Interim Head Gardener at Highdown Gardens
Gary Prescod is the Head Gardener at Highdown Gardens, managing a team of three gardeners and an apprentice. Having studied at both Cambridge University and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, Gary brings a solid botanical knowledge and a passion for growing the right plant in the right place, essential for the unique collection of plants growing on chalk in the 8.5 acre gardens at Highdown.
You can read Gary's current 2018 blog posts on this page below - or click here to read his archive of 2017 blog posts ...
If you haven't yet visited Highdown Gardens this year, I would say seize the moment ... the garden is looking at its very best now, with a spring tapestry of flowering bulbs, shrubs and trees. And with the Easter holidays behind us, it's a little bit calmer and more peaceful!
Some of the larger jobs we've tackled over the past couple of weeks are paying dividends. We worked as a team last week to thin and tidy the island of bamboo by the nature pond. It was a complete thicket of bamboo stems, so we cut down all stems hanging over the pond, thinned the remaining clumps and cleared the leaves from the base of the stems to allow the stems to be the star of the show. In doing this, the bamboo becomes a screen you can see through and that flexes gently in the breeze, rather than being a solid mass of leaves and stems. It's useful to do this at this time of year, even if you grow bamboo in a container. The bamboo stems we'll use as stakes and to build small decorative fences around certain borders.
Photo: the tidied-up bamboo island
The wallflowers that we sowed from seed last June are all coming into flower now. Many people like to combine wallflowers and tulips, but I think they deserve to be planted independently where they add some vital colour to gaps in the borders at this time of year. And of course when warmed in the sun, the flowers have a beautiful honey scent.
It's unfortunate that we only had one packet of mixed colours to hand when we sowed the biennials last June. I find that the majority of wallflowers from mixed packets tend to be golden yellow which isn't a useful colour at this time of year given the forsythias and daffodils in flower. It's much better to choose a single colour that's more unusual in the garden. When I grew them for cut flowers in France, my favourite varieties were 'Blood Red Covent Garden', 'Fire King' and 'Ivory White'. There's also a new series of individual colours called the Sunset series - beautiful purples and apricots are colours to look out for, and because the seeds are F1 hybrids, the resulting plants will very strong and will give excellent performance in the garden, and in the vase once cut.
Photo: Wallflowers from last June's seed sowing
One of the star performers in the garden this week is Cyclamen repandum. I hadn't come across this cyclamen before Highdown; the standard two species we see for sale are the autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium and the early spring-flowering Cyclamen coum. In my opinion, the latter isn't a patch on C. repandum, which at Highdown seeds itself freely around into large groups. The flowers are relatively large for cyclamen, and are a beautiful shade of pink that shines out of the shade. It's quite hardy, but I think it is the well-drained nature of our calcareous soil that allows it to thrive. It's definitely one worth seeking out if you like to grow things different from the norm.
Photo: Cyclamen repandum in full flower
Despite the dreary damp weather, spring is advancing at a pace, and the species tulips are adding some excitement to the cool early spring colour palette.
It struck me last year that we do well at Highdown to have an annual re-flowering of tulip and hyacinth bulbs. Generally, they tend to get weaker over time and gradually die out. But here, I think, it's the well-drained chalky soil that help the bulbs get baked over summer: this summer ripening is what these species enjoy in their native habitats of the central Asian regions.
Look out for the hyacinths in the orchard as you enter the garden. They're just passing their peak, so catch them quick.
Photo: Hyacinths in the Orchard
The earliest tulip species to flower is Tulipa turkestanica. You'll see this in large numbers in the lower garden where its cream flowers with black anthers shine out in shadier areas. This species tulip self-seeds, so tends to find its 'happy place' in the garden.
Photo: Tulipa turkestanica
On the chalk cliff face you'll see Tulipa saxatilis, a wild triploid hybrid from Greece. The pink flowers with a bright yellow base to the segments are an interesting mix of colour: pink and yellow are difficult colours to complement each other. It tends to send up its lustrous leaves in late winter, which would be damaged in a more cold-exposed garden than Highdown. The original bulbs were given to Sir Frederick by his friend, the great plantsman G. P. Baker from a collection he made in Crete and Greece.
Photo: Tulipa saxatilis on the chalk cliff
Opposite the chalk cliff and the nature pond, you may see some groupings of Tulipa humulis, quite a variable species, but here it's a lovely cerise pink with a yellow centre.
