden, which is set within the kitchen garden, is divided into discrete areas, each with its own character. This subconsciously puts the visitor in the frame of mind of visiting a classic English garden — as opposed to the big sweeps of perennials we might expect from modern planting.

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An area of box circles, faintly reminiscent of traditional knot gardens, but simpler and bolder, in particular, makes for a break from herbaceous plants and grasses. Some hedges of copper beech add a structural element, too, and remind us where we are: features of dark foliage, including Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’, are a distinct part of the Scottish garden vocabulary. Perennials and grasses may well fill the late spring to summer months and their seedheads may provide interest until Christmas, but a garden here with no woody structure would be dreary indeed for the remainder of the year.

The gates in the old garden entrance are to be refurbished and repainted in Hopetoun Blue. In the foreground are Lysimachia clethroides and Aster umbellatus. The gardens at Hopetoun House, West Lothian. ©Claire Takacs

Lady Hopetoun has gardened before, in Warwickshire, and her mother, Kerry Bovill, has made an exuberantly colourful garden at one end of Hopetoun’s walled garden. She mentions Kiftsgate, Gloucestershire, as do so many gardeners; Pam Lewis at Sticky Wicket in Dorset, a garden of the 1990s that made effective use of wildflower meadows; and Keith Wiley at Wildside in Devon, whose planting is some of Britain’s boldest and most innovative.

‘If the money had been there,’ she notes, ‘I could have employed a proper designer, but I’m so glad I didn’t. I had various plans, but then read up on the naturalistic planting style. I changed my mind about the kind of plants I wanted, although I did not alter my thoughts on structure and formality.’

She adds that it is a similar approach to the one they have taken in the house, for which she is the estate property manager. ‘My interest in history and the evolution of houses came before my interest in gardening and, first of all, I wanted somewhere for the children to play, but it soon went off in other directions.’

Simple box circles evoke traditional knot gardens. The gardens at Hopetoun House, West Lothian. ©Claire Takacs

The change of mind was a turning away from what Lady Hopetoun calls the ‘Cotswold look’, dominated by roses and earlier-season herbaceous plants, such as alchemilla and geraniums. With minimal resources for staff, low maintenance was important — no dead-heading, no staking and, of course, long-lived perennials. This part of the walled garden had been a garden centre for many years, the ground covered with plastic, the soil beneath suffocated and lifeless, although fertile, as it had been productive since the early 18th century. ‘We arrived in 2006,’ remembers Lady Hopetoun. ‘It was digger work for a few years: I remember I got three days’ machine and driver hire for Christmas one year… The first planting was in 2008/09, and, by 2012, it was really taking off.’

Buying plants wholesale was an important early decision. She buys in sets of 10, enabling her to achieve that element of repetition that is such an important part of contemporary naturalistic planting style. In many cases, she bought plants in as starter stock and went on to do a lot of her own propagating, including growing plants from seed.

Part of the 3½ acres of fresh planting, within what had been a garden centre. Although the ground was fertile, having been under cultivation since the early 1700s, the soil had been under plastic for years. New plants were acquired in sets of 10s to ensure repetition. The gardens at Hopetoun House, West Lothian. ©Claire Takacs

The discovery of Orchard Dene nursery near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire (now, sadly, no more) was a crucial ingredient in the garden’s story. The nursery’s range very much reflected the contemporary plant selection that was made popular, initially, by Dutch and German designers.

Many new gardens end up looking similar, as if their creators are trying to hit the same target. ‘On Instagram, a lot of what you see is repetitive,’ observes Lady Hopetoun. One reason this garden is important, rather than merely beautiful or inspiring, is that its maker is self-consciously experimental. In one area, attempts to arrange the plants (a selection of summer-flowering perennials) across a loose grid in a way that ensures repetition and intermingling of varieties, but which also limits the number of varieties in close proximity to five in each block, a discipline that enables the eye to focus more clearly on what it sees. ‘I’m genuinely very pleased with it,’ she says. ‘It gives nine months of interest and I leave the seedheads until February. I’ve edited out some of the more aggressive elements, but, on the whole, everything has lasted well.’

Experiments are, of course, risky and sometimes do not succeed. Such has been the experience with a seed mix marketed as being perennial, but which was actually composed of species with lifespans perhaps most charitably defined as ‘beyond biennial’ and never created the impact the marketing promised. Lady Hopetoun has made additions of her own, which are helping to rescue this area. Camassias thrive and flower well in early summer and the bold decision to plant out a large number of young peonies has now, six years on, been vindicated, as these always slowly developing plants are finally beginning to reach flowering size and develop their distinctive and imposing clumps of divided foliage.

The 18th-century lime avenue. The gardens at Hopetoun House, West Lothian. ©Claire Takacs

Certain plants give this garden unity. Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Elegans’ and S. ‘Prairie Pink’, for example, do a good job in late summer. Grasses can be useful for achieving this thematic unity too, partly because their muted colours mean we often register them subconsciously. Finding good ones for a particular site is not always a predictable process however. Calamagrostis emodensis, a larger relative of the familiar Stipa tenuissima, is a favourite, but has not stayed where it was put. As a short-lived plant, it survives through sowing itself around (as does its smaller, better-known cousin). Briza media on the other hand is proving more predictable, although it gives a shorter season.

This is still a young garden, but it is now establishing well and represents a considerable achievement, especially given the limited resources; there is help three days a week and Lady Hopetoun puts in an hour every day. Above all, the spirit of innovation and experimentation is not only admirable, but important, as, ultimately, it is from places such as this that we all learn.

The gardens of Hopetoun House, West Lothian, are open to groups by arrangement — www.hopetoun.co.uk. The book ‘Hopetoun: Scotland’s Finest Stately Home’ by Polly Feversham and Leo Schmidt is out now (Hirmer Verlag, £49.95).