Category Archives: Club Lectures

Munstead Wood through the Seasons, by Annabel Watts

This month we were treated to beautiful scenes alongside a garden history lesson, when Annabel Watts – Head Gardener at Munstead Wood – came to give our Club Night lecture.

Annabel Watts

Munstead Wood, near Godalming, was the home of the celebrated gardener Gertrude Jekyll.  Turning the conventional order of property development on its head, she first made a garden here, on 15 acres of dry sandy soil, and only then did she have a house designed for the plot by the young architect Edwin Lutyens.  It was in this space that the pair experimented with the ideas in garden design and architecture for which they were to become respectively famous.

The garden was completely lost after the Second World War, when the plot was divided.  The new owners of Gertrude’s house tarmacked and lawned over the beds and the paths, and added a swimming pool, paddocks and a tennis court.   In the hurricane of October 1987 200 trees were lost.  Once the debris from this destruction had been cleared the outlines of the Jekyll paths and borders could be seen.  Using these outlines and Gertrude Jekyll’s writing an ambitious restoration of the garden began.  And hence the garden we can see today was reborn.

Gertrude Jekyll was influenced by William Robinson and his Wild Gardening movement.  So she rejected Victorian carpet bedding in favour of cycles of perennial plants that would provide colour, form and movement throughout the year.   The challenge for Annabel and her fellow gardeners at Munstead Wood, is how to preserve the gardens so that they feel like Miss Jekyll has only just left.  They do this by using the Jekyll planting plans, utilising the plants she specified wherever possible.

We learned how Gertrude Jekyll was a formidable business woman and a skilled craftswoman who made wood work with ornate inlays, intricate shell work and silver repousse.  Munstead Wood was the headquarters of her enterprises, where she had a workshop, a forge and a flower shop.

It was fascinating to hear about the life and achievements of this formidable lady, whose influence is still very much with us more than a century later.

The New Gardens at RHS Hilltop Wisley, by Ann-Marie Powell

Ann-Marie Powell pictured at the launch of the £2million public fundraising appeal to build the National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning at RHS Garden Wisley – 2nd May 2018. Credit:RHS and Oliver Dixon

We were delighted to welcome Gold Medal winning designer Ann-Marie Powell to Grayshott Gardeners this month, to tell us all about the design and build of two of the new gardens at RHS Hilltop, Wisley.

The journey started way back in 2017, when the RHS “tweeted” an advert for garden designers to submit proposals for three new gardens which were to surround their new laboratory building at Hilltop – which was to be the “Home of Gardening Science”.  Ann-Marie and her team rose to the challenge and bid for two of these gardens – the Wildlife Garden and the World Food Garden.  They didn’t have long to search for inspiration – a two week window is all that was allowed.  Luckily Ann-Marie is a voracious researcher and found inspiration in the library – the exoskeleton of a bee’s wing seemed perfectly fitting for a wildlife garden, whilst the World Food Garden layout was based on the vascular system of a monocot plant (get those botany books out 😉).

The bids were successful and a long round of presentations followed, along with more detailed plans, plant selection and value engineering (a synonym for “keeping the costs down”).  The building at Hilltop went up, and all was ready for the gardens to be created by March 2020.  And we all know what happened then…….

Covid lockdowns meant that site visits were limited and facetime views of progress were the only way forward.  Material shortages, rising prices and limited access all proved very challenging, so it seemed something of a miracle when the gardens were ready to open as planned in April 2021.

Ann-Marie explained how important it was for the new gardens to be inspiring, and to be able to engage a whole new audience – all income brackets, ages, ethnicities and levels of experience.  They were about showcasing horticulture, and had to have a WOW factor – but they also needed to be provide ideas that were achievable in the average garden, balcony or windowsill.  

The Wildlife Garden amplifies nature, but is not rewilding.  It includes all the elements that are crucial for wildlife – water, plenty of accessible nectar and pollen available over a long season and plenty of places to hide and nest.  

The World Food Garden is divided into 3 areas – one for herbs and edible flowers, a “good to grow” section showcasing vegetables that beginners can have success with, and finally the World Food maze which showcases the wide range of more unusual edibles that we can grow in our climate.