Photo: Tulipa humulis
A couple of other plants to look out for if you're coming to the gardens: the first is a named cultivar of the common plant Honesty, Lunaria annua. I grew this cultivar for cut flowers in France, and the few plants at Highdown are grown from this seed. It's Lunaria annua 'Corfu Blue', a shorter plant than the species, and one that is in flower from February. The tone of the flowers really shines out on dull days, much improved from the dull mauve of the species. You'll see this plant by the greenhouse as you walk past.
Photo: Lunaria annua 'Corfu Blue'
Finally, one of the first group of shrubs to come into flower in spring are the viburnums. This species enjoys the chalky soil, especially those originating from China. One of the best, just coming into flower is Viburnum x burkwoodii, a cross between V. carlesii and V. utile. This evergreen shrub has clusters of very fragrant pink-budded white flowers. The scent is a strong, sweet, daphne-like fragrance, and one that drifts on the breeze. Last year, in the middle garden, I was constantly asked to identify the source of this beautiful sweet smell. Come and experience it for yourself!
Photo: Viburnum x burkwoodii in the Middle Garden
Tending a garden is a meditative, unpretentious experience: you can't force anything, you just have to wait. And so it is that at this time of year, we begin to see the fruits of all the seed sowing and propagation carried out in the autumn.
I was poking about in the coldframes this morning and my heart lifted to see that some seeds are germinating. This is the ultimate thrill to any gardener - seeing things grow. Strip gardening to its bare essentials and you find it's underpinned by seeds. All plants want to do is grow, and as gardeners, we are simply helping this process along, providing the best conditions for a plant to be successful.
It's mostly the shrub and tree seed that we left outside all winter in the coldframe, replicating the conditions that the seed would experience had it just dropped to the floor. Most trees and shrubs require a period of cold before they will germinate - a process called vernalisation. As gardeners, we can replicate this process at other times of the year by sowing seed and putting them in the fridge or freezer for a period before bringing them back out into the warmth. But leaving the seeds out over winter always produces the best results.
I'm particularly excited to see the seedlings of Viburnum betulifolium emerging.
Sown on 9th August last year, this is the plant that I wrote about in my blog in September that I can see through my office window. Stern wrote proudly on the index card for this shrub that he won a First Class Certificate from the RHS in October 1957 for this very plant, which he grew from seed. There were several specimens of this viburnum around the gardens, and gradually we've lost them all, to disease and to storm damage. It's a thrill that almost 100 years after Stern first sowed this plant from seed, we're continuing this legacy. As I say, gardening connects people across the years.
Stern received the seeds originally from George Johnstone of the Trewithen estate in Cornwall. Trewithen's great glade was developed at the same time as Highdown, and Johnstone co-sponsored some of the great plant hunting expeditions between 1910 and 1932. He was a great horticulturalist, like Stern, and had inherited the house at Trewithen in 1904. Many of the Magnolias and Camellias that are today revered at Trewithen were cultivated under the direction of Johnstone.
Also germinating are pans of Helleborus x sternii, the lovely hellebore first created by Stern and named after him. We currently have one plant of this hellebore in the middle garden, but not for long: its progeny will be spread over Highdown this year.
We also have a lot of herbaceous peonies germinating, which I'm thrilled about because peonies sometimes take two years to germinate. There's an exciting project that I'm going to run this year. Following the successful identification of many of the snowdrop colonies in the gardens this winter, we're going to focus on peonies this spring. Stern raised and named many varieties of peony, but the information is sketchy.
The trouble I had last year was that peonies are in flower for such a short window, it makes identification rushed and difficult. So this spring, we're going to faithfully photograph all of the peonies when they come into flower, and accurately note their locations. This will allow us to identify them at a more leisurely pace.
If we manage to identify some of Stern's originals, we will start a propagation programme to conserve them. With peonies, this is rather more complex than just taking cuttings: we will have to graft them onto an appropriate rootstock. Hence my excitement at the germination of herbaceous peonies; these will be the future plants that we will use to graft the named varieties onto.
I'll let you know how we get on.
Easter is upon us already, and with it comes summer opening at Highdown. We will be open every day over Easter, and from Easter Sunday 1st April, we extend the closing time to 6pm rather than 4:30pm.
If you're visiting over Easter, looking good at the moment are forsythias and anemones.
