Country houses for sale

Perils and pleasures of a period garden (I)

While most owners understand the value of professional advice when restoring a period house, they may not realise that if the house comes with an historic garden, specialist knowledge is equally important.  In this two part blog, we’ll provide some advice on getting to grips with history in your garden and help owners decide whether they can go it alone or when they might need to bring in an expert.

While gardens by landscape luminaries like Humphry Repton, William Kent or Gertrude Jekyll tend to be known and documented, for any period garden project you will need to do considerable research and set aside sufficient funds before you bring in the diggers.

First, you must be clear about what you intend to do.  Restoration and reconstruction are two distinct endeavours. Restoration is the reinstatement of a garden exactly as it was, supported by available drawings and plans, allowing the garden to be faithfully re-born in the 21st century.

However, the situation is not always clear cut and restoration specialists are often faced with a dilemma – to which date does one restore? To the initial garden design and layout or the re-designed plans commissioned when another family moved in? What do you do if both designs are equally valid?

Reconstruction of a garden is something a bit different –  it’s the creation of a garden based on existing architectural evidence but where no plans or information exist of the original design. This requires research not only of primary sources but also of secondary sources contemporary to the time so that a faithful ‘finishing off’ can be executed.

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One example of a garden where both approaches have been used is Townhill Park, a Gertrude Jekyll garden belonging to the Montagu family in Southampton, which is now a private school.  This garden has been painstakingly researched, restored and reconstructed by Rosaleen Wilkinson and other volunteers from 1997 to this day where work continues.

garden before restoration 2


garden before restoration
 The gardens before the restoration in 1997

Digging through the years of accumulated debris due to neglect, these Arts and Crafts gardens have been literally unearthed, revealing a sunken garden, a pergola and dry walling typical of Gertrude Jekyll’s designs:


gardens after restoration


garden post restoration


how to restore historic gardens

 The gardens are now a wonderful work in progress

If you have a large garden and lack the time or skills to undertake the research yourself, hiring a professional garden archaeologist/historian could be the best way to start off your project.  
If you have a smaller garden and you are willing to do some detective work yourself then here are some ideas to get you started:

* If your garden is listed you may have to apply for consent-always check with the local planning office. This could include old greenhouses, sheds and other garden structures, no matter what their current condition

* Thoroughly research your garden before you start digging, this will save you time and money in the long run by avoiding unnecessary work.  Try the County Records Office of the major town nearest to your house. Libraries also have access to academic records which are not accessible to the public but that are available for consultation on site.  Local museums and county archives are also good places to try as they are likely to have maps of the area often dating back hundreds of years. These records often afford a fascinating glimpse of the social map of the time and leads to further research.  Ordinance Survey maps start between 1850 to the 1910’s but thereafter there isn’t much information until the 1940’s when OS started again. Aerial maps are available from the 1930’s onwards and can be a useful source of information

* Use your research to create a chronological time-line of when the garden was designed and built and by whom. If you know the garden designer’s name, research as much as possible about them and look at their gardens. Compare and contrast their style, the planting plans and the landscaping details used

* Write an action plan once you have all information at hand, thinking about how you are going to store and organise all of this information for easy access and for posterity- after all, if you are going through all this trouble to uncover an historical gem you might as well document it correctly!

* Decide how you will look after the garden and who will actively maintain it. Why is this important? Planting plans from the Jekyll era, for example, utilise plants of the time and many are not available or no longer in existence.  Horticulture has evolved and many plants have new varieties, new colours or have just become extinct. Also gardens of those periods required an intense and heavy maintenance regime.  Most well-off home owners with a garden usually had domestic help to look after them – something that most of us cannot afford.  The planting plans of yesteryear are often very labour intensive to maintain and unsuitable for a 21st century lifestyle

* Are you going to allow the public to visit once the garden is finished? If this is the case it might be wise to plan for loos, a café, a bookshop. If the garden is purely for your eyes only, then one does not need to worry about such things but it is wise to still plan for a shed and possibly a greenhouse

So, now that you’ve done your research, created your timeline and action plan and worked out how you are going to maintain your revitalised garden, the time has come to take spade to soil and dig!

Next week we’ll discuss getting started on the hard landscaping, planting plans and maintenance and ideas on how to adapt a restored or reconstructed garden to the 21st Century.

* Francoise Murat runs Francoise Murat & Associates, a registered business in’s Heritage Register. Francoise is running a course: ‘Owning a period garden‘ on 15th April 2010.  Further details can be found in the ProjectBook events section

* For more on period buildings and gardens, and how to take care of them, visit where you can find the Heritage Register – a service helping period property owners to locate vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants, along with a comprehensive range of specialist resources relevant to historic properties.