Hardy’s and Hillier’s in Hampshire

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, PolygonatumRodgersia 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. 

From left: David Jewell (current curator), Roy Lancaster (former curator), Gordon Rae (Director General of RHS from 1993-1999 & joint patron of the Garden Media Guild) and Mike Palmer (Chair of the Garden Media Guild)

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.

Pangur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

 His whole instinct is to hunt,

 Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love

Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

 Happy for me, Pangur Bán

 Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,

Housed alone, housed together,

 Adds up to its own reward:

 Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse

Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.

 Next thing lines that held and held

 Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye

Fixes on the wall, while I

 Focus my less piercing gaze

 On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails

Pangur springs, exults and kills.

 When the longed-for, difficult

 Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.

No vying. No vexation.

 Taking pleasure, taking pains,

 Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,

Pangur Bán has learned his trade.

 Day and night, my own hard work

 Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

Séamus Heaney

There’s more to Somerset than Glasto

3 Somerset Gardens 1 and 2 June 2022

In late July a ginger kitten called Seamus, born 7 May, will be taking up residence chez Weeds Roots & Leaves. Knowing that trips away will be limited for a few months while he settles in, I’ve been cramming in some garden visits. Four weeks ago, I made a three-day road-trip to Hampshire and Somerset, taking in four glorious gardens and a horticultural gem of a nursery.  

The first day I made two visits in Hampshire arranged by the Garden Media Guild, to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the morning and then on to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. The Guild asked me to write an account of the visit for the next edition of GMG News which I’ve done. I’ll publish my blog post about the visits later in the summer and concentrate in this post on the Somerset leg of my trip when, incidentally, I met Seamus for the second time. 

I stayed with a very old friend (by which I mean we’ve known each other a very long time, not that she’s very old!) in the New Forest after the Guild visits. Her garden is a delight and includes a beautiful rose garden which was looking stunning. She has planted the raised bed either side of the steps leading down to the rose garden with David Austin rose Harlow Carr and it’s the perfect scale for such a position. Several weeks earlier, a deer had got into the garden and nibbled dozens of buds off the roses, but there was no sign of this when I was there and the roses had revived, healthier than ever. 

The next morning, we drove north west across Cranbourne Chase towards Somerset, our destination Durslade on the outskirts of Bruton. Cranbourne Chase is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I cannot better the Chase’s website https://cranbornechase.org.uk/about-us/the-aonb/ which describes it as ‘a diverse landscape offering areas of rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands, chalk escarpments, downland hillsides and chalk river valleys each with a distinct and recognisable character’. What struck me in particular was how few villages there are and how remote and unspoilt it is. 

In Durslade, we met another old friend at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the impressive arts centre which is, remarkably, free. The current exhibition ‘Henry Moore Sharing Form’ is housed in the converted farm buildings with some pieces displayed outside.

I’ve been wanting to visit the centre for a number of years, attracted by Oudolf Field, the perennial meadow designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. The date was 2 June and the prairie effect less obvious than I imagine it to be further into summer when the members of the daisy family with warm colours and distinctive seedheads will dominate the planting. For now, the overall impression is of cooler blues and mauves, with Siberian irises, alliums and foxtail lilies adding height and grasses movement.

The site rises gently towards the squat white Cilic Pavilion with grassy paths winding around the metal-edged island beds. There is a broad central gravelled path interrupted by low grassy mounds which have been closely mowed and resemble smooth green pebbles. 

The pale blue flowers of what I’ve since learnt is called bluestar (Amsonia– see more below) matched the blue of the sky and toned with the slate roofs of the gallery buildings. I noticed that the starry flowers were an attraction for bumblebees. Its needle-like leaves will, I have been reading, turn yellow in autumn. Like so many of the plants here, it has been chosen to extend the period of interest in the garden beyond spring and summer. I want to see this fascinating place in the winter when I anticipate that Oudolf’s signature seedheads and grasses will dominate the site. 

Another unusual plant that caught my eye on the margins of the wildlife pond was the flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus. The planting combinations throughout are so clever: for example here are the flat umbels of a pale pink Achillea alongside the leaves of the chunky but also horizontally inclined Darmara peltata. 

I have read that the garden resembles a giant artist’s palette, an appropriate description for a garden in such a location.