Forsythias are so ubiquitous in gardens that they're often overlooked. They're also not the greatest looking plant when clipped and pruned into regular shapes. To see them at their best, they should be in full sun and allowed to display their natural form. At the entrance to the gardens by the greenhouse is Forsythia x intermedia 'Beatrix Farrand', bred at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. At this arboretum, starting with Ernest Henry Wilson's 1918 introduction of Forsythia ovata from Korea, they developed hybrid cultivars in the years following World War II. Stern exchanged many plants with the Arnold Arboretum, including this Forsythia.
High on the chalk cliffs above the bamboo and nature pond is Forsythia giraldiana. In 1914, Reginald Farrer collected seeds of this species in Kansu, China; Stern was one of the recipients of the seed. This Forsythia is now a huge upright shrub, perhaps fifteen feet tall. The flowers are yellow, borne singly, and it is one of the earliest of Forsythias to flower.
Perhaps the best in the garden is at the entrance to the chalk pits, Forsythia x intermedia 'Spectabilis'. Introduced in 1906, this cultivar holds its flowers in clusters, and was an instant 'must have' as never before had any Forsythia produced as many or such deeply coloured flowers. To this day, Forsythia x intermedia 'Spectabilis' remains the standard for any new cultivar to better when it comes to critical comparisons. See how it shines out on a dull and rainy day.
Photo: Forsythia x intermedia 'Spectabilis' at the entrance to the Chalk Pits
In the beech woodland, look out for the anemones, which are in full flower. The anemones enjoy our chalk soil, and are much admired, especially the blue flowers of Anemone blanda, the Grecian Windflower. The original corms were sent to Highdown by S.C. Atchley who in the 1920s sent parcels of corms and roots of the Greek wild flower to Stern. Atchley was considered the foremost botanical expert on Greek plants, and collected for love, not money. It was written of him:
“As no one can fail to perceive, Atchley was a botanist because he really loved flowers; far removed from the horrible people who for lucre dig up bulbs and make rare plants rarer by the greedy and reckless collection of specimens.”
The deep blue form of Anemone blanda is Anemone blanda ingramii and is the first to flower. This was collected on sub-alpine meadows at the edge of spruce forests at altitude. Anemone blanda itself grows on limestone soils under a canopy of mixed deciduous woodland, so you can see it's equally happy in sun or dappled shade.
If you look carefully in the lower garden, you may see Anemone blanda 'Charmer', with deep rosy-pink flowers, or 'Violet Star', blue with a white centre to the flower. These varieties were raised in Holland by Mr C.J.H. Hoog, one of the great Dutch nurserymen and plant breeders. Mr Hoog was a frequent visitor to Highdown and exchanged many bulbs.
Perhaps my favourite at the moment is Anemone blanda 'White Splendour' in the Beech Wood with larger pure white flowers that shine out from the shade.
A survey reported by The Guardian revealed Parma Violets to be the least popular sweet among the millennial generation. Parma Violets take their name from the scented violet that is in flower now: Viola odorata.
This fragrant sweet violet is often referred to as 'The King of Violets', and the flowers, of the deepest violet colour, have been grown for their perfume for centuries. It's naturalised in shady parts of Highdown, but is a very low growing plant with downturned flowers. To get the scent, you have to pick a flower and hold it to your nose.
When I was gardening in France, I grew a named variety of this viola from seed: Viola odorata 'Queen Charlotte'. There are a few named varieties, and it's worth tracking them down. 'Queen Charlotte' is a heritage variety introduced in Germany in 1900 as 'Königin Charlotte'. Selected for its perfume, the flowers of this variety are extremely fragrant. It's also unique in that its flowers turn upward making them easier to see and to smell. With this variety, I found that you could smell the classic violet scent at ten paces; it was an amazing scent to find drifting in the breeze in late winter/early spring. Much better to smell this fragrance in fresh air than to have it overwhelming you as a taste in the mouth!
There's a peculiarity to the smell of violets. Historically, the scent was associated with a certain kind of magic because, like illusionists' tricks, it was there one moment and gone the next - only to reappear later, as strong as before. Violets get their scent from ionone, a fragrance chemical. It's an extremely sweet scent that many people describe as also being dry; “powdery” is the word that's often used. After stimulating scent receptors, ionone binds to them and temporarily shuts them off completely. As a result, this substance cannot be smelled for more than a few moments at a time. So although plenty of people don't like the scent of violets, particularly when chemically-created as in Parma Violets, in the garden the scent doesn't constantly overpower: it just disappears and comes back, like magic.
The RHS plant finder lists 53 different cultivars of Viola odorata. It's worth doing some research to find one that takes your fancy: Viola odorata 'Rosea' is said to be the most fragrant of all, intoxicating even.
