Chatsworth’s rockery sits at the heart of the garden. Overlooked for decades, an overhaul of the planting has brought back a sense of breathtaking alpine vitality and escapism. Gargantuan rocks meet naturalistic plants to create something other-worldly.

Alpine meadow-like perennial planting beneath a towering Sequoia. Rocks were brought in from the estate’s quarry, starting in 1842.

Since work first started on the creation of Chatsworth House and Garden in 1549, the garden has never stood still. Major projects include a large re-design by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th Century, and then hugely ambitious landscape works in the 19th Century, driven by Joseph Paxton.

Although Tom Stuart-Smith was initially asked to work on Arcadia, he felt he rockery needed attention first.

Paxton started work on Chatsworth’s rockery in 1842, now recognised as one of the earliest and largest rock gardens in the world. The aim was to create an alpine masterpiece, reflecting what the 6th Duke of Devonshire had seen in the Alps, on his Grand Tour. Joseph Paxton described the rockery to be an “imitation of the natural features of a wild and rugged scene… All the vegetation… should be subordinate to it”. Over time, the vision became lost under cluttered overgrown yews and rhododendrons.

Soft sweeping planting with Hydrangea paniculata, Amsonia and Persicaria, in perfect contrast to the towering rocks.

Between 2018 and 2021, the planting of Chatsworth’s rockery is seeing a vast overhaul, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. The aim is to better frame the monumental rocks, and provide soft plantings with summer-long interest.

The long-blooming white panicles of Heuchera villosa, and daisy flowers of Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican fleabane).

The planting now amplifies the feeling of a fantasy dreamland, in line with the dramatic rock landscape. The plants are diverse and naturalistic, with dominant species repeated throughout, punctuated with occasional botanical surprises. Areas of old worn grass have been filled with perennials, to create sweeping masses of ecologically inspired meadow-like drifts.

The new planting and additional rocks blend seamlessly with mature trees and rocks placed over 150 years ago.

Of the old Chatsworth’s rockery planting, some choice plants remain. Mature azaleas, maples and towering sequoias bring a magnificent sense of time, weaving the new planting into the historic fabric of the garden.

A haze of blue asters beneath Cercidiphyllum japonicum (katsura tree).

Along with vast new plantings on the hillsides above the rock garden, known as ‘Arcadia’, around 300,000 perennials have been planted. Somewhat of a novel approach has been taken in the Chatsworth’s rockery and Arcadia, with plants being planted directly into a very thick layer of municipal-style compost mulch. This method reflects a general move to ‘no-dig’ practices in gardening. The hot-composting process kills any weed seeds. Once applied in a thick layer, this gives a weed-free fresh start to the planting, while enriching the soil and making planting easier.

Among the swathes of meadow-like perennials, there are unexpected treasures.

If you have never visited Chatsworth, or it’s been a while, go and loose yourself in this revitalised fantasy land. This year especially, some harmless escapism is needed.

Photography by Owen Hayman