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.
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
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.
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!
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.
John very kindly stood in at short notice for our scheduled speaker who was unwell. Out of a long list of topics upon which John lectures we chose “Gardens of Japan”.
John told us about himself and his partner June Colley. John was an engineer who designed and built furnaces used for making optical fibres. June, who has a Masters Degree in Botany, is a renowned expert in perfumes. Their common interests are plants, particularly Hostas, and travel, particularly to the Far East, so John’s topic of “Gardens of Japan” was extremely apt. And although Jonn and June now have about 1700 types of Hosta in their garden, “Hanging Hostas of Hampshire” at Lindford, Hostas hardly had a mention.
John related how Japanese gardens were brought to the West through Josiah Conder in the late 1800s, but pointed out that our Japanese gardens are but a caricature of those in Japan, some of which date back 500 years.
John took us carefully through the three main types of Japanese garden: the Hill and Pond Garden, Zen Garden and Stroll Gardens, built by the rich and famous to impress their friends, the great and the good.
Japanese gardens originated in China, but under the influence of Buddhism, developed from gardens with plants, to places for contemplation with stones and raked gravel.
We were taken on a journey from gardens of Tokyo south, to the old capital of Japan, Kyoto, then on to Okoyama and finally to Hiroshima, with photographs of the very moving “Peace Park”.
This talk was not just about gardens, azaleas, cherry blossom, Hostas, moss and gravel. John also peppered his talk with a pot-pourri of history , geography , religion, social history and food. He was delighted to find Hosta shoots for sale as a vegetable in the supermarket, but was annoyed when he got thrown out trying to photograph them!
He concluded by showing how your own corner of Japan might be created from rocks, stepping stones, water , bamboos, hostas , ferns, moss and lanterns. A fascinating talk from a knowledgeable and accomplished speaker.
John very kindly donated his lecture fee to the Perennial charity.
In October 2021, Grayshott Gardeners welcomed James Alexander-Sinclair, who gave us a really entertaining talk about his Life in Five Gardens.
In fact, the title above undervalued James’ talk because, with his rapid fire delivery and enthusiasm, James gave us 10 gardens for the price of 5. On introducing James, our President came armed with an A4 sheet listing James’ curriculum vitae but the modest James soon asked Gordon to cease his recital before he had reached halfway down the page.
From an unpromising start to his working life as waiter, jeans salesman, Harrods’ Father Christmas and being an unwilling helper in his parents’ garden James designed his first garden in 1983 although “design” was probably a loose term as against a backdrop of corrugated iron it comprised only a few flower pots on a pile of bricks “borrowed” from the adjoining building site. Despite this small venture, James received a few requests to dig relatives’ gardens, tasks he found he rather enjoyed.
In 1992, James moved into an old farm building which provided plenty of scope for him to design his first proper garden. As with all his gardens, James aims to make a seamless transition from garden to the adjoining countryside often including in his gardens strong structures softened by additional planting (which he describes as “loads of fluff”) such as the use of square columns of beech with softer planting around. The beech keeps its leaves throughout the year with lovely autumnal colours and, in Spring, the new green leaves appear, the trees avoiding a boring interim of bare wood through the depths of winter. James manages softer planting by instructing his Bulgarian gardener to scatter plants and bulbs on the ground to fall in a haphazard manner thus producing no tight, neat groups. He enjoys watching the foliage plants going through their seasonal changes; grasses add movement and look particularly lovely in frost and snow.
When designing clients’ gardens James is a great believer in not retaining something just because it has always been there. He suggested that, if a plant doesn’t give one pleasure, then get rid of it but resist being too hasty to cut back everything in the autumn. He urged that seed heads and foliage can look wonderful as the season changes and also provide food and shelter for wildlife.
In 2016, James became involved with the design of the gardens in Spinal Injury units in Scotland and Salisbury. Horatio Chapple, the son of a doctor who specialised in spinal injuries, was inspired to create a garden area in each of the 11 Spinal Injury Centres throughout Britain where patients, their families, and staff could relax and enjoy the surroundings. Patients typically spend up to 6 months recovering from spinal injuries and peaceful, accessible, and beautifully planted areas are particularly important for their recovery Sadly, Horation didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled as, in 2011, he was killed in a tragic accident at the age of 17.