The gardens are a triumph, and are fast becoming the go-to destination at Wisley.  It was a privilege to be taken behind the scenes – I think we will all look at the gardens from a slightly different perspective next time we visit.

The Secret History of Vegetables, by Martyn Cox

Martyn Cox was the speaker for our Club Night lecture this month, and he treated us all to a very entertaining evening.  Martyn has worked in gardening since he left school, and is best known as a gardening journalist – he writes for the Mail on Sunday, Amateur Gardening and Gardening News.

Martyn likes to add interest to the articles he writes on vegetables, by including lesser known facts amongst the more usual advice on how to grow and eat the produce.  Over the years he has built up quite a collection of these stories, and his lecture shared some of these anecdotes with us.

Firstly we learned just how long some of our vegetables have been around.  We saw mosaics from 300BC depicting bunches of asparagus that would not look out of place in today’s supermarkets.  We heard how dried peas were found in the tomb of Tutankhamum – clearly they were the food of kings.  And there are paintings of beetroot on the walls of Pompeii.

We also heard how some vegetables are celebrated – with tomato throwing festivals in Spain, the Hindhu worship of Basil, and how the Grecian athletes smeared onion juice on their bodies to increase their sporting prowess.

In a history a bit closer to home, we learned how carrots were promoted to the Brits in World War II – mainly because they were easy to grow.  They were said to improve the eyesight of pilots, and help you find your way round in the blackouts (all untrue, but useful propaganda).  And children deprived of sugar by rationing were given carrots on sticks instead of lollipops!

At the end we reflected on the fact that all the vegetables currently grown on our allotments and vegetable gardens have originated from abroad – many from ancient cultures and civilisations.  The humble veg patch is far more exotic than first meets the eye!

Beautiful Buddlejas, by Peter Moore

In July we welcomed Peter Moore to Grayshott Gardeners, to talk to us about Buddlejas – something he is very well qualified to do, as keeper of the National Collection of this Genus at Longstock Nursery in Hampshire.  He started developing the collection in 1993, and by sourcing cuttings and seed from around the world has built it up to an impressive display of international acclaim.

Buddlejas get their name from the Reverend Adam Buddle, an English cleric and botanist from the 17th Century.  They are naturally present in all the Continents of the world bar Europe and Australasia, and many of today’s garden plants are hybrids between species from different continents.  Peter has introduced many hybrids himself – including “Pink Pagoda” and “Sugar Plum”.

Peter then took us through what he considers to be the best garden-worthy varieties. He warned us that some species don’t quite live up to their advertising hype.  The Buzz Series, for example, is free flowering but not the dwarf variety that it was initially billed as.  They can reach 2 meters in height – enough to block most windows if planted in a flower bed just outside!

He showed us what a wide range of flower colours are available, from the darkest purple through to magentas, reds and pinks, and they can be upright or have a weeping form.  Leaves can be plain or variegated – and some flowers can be variegated too, like the new introduction “Berries and Cream”.  Most of the garden varieties are hardy in the UK, but a few special ones need a glasshouse to overwinter them successfully.

Peter also gave us tips on how to grow Buddlejas well, in full sun with well drained soil, and how to prune them properly.  He also warned us that the dust they give off can be an irritant, so wear protection when pruning, and better to do it on a rainy day.

It was great to see how, with careful selection, it is possible to have a Buddleja in flower for 10 months of the year – which is great news for the bees and butterflies in our gardens. 

Peter Moore, with Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler

The Garden Jungle (or Gardening to Save the Planet), by Dave Goulson

Our June speaker was Professor Dave Goulson, who gave us an insight into the lives of some of the tiny creatures that live in our gardens, and gave us tips on how to garden so that we can encourage as many of them as possible to flourish.

Chairman John Price and Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler with Dave Goulson

Dave is a professor of biology at Sussex University, with a passion for entomology.  He has written many books, and his lecture was based around one of his latest bestsellers – The Garden Jungle.

He began by showing us the diversity seen amongst insects.  Some are colourful – to disguise themselves, for camouflage or to advertise that they are poisonous.  Others are mimics, with some flies pretending to be bees. They have also adapted cleverly over the time they have been inhabiting the earth – for insects preceded the dinosaurs by many millions of years.  Next time you see a bee you can think of it as a vegan wasp, that switched to feeding on pollen rather than insect prey.