Photo: Alex Delfanne

In a location to the edge of the ‘field’, stands a piece of land art by Richard Long, Stone Circle 1980, made from Swedish Granite. Our lunch at Hauser & Wirth was delicious, sitting in the large courtyard café and enjoying being together in the sunshine. 

Oudolf Field was created in 2014. Our next stop, The Newt, is even younger. The garden in its present form opened to the public in 2019. I say present form, because there has been a garden here since the C18, namely the grounds of Hadspen House, now a luxury hotel. An English landscape garden with a parabola shaped walled garden, was transformed in the 1960s and 1970s into a C20 arts and crafts garden by designer Penelope Hobhouse, whose family owned the house. The estate was bought in 2013 by South Africans Karen Roos and her billionaire husband Koos Bekker who have created a visitor attraction in the mould of the garden attached to their South African winery, Babylonstoren. 

This was my second visit and like my first, merely scratched the surface of the place. On both occasions, I have had limited time to explore and shall do so on another occasion. But what I have seen each time has made a huge impression on me. The sloping parabola planted with apple varieties from all the apple growing counties in the country, intersected by rills and pools, was a magnet for my great nephews when we were there on a hot July day after the first lockdown two years ago. Fantastical birds feature in topiary fashioned atop hedging alongside the brick wall surrounding the parabola. Beyond the huge kitchen garden, are the Colour Gardens, a series of rooms each dedicated to red, blue and white. An interpretation panel explained that the gardens pay tribute to Sandra and Nori Pope who created colour gardens when they leased the gardens in the 1990s. The gardens are separated by wattle screens, into which oval ‘windows’ have been fitted, offering tantalising glimpses into the garden next door. 

I was excited to see that Amsonia featured in the Blue Garden, and thanks to another panel, that it was the same species as that I’d seen that morning at Oudolf Field, Amsonia tabernaemontana. Retreating to the shade of the Cottage Garden for ice-cream, we didn’t explore any further and I’m saving that treat for another occasion. I was anxious by then to drive the dozen or so miles to my niece’s house where I was taking over cat-sitting duties for a day or so. I had in fact met Seamus the previous week when he was only three weeks old and I was struck by how much the four kittens had grown in a week. Their eyes now open, they were beginning to explore a little beyond the warm security of mum, though not venturing far and still a little unsteady on their legs.

In the Cottage Garden

The next morning, having made sure all was well with the cats and kittens, I headed to a delightful National Trust property, Lytes Cary Manor, a short drive away. With origins as a mediaeval manor house, the house was extended in the C16 and restored in the early C20 by Sir Walter and Lady Flora Jenner. I enjoyed the tour of the house very much. Its scale is modest in comparison to many historic houses, and does still retain the air of a home, thanks to its being fully furnished and lovingly tended by the Trust. A late C16 occupant of the house, Henry Lyte I (c.1529-1607) was a botany scholar and translated a Flemish herbal illustrated with 870 woodcuts of plants. The book is on display in a glass case, protected from light by a leather covering when not being scrutinised by visitors. It was open at a page featuring thyme and pennywort. In a mirror frame dating from the C17, the stumpwork embroidery had been added to by Sir Walter’s sister in law with a panel depicting the house and part of the garden.

The present garden layout dates from 1907 when the Jenners began to create a garden in the Arts and Crafts style so fashionable in Edwardian times. Three sides of the house are surrounded by a series of ‘garden rooms’ divided by yew hedges and stone walls. The main entrance to the house is on the east front, reached by a stone path flanked by 12 yew bushes, each topiarised into an immaculately clipped half sphere topped by a cone. This is the Apostle Garden. I hope the photos capture a flavour of the gardens with their formal  topiary, stone walls and gateways and exquisite planting. 

‘. 

And finally, Seamus the kitten!

Kew

2 July 2022

From River to Green

65-73 Kew Green, NGS openings 22 & 29 May 2022

Imagine a 300 foot long garden behind an elegant Georgian house, running down to the towpath along the southern bank of the River Thames. Now imagine five such gardens, each divided into a series of ‘rooms’, rambling roses and Clematis softening the boundaries between each garden.

These five gardens, 65 to 73 Kew Green, open for the National Gardens Scheme on two Sundays every May, raising funds for charities including Marie Curie and MacMillan Cancer Support. I enjoyed my first visit on the afternoon of 22 May so much that I returned with another friend on the evening of 29 May.