In 2017, James designed “The Garden of Five Senses” for Chelsea in which sound is transmitted through water, the different frequencies making different patterns across the surface.
One of James’ least successful ventures was at Chatsworth where a large imitation bowler hat was made to rise slowly from the ground to expose a garden beneath. In its second season the electric motor caught fire turning the mobile into a flaming disaster.
During his delightful talk we all warmed to James’ easy, unstuffy, and joyful approach to gardening. His message was that, whereas a garden doesn’t have to be perfect, it must give pleasure. A final bon mot: “When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it and, if it comes out easily, it is a valuable plant”
In her enlightening and humorous talk Harriet brought a completely new and exciting dimension to planting pots and showed us the wonderful results that can be achieved. She emphasised the importance of planning and writing everything down for ongoing reference, showing us her much treasured and much thumbed planning notebook! Planting in groups for impact, thinking about foliage, form, texture and height, shapes and sizes, blending foliage with flowers and considering the time of blooming of each plant for continuous flowering over a long period. The idea of layering is a great way to maximise the flowering period from pots. Harriet has over 600 pots covering the wall by her back door, with tall shrubs with interesting foliage and structure at the back and smaller pots in the front planted with a wide variety of tulips, narcissi, muscari, crocus, pansies. She suggested using interesting evergreen plants such as black mungo grass, a mixture of grass carex which look lovely during the winter with frost and dew on them and then in the spring allowing narcissi and tulips to grow through them. When there is snow on plants don’t brush it off as it hurts the leaves and shoots, and the melted snow gives nitrogen which is good for plants.
Planting pots for Spring flowering should be done in October/November and left to sleep over the winter. Make sure you place pots where you can see them, by the house, driveway, terrace rather than way down the garden! Be adventurous, try out different combinations of plants and colours – if it works great, if not try something else!!! A good idea for Spring pots with crocus and small bulbs is to scatter small pebbles or grit on the top to prevent squirrels, snails etc. from eating them.
Harriet talked through the months with wonderful photos of February with snowdrops, which she suggests you bring in and enjoy on your windowsill for a few days and then put outside again, and the pretty early iris, like Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’. In March there are lots of her favourite narcissi like Rip van Winkle and Snow Lady, Hyacinth ‘Miss Saigon’, chionodoxa, masses of stunning tulips like dark red ‘Hearts Desire’ and ‘Armani’, the peachy ‘Apricot Beauty’, orange ‘Ballerina’ also many Parrot Tulips which always steal the show. The April colour explosion of multi headed narcissi ‘Freedom Stars’. Remember to place tulips in a sunny spot and if using Wallflowers, you must firm them in well. Hostas are best left to make a statement in a pot of their own.
Harriet demonstrated how to plant a pot with layering. A suitable pot should have a drainage hole large enough to put your thumb through, also only use one piece of crock to cover the drainage hole, because lots of crocks can damage the root system of the plant when removed. Use peat free compost with added loam and add some slow-release fertiliser, soil should be loose without lumps. The root ball of the plants must be damp when planted so that they can absorb the water, and the root ball should be one inch below the rim of the pot, making sure all the root balls are at the same level in the pot. Have the tallest shrub at back and the tallest bulbs in groups next to that, plant bulbs an inch apart and not touching. Then plant variety of other bulbs that bloom at different times plus other small plants. Make sure there are no gaps in the compost around the plants. When finished, tap pot on ground, smooth the surface and water in well.
Our thanks to Harriet for a most informative and enjoyable evening. We are looking forward to planting a fair few pots of our own …. although maybe not 600!
What more suitable subjects could there be for our return to the Village Hall, than “The Plant Doctor”, Roger Hirons, talking to Grayshott Gardeners about plants which like Acid soil and Shade!
