An interview with Sam Hickmott – revisited


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

We catch up with Sam Hickmott in our first ever follow-up interview! Sam is Head Gardener at the National Trust’s Lytes Cary Manor and Tintinhull Garden. You can contact Sam with your questions by email or through instagram: samuelfinchhorticulture.

We spoke to you in September 2021 – what has happened to you since?

Just after the interview, I was offered a new job as Head Gardener at Lytes Cary Manor and Tintinhull Garden in Somerset with the National Trust. The past 15 months have been spent getting to know the gardens and the team, and looking to see what we can do to bring the gardens to their full potential.

What is it like in your first full head gardener role?

It’s been great being in a permanent contract as a head gardener. I’ve spent the last year or so getting to know what is growing in the gardens and what should be here, and working with the team to make sure we all understand what we are hoping to achieve with presentation standards and an interesting and varied plant collection. We use the term plant collection in a loose sense because none of it is particularly historically significant in terms of individual species or cultivars, but both gardens use plants and planting to create their significant aesthetic. One of the main focuses has been to diversify the range that we have here just to ensure an extended season of interest across the open months and to tie into the history of both gardens. There is horticultural significance in the people associated with the gardens with Graham Stuart Thomas’ main borders at Lytes Cary and Penelope Hobhouse experimenting with colour theory during her tenancy at Tintinhull. We’re looking to re-invigorate these areas and ensure standards are high.

You’ve some exciting projects taking place at both gardens – could you tell us more about these?

Both gardens are Arts & Craft-inspired gardens so have different gardens rooms that follow different themes and colour schemes. At Tintinhull we’re renovating the planting in the middle garden. This is a shrub border or a collection of shrub borders  almost like a woodland garden in miniature. Over recent years, some of the plantings have become a bit tired and neglected. One of my colleagues described it as being a bit like a supermarket carpark in terms of use of plants, which is really the antithesis of what the garden should be with its links to Phyllis Reiss and Penelope Hobhouse. We’ve been working on a planting plan to create a more unified and beautiful space using the historical records that we have to see what would have been growing here to make the planting more diverse and interesting. We’re just waiting on a few deliveries so by the time we open again in the spring, all that planting should be in.

The other project is the renovation of the borders in the Apostle Garden at Lytes Cary. The borders have been a little neglected as they weren’t a hugely significant part of the garden but they are interesting and will help to enhance the topiary in the garden and the front face of the mediaeval house.  We’re looking at using more pinks and whites to create a more harmonious design and allow the planting to enhance the architecture rather than detract from it. I like Russell Page’s philosophy that you should never use bright colours on the approach to a garden or house because it sets you up in the wrong way. We’ll be using different colours and schemes throughout the garden to create contrast but also frame existing designs.

Why should we visit the two gardens?

Apostles Garden, Lytes Cary

I’m incredibly biased! They’re both relatively small gardens: Lytes Cary is about four and a half acres while Tintinhull is two acres. They’re quite intense with lots of deep and long borders. At Tintinhull, I don’t think there’s a herbaceous border that is less than three metres deep. Across the two different sites, we’ve got quite a big range of things that we can grow as they are slightly different sites and soils: Lytes Cary is an exposed site with alkaline soil while Tintinhull is a sheltered site with neutral to acid soil. The plant range across the six acres is pretty good. The gardens are very relatable due to the use of garden rooms. The gardens are not at the scale of gardens like Stourhead or Hampton Court, for example. Visitors can see both gardens in a day and we’re ensuring that there is always something new to see at different times of the year. Plus gardens grow and develop naturally over time.

How do you find managing gardens at two sites?

It’s been quite a learning curve. For the first nine to 12 months, I was here, there and everywhere but now I split my time regularly between the two sites so that the garden and property teams know what days I am at the gardens. We’re really lucky in having an experienced Senior Gardener, Alex, at Tintinhull who does much of the day-to-day management – not many gardens have this level of support. I still have to be strict and disciplined to make sure that I’m only in certain places at certain times, otherwise it’s a bit like being in a washing machine. I enjoy having two different spaces to care for.

What does the future hold for you and the gardens?

For me at the moment, I’m just having a nice time! I’m enjoying working with the gardens and the garden teams. We’re currently doing quite a lot of long term planning with new projects being developed such as the renovation of Eagle Court at Tintinhull which is just outside the house and is probably the most formal area of the garden. It’s lost its way a little, partly due to the COVID lockdowns, so we want to restore the colour scheme of blues and yellows. It shows what happens when you leave a space for five months with little maintenance. There are a number of projects at Lytes Cary with the biggest being the renovation of the herbal border. Henry Lyte, who was resident at Lytes Cary in the 1500s was a keen herbalist and botanist and he wrote a text called the New Herbal (A niewe Herball, 1578) which is quite significant botanical text. We will reference this work in the new planting, using plants he mentions or new cultivars of the medicinal plants he highlights.

The main border at Lytes Cary during winter

When visiting the gardens, what are the ‘must-sees’?

It depends on the time of year as both gardens change so much throughout the year. The orchard at Lytes Cary is magnificent in spring. It is an orchard or top fruit and large walnut trees of about an acre underplanted with Camassia and pheasant’s eye Narcissus giving a carpert of lilac blue and white. The Apostle Garden is quite commanding with the large topiary shapes in six pairs on either side of the central path leading to the house. Their shape and the inclusion of a chapel in this part of the garden, led to a previous tenant at Lytes Cary calling them the apostles. A visitor asked me which apostle was which but we haven’t gone as far as naming them! They will be renovated to their original spherical shapes over the next few years.

At Tintinhull, the vegetable garden is always worth a look, particularly in June when the edging of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ is in flower to provide an avenue of mauve.

Really, any time during the open season, there is something of interest in both garden.

When is the open season for the gardens?

Lytes Cary opens again from 11th February until the end of October. Tintinhull opens on 1st April till the end of September. We’d like it to be open for slightly longer because it is meant to be a year-round garden but one step at a time! So come and visit….

Pool Garden at Tintinhull, in winter

Listen to Sam’s first interview in podcast episode 27: an interview with Sam Hickmott. Find out about Sam’s journey into horticulture….