Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gardens for all seasons - Sheffield Park, East Sussex - spectacular autumn colours!

Sheffield Park is famous for its dazzling autumn colour displays
There's little doubt that winter's on the way when English gardens close their gates and the mists start rolling in off the sea and leave us swathed in gray until mid morning. So as part of my ongoing series of "gardens for all seasons" that remain open throughout the year, today's post is about Sheffield Park in East Sussex. This magnificent garden always comes to light at this time of year because of its stunning autumn colours, but in reality, it's a wondrous garden throughout the year and is only closed on Christmas Day.
Huge expanses of water ensure that the autumn reflections are particularly memorable at Sheffield Park 
It's the huge expanses of water and the planting around the lakes at Sheffield Park that makes this landscape so memorable because you get wonderful reflections, particularly from the maples and scarlet oaks at this time of year. There are no formal beds of herbaceous borders here, since this is primarily a woodland garden, but in springtime, there are masses of rhododendrons and azaleas, which give as good a display as the autumn colours.
Both Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton worked here after the property was acquired by the Holroyd family in 1769. But today's planting is largely due to Arthur Soames, who purchased the estate in 1909 and embarked on a major planting programme and built up a magnificent collection of exotic trees, conifers and shrubs suited to the acidic soils found here. He also extended the top lakes and called in Messrs Pulham, who created the Rock Garden at RHS Wisley, to build the cataract between the top and second lake.
The big freeze of 2010 when all the lakes at Sheffield Park froze
In winter too, the scenes are spectacular, particularly if a big freeze comes like in the winter of 2009/10 and the lakes ice over, giving an eerie silence to the garden because the water in the lakes stops flowing (above and below). But Sheffield Park is still stunning in wintertime because Arthur Soames planted so many evergreen trees so there is always something to see here. Definitely a garden for all seasons.
When spring comes, life begins again at Sheffield Park as the daffodils and bluebells arrive. They are followed by spectacular displays of rhododendrons (below) - once again reflected in the lakes. Virginia Woolf, who lived at nearby Monk's House, described them as "massed upon the banks ... and when the wind passes over the real flowers, the water flowers shake and break into each other." 
In springtime, it's the rhododendrons and azaleas that steal the show here at Sheffield Park
The National Trust acquired several hundred acres of the gardens when the estate was broken up in the mid 1950's, although the house remains in private ownership. It has now become one of their flagship garden properties and attracts record numbers of visitors each year, particularly in the autumn. For other suggestions on spectacular autumn gardens to visit, use this link.
Sheffield Park is open throughout the year every day except 25 December, from 10.30 to 17.30 until 31 October, and 16.00 from 1 November. Admission is £8.10 for adults, £4.05 for children, and free to National Trust members. Do try and get there early if you're planning to see the autumn colours, because the car park can get very full on sunny days and you may have to queue to get into the parking areas.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Gardens for all Seasons - RHS Wisley

