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.