Entered via gates along the towpath, each garden boasts an impressive compost area and some have leaf mould piles as well. Next come the kitchen gardens, ranging from rectangular box-edged beds to a potager blending vegetables and ornamentals. Planting styles and colour schemes vary from one garden to the next.

One garden, the narrowest, adheres to a restrained palette of greens and whites, the borders punctuated with carefully trimmed box balls and yew pyramids. A soft cottagey style of planting predominates elsewhere, borders billowing with roses, peonies and irises. Euphorbias introduce a lime green accent here and there.

Each garden includes a woodland garden, exploiting the shade provided by the very mature trees planted along the towpath, the perfect environment for shade-loving plants like Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum x hybridum). In one, variegated ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’) lightened what might otherwise have been a gloomy spot.

There were some stylish garden pavilions and studios, one of them spanning the width of the garden, and a few well-placed sculptures.

Lawns are immaculate, but sizeable areas had been left unmowed in the spirit of ‘No Mow May’. The lawns tend to be closer to the houses, and surrounded by generous shrub borders. I was impressed by the variety of trees: including the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), contorted willow (Salix Tortuosa) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Pot gardens occupy some of the paved areas adjoining the houses.

73 Kew Green is I believe, the widest of the gardens, and features a small orchard, the trees set amidst a meadow through which inviting paths have been mown. In at least two of the gardens, sympathetic hard landscaping has been used to create ponds and water features, tranquil focal points in already peaceful spaces.

I succumbed to the temptation to buy a couple of plants at the plant sale set up at no 73, both relative rarities. Here are the descriptions provided by the donor of these plants:

  1. Malvastrum lateritium. In full sun and well drained soil this little mallow gives many flowers of a soft orange with a red eye. Its stems sometimes root as they creep about. Its perfume was once described by a friend as like a ‘high class talc’. From N. Argentina, S. Brazil.
  2. Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. A chance hybrid from Janet Cropley’s garden, Hill Grounds, Northants. Lychnis flos-jovis x L coronaria. A sterile hybrid, therefore grows plenty of bright pink flowers over a long period.

In my garden this afternoon I reduced two large clumps of Michaelmas daisies beside the trellis which supports climbing rose ‘Blush Noisette’ with a view to revamping that part of the flower bed and shall plant these new acquisitions, as well as Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing, which I bought last Wednesday morning at Hardy’s Plants after a marvellous tour of the nursery led by Rosie and Rob Hardy: the subject of my next blog.

Before finishing, I want to thank the owners of the Kew Green gardens for their generosity in opening their gardens for the NGS and their patience with visitors like me asking lots of questions.

Kew, 5 June 2022

Willowy supports

I wrote earlier this year about the many different ways in which to support garden plants and trees. On 4 May I learnt how to build supports for herbaceous perennials using willow at a workshop organised by WGFA (Working for Gardeners Association) at the privately owned Dunsborough Park in Ripley, Surrey. WGFA was founded in 1899 as the Women’s Farm and Garden Association and one of its principal objects is to ‘promote, encourage and establish the opportunities to study and practice within the horticultural profession’.

Now I do like a long drive, I don’t mean a three hour slog along a motorway but a gracious tree-lined approach to an elegant house and garden! And Dunsborough Park didn’t disappoint, said drive beginning with four tall brick built gatehouses, topped with domes which wouldn’t look out of place in an adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Redbrick gatehouses

The drive itself seemed about quarter of a mile long and so many rabbits hopped along in front of the car I began to feel I was in a Disney movie! Arriving at a locked gate with an entry phone beside it I realised I’d used the wrong entrance, but thankfully one of the two full-time gardeners at the property, Oleg, kindly opened the gate for me. Apparently access to the garden on occasions such as this is via another entrance behind the High Street in Ripley. I clearly missed that email! Since 1997 Dunsborough Park has been owned by garden statuary dealer Dolf Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh and his wife Caroline. Antique sculptures abound throughout the garden. Even in the work yard where the gardeners’ bothy is located, a ferocious lion stands guard.

