This is a longer version of an article published last week in GMG News, the publication of the Garden Media Guild, the trade organisation of which I’m proud to be a member, for writers, photographers and all communicators in the gardening realm.
In my last post I promised to report upon the first part of my early June road trip which started with two memorable visits in Hampshire. Days out arranged by the Garden Media Guild are always special, with owners or head gardeners sharing their time and expertise whilst guiding Guild members around the gardens in their care. The two visits on 1 June 2022 were no exception, and for reasons that will become clear, were indeed exceptional. As I turned into the lane leading to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the village of Freefolk on the outskirts of Whitchurch, I noticed that the pub on the corner was called the Watership Down Inn after Richard Adams’ wonderful book and had a feeling that this was going to be a memorable day.
We were greeted in the building housing the potting machine by Rosy and Rob Hardy. Whilst swallows swooped overhead to feed their young in numerous nests in the rafters, Rosy and Rob led us across to the propagation house, the first of the nursery’s three multi-span tunnels. The design of this house reflects their almost 35 years of experience as growers, with its three heated benches at chest level for ease of working and to provide storage beneath, an even airflow to protect young plants and two fridges for those seeds needing a drop in temperature to break dormancy. It also boasts a light sensitive automatic watering system. Peat free compost is used for the modules in which seedlings and cuttings are raised, with a top dressing of milled Portuguese cork. Rosy explained they recently started using this environmentally friendly material instead of vermiculite and are finding that it stops algae forming and they hope it will reduce fungus gnat infestations. Stock plants occupy the floor on either side of the central benches from which cuttings will be taken and seed collected.
Stock material is propagated in the neighbouring tunnel where we learnt that the new stock plants are allowed to flower to check that they have grown true to type. Hardy’s have licences to propagate a number of cultivars including Geum Totally Tangerine and Rosy succinctly explained the intricacies of plant breeders’ rights and their obligation to pay a royalty on each plant sold to the breeder’s agent.
To the rear of the houses we were shown the show stock for Chelsea, Gardeners’ World Live and Hampton Court. Although Hardy’s no longer exhibits at Chelsea, the nursery supplied plants to several of this year’s show gardens including that of Sarah Eberle. They stand the plants outside so that they experience the variety of weather conditions they are likely to encounter at the shows. The nursery is relatively high up (350 feet) on quite a windy site beside the North Wessex Downs. The night before our visit they recorded a frost. A shade shelter protects shade lovers like Hosta, Polygonatum, Rodgersia and various ferns.
Few chemicals are used. The slug population is controlled by birds, voles and frogs. Ladybird and hoverfly larvae keep down aphids. A twice yearly spray against pests and diseases has been replaced with biological controls such as Encarsia wasps. It was interesting to hear Rosy’s views on climate change: ‘March is May now’. She showed us the extensive outside nursery area where plants are tagged with yellow for mail order plants and red for plants destined for the plant sales area.
It was inspiring to hear how this large nursery started life in Roy and Rob’s back garden in Camberley with weekly car boot sales, progressing through a rented walled garden to today’s impressive organisation. Back in the potting shed (where sadly the potting machine was not in operation on the day of out visit- I’d love to see it in action), Rosy told us that milled cork is also used to top dress newly planted material. I doubt that few of us left without a purchase or three from the extensive plant sales area. My souvenir of the day is a very healthy looking Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing.
The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are 20 miles south of Hardys and we mustered there early in the afternoon to be shown around by the curator, David Jewell. While we chatted before setting off, a smiling gentleman with a shock of white hair came over to join us and it’s no exaggeration to say we were all starstruck at meeting Roy Lancaster. Having already met two gardening heroes that day, it was a wonderful surprise to find out that Roy was joining our tour. He was the first curator of what was then known as the Hillier Arboretum and shared tales of his plant hunting exploits as we progressed through the garden. David was a superb guide and his route through the 180 acre site took in several of the 600 champion trees for which the gardens are famous. He recommends that when visiting a garden one should always ‘look up and look back’ so as to see vistas from every angle. On the day of our visit the peony display was looking superb and we were told that many of them were donated by Kelways Plants, whose Somerset HQ is only a few miles from my niece’s home. We were all very taken with the wisteria collection where 20 plants are trained up posts approx.2.5 metres high, an ingenious way to display a range of cultivars in a modest space.
Next came the Centenary Border, a spectacular double perennial border created to celebrate the first 100 years of the Hillier Nurseries. David is passionate about making the gardens as accessible as possible and pointed out the paved paths in front of each border to accommodate wheelchairs. The borders are studded with rare shrubs including one collected by Roy in Iran, the name of which I’m afraid I failed to write down correctly.
Sir Harold Hillier died in 1985 but in this garden, as at Great Dixter and Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens, the signature of the garden’s creator is reflected in the planting, notably in the extensive collection of oaks, one of his favourite plant groups. The great man’s portrait sculpture has been placed near his home, Jermyn’s House, facing a specimen of Quercus macranthera.
David took us to the site of a new garden to be designed by Tom Stuart Smith to spread the footfall of the rising number of visitors (250,000 a year, an increase of 100,000 in ten years). Influenced by Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, the beds of the provisionally named Frontier Garden will be back-filled with crushed stone and planted with species from South Africa and the Mediterranean which once in the ground will not be watered again. David showed us the low slate roofed building where Roy Lancaster wrote the first Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. It is hoped to redevelop the building as a library and archive. The finale to the afternoon was a splendid cream tea in The Garden Restaurant where I was thrilled to sit at Roy’s table where he chatted about his garden which he describes so vividly in his monthly column ‘A plantsman’s notebook’ in The Garden magazine.
Last time I mentioned the imminent arrival of a certain ginger and white kitten called Seamus. I brought him home on Sunday and he has settled in very happily. As I write this he is curled up on my lap, purring contentedly. Expect some tales in the months to come of the challenges of gardening with a cat in residence. For the time being I leave you with the translation by my kitten’s namesake Séamus Heaney, of Pangur Bán (White Pangur) an anonymous poem written in Old Irish around the 9th century. So far any rodent hunting has involved a little fabric toy mouse but I love the sentiment of the writer and the cat, each plying their trade, content in one another’s company.