This year we'll be trying to grow some different varieties to add some magic to our shady borders.
Photo: Violets - Viola odorata - often referred to as 'The King of Violets'
Despite the cold snap, as the weeks roll by we're seeing more and more encouraging signs of spring in the gardens. Drifts of daffodils are opening daily, and the carpets of the rather under-rated Scilla messeniaca are taking over from the late-winter flowering snowdrops and aconites.
Of course, when it comes to spring-flowering trees it's the cherries and magnolias that make the best spectacle when they explode into blossom in April. But there's one small cherry just off the main path near the cold frames that is very early flowering, and is at its best now: Prunus 'Okame' (photo below).
This stunning cherry was raised by Captain Collingwood Ingram in the 1940s. If you haven't heard of him, he's worth checking out because he's a bit of a hero in Japan. A contemporary of Stern, he created a famous garden in Benenden, Kent (now a residential care home) and by 1926 was a world authority on Japanese Cherries. There's a lovely story whereby on a visit to Japan, he was shown a painting of a beautiful white cherry, then believed to be extinct in Japan. He recognised it as one he had seen in a poor state in a Sussex garden, the result of an early introduction from Japan. He had taken cuttings of this poor tree in Sussex and so was able to re-introduce it to Japan and the wider gardening world as Prunus 'Tai Haku', meaning 'Great White Cherry'.
The Prunus 'Okame' we have at Highdown is relatively small and reminds me of a large bonsai tree. It's small because of the lack of fertility in our chalk soil - on a fertile soil it might be expected to reach 7m (23ft) over time. Cherry trees in general hate to sit in wet soils over winter, so the fact that we're very well drained at Highdown means that cherries tend to like us, despite their small size and slow growth. This stunning little tree has masses of small, carmine-pink single flowers with deep red calyces in March, which are carried in clusters. My photo doesn't do it justice - come and see it for yourself.
This week, Paul and I spent some time in Marine Gardens down on the Worthing seafront. We were lucky enough to recruit some volunteers from the town hall to come and lend a hand weeding, pruning roses and planting. This year, we're putting Marine Gardens forward for a Green Flag award so in the Parks department we've spent some time planning small upgrades to the planting to add some additional summer colour. There's still some work to be done, and I'll keep you informed as to our progress. In the beds outside the restaurant we've divided the grasses and inter-planted with Red Hot Pokers Kniphofia 'Traffic Lights' and Sea Hollies Eryngium alpinum 'Blue Star'. These will add a lot of colour through the summer months, and the flowers are great nectar sources for pollinating insects.
This week I'm handing over the Highdown blog to Shaun Blower, Apprentice Gardener at Highdown Gardens (see photo right), who will talk about his voyage into horticulture - take it away Sean ....
I can't see myself doing anything but gardening for the rest of my life, I've been saying this a lot recently, I'm hooked.
My apprenticeship has given me a pathway into an industry that I was so fascinated about. I get so much pleasure from working outdoors with plants, and gaining knowledge about them.
On my arrival at Highdown Gardens my knowledge of horticulture was minimal. I had previously graduated from Brighton University with a BA in sculpture, so my approach to gardening was to look at form and colour. I had never given myself the time to delve into the botanical side of gardening, so, full of enthusiasm, I went and bought myself a collection of horticultural books (through the recommendation of my colleague Paul Abbot) to get me started on the right track.
Each day I learn something new, from plant identification to general garden maintenance. I am able to watch this magnificent garden shift with the seasons for the first time, discovering new plants as they emerge. We are now seeing the snowdrops and the winter aconites fade, and the early anemones and daffodils spring into life.
I am lucky because I get to work with one-on-one with all the gardeners, each offering their own set of skills and knowledge.
Currently I'm in the garden four days a week, and I spend one day at Plumpton College, where I am studying Level 2 Horticulture. Plumpton College is a land-based college offering programs at Further and Higher Education level. It is set in the beautiful hillsides of West Sussex and has a wide variety of facilities. More info.
So far we have learnt about health and safety, communication, industry understanding, business skills, environmental protection and plant identification. I am really eager to solidify my plant identification skills, as every two weeks we have an identification quiz.
Next week we are covering soil science. I will be taking a soil sample from Highdown Gardens which I will take with me to Plumpton to study the pH, structure and the nutrient content of the soil. It will be interesting to know how the chalk affects the soil.