Life on earth needs insects to continue – without them our ecosystems would rapidly collapse.   They provide food for birds, fish and reptiles; they recycle dung and corpses; they keep the soil healthy; they distribute seeds; and they play a vital role in pollination.  And insects are in trouble, with well documented declines in many species, particularly those that are habitat specialists.  Human behaviour has driven habitat losses, with our enthusiasm for agricultural monocultures, and our use of pesticides has wiped out many insect populations.

So how can gardeners help these insect populations recover?  Gardens, parks and verges combine to form a far greater area than the country’s nature reserves.  So by making them more wildlife friendly, we can reverse the declines. 

Gardeners may think of themselves as “green”, but when you consider that the average trip to the Garden Centre results in the purchase of a plant that has been grown in peat, in a heated greenhouse, treated with insecticide, in a disposable plastic pot it is obvious that changes need to be made.

Dave gave us some steps to maximise the insect life in our gardens.  Use plants with open flowers.  Reimagine weeds as wild flowers. Mow less.  Build bug hotels to provide homes for insects. Plant flowering trees – which can provide continuity of food supply for insects from March through to June.  AND STOP USING PESTICIDES. Simple!

Dave gave us an entertaining but very thought provoking evening.  We now know how we can make a difference.  The rest is up to us!

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, by Pamela Holt

This month we welcomed back Pamela Holt, a judge at our Spring Show, to hear her insights into the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Pamela was a student at Kew in the 1970’s. She also went on several plant hunting trips for the gardens.

Pamela started by explaining the derivation of the name Kew – originally Cayo – which describes a dock (Cay or Quay) on a spur of land (Ho – like in Westward Ho!) on the River Thames in West London.  The Royal connection comes from its founder Princess Augusta, mother of George III.  And the Gardens (note the plural) comes from the fact that it is actually an amalgamation of several gardens.

The gardens have a number of distinctive ornamental structures which have been created over the years – for example the Pagoda which dates from 1762.  Other structures appear ornamental but have a more practical purpose – the Italian style campanile actually served as a chimney to take the soot away from the original coal fired boilers that heated one of the glasshouses.

The Gardens were passed from the Royal Family to the State in 1838, and the first Director, William Hooker, set out to develop the vision of George III to make a collection of plants from all across the Kingdom.  Not long later it also introduced training for horticulturalists and founded the Plant Science Laboratories that it is world famous for today.

Pamela told many amusing stories of Kew behind the scenes, and proudly showed us the silver medal she was awarded for coming second in the “Clog and Apron” students’ race along the Board Walk.

It was a really interesting evening and Pamela gave us lots of reasons to go and visit the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew very soon.

My Corona Diary 2020-21, by Gordon Rae

This month our lecture was given by our very own President – Gordon Rae VMH.

At the beginning of the Covid 19 Pandemic, when we were all locked down and confined to our homes and gardens, Gordon got out his notebook and his camera and started to record events as they unfolded.  He took thousands of photographs of the plants that grow in his garden (and if they grow in his Grayshott Garden, then there’s a good chance they will also grow in yours).  And he also noted the extraordinary milestones of the time – from the shortage of loo rolls, to the roll out of the vaccine, the rule of six and all those family gatherings in gardens and carparks.

We were treated to a real spectacle of plants through all the months of the year – some familiar and some definitely more unusual, like the mouse plant, the cobra lily and the tongue twisting Ypsilandra thibetica.

Gordon reminded us that it was not all bad.  The extra time at home gave an opportunity to tackle some of the bigger projects that we often never get round to.  Gordon and Judith’s lawn got scarified to within an inch of its life, was oversown and has resulted in a sward worthy of a croquet pitch.  He also reminded us how we all climbed the steep learning curve of Zoom, rediscovered the joy of jigsaws, and got all sorts of crafts out from the back of dusty cupboards.

Wildlife moved in quickly as the country experienced less traffic and less people going about their daily lives.  The foxes enjoyed the tranquillity and made themselves at home in Gordon’s garden, helpfully rearranging all his plant labels.  And the roe deer helped themselves to a smorgasbord of flowery treats – there were no pansies left for the Raes to enjoy this year.