But we were there to learn the craft of willow plant support making, (where flexible willow and hazel stems are woven into domed structures through which tall herbaceous perennials can grow, eventually concealing the woody ‘cage’ beneath), not to swoon over our surroundings. We were a group of eight gardeners, all working in horticulture, from across the south of England. Head Gardener James Gillions and Oleg led us to the walled Dutch Garden for a demonstration before we were let loose to have a go at building the structures ourselves. With four slim coppiced willow branches already in situ above a clump of Delphinium, Oleg skilfully bent the pliable wood into a series of arches, at approximately chest height, using garden twine where necessary to secure the structure. He then wove the smaller branches and twigs together to form a rounded dome to prop up the stems of the plant. The finishing touch to the structure is a cat’s cradle fashioned from garden twine, about halfway up the poles for support as the plant grows upwards.

Demonstration over we were set to work in a double herbaceous border intersected by a path leading to the Dutch Garden on one side and to the door of a large Victorian greenhouse on the other. Named the Penelope Hobhouse borders, they were originally created by the eminent garden designer, their distinctive feature being standard Wisterias planted at regular intervals along the borders. Apparently the borders were replanted in 2005 with a blue and white colour scheme. Our task was to build supports for the delphiniums and peonies in the border, still low mounds of greenery in early May. Having picked out four suitable canes from a generous pile of pollarded willows harvested on the estate in February, before the emergence of the leaves, we used a heavy metal pin and sledgehammer to make holes deep enough to accomodate the canes. Given the extraordinarily dry April we’d had this wasn’t as easy as you might think. the soil at Dunsborough is very sandy and free draining but its looseness meant that if the hole wasn’t deep enough, the poles tended to spring out of the soil when you started to bend the stem across to meet the neighbouring pole. The art is to find the natural bending point in the wood. Bend at too sharp an angle and the wood splinters.

We worked in pairs for the first structure, working individually after lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making the structures, using the natural curves of the material to guide the direction of the arches and ultimate contours of the support. By the end of the afternoon the elegant borders were inhabited by a dozen or so creatures which James observed resembled Doctor Who monsters. For a few weeks, these will be features in their own right until the plants they’ve been build to prop up grow up and through them, disguising the skeletal forms beneath. It was notable how different each ‘cage’ looked, some interconnected to make up an organic series of supports for a particularly large clump of delphiniums. When in the autumn the plants in the border die back, and are cut down, our wooden cages will be removed, shredded and composted.

I tore around the garden at lunchtime to capture the last hurrah of the tulips, a magnificent water garden with a folly-topped bridge, numerous statues and the garden’s resident golden retriever cooling off in the dipping pool. The following photos give a flavour of this fascinating garden.

The Penelope Hobhouse borders

The tulips

The Water Garden

The statues

The box parterre

Gateways and arches

Greyhounds on guard

Dog in pond

Kew Gardens

23 May 2022

Hever Castle & Gardens revisited

My last blog post about the gardens at Hever Castle was in July 2019. I had the good fortune to return to Hever last Monday with a great group from the Garden Media Guild. Head gardener Neil Miller lead a tour of the garden. Our visit coincided with peak season for the 40,000 tulips planted at Hever. Neil demonstrated throughout the tour that in a garden nothing stands still, it’s an ever changing space. Plants outgrow their site, new areas are cleared and planted, Yew topiary is cut back to the bone and re-shaped.

Despite being a listed garden there is scope for experimentation and innovative practices at Hever. With a third of a million visitors a year compaction is a problem in the Yew Maze so the opportunity was taken when the garden closed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 to revitalise the yews. Terrain Aeration was engaged to pump air and dried seaweed one metre below the compacted soil. Elsewhere in the garden digestate (the odourless by-product of anaerobic digestion of e.g. sewage sludge) is used to enrich the soil around established plants. In an area known as the Acer Dell a swathe of red and white tulips (a tribute to the Tudor Rose) was created last year using a bulb planting machine operated by Dutch firm Lubbe & Sons. The tines of the machine act as ‘dibbers’ to create the planting holes, the machine drops the bulbs into place and then backfills the holes.

No garden is immune from the ravages of the weather and Neil showed us a 120 year old poplar tree near the drawbridge across the moat which was blown down by Storm Eunice in February this year. Its rootball was winched back into position and it is hoped it will regenerate. Beside the Italian Garden it was sad to see that the severe frost about four weeks ago had taken out most of the flower buds of the Wisteria trained over the pergola*.

