The Real Gardens of Downton Abbey

Back in October You Grow Girl posted about some issues of Garden News a friend had brought her after a recent visit to England. I commented on the post after visiting the link to GardenNews, a weekly newspaper about gardening, that I wished I was in England because the next issues were about “The Real Gardens of Downton Abbey,” and being a superfan of the show I was really interested in reading them. The next day I awoke to an Email. It was Lindsey Holmes, Editorial Assistant at Bauer Media, which publishes Garden News, asking for my address so she could send me the issues.

The Real Gardens of Downton Abbey

Within a few days both of the issues were in my mailbox and were as good as I was hoping they would be. It was interesting to read about the gardens I just knew where there, even if we don’t see them during filming. Downton Abbey is filmed in Highclere Castle in Berkshire. The current Lady Carnarvon is in the process of creating gardens that are historically accurate to Highclere, which was designed by Charles Barry, who also designed the House of Parliament at the same time.

Lady Carnarvon and the 8th Earl of Carnarvon took over Highclere 10 years ago. An avid gardener, Lady Carnarvon is eager to turn the gardens into a destination for gardeners, regardless of the castle’s connection to Downton Abbey.

The castle sits on 1,000 acres of parkland that was originally designed by Capability Brown at the end of the 18th century. A new arboretum, borders and 15,000 bulbs have been planted by Lord Carnarvon. According to Jim Carter, who plays the butler, is an avid gardeners but says the gardens are out of bounds when Downton Abbey is being filmed. Although, there are hours and tour dates so that people can tour the gardens.

Aside from the parkland and arboretum, the gardens are split into two distinct parts, The Monk’s Garden and The Secret Garden.

Lady Carnarvon, who is interviewed for the article, comes across as someone who values tradition and restoring trees and plants that would’ve been planted when originally landscaped. There are no vegetables grown there, but fruit trees like peaches, nectarines, medlar, and quince trees are grown in the glasshouse.

In the era that Downton Abbey takes place a shift in gardening had occurred that did away with the garish Victorian bedding and mass borders. The preferred landscaping style took advantage of herbaceous borders of shrubs and used perennials and annuals to provide a more relaxed year-round interest in the garden.

Technological and scientific innovations lead to understanding that diseases like potato blight were caused by a fungus. Improvements in greenhouse technology and boiler designs enabled fruit and vegetable production to occur year-round. The artificial fertilizer industry hadn’t yet developed for these Edwardian gardeners, but the gardeners at Downton Abbey would’ve followed a strict fertilizer regiment that used bird droppings, known as guano, from South America. These advances lead to an explosion in the number of mail order gardening companies that supplied seeds, garden tools, equipment and garden furniture.

Besides a tour of the gardens the article also gave some tips on how to achieve the style of the era, but I was particularly interested in the use of houseplants, which the article didn’t cover. So, one week while I rewatched season one of Downton Abbey I made sure to take note of the use of plants indoors. The plants used in the show aren’t much home to write about, most of them are the plants that what is currently in fashion at big box stores. Sansevieria (snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue), assorted ferns, palms, and maybe a clivia or two. The weight of providing color and interest indoors is carried by cut flowers and a few potted annuals. What I found interesting while playing houseplant bingo was that most of the plants are placed in what I would think to be areas that are too dark for their long-term care. The brightest areas of the house, that we see on television, seem devoid of living plants altogether.

About Garden News
Garden News is a fantastic gardening publication. I wish we had a weekly newspaper in America devoted to gardening. The garden advice is practical and informative without being underestimating the reader’s intelligence. The issues I own cover everything imaginable under the category of gardening. From bulbs to giant vegetables. I’m amazed at just how much information and photographs they are able to pack into it. If American gardening magazines were relied less on trends, outdoor rooms and style maybe I’d read more of them.

Downton Abbey season 2 premiers this weekend on PBS stations in America? Are you a fan?

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