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Medieval to 16th century | 17th - 19th century | Garden Restoration | The Nonsuch Restoration Project

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Reflections on Garden Restoration


Claude - Head Gardener at Nonsuch

One of the first things you need to come to grips with in your own mind is that it simply isn't possible to completely and utterly 'restore' a garden to 'how it once was'. There is no garden in existence that will have complete plans and planting schedules to show you just how and when and where everything was laid out and planted, from season to season and from year to year. Some people do have landscape plans from the past, and even if the very rare few of these actually show plantings, they won't ever show what was actually planted or how the garden evolved over the course of a year, let alone ten.

No plan can ever show you how a garden has evolved, or how the owner altered plans the instant the designer foolishly left the property. No garden designer's plan is ever sacrosanct, and while they can show you the designer's intention, they may not show you the actual garden.

So even if you have detailed plans of garden beds and plantings tucked away somewhere, that is absolutely no guarantee that the garden actually looked the way the designer intended.

Besides, no single plan or garden journal is ever enough. The English National Trust bemoans the fact that for the massive garden restoration at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where they have three quarters of a million original documents pertaining to the garden, they only have five percent of what they actually need to restore the gardens precisely.

We're reminded of a story told us by a friend deeply involved in restoration of heritage buildings. She said, "People scrape back layers and layers of paint to the original paint on the walls. Then they repaint the room in that colour and think what a wonderful job they've done. What people don't realise, or ever think about, is that the original colour was a major, ghastly error, probably conceived by an architect who'd had too much port the night before, and the room was quickly repainted in an entirely different colour. Now they're stuck with a room painted in some frightful shade of lime green, and they think they've 'restored' it to its original condition."

Most of us won't have a single thing. We don't care if you have Gertrude Jekyll's original garden plans from 1899 stuck away in the attic - they won't be enough for you to 'restore the garden to what it once was' because, sure as eggs, the garden was never like what Jekyll intended, either. Everything evolves and changes within the space of months, even Jekyll designs.

The National Trust refers to garden restorations as 'ecovations', and while we like that term, we prefer 'visionary reflections'. Visionary because the garden is being restored always with an eye to the future, and they are restored according to a single person's, or a group's, vision. Reflections, because while they reflect the past (rather than recreating it precisely) they also reflect both the house they surround and the hopes and dreams of those restoring the garden.

In the end, you do the best you can do, but you end up recreating, or restoring, to 'feel' more than to 'fact'. Don't obsess too much over it (we have seen garden restorations where the home owner has become fanatical about the placement of every pavement stone, of every rose shrub, and the acquisition of the exact same cultivar as was planted in the exact same spot as it was one hundred years ago; in the end we think that level of fanaticism is a waste of time, because no one can know precisely what went where because no plans ever replicate perfectly what actually grew in the garden), but do what pleases you and what pleases the house (i.e. what suits the house - we have more of this in the article on what style to pick for your garden).

Besides, gardens change and evolve continually, and it is completely impossible to try and snatch at one frozen moment in time and say, "This is what the restored garden should be. Exactly and Precisely."

In the end, of course, most of us don't have much to go on. We don't have original Jekyll plans stuck away in the attic, much less three quarters of a million documents. But there are things you can do. Often a local council or library will have photographs. They may even have some original documents and/or plans. You just never know what you might dig up in a local council or even local heritage society or archive. Use what's in your community. (See also the article on researching your garden's history.)

Digging always helps. You will never know what you will find hidden away under several feet of soil. However unless you either have an enormous amount of time, energy and enthusiasm, or perhaps a friendly archeological team on standby, this isn't one of the easiest ways to discover your garden's lost history. More typically, this method of exploration comes into its own once you have paid for the expensive landscape architect, got all the plans drawn, have contracted the even more expensive building contractors, arranged the bank loan for the works, and then you discover the half-ruined gothic sandstone summerhouse under three feet of soil, right where you wanted to have that perfect garden path, and which the local council now demands be heritage listed, restored to as original a state as possible, and at your own expense - and you can drop the garden path idea, if you please.

Our philosophy has always been to restore to 'feel'. At Nonsuch we are restoring and planting out a garden that reflects the period, the house, and the plants the original owners might have (as opposed to a definite would have) planted out. At no point have we ever pretended to be restoring to exactly what was, although as we dig out further sections and discover more artifacts then we do what we can. Also, in a nod to the fact that several families have lived in this house over the past one hundred and thirty years, we are trying to keep something of each of those generations, be it a single plant or a simple piece of garden landscaping.

Welcome to the the joys of heritage garden restoration.


Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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