Neil explained that the herbaceous border alongside Two Sisters’ Lawn, named for Ann and Mary Boleyn who were raised at Hever, is planted in the style of Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. In the summer, cool shades of white and silver will progress through the colour spectrum to warm reds and golds. The opposite border is punctuated with dainty standard forms of the earliest flowering rose, Rosa xanthina Canary Bird.

Beyond the Festival Theatre, a curving raised bed (the dahlia border) is graced with 3,500 tulips all of which are planted into crates as is done in the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Not only does this make it easier to remove the bulbs in time for planting dahlias in June, it avoids a rogue cultivar finding its way into the scheme. The theme changes each year, this year’s being cream (Tulipa Avant Garde), red (Tulipa Red Wing) and purple (Tulipa Purple Flag). The tulips from this area and those in the Italian Garden are lifted later in May and planted in less formal areas of the garden.

Neil introduced us to the six acre Italian Garden by telling us that it was designed to house the huge collection of ancient and renaissance statuary collected by William Waldorf Astor while US ambassador to Rome. Individual garden ‘rooms’ occupy the niches along the south facing border inspired by the ruins of Pompeii. These have been planted with tulips and complementary spring flowers. I was struck by the unusual Evergreen tulips underplanted with wallflowers, the fringed purple tulips interspersed with blue pansies.

One of the garden ‘rooms’ in the Italian Garden
Ditto

The south-facing border is also a perfect site for exotic shrubs like pomegranates, pistachio (mastic) and olives, the latter wall-trained so immaculately it resembles a trompe l’oeil painting. A fig and a loquat have been trained in a similar fashion against the wall opposite the Pavilion Cafe.

Espaliered olive tree in the Italian Garden

The long border on the other side of the Italian Garden, at the foot of the colonnade, is ablaze with the scarlet, orange and yellow of Olympic Flame and Apeldoorn Elite tulips.

Venerable camellias occupy the shady side of the colonnade. They are pruned back after flowering to keep them from growing too far across the pathway and pressure washing is used to treat those specimens affected by sooty mould. In the rose garden no insecticides are used, any aphids on the 4,000 roses are soon consumed by visiting blackbirds and invertebrates like ladybirds and hoverflies. Because the roses are planted very close together in a walled garden, airflow is impeded and blackspot can be a problem from July onwards, causing defoliation. To prevent this, the roses are sprayed fortnightly from the end of April until late September. A foliar feed is also added to the spray to encourage healthy growth. Deadheading is carried out throughout the flowering season. Neil’s pruning regime is to reduce the roses by one third in November to prevent windrock and in March to cut stems to three or five buds (hybrid tea roses) and five or seven buds (floribunda roses).

The Rose Garden in April

After a very sociable lunch we were taken to a newly planted woodland area of the garden: Church Gill where, seven years ago, long-forgotten stone steps and a pathway were uncovered when laurels and bracken was being removed from the top of the stream-side Sunday Walk, along which the Astor family would have made their way to the Hever parish church. Over the last three years the area has been revitalised with a scheme of shade-loving woodland and alpine plants designed by Graham Gunn and Monica Wylie of Kevock Garden Plants in Edinburgh. The steep sides of the valley through which the stream flows must have made planting very challenging.

The natural atmosphere of this part of the garden is a complete contrast to the colour and formality of the Italian Garden but it’s a beautifully realised example of how Neil Miller and his team of 10 gardeners develop new projects as well as maintaining the highest standards of horticulture throughout the gardens at Hever.

Kew, 1 May 2022

*In my own garden about 50% of the buds were checked by that frost but happily the rest have flowered successfully and it is currently looking and smelling divine.

Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow:

Magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden

I love the view from the window of the spare room in March. An early flowering cherry, a starry flowered Amelanchier and a large Magnolia with pale pink flowers grow in the gardens behind mine. The Magnolia is now very large indeed. Sometimes on a dull day the sun breaks through the cloud and illuminates the shell pink petals, which shine out all the more against the grey of the sky. This year the Magnolia seemed to come into flower earlier than usual.