It was a wonderful evening of amazing photographs interspersed with a trip down memory lane – we really have lived through extraordinary times.

Gordon very kindly donated his lecture fee to the Perennial charity

My Chelsea Story, by Matthew Wilson

Grayshott Gardeners were very pleased to welcome Matthew Wilson – Garden Designer, Writer, Television and Radio broadcaster – to give our club night lecture this month.  It was his first talk IRL (in real life) since Covid restrictions eased, but he showed no first night nerves.  He gave us a fabulous peek behind the scenes of creating a garden for Chelsea Flower Show.

Matthew spent many years at Chelsea when he worked for the RHS.  He witnessed the work that went into producing a show garden, and saw first hand the exhaustion of the garden designers at the end of their journey.  He vowed he would never join them.  However, in 2015 he was approached by Royal Bank of Canada to design a garden that promoted water preservation.  This was an issue close to his heart, and having designed the Dry Garden at RHS Hyde Hall, he had lots of ideas that he could use.  So he said yes, and his Chelsea journey began.

Matthew’s RBC garden used lots of curves.  This meant clever cutting of stone, steam bending of wood, and decking with curved edges.  Getting the details right is key for a Chelsea Garden – right down to the spacing of stepping stones, which he mocked up with paper and sticky tape on his kitchen floor.  The build had to be completed in 19 straight days (no days off allowed!) and required stamina and teamwork.  There were a few hiccups that caused a lot of anxiety – but they made it, and delivered a garden to be proud of.  One of the big surprises was how much the garden changed over the period of the show – some things grew and came into bloom, and others went over – just like a real garden.  From start to finish the project consumed at least 100 days ….. and he was heard muttering “Never Again”.

That was until “Welcome to Yorkshire” approached him to design a garden for the show the very next year.  His 2016 garden was to celebrate the East Window at York Minster – one of the largest expanses of medieval glass in Europe.  He worked with the glaziers and stone masons from York Minster to design a garden structure which captured the essence of the window, the colours of which were cleverly echoed in the planting.  He described the skill which is needed to plant a Chelsea show garden – weaving plants together so that they look like they have been there for years, not days.  After a very wet build, the garden was completed and delighted the crowds – so much so that he won the coveted People’s Choice award that year.

At the end of it all, Matthew took the advice of a friend and did not stay to watch either of his gardens being dismantled – so in his mind they still exist.  Instead he celebrated with family, friends and a few bottles of champagne!

“Never Again” was once again muttered.  But we all know the adage “Never say Never”.  We will be watching this space with great anticipation.

Oaks of the World, by Harry Baldwin

Harry Baldwin is a Taxonomist and Dendrologist.  He trained and worked at Kew, and has recently become Head of Horticulture at Borde Hill gardens in Sussex.  Harry loved trees from a young age, and his interest in Oaks was inspired by the National Collection of Oaks at Hilliers Gardens.  He visited Grayshott Gardeners in February to share with us his considerable knowledge of this diverse and versatile family of trees.

Oaks have been important for humans since ancient times – many cultures developed with acorns as a staple to their diet.  And their wood has been used for centuries, to build cathedrals, ships and shaft props in the coal mines.

Oak trees are also a key host to other wildlife – ecologists estimate that a single tree can support 2000 species of flora, invertebrates and fungi.

England is blessed with many ancient oaks – more than elsewhere in Europe.  This may well be because our Royal Forests and Deer Parks, made fashionable by William the Conqueror, allowed commoners to collect wood, but not to cut the trees, thus preserving them for future generations.  Some of these trees are thought to be about 1000 years old.

There are 430 different species of oaks around the world – with Mexico having the most diverse population.  They produce acorns of many different shapes and sizes – which are dispersed by bears, squirrels, mice and deer.  Their strategy to evade these predators is known as “masting”.  Once every 5-7 years the tree will produce an abundance of acorns – too many for their predators to eat – ensuring some develop into trees.  In the intervening years, their predators go hungry – ensuring that populations are at a low level when the next “mast” year comes along.  So that’s why we spend some years digging up hundreds of self sown oak saplings, when other years there are very few.