Roger, who is Dorset born and bred, could call on over 35 years in the horticultural industry with his experience from his education at Pershore, plus running plant centres such as Hilliers and broadcasting on all things plant related.
Roger gave a fascinating talk with tips on how to get the best out of our plants, projecting colour images to clarify the points and recommendations he was making of what we should plant and where.
He stressed how important it was to think ahead prior to planting, and to spend as much time and effort as possible preparing the planting hole which will give our plants such a good start in life. He gave us many useful tips, such as incorporating a handful of chalky soil at the bottom of a deep hole for Clematis.
A further interesting tip was to mark your garden into sections and set up a chart on a calendar, then regularly annotate the chart with the date, colours and plants which are in flower as the year progresses. Thus you are able to move or add different plants to create ongoing colour during the growing season.
Roger advocated the benefit and the importance of good mulching for fast draining and dry Grayshott soil to ensure plants can survive. This included using mulch from broad leaved trees where pines are present to reduce the acidity of the soil, and vice versa.
He also explained how to obtain the best flowering from a Camellia in the spring is to ensure it is well watered during the previous September and October, plus ensuring it’s roots are confined and competing with other trees and shrubs rather than in free soil, in which the shrub will grow well but not flower well.
Roger was an inspirational speaker whose knowledge of plants was encyclopaedic, and who shared that information with us with enthusiasm and humour.
On 14th July 2021, Grayshott Gardeners virtually welcomed Helen Picton from Old Court Nurseries and the Picton Garden in Colwall, near Malvern. Helen comes from a long line of horticulturalists and is the third generation of her family to be involved in the breeding and cultivation of Michaelmas Daisies. Her talk was entitled ‘Daisy Days’.
Michaelmas Daisies are of the Asteraceae family; Helen explained that they are the second largest family of plants. Despite appearances, the head of a Michaelmas Daisy is made up of hundreds of tiny florets – which make up the centre of the bloom known as the disc floret – the part of the plant which is attractive to the insect pollinators. Gardeners are generally more interested in the petals (or ray florets) of the flower and in particular the range of colours.
The name Aster means star-like, and the plant has been known since ancient times. In earlier times it was called Starwort. From the 1920’s it became known as the Michaelmas Daisy; in recent years there has been a re-evaluation of the many different species from different parts of the world with new names now being attributed to the existing groups. There are five main groups: Aster Amellus and Associates (the first to be introduced into the U.K,), Symphyotrichum Novi Belgii (New York, the biggest group), Symphyotrichum Novae Anglicae (New England), Small Flowered Species & Cut Flower Hybrids and Other Species.
The heyday of the Michaelmas Daisy was in the large country estate gardens of late 19th century and early 20th century with the development of the more naturalistic approach to borders as extolled by such famous gardeners as William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Beckett. The founder of Old Court Nurseries, Ernest Ballard (who was in cider vinegar production and from a wealthy Herefordshire family), led the way in the breeding of new stronger colours and more complex flowers (from about 1907 onwards until his death in 1950) making Michaelmas Daisies freely available to the ordinary gardener. Post the Second World War, Helen’s grandfather – Percy Picton – took over as Nursery Manager and the 50’s and 60’s saw Michaelmas Daisies become hugely popular with numerous new varieties coming onto the market. By the 1970’s, however, they fell out of favour (as did many old herbaceous border favourites) and many cultivars were lost. Largely thanks to the work and dedication of two ladies from Bristol, Miss Isabel Allen and Miss Joy Huish, who began collecting in the 1940’s, many cultivars were saved and eventually the Michaelmas Daisy was recognised by the Plant Heritage Society as one of the first National Collections.
The most important requirements seemed to be to provide a rich, moisture retentive soil and to divide regularly. Helen said that in Grayshott, with its acidic, free-draining soil, probably the best Michaelmas Daisies to grow are from the New England group and the Small Flowered Species group.
Helen’s closing advice to her attentive audience was that there is no excuse for poor colour in autumn and her slides certainly demonstrated this – from good companion plants with other herbaceous perennials, good performance in containers and excellent cut flowers.