On a walk with a friend in Kew Gardens on 2 March several of the Magnolia Grove trees were flowering, including a couple of the very large old specimens, the flowers high above very difficult to capture in a photograph. Welcome as the sight of these gorgeous flowers was, after the dreariness of winter, we both expressed the same thought, that we hoped the magnolias would last until 29 March! I had persuaded my friend and her husband to join me on that date for a magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex. I rationalised that the trees in Kew were more advanced because the temperatures in London are higher than in the countryside. Driving to jobs in the weeks that followed I saw magnolias in glorious bloom everywhere, and had begun to resign myself to having to imagine Borde Hill’s trees in flower rather than seeing the real thing on the day of the walk.

Thanks to Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, the great grandfather of the current owner of Borde Hill, this 35 acre garden a couple of miles from Haywards Heath is home to around 150 different species and cultivated varieties of Magnolia, including summer flowering evergreen specimens. Colonel Stehenson Clarke (‘Stephie’) bought the Elizabethan house and the surrounding estate in 1893 and created the garden, planting trees and shrubs collected by some of the famous plant hunters of the early C20.

The walk was led by Borde Hill’s Head of Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, and Dori Whatmore, Senior Gardener. Harry joined the team last November from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where after attaining his Kew Diploma he worked as a Dendrologist and Horticultural Taxonomist. The two-handed presentation by these knowledgeable gardeners worked really well and it was inspiring hearing about the work being done at the garden and Harry’s five year plan for it.

Dori and Harry at the start of the walk

In his introduction, Harry explained that the Borde Hill private archive includes letters to Colonel Stephenson Clarke from plant hunters like Ernest ‘China’ Wilson and George Forrest forming a fascinating record of the creation of the garden and the stories behind the introduction of new species. As we had noticed earlier in the month, magnolias are indeed beginning to flower earlier as a result of climate change, but Harry reassured us that because of the vast range of magnolias at Borde Hill we would still see plenty of trees in bloom during the walk. Colonel Clarke chose the property because of its geology: eight different types of clay have been identified on the site. It stands on an east-west ridge meaning it has both north and south facing slopes creating several different climate niches.

The Magnolia Trail

At our first stop near the entrance to the garden we were shown four trees which derived from seed collected by Ernest Wilson, including the fabulously named Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’, the Goddess magnolia. Near a pathway along the perimeter of the garden stands another Wilson discovery, not a magnolia but a rare tree which flowers so infrequently that when it does it’s a very special event: Emmenopterys henryi. Searching Wikipedia later I read that flowering (apparently the flowers resemble lace cap hydrangeas) seems to be triggered by long hot summers and that the tree is part of the Rubiaceae family, another member of which is the coffee plant! At Borde Hill, it last flowered in 2018.

We skirted the part of the garden called the Azalea Ring to find the next trees on our route. Named after a former head gardener from Caerhays near St Austell in Cornwall, Magnolia ‘Philip Tregunna’ is a young tree whose goblet like blooms are shaded deep pink at the base and fade upwards to a paler pink. Nearby, Harry described M. ‘Peachy’ as having ‘sickly looking flowers’. They reminded me of that shade ‘nude’ which was so popular in shoes a few years ago. Next was a tree which survived the Great Storm of 1987 despite being blown over, M. x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’. Harry explained that the species from which this white-flowered beauty derives was named for Etienne Soulange-Bodin (1774-1846), who founded the French equivalent of the RHS, Le Société d’horticulture de Paris. We then encountered the first of the TROBI champion trees* at Borde Hill, a 60 foot high M. campbellii, a champion because of its great girth.

The walk paused at this stage to enable us to examine in detail the structure of a magnolia flower. Laid out on three picnic tables were small branches bearing a few blooms. Harry encouraged us to strip back the petals to the centre of the flower and explained the complex morphology of what is one of the most ancient of the flowering plants, including the fact that magnolias are pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects, which they pre-date.

We learnt that most magnolias dislike alkaline soil and prefer a neutral to acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.6 pH, the ideal soil texture being a good loam. Magnolia stellata is the exception in that it can be grown on alkaline soil. When planting a magnolia, incorporate organic matter into the planting hole and feed with an organic mulch. Harry has already created ‘tree circles’ around many of the specimens where the ground beneath the trees is cleared of grass and any competing growth. This not only looks attractive but makes mowing easier and prevents damage to the tree or shrub. He was asked if he would stake a newly planted magnolia and explained that he tends not to do so, preferring that the plant becomes stronger when allowed to move with the wind. Were he to stake he would angle the stake towards the south west and attach it to the tree with a rubber tree tie. In Harry’s five year plan for the garden the priority is to propagate the collection, ensuring its survival for years to come. Propagation is done by grafting one year’s growth from seed onto material taken from the tree’s own rootstock.

