Killerton’s hillside garden is a joy. Karl Emeleus talks to ANNE BRUNNER-ELLIS about his role as Head Gardener and plans for the future
More than 250,000 people visited Killerton last year. “This is not surprising,” says Karl. “It is a special place – people come from far and wide to see our nationally important woody plant collection set amidst a rolling landscape.”
Built in the 1770s by Sir Thomas Acland, Killerton is an elegant Georgian house.
Set in 18-acres of landscape garden and part of a 6,400-acre estate – one of the largest in the National Trust’s collection – it was given to the Trust in 1944 by Sir Richard Acland.
Karl has been head gardener since 2014 and it is apparent that it is a job he loves. However, horticulture was not a planned career path.
After studying mathematics he became a teacher.
“Whilst I enjoyed teaching, I always had an interest in countryside and conservation. In my mid-twenties I decided to pursue this as a career.”
He took an NVQ in Environmental Conservation and then continued his studies at the Eden Project in Cornwall.
“I was part of the first cohort of students – taking a Diploma in Horticulture,” he says. “I learnt a huge amount – especially working in a large visitor attraction. This has been extremely valuable to me here as visitor numbers have doubled during the last 10 years.”
On completing his course Karl joined the gardening team at Greenway – the holiday residence of Agatha Christie – gifted to the National Trust in 2002.
“I enjoyed the informal garden with its woodland that sweeps down to the River Dart,” he says. “When I started the house was lived in by Agatha’s daughter, Rosalind and her husband Anthony – both keen gardeners.”
In 2007 a natural progression was to move to Killerton – again a largely informal garden famed for its woody plant collection.
“I love the naturalness of woodland plants, “he explains. “The informality appeals to me, with fewer constraints than the formal, almost museum-like estates.”
Seven years later he was appointed head gardener. Whilst outwardly relaxed he is very organised.
‘It is a special place – people come from far and wide to see our nationally important woody plant collection set amidst a rolling landscape’
“My teaching background equipped me for the role,” he comments. “It teaches you to be better managers of people, meticulous and structured.”
Karl enjoys a hands-on approach, spending on average 70 per cent of his time in the garden.
“We work as a team and I will happily turn my hand to leaf blowing or deadheading dahlias.” He enjoys pruning. “It is satisfying. The secret is to not be able to see where you have pruned. A lot of gardening is like this – visitors do not appreciate what is done in the garden, but it will be noticed if it is not done.”
He loves Killerton and can often be found out of hours simply enjoying the place with his family.
‘’My favourite spot is in the upper part of the garden, above the Beech Walk. Here you will find some interesting plants such as the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and the Japanese bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia obovata) as well as the wild flower meadows. The variety of shades and textures are magical and you can catch glimpses of the Exe Estuary in the distance. It is a place to sit and contemplate.’’
Killerton is famed for its redwoods which are magnificent. But it is the Lucombe Oak (Quercus x hispanica ‘Lucombeana’) – a hybrid of Cork and Turkey Oak, dating back to the 1760s that is Karl’s favourite.
“I love its craggy bark,” he comments.
Another favourite is the deciduous camellia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) with its attractive orange flaking bark in winter.
“And on a smaller scale, the snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) with their nodding bell shaped flowers in spring are perfection,’’ he enthuses.
As head of a team of gardeners and volunteers he appreciates the importance of creating a good working environment.
“It is also about the long haul – having the capacity to see where the garden will be in 5, 10 or even 100 years. In the immediate this is trying to accommodate growing visitor numbers whilst not destroying the garden’s history and structure,” he explains.
“We are currently creating a more robust and extensive network of paths so that visitors utilise more of the garden and are not concentrated in small areas.”
This both preserves the garden and visitors are encouraged to see more, especially within the surrounding woods and parkland.
For the longer term, Karl is planning to reclaim the wonderful walled kitchen garden currently a car park.
“We want to recreate what the Acland family would have experienced when they built the estate,” he says. “A productive area for fruit and veg is an integral part of this experience.’’ Support is strong – finding a new area for the car park is under discussion. Karl is determined. One knows this is a vision that will succeed and Killerton will be the better for it. nationaltrust.org.uk/ killerton