Category Archives: Club Lectures

All Muck and Magic, by Geoff Hodge

This month Grayshott Gardeners learned all about our soil – including how to care for it and how to improve it. Geoff Hodge gave us a very entertaining lecture which unlocked some of the science behind the topic, and gave us a real insight into what is going on with our muck.

Geoff started by underlining how important a plant’s roots are to its health and well-being.  The roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil, which are vital for growth and establishment.  If you want good plants that perform well, you need to look after their roots.

Healthy plants show much more resistance to pests and diseases – and with many pesticides now withdrawn from home use, it is important to grow plants as well as we can so they can fight off problems themselves.

Geoff explained how to look after your soil, by adding BOM (Bulky Organic Matter) to improve its structure and feed the micro flora and fauna that are so important to plant growth.  He then took us through examples of the wide array of fertilisers available on the market, and explained which was best for what function.  We now know how to use liquid, granular and slow release feeds, what to look for in an N:P:K ratio, and the dangers of over-feeding or feeding at the wrong time of year.

It’s a complicated topic, but Grayshott Gardeners are now armed with a little more knowledge that should help us successfully navigate the Garden Centre shelves (and keep our President’s pension in fine fettle).

Fruit for a Small Garden, by Jim Arbury

This month Grayshott Gardeners enjoyed a fascinating talk from Jim Arbury, the RHS Fruit Specialist based at Wisley.  Jim has an encyclopaedic knowledge of top fruit (apples, pears, plums and cherries) and soft fruit (raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries and blueberries).  He shared some of this knowledge with us, with recommendations of what would work well in a relatively small space – a back garden, a section of a larger garden or an allotment.

Jim explained all the things we need to consider before deciding what to grow – a site’s aspect, soil type and micro climate.  He warned that growing in a frost pocket can be particularly challenging due to late frosts damaging the emerging blossom – and without good blossom, there will obviously be no fruit later in the year.

For apples and pears, Jim explained the importance of the choice of rootstock and pollination partners.  He also showed us how trained varieties, such as cordons and espaliers, can maximise production in a small space, as well as bringing very attractive structure to a garden.

Jim had many recommendations of varieties for us to consider – there was much scribbling of notes in the audience.  He also described the RHS apple identification service, which allows you to find out the variety of a tree that you have inherited (or simply lost the label for 😊).  Jim can identify about 700 varieties by sight alone!

The evening gave us a comprehensive overview of the potential our own spaces have for growing delicious fruit – roll on harvest time!

Pottering with Pottage: Wisley, the Flagship Garden of the RHS, by Matthew Pottage

We were delighted to welcome Matthew Pottage to speak to us at Grayshott Gardeners this month.  Matthew was the youngest ever curator of an RHS Garden when he was appointed to lead Wisley at the age of 29.  During the last 8 years he has overseen some of the most ambitious projects that the garden has ever undertaken.

With Wisley just up the road, it is a garden that many of us know and love – so it was fascinating to get a peek behind the scenes.  For example, next time we walk down the beautiful avenue of cherry trees that flank the new Garden entrance we will remember what it is like to have a shopping list of 150 semi-mature cherry trees (white flowering only please), all of which have to be quarantined for a year whilst they are closely monitored for pests and diseases.  This is gardening on a gigantic scale.

We also learned about the newest addition to the garden – Hilltop.  Its laboratories and three new gardens are now one of the go-to destinations in Wisley.  Each garden has a distinct purpose – the wildlife garden proves that catering for wildlife doesn’t have to be “messy”. The World Food garden showcases unusual crops amongst the traditional vegetables, and encourages all to be more adventurous in what we grow.  The Well Being garden is not only beautiful to be in, but also enables scientific research into to the benefits of green spaces to our mental health.

We also learned how change comes with challenges.  A bulging postbag from supporters and detractors accompanies each new development.  Moving the garden forward requires courage and a belief that the destination will be worth the disruption and upheaval.  Thankfully Matt is brave – and Wisley continues to inspire and excite us in equal measure!

Seed Sowing and Plant Propagation, by Ray Broughton

Finally the weather is warming up, and us gardeners are inevitably drawn to thinking about new plants.  So it was very timely to be able to welcome Ray Broughton to Grayshott Gardeners to give us a wealth of hints and tips about how to successfully grow our own plants from seeds and cuttings.

Ray has been a lecturer at Sparsholt College for many years, and his expertise in teaching shone throughout the evening.  He gave us so many tricks that it was hard to keep up – around the hall many scraps of paper were being filled with hastily taken notes. Grayshott Sainsbury’s may well have seen a run on Heinz tomato ketchup, cornflour, cling film and vinegar the following day.

He taught us how to clean our secateurs, make black seed visible, use static to collect wayward seeds (along with a useful dance move to discharge the static when it is no longer required), enrich the carbon dioxide in our greenhouses or conservatories, where to store our hosepipes, a space saving way to store hardwood cuttings, and how to break dormancy in seeds that are notoriously tricky, like parsnips.

It was an extremely entertaining evening, as well as an informative one.  We all left enthusiastic to put our newly gained knowledge into practice.

Ray very kindly donated his lecture fee to the charity Perennial.

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

Maggie very kindly donated her lecture fee to the charity Perennial.

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!