Wisley in October - view across the rock garden to the glasshouse
It doesn't matter where you go at Wisley, or what time of year you visit, because there'll always be something to see at the Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) 240-acre flagship garden. The RHS originally had its headquarters in London, but moved here when Sir Thomas Hanbury of La Mortola fame, gifted the site to them in 1903.  Students come here from all over the world to study horticulture both as professionals and amateurs and visitors number around 750,000 per year. 
The glasshouse borders at RHS Wisley in late October
Wisley has something for everyone.  At the entrance there are formal canal gardens in front of the main house laid out by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and Lanning Roper in the 1960s, which include two walled gardens. Beyond this there's a Wild Garden and an area known as Seven Acres, where the planting focuses on the four seasons - it's here that you will see thousands of daffodils in spring and glorious colours in autumn.
Late-autumn colour at RHS Wisley on a chilly October day
Borders are a major feature at Wisley and you'll see every kind of perennial as you climb the hill between the splendid double borders (originally designed by Piet Oudolf) that lead to the trial test bed area featuring both ornamental and edible plants; but equally impressive are the Glasshouse Borders (above), and the Monocot Borders (below), which you can view on the way to the model gardens, which will give aspiring gardeners much to think about as they wander through the selection of "rooms" that are roughly the same size as English townhouse gardens.
The Monocot Borders at Wisley
The Rock and Alpine Meadow Garden was the first area to be developed after the RHS  received Wisley as a gift and there is always something to see here, whatever the season. It was originally designed by Edward White in 1911, but as the Millennium approached, rock gardens were decidedly unfashionable and renovation work carried out in 2004 included the addition of a new Japanese-style landscape, complete with waterfall. Today this part of the garden sits in perfect harmony with the rest of Wisley notwithstanding changes in horticultural fashion. 
The annual Butterfly Exhibition runs from 12 January - 24 February 2013
The latest addition to the garden is the giant Glasshouse, designed and built to coincide with the bicentenary of the RHS and opened by the the Queen in June 2007. It covers an area the size of ten tennis courts, and houses three climatic zones - from tropical jungle to arid desert - and provides a dramatic backdrop to year-round plant displays that include more than 5,000 cultivated plants including orchids, cacti and glossy tree ferns. But it's the annual Butterfly Exhibition that really brings this cathedral-like structure to life - delighting all ages! It runs from 12 January - 24 February in 2013.
Spring flowers at RHS Wisley
RHS Wisley is open every day of the year except Christmas Day, from 10.00-18.00 in summer and 10.00-16.30 in winter (9.00 opening at weekends). Entrance is £10.50 for adults and £4.50 for children (give ages), but free to RHS members. Well worth considering an annual membership if you live near any of the RHS gardens in the UK - in Devon, Essex, Surrey or Yorkshire, because membership, costing just £38.25 covers all four gardens and you'll also receive the RHS magazine - "The Garden" - every month, as well as free entry to other RHS designated gardens around the country.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Monday, 22 October 2012

Gardens for all Seasons - Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum

Autumn colours at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire
As I watch the weather forecast with increasing trepidation, hoping for a break in the rain to see gardens in their autumn glory, I must face facts and accept that winter's coming! Many of the gardens I know and love are closing their doors; gardeners are sweeping up the autumn leaves; the clocks soon change; and there's no getting away from the fact that we'll soon be into fog and frost. But there are some gardens that remain open throughout the winter months and I spent several hours at one of them last week.
Hillier's Acer Valley is spectacular in October and November
During a brief burst of wintry sunshine, I visited the  Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire - one of my favourites throughout the year, but particularly fine in autumn, with its acer valley and heather garden, and you'll find colour here to gladden your heart in the next few months, especially on a frosty day. The Winter Garden is the largest in Europe and is filled with wonderful, colourful barks and stems that will brighten your spirits on the shortest day, particularly the dogwoods and witch hazels.
Subtle colours in the bog garden at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
The 180-acre site was once home to Sir Harold Hillier, a passionate plant collector, who lived in the heart of the grounds in Jermyns House; worked for his family nursery business and spent most of his life collecting plants. The gardens today are a reminder of his passion for plants and trees and, with a staggering 12,500 different species of woody plants, it has one of the finest collections of hardy shrubs and trees anywhere in the world. He also left a legacy on the Isle of Wight, at the Ventnor Botanic Garden - originally used by this innovative plant collector to nurture his exotic plant collections.
The Centenary Border has been redesigned and replanted
There are many different areas within the grounds and there's year-round interest here - there's a bog garden; Gurkha garden, featuring a wide range of Nepalese plants; heather garden; Winter Garden; children's discovery area; many unusual trees; wonderful vistas over the surrounding countryside; and an annual sculpture exhibition, which runs until the end of October, so every corner you turn reveals another surprise. This year also saw the opening of the new Centenary Border, which has been completely redesigned and replanted during the last 12 months (above).
The gardens host an annual "Art in the Garden" exhibition
The arboretum has many wonderful specimen trees and provides colour throughout the seasons. Particularly noteworthy is the labelling at the gardens, and you will see many plants that catch your eye. All are marked, so if you want to grow them at home, you know what to look for. Plant collections here are arranged by habitat (e.g. Bog Garden, Winter Garden)  and by genus (e.g. Oak Field or Acer Valley). There's a nursery on site, but you can also visit any one of the Hillier nurseries around the country, or look online.
Winter colours in the heather garden
The gardens have been run by the County Council since Sir Harold donated both house and grounds to Hampshire in 1977 - but they they have continued to nurture and maintain his dream, so that everyone can enjoy his legacy, and the result is a truly remarkable garden. With 42,000 plants representing some 12,000 species and the largest number of NCCPG National Plant Collections to be found on any site in the UK - 13 in total - the gardens have developed a worldwide reputation. 
The Winter Garden is the largest in Europe and well worth visiting
It's well worth considering an annual membership here, because for just £29.95 you can visit whenever you want, but just as tempting are their reciprocal arrangements with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Wakehurst Place; National Botanic Garden of Wales and the Birmingham Botanic Gardens. Members get free admission to all these gardens, as well as free visitor passes for the main gardens here in Hampshire. Certainly a great idea for a Christmas present if you have a keen garden visitor within the family!
Spring time offers wonderful magnolia displays to visitors
The gardens are open throughout the year (except Christmas and Boxing Day, from 10.00-18.00 (April-October) and 10.00-17.00 (November-March). Admission is £8.95 for adults; under 16s go free. Happy visiting!
For more garden visits, click here

