Ideas for ordinary gardeners from a visit to an extraordinary garden - Stourhead

Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered BlogCan ordinary gardeners learn anything useful from visiting such an extraordinary garden as Stourhead?

I recently posted a round up of links to some great posts by other bloggers about some stunning gardens to visit in autumn. One of these was Stourhead in Wiltshire, and I managed to pay a visit there myself this month. It really is like walking through a living painting, but whenever I visit such a large and spectacular garden, I ask myself what I can learn from it. Is there anything about such a wonderful garden that we can all recreate in our smaller, more ordinary, back gardens? 
These are especially challenging questions when examining Stourhead because it isn't really a garden - it's an entire landscape! Everything about Stourhead is on such a magnificent scale. The estate covers 1000 hectares in total, which belonged in the 18th century to Henry Hoare, a London banker. His son, also called Henry, was inspired by his travels around Italy to create this amazing garden. 

He had the stream dammed to create the vast lake, and proceeded to spend huge amounts of his fortune landscaping the surrounding area, and building the numerous classical buildings that form the iconic views that Stourhead offers from all sides.
Landscaping on this scale is not something most of us can contemplate, let alone afford. So is there anything here that is of any use to the rest of us planning and developing our own gardens? Or should we just enjoy Stourhead for what it is, a breathtakingly beautiful but altogether different world to anything we might enjoy within our own boundaries.
Well you can just walk round and enjoy the view if you like, but I want to take something away with me, so here are my observations of an extraordinary garden that I felt relate to ordinary gardens and gardeners:

First impressions count

The most iconic view at Stourhead is the very first one, shown in the top picture. As soon as you enter the valley in which the garden is set, you are greeting with a picture postcard image of the palladian bridge in the foreground, and across the lake, the Pantheon in the distance. Both are framed by glorious mature trees, and everything is beautifully reflected in the lake. It's quite an opening, which immediately creates the belief that this place is going to be good.

You don't need such large and impressive features in your own garden but it's worth trying to make a good first impression. Where will visitors enter your garden, and what view will they have from there? A good design tip is to create a set piece view that will be seen from the starting point. Try and have a focal point, and frame it with the right planting, and then as soon as people enter the garden they will be impressed and want to see more. I've written before about creating set pieces in the garden:

Design your garden step by step with set pieces

Obscure the view, and then reveal it

Having taken in that stunning opening view at Stourhead, you begin the circular walk around the lake. The routing of the paths is very interesting. You are taken through dense planting of shrubs, and into deeper thickets of trees, so that you can no longer even see the lake at all. Then as you continue, the planting thins out so that the view is revealed once more. This creates variation and suspense, and the new view is of course slightly different to the previous one.
Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
First the view is obscured...
Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
...then a new view is revealed
This effect can be achieved at least once in any garden. Placing a path, or just a seat even, can entice people to move to another point in the garden. You can create a second set piece to be viewed form this second position. Even in a small space it should be possible to make two views facing each other so that different perspectives can be enjoyed. Fill some of the space in between with planting so that not everything can be seen at once.

Use reflections

Reflections in water add another dimension to a garden. They create effects with the light, and provide something else to look at. It's all very well having a full size 18th century temple in your garden on the edge of a massive lake. That guarantees some spectacular reflections in the water.   

Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
The Pantheon at Stourhead reflected in the lake
But even a small, simple water feature can provide reflections, and you certainly don't need a large stone building or monument. Even a small pond or even a container water pool can offer reflections. Think about where you put it so that it will catch the light, where you will view it from, and what will be reflected in it from that position. Placing a small ornament, or structural plant behind the pool so you can see its reflection, will add to the effect of the pool. 
Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
On a fine day any water feature can create beautiful reflections 
Here's an example from my garden. A simple pot, full of water, with a grass planted next to it, provides reflections in the water to add another element in addition to the pot and water itself.
Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
Place something next to water to create reflections

Use evergreens to offset seasonal colour 

In the autumn, there are a multitude of colours to be seen and enjoyed. The woods around Stourhead offer a range of golden yellows, bright oranges, burnt reds, rich purples and  rusty browns. I noticed that they all look even stronger and more defined when juxtaposed with the unchanging evergreen conifers. You can see this in the picture, which has a tree of distant orange in the centre, and shades of red, gold and purple nearer the camera, all offset by the evergreens in the foreground and the huge dark conifers on the right.  

Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
A tapestry of autumn colour set against evergreens
In your own garden you can position any particularly colourful autumn displays close to evergreens or conifers to achieve a similar contrast. It will increase the impact in a very simple way. I've done it here in my garden with an acer that turns from purple to red in autumn, planted in front of an evergreen hypericum and a conifer.

Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
The Acer looks even redder next to the evergreens

Making the garden interesting for children

It's great to get children interested in gardens, but they don't all care about the plants. When I was a boy I wasn't that interested in what was growing but I loved exploring the twisting paths, mysterious woodland clearings or jungle like thickets. Planting some shrubs close to a path, or

Stourhead has a grotto and most children will find this fascinating, especially with it's "secret" lookout point where you can see out across the lake. There are also several sets of winding stone steps and paths that disappear round corners into the trees. Even if it's not a permanent building, any hidden area will be exciting for children. If you have room to wind a path around the corner to somewhere secluded by plants, they'll love that. With less space just a simple den can be fashioned from sticks - a great place to hideout if you're six! 

Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
Winding steps - any child will want to know what's round the corner!
Stourhead garden design ideas Green Fingered Blog
Den made of bamboo canes in a secret corner of our garden

I hope my thoughts on Stourhead have given you some ideas you can use in your own garden. If you'd like to know more about Stourhead, or fancy visiting yourself, check out the National Trust website.
Click here to Subscribe by Email                                   Follow


  1. I think you were very brave to tackle this subject as Stourhead is so vast but your points are really interesting and I love your tiny pond with its reflection. I was very lucky to be there in October and the colours were fabulous weren't they. I am going to use your idea of putting red or orange foliate in front of evergreen for contrast. Great post.

  2. Thanks Julie. I'm convinced any garden of whatever type can provide some sort of inspiration for all of us, wherever we garden, albeit that places like Stourhead feel like more of a challenge in that respect simply because of the scale of them. Glad you found the ideas useful, I look forward to seeing the results in your garden before too long!