A Potted History of the Gardens

The Never Ending Garden

When you are lucky enough to work next to a 13th century castle and among three hundred year old oak trees you come to think that the gardens at Picton Castle have always existed. A lifetime’s work is only the briefest of periods. What you can see today is the result of many centuries of gardening styles, each overlaying the next, where no one style predominates.

The castle was the family home of the Philipps family for four hundred years however there is little documented evidence of the gardens development. A general picture can be obtained from various maps and pictures, accounts and bills and descriptions written by visitors of the past. Other glimpses can be found in the garden itself such as the recipes for complex potting compost mixtures written a hundred years ago on the back of the potting shed door (now our fernery in the walled garden).

An estate map of 1746 reveals deer parks to the north of the castle. The oldest trees in the garden were planted around this time, while closer to the castle were walled enclosures (probably orchards) and formal Baroque shrubberies in an elaborate pattern. We suspect these were made of clipped cherry-laurel. A picture from around this time shows enclosed walled gardens, a large formal pond and what must be topiary. During the later part of the 18th century the landscape style was the fashion of the time, the result being that all the formal gardens were entirely swept away and replaced by rolling lawns and open parkland which at the time were considered to be ‘the finest in Pembrokeshire’.

It was probably in the 1820s that the present walled garden was made. The vast range of glasshouses were originally heated using a central boiler which dissipated its heat through brick flues built into the walls, thus heating the adjoining glasshouses. Around 1860 this was replaced by a more modern hot water system which circulated hot water through four inch cast iron pipes. Around this time many of the older trees in the garden such as the Turkey oaks (Quercus cerris) and silver firs (Abies alba) that line the drive, were planted. These are now majestic trees. Our two redwoods and the massive Rhododendron ‘Purple Splendor’ that sprawls across our lawn also date from the same time.

Garden accounts from the 1880’s include items such as stove for new building, peat and leather boots for pony.  These leather boots were worn by the ponies when pulling lawnmowers and are now quite rare – but we are luck enough to have some on display the the Lumsden Vintage Lawnmower Musem in the Courtyard! Other items in the accounts include a lawn mower, tree labels, peach trees and strawberry plants, apple trees, chrysanthemum cuttings, Hyacinths, Nuts and Pines (pineapples), Prunus plums, flower pots and expenses for the Chrysanthemum Show, Pembroke. From our surviving stack of prize certificates we know that flower shows as far away as Bristol were attended and that potted plants, cut flowers (especially Chrysanthemums), vegetables, grapes and peaches were exhibited on a regular basis. In those days what you grew in your garden commanded you potentially great status. The walled garden would have been a hive of horticultural excellence and during this period at least twenty gardeners were employed. With the start of the First World War the gardeners left and, as with many other grand old gardens, were reclaimed by nature.

This structure of Victorian planting and lawns remains as the basis of the garden today. The last of the greenhouses fell down in the 1950’s but the retaining walls at their base remain, as do the vines that were planted outside and trained through pipes into the greenhouse.

The late Lady Marion Philipps and her husband the late Hon. Hanning Philipps have been largely responsible for redeveloping and planting the gardens that are so colourful today. Lady Marion wrote of the gardens in the following terms: “In 1954 little remained of the grandeur of the past. We set about transforming what remained of the gardens to suit the existing features of woodland and running streams leading through ponds to the tidal waters of the Milford Haven. In order to grow successfully the shrubs, trees and plants which we have collected from many countries all over the world, great attention has been given to shelter”.

Conveniently the laurels planted two centuries before had spread prolifically and grow to massive proportions. These were selectively cleared, retaining some for shelter, and a great number of rare, exotic and colourful subjects added that now form the backbone of the garden today. Our current Head Gardener’s predecessor was the late Leo Ekkes who, during his fifty years of service, bred many varieties of Rhododendron which help make the gardens here unique from any other.  Roddy Milne is now our Head Gardener and he has planted, among other things, another eight Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and six Chamaecyparis obtusa formosana (from Taiwan) which are both conifers capable of living for over two thousand years. If we are lucky there may be some other visible legacy a couple of centuries from now.

2015 sees the development of a more modern, perennial style of gardening to include more ornamental grasses and low maintenance herbacious perennials but keeping of course the more traditional styles developed over the years….

Take a look at our main Gardens page to see how they look today….

Check out our Monthly Garden pages to find out what to look out for month by month

An impressive schedule of events complements our award winning garden for all seasons. See our Events Page for more information

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