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Gardens for all Seasons - West Dean, Sussex

One of West Dean's four "rustic" summer houses, flanked by autumn borders
The days are getting shorter, there's a chill in the air and most British gardens are closed for the winter. But in the next few months, I shall be visiting the few that stay open throughout the year and looking at what they have to offer through the seasons. West Dean near Chichester in Sussex is looking particularly good this month, with borders still in flower, a fine autumn vegetable collection in the walled garden and an orchard full of apples. Combine this with stunning views over the South Downs, and an arboretum where the trees are donning their autumn leaves and it's a great place to take a walk in the winter months.
Brightly-coloured chard stems in the walled garden at West Dean
West Dean has always been renowned for its walled garden - there are a total of 13 glasshouses in this section of the garden, plus three large cold frames. The majority were manufactured by Foster & Pearson at the end of the 19th century, and today they house a prodigious range of squashes, chillies, fruits, vines and hot-house plants - which make for varied viewing throughout the seasons. But particularly impressive in the autumn are the vegetables - including many types of chard with its colourful stems, huge cabbages and root crops - especially when viewed in the watery October sunshine.
Rows of immaculately-tended vegetables in the walled garden at West Dean
The Domesday Book chronicles the first Manor that stood on the estate a thousand years ago, although the Gothic mansion that stands there today was designed by James Wyatt at the beginning of the 19th century. Caroline Harcourt inherited the estate shortly after the house had been rebuilt and had the vision to plant the arboretum that is still there today, even though many trees were felled in the Great Storm of 1987. While she was hard at work in Sussex, her brother-in-law was planting the Harcourt Arboretum near Oxford. 
There is always something on show in the 19th century glasshouses
New life was breathed into West Dean in 1892 when it was purchased by William James, at the start of an era when decorative gardens were becoming fashionable. He was heir to a substantial American fortune, had a beautiful Scottish wife and moved in the same social circles as the Prince of Wales. And, in an effort to make both house and grounds suitably impressive for royal visits, he employed Harold Peto of Iford Manor and Buscot Park fame to help him. Gertrude Jekyll was also brought in to design a water garden to the west of the house, but it was Peto who really made his mark with the 300 foot pergola that remains one of the most notable features of the gardens today (below).  
Harold Peto designed the 300 foot pergola at West Dean and Gertrude Jekyll created a water garden
Although a major feature at West Dean, the pergola is somewhat incongruous in this garden, standing alone on a East-West axis at the rear of the house. It uses 62 classical columns as the central theme, with a handsome gazebo at one end, a reflecting pool in the middle and steps leading down to a Sunken Garden (currently under restoration) at the other end. It was both restored and replanted after the 1987 storm and a new border was added on the south side as part of a plan to "root the structure into the surrounding garden". It's a notable feature of the garden, whatever the season, although you rarely see its true shape except in deep mid winter when the columns are naked and exposed to the elements.
When William James died, his son, Edward inherited the estate although he spent little time in at West Dean, or in England due to an unhappy marriage and a wanderlust that took him repeatedly to Mexico. But fortunately he had a great interest in the arts and in 1964 had the foresight to set up the Edward James Foundation which survives today, and offers courses in traditional crafts, visual arts and music. Nearly half a century later, West Dean is recognised as both an outstanding college and a remarkable garden. There are also many food and gardening courses on offer throughout the year (further details here).
West Dean gardens remain open for 11 months of the year, only closing between 24 December and 31 January. Summer opening times (1 March - 31 October) are 10.30-17.00 and winter opening hours are 10.30-16.00. Admission is £9.00 for adults and £1 for children. RHS members are entitled to free entry from October to April, and Historic Houses Association (HHA) members are admitted free throughout the year. 
One of the mysteries of West Dean is the River Lavant that sometimes flows through the garden. The reason for its intermittent existence is that it's a "winterbourne" - a stream that dries up in the summer. A real case of now you see it, now you don't. But this year was the exception - the wettest summer on record meant that the Lavant was always present!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Monday, 8 October 2012

