Category Archives: Club Lectures

The Trowels and Tribulations of taking on a Historic Garden, by Maggie Tran

We had the pleasure of welcoming Maggie Tran to our monthly meeting on February 8th to give us this fascinating talk.

Maggie turned from a fine arts background to a career in horticulture. She trained at Wisley for two years and obtained scholarships to places both in this country and abroad. A very impressive list – Great Dixter, Cambo gardens in Scotland, Sissinghurst, Kerdalo in Brittany, Tresco Abbey Gardens – Scilly’s subtropical gem and lastly Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania where, much to her delight she found 80 acres of original wild meadow land to wander through!

Finally, in 2018 she took on the formidable task of restoring the gardens at Bramdean House to its original splendour.

Bramdean House Garden is a “plant lover’s garden” in Hampshire covering 5 acres. The house itself dates back to the 1740s but the garden has been established since the 1940s by then owner, Victoria Wakefield, and her mother. Victoria was a Kew trustee and part of the RHS judging panels.

Victoria was an avid plantswoman and packed the borders with as many different and diverse plants as she could find.

Unfortunately, for some years the garden was left to do its own thing until it was passed down to the next generation – Victoria’s son Teddy and his family who, along with Maggie are working hard to bring it forward to contemporary times and practices. A difficult task by any standards but with a workforce of only 5 (Maggie being the only full-time gardener) sustainability became the order of the day. In 1944 there were 40 gardeners employed!

So it started, but instead of doing a massive, much needed clear-out, Maggie restrained herself for a year to just watch and see what developed. Time was not wasted however as she began to cut back the obvious climbers which were not only entering the roof space but also covering the windows. She said it had been like carefully removing layers to expose the gems beneath.

The Mirror Beds, for which the garden is famous, were completely restored and are now quite magnificent throughout the year. Each one mirroring the other – that is along as the plants behave and don’t start wandering.

The walled kitchen garden which extends to over an acre, the greenhouse and the shed were all also desperately in need of a makeover.

Maggie told us that there were enough leeks growing to feed the whole of Hampshire – well nearly! She and her team have now divided the plot into smaller beds and using a non-dig method are growing a larger variety of vegetables and cut flowers.

All this as well as maintaining the massive sweet pea collection, the orchard with a beautiful meadow and the grand old Grandfather oak – what a task!

All in all a most entertaining and inspiring evening – well worth the effort of stepping out on a very cold and frosty evening.

Bramdean House garden is open  under the NGS on Sundays 19 February and 25 June (13:00 – 15:30)  Visits also by arrangement March to September

Hosta Potpourri, by John Baker

Our first club night lecture of 2023 was given by our very own John Baker, who gave a very entertaining lecture about all things Hosta.

John went right back to the origins of the Hostas we grow in our gardens today – which originated in Manchuria, and from there spread to Korea, Russia and Japan.  They were originally classified as Hemerocallis, or Day Lilies – which explains their common name of Plantain Lilies.

Plant Hunters brought the Hosta back from Japan to Europe in 1790.  The Dutchman Philip von Siebold was the most famous of these hunters – and many hostas today bear his name – sieboldii or sieboldiana.

Hosta ‘June’ is the most popular, and award winning hosta today.  Many of our popular varieties come from crossing the species to provide the unusual leaf markings and varied leaf sizes that we love today.  The current range spreads from the giant ‘Empress Wu’ to the diminuative ‘Mouse Ears’

John couldn’t talk about Hostas without addressing the elephant in the room – Slugs and Snails.  He gave us recipes for garlic spray and told us how to use Epsom salts and Ammonia.  And his top tip was to mark February 14th in our calendars for the Valentine’s Day massacre.

John and his wife June have travelled widely to see hostas growing in the wild, and he showed them growing in swamps, forest floors and in the cracks of rocks near waterfalls.  They have made many international friends along the way – showing how plants and shared enthusiasms can bridge language barriers and cultural differences.

Through it all John’s knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for hostas shone through.  We all came away wondering where we could find space for at least one more in our own gardens.

How to garden the low carbon way, by Sally Nex

In December we were lucky enough to welcome Sally Nex to Grayshott Gardeners.  Sally started her career as a journalist. Ten years ago her eyes were opened to the fact that some of the ways we garden are wreaking destruction on our planet, without us even being aware of it.  She vowed to try and stop that by making changes to the way she gardens, and by encouraging others to be more aware and do the same.

Private UK gardens make up 1 million acres, with more plants per square meter than rainforest – so it really does matter what you do in your own little patch.  They support thousands of species of insects, and are hugely valuable in the ecosystem services they provide.  They conserve water in drought, they prevent flooding, they keep us cool and they clean the air.  Which is a good start for gardens.

But can we go further?  Sally definitely thinks so, and she outlined some of the ways we can garden in a low carbon way.

For example, have a think about the way you use summer bedding – which has probably been raised in peat, sprayed with insecticides, fed with chemicals and delivered in single use plastic.  Could you buy it in peat free compost and pulp trays?  Or raise your own from seed? Or plant perennials in pots instead? Or abandon pots altogether and plant in the ground where the roots will sequester carbon.

Nearly all of the carbon in our gardens is held in the soil – No Dig is the easiest thing to do to make sure we do not release it.  Adding compost to return organic matter to the soil is important too. Switching to peat free compost, using organic rather than synthetic fertilizers and being vigilant about plastic use are all easy steps for the average gardener to take.

Sally’s primary message was “Every Little Helps”.  Do what you can, stay informed and be aware of the impact your actions are having.  We are all tiny cogs in that 1 million acre wheel.  And it was billions of tiny actions that got us into this mess, so billions of tiny actions can get us out of it.

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