Continuing the walk we passed the rear of the house with a view across to the property’s North Park. In the area of the garden called the Garden of Allah, we were shown a couple of evergreen species, M. obovata from eastern Russia and Japan and M. fraseri from the south-eastern USA. Both bear scented flowers in early summer. the M. obovata is a TROBI champion tree by girth and the species’ wood is used for furniture making.

In the same way that we all exchange plants and cuttings and cuttings with our friends and neighbours, the next tree M. officinalis was a gift in 1933 from a neighbour, Col. Messel of nearby Nymans. In its native China an extract from the bark is used in traditional medicine as a cold remedy and the tree is becoming increasingly rare. Harry shared a sobering statistic: 48% of the approximately 240 species of magnolia across the globe are threatened with extinction, through logging and change of land use to agriculture and development. Which makes it all the more important to preserve and propagate collections of these magnificent trees such as that at Borde Hill. Because fleshy magnolia seeds are ‘recalcitrant’ they cannot be dried and stored in seed banks such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a few miles away from Borde Hill. Like acorns and chestnuts, they have to be planted and grown on in order to be preserved, which makes gardens like Borde Hill with botanic collections of rare plants, conservation communities in their own right.

Perched on a knoll across from M. officinalis is a near relative of the magnolia, the tulip tree. Liriodendron chinense again hails from China and was collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson. Harry described the leaves as saddle shaped, with their blunt upper edges. Like its American cousin, L. tulipfera, the tree flowers in early summer.

In the north-west of the garden, in an open space called Gardiner Grove, named after magnolia expert Jim Gardiner, several specimens of two species of magnolia have been planted: M. springeri and M. acuminata. The young trees are protected with guards against rabbits which are attracted to the sap in the wood. They are soon to be fitted with TreeGator watering bags, zip up bags which release water over a three day period whilst the plants establish themselves. As the walk continued we all admired M. Black Tulip with its dark purple tulip-shaped flowers.

Magnolia Back Tulip

The final stop on the tour was the Italian Garden, a formal space with a rectangular pond at its centre, created on the site of a tennis court, with a view out to the South Park. To one side of the garden stands a large example of M. stellata with its open long-petalled flowers, which are slightly scented. It’s a popular choice in small gardens or as a border shrub.

Chatting to Harry and Dori at the end of the tour we discovered that a small horticultural team looks after the garden, supported by a small group of volunteers. They must work tremendously hard to keep this varied space looking so good. We were strongly recommended to return in June to see the Rose Garden.

After the walk we had delicious freshly made sandwiches and excellent coffee at the open-air Gardener’s Retreat Cafe and then retraced our steps and explored the area around the Rose and Italian Gardens more thoroughly, finding some fascinating plants and intriguing pathways as we went. Tucked in the south-western corner of the garden are the roofless remains of the old potting sheds which have become a charming garden in their own right, planted with tree peonies and primroses, a vivid Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba) scrambling across the mullion windows which still contain their leaded lights.

Thanks to Harry and Dori’s informative tour of Borde Hill’s extensive collection of magnolias I’ve learnt a great deal more about this elegant tree. Borde Hill Garden is a delightful place and I shall definitely return at another season to discover more of its treasures.

10 April 2022

*TROBI (Tree Register of Britain and Ireland) champion trees are the tallest and largest trees in Britain and Ireland. There are 75 champion trees at Borde Hill.

Here are some more images from the day at Borde Hill Garden giving a flavour of the different sections of the garden and the diversity of planting.

Marching forwards

Meteorological spring starts on 1 March heralding a new season in gardens. Bulbs which have been nosing through the soil for several weeks without progressing much have suddenly burst into life and the garden is full of tight clumps of Tete a Tete daffodils. The days are stretching out too and the prospect of visiting other gardens is very inviting.

I started the garden visiting season by going to Hinton Ampner in Hampshire ten days ago. Run by the National Trust, this largely formal garden near Cheriton in Hampshire occupies a magnificent position overlooking the South Downs. From the terrace nearest the house (largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1960) the view extends south across downland studded with copses of trees, sheep grazing peacefully in the fields. Yew hedging separates the garden from the adjoining farml