Gardens of Alfabia - a Moorish surprise in Mallorca

The house at Alfabia is built round a courtyard, featuring a huge plane tree
It would be easy to miss the Jardines de Alfabia in Mallorca, because they are sited right at the entrance to the tunnel that connects Palma to the sleepy town of Soller on the North West corner of the island. Historic references indicate that this was once the home of the Arabic Viceroy of the island. But they are certainly a fine example of Moorish garden design, where the emphasis is on water and irrigation and are well worth stopping in to see if you're passing this way and want an excursion that doesn't include sea, sand or water sports. 
The stepped walled garden leads to the highest part of the garden
These charming gardens are being restored - very slowly - and with temperatures hovering around the 30C mark even at the beginning of October, you see the gardeners at work with a decidedly "manana" approach. These gardens are a rare remnant of Moorish civilisation on the island, and if it's gardens you're after during your Balearic stay, they provide a much better alternative to the rather disappointing Botanic Garden at Soller.
The water cistern supplies water to the pergola
You access the gardens through a fine avenue of plane trees and head towards the main facade of the house (top) before veering off to the left and entering a stepped walled garden, with compartmentalised planting and fine examples of Moorish irrigation channels. To the side of this garden, you'll get a fine view of the Tramuntana mountains, across the water cistern (above), which supplies the water to the pergola.
The pergola (above) has 72 columns, and at the lower end, the stone walls are adorned with 24 stone hydras (12 at each side), which are the source of the water jets that once immortalised this garden. But they weren't working when I visited and my limited Spanish was insufficient to find out when they do, although I suspect that a summer of severe drought may well be the explanation.
From the pergola, you can access the later additions to the garden at the rear of the house. It is here that you find the arbor and the nineteenth-century garden that clearly shows the influence of Italian design, with the large water pools (left) and English design with the planting - designed to give shade during the heat of the day. 
What is apparent at Alfabia is that there's a substantial investment in replanting, although it's clearly with a view to making the gardens more attractive, rather than restoring them to their original planting design. There are a huge number of new cycads and other architectural plants which will eventually give structure to the garden. Local friends who visited with me were amazed by the progress that's been made here in the last five years. It's a charming place and very restful, and there's certainly a fine collection of local palms. Open Monday to Saturday (9.30-18.30), from 1st April to 31st October. Entry is 6.50 Euros for adults. Certainly worth a detour and a good place to catch your breath and retreat from the heat for an hour or two.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Head for Britain's greatest glasshouses to beat the autumn blues!