We had a fascinating evening listening and learning about oaks.  Some of us might even have been converted to Quercophiles!

Rhododendrons: From the Himalayas to Chelsea, by David Millais

David is our local rhododendron specialist running the Millais Nurseries at Crosswater Farm in Churt, which was set up by his parents Ted and Romy in 1970. The Millais family has been established at Crosswater Farm since 1947, but their rhododendron heritage goes back to the naturalist, botanist and author J G Millais, who identified and described many Rhododendrons for the first time, and published his great two volume series ‘Rhododendrons’ (1917 and 1924). Since then, the Millais family has travelled widely, particularly to the Himalayas in search of new plants to bring home and propagate, and David is still hoping to find the Holy Grail of a late flowering rhododendron…..

The nurseries regularly enter various shows, and have been awarded five consecutive gold medals at Chelsea, a significant achievement – and David’s talk was aptly titled “Rhododendrons from the Himalayas to Chelsea”.

We followed David on a journey to the mountains of Nepal, sharing beautiful scenic photos and getting an appreciation of the sheer hard work involved on the trek heading towards Mt Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The walk took us through temperate forests to alpine regions, enjoying the brightness of the light levels, to get to approx. 2500-3000m where the rhododendrons grow that are hardy enough for the UK climate. David shared details of several beautiful examples – campylocarpum with its stunning yellow flowers that likes the dry, thomsonni with lovely red blooms and a prominent calyx that likes to be near flowing water, and the hybrid of both.

Back at the nurseries, where David and his team propagate 40,000 rhododendrons a year, most of the new plants are created from cuttings, as this gives a more uniform result than planting seeds.  The work starts in late May starting with deciduous, then dwarf, species, hybrids, hardy hybrids and the rest, and the rooting process takes six months.  Great success with cuttings is achieved for evergreen azaleas, though success reduces to 20% for rarer species, mainly due to timing – soft cuttings root better, but need more care. Millais try to use “organic type” products in their plant care regime – feed includes compost tea, mineral fertilisers and maxicrop seaweed, with revive plant tonic, SB plant invigorator, which is also good for bud blight, and biosept citrus seed oil as needed.  Pest control is managed using garlic extract and agri 50 physical pest barriers, mildew counteracted with potassium bicarb and vine weevil handled with nemasys. Irrigation water is enhanced with a copper dosing to help plants keep clear of pests and diseases.

In our own gardens, rhododendrons will love the acidic soil with a PH of 4.5-5.5, although adding manganese to the soil will enable rhodis to grown in limestone areas.  They like moist but free draining soil, and a location with dappled shade to full sun away from trees and plants/hedges so they have a enough room to grow.  Planting is best done between September and March and you need a wide shallow hole, as their roots are not very deep – this is the most common mistake when planting rhodis, the holes are just too deep!  Once planted, water well in June and July, as this is when the buds are forming for the next year and use a light dose of slow release feed in March and again after flowering. If you have a poorly plant, use liquid feed as nourishment. To mulch use bark, wood chips, bracken compost and leaf mould including pine needles. They don’t like stones or weed membrane to control weeds. Deadheading should be done on young or sick plants, and any others if you have time and energy. Light pruning can be done straight after flowering using secateurs, bigger cuts using loppers and saws should be done in early Spring. After any big pruning, help the plant recover with leaf mould and bark, lots of water and some granular feed.

After all this loving care, Millais nurseries exhibit at Chelsea every two to three years – the costs are high, with £30,000 worth of stock required and £10,000 labour. A key challenge is to make sure that the plants flower at exactly the right time, so they are often kept in cold storage.  The main exhibit has five main plants in 90 litre pots, and numerous others, all selected for complimentary shapes and colours.

Not only finding time for Chelsea, the Millais Woodland Garden at the nurseries has been completely renovated and is now open again as part of the NGS, on the Sunday of the first bank holiday in May.

A very interesting and enlightening talk that showed us the journey of a rhododendron from the Himalayas to the Chelsea Flower Show and all the work involved in making these beautiful plants available to us – with some very helpful insights on how to care for them to keep our own plants healthy and blooming.

David very kindly donated his fee to the Perennial charity.

Report by Pamela Wright