The Eden Project is one of Britain's top 10 visitor attractions
Britain has some of the best and most innovative glasshouses in the world, and with winter around the corner, it's well-worth bearing them in mind for days out when garden visits are impossible, due to bad weather or lack of winter colour. The Eden Project in Cornwall  has received accolades the world over since it opened in 2001. It was the brainchild of Tim Smit of Lost Gardens of Heligan fame - who came up with the idea of converting disused china clay quarries into a magnificent garden under glass. But few believed the project costing £86 million, would actually go ahead. But it did and today it's one of the top ten visitor attractions in Britain and one of the top garden sites in the world.
The Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project is taller than the Statue of Liberty
The greenhouses, called biomes, look like huge golf balls rising out of the ground and the larger of the two - the Rainforest Biome (above) - is kept at 90% humidity and an average temperature of 75F (24C). With a height of 50 metres, the Rainforest structure could house the Tower of London and is taller than the Statue of Liberty. It's filled with lush vegetation throughout the year and part of the wonder of the interior is the the hexagonal panels towering above you. I haven't visited for years, but my son was there in June and said it's one of the most amazing sights he's seen. Open everyday of the year (except 24 and 25 December). Entry prices start at £19.50 for adults, for annual membership, children free.
The National Botanic Garden of Wales has the largest single-span glasshouse structure in the world
Another new Millennium garden that boasts the largest single-span glasshouse structure anywhere in the world can be found at the National Botanic Garden of Wales which opened its doors in 2000. It faced huge opposition when it was first conceived, but has stood the test of time and is now one of Wales' most popular tourist attractions and deservedly so. It's divided into five different climate regions and features plants from each. Certainly impressive from the outside and you'll be amazed by what's growing within! Open daily throughout the year (except Christmas Day) from 10.00. Really good value as admission is just £8.50 for adults and £4.50 for children.
The Palm House at Kew Gardens houses a collection of trees and plants from all over the world
Londoners are lucky enough to be able to stroll around the glasshouses at Kew to beat the winter blues - the Palm House (above) took four years to build and was completed in 1848. It's a Grade I listed building, is divided into three geographical areas and houses an exotic collection of foreign trees and plants from all over the globe. Although this is the largest of the glass structures at Kew, there are seven other glasshouses, including the Temperate House, which is the world's largest surviving Victorian greenhouse. Open year round (except 24 and 25 December), from 9.30, admission is £16.00 for adults. Annual members of Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire get free entry.
The annual Butterfly Exhibition at RHS Wisley delights all age groups - well worth catching in January
Just outside London, the glasshouse at RHS Wisley is a real winter wonderland. Opened in 2004 to mark the bicentenary of the Royal Horticultural Society, it houses three different climate zones - tropical, moist temperate and dry temperate - and covers an area equal to 10 tennis courts. There's always something on show here and it's particularly memorable during the Butterfly Exhibition in January. But if they've flown, there's always a fine collection of plants on show, particularly the orchids. Open every day except 25 December, from 10.00 during the week and 9.00 at weekends. Admission is £10.50 for adults and £4.50 for children. Free to RHS members. Free to all this Friday, 5th October!
The Kibble Palace glasshouse in Glasgow houses a magnificent collection of Australasian tree ferns.
The recently restored circular Kibble Palace glasshouse at Glasgow Botanic Garden is home to one of the largest collections of tree ferns in the UK. Recently restored at a cost of several million pounds, it's an impressive sight, both inside and out and you can expect to find many unusual exotics in flower here whenever you visit. Most of the Australasian ferns were brought here in the mid-19th century. Open daily throughout the year from 10.00 and free to visitors!