The other units that we will be covering will focus on plant biology and maintenance. One of the areas I am particularly interested in is propagation. I have already been taught a great deal by Gary and Paul at Highdown Gardens. I have learnt how to take stem and root cutting, as well as dividing and collecting seed.
I feel my horticultural journey has just begun. It's a whole world of discovery to uncover. As for my goals in the future, I would love to do a garden design course. This would fuse my two passions together well: art and gardening. I will be sad when I have to leave Highdown but I think it will have given me the best start on my gardening journey.
I would also like to thank everyone who has made this opportunity possible for me.
Photo: Plumpton College
The week started with a lovely sunny day and thankfully I took some photos of the first daffodils to come into flower at Highdown. A day later - Tuesday - of course we're under a blanket of snow. What a difference a day makes, to quote the famous song.
Who doesn't like to see a daffodil, heralding the arrival of spring? At Highdown, daffodils abound in their thousands both in the borders and naturalised in drifts under trees. They all seem to enjoy the chalky soil, even growing happily in chalk rubble at the base of the cliff face.
There are four I want to point out today, which are the first ones in flower at Highdown.
One in particular has been in flower by the greenhouse since January. It's Narcissus trewianus, pictured right, a gift to Sir Frederick from a neighbour who brought the bulbs from Iraq where he lived. It is a very attractive tall tazetta form - this is the type that we generally buy as heat treated bulbs to plant indoors in the autumn in the hope that we'll have flowers for Christmas.
In the middle garden is a relative of this narcissus with a golden perianth and an orange corona. This is Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Soleil d'Or', pictured right. Like the species above, it is usually thought to be tender, but grows perfectly happily outside at Highdown. Personally, I find the strong colour a bit jarring in February: when the eye is used to the pale primrose yellow shades, an egg yolk and orange flower can look out of place.
The tarzetta narcissi have a very strong scent - almost overpowering when cut and brought inside. It's reminiscent of jasmine and hyanciths - very sweet and heavy. The word 'narcissus' may actually derive from the Greek for intoxicated (narcotic).
One of the first native daffodils to flower in the gardens (this year, the first flowers appeared on 26th February) is the Tenby daffodil - Narcissus obvalaris, pictured below.
This you can see in many borders in the middle garden. This wild daffodil is now considered to be a subspecies of the true wild species Narcissus pseudonarcissus, and was first found locally to Tenby in Dyfed. It's a beautiful little golden daffodil and is of course the emblem of Wales. It reaches only 20-30cm, flowers late February and March and is excellent for naturalising.
The final daffodil that you’ll see at Highdown this week is the miniature Narcissus 'Tête-à-Tête': it's easy to grow, seemingly lives for ever, and wins awards every year. It's a cyclaminius daffodil, that flowers early from late February to March. It's the smallest daffodil, growing only 15cm so is an excellent choice for growing around trees and shrubs which is where you'll see it in at Highdown. They can bear up to three flowers per stem, which is where the name derives from. At Highdown, perhaps because of the poor soil and the fact that we do not feed the bulbs, we usually only see one flower per stem.
If you want to see the daffodils in person we will be opening Highdown on Mother's Day, Sunday 11th March 2018, from 10am to 4:30pm. I hope to see some of you then.
Photos: left - Narcissus obvalaris, the emblem of Wales, seen in the middle garden; and right - Narcissus Tête-à-Tête
On Sunday, we held an open day that we ran as part of the National Garden Scheme (NGS) Snowdrop Festival. It was a success! The rain held off until the very end, we ran six snowdrop tours and a total of 375 people took advantage of our exceptional Sunday opening.
I am very grateful to Claudia Pearce, the NGS Assistant County Organiser for helping set up the day, arranging publicity and manning the entrance (photo right).
From a Highdown perspective, the day was important because it has forced Paul and I to look closely at the snowdrop collection. We worked closely with Simon Hollingworth, one of our volunteers, who has been visiting Highdown for nearly 50 years and is a passionate galathophile (snowdrop collector). Together, we started back in December to take regular tours of the garden, armed with Stern's book 'Snowdrops and Snowflakes' (1956), an online reference guide and kneeling pads ... we have now learned how to spot some of the snowdrop species at ten paces.
More difficult is the identification of specific cultivars. There are some cultivars that were named by Stern - Galanthus gracilis 'Highdown', for example, and Galanthus elwesii 'Sybil Stern'.
Since snowdrop cultivars may vary by the shape of the markings, the size of the flower, or even the length of the flower pedicel, it may take us a while to accurately identify the plants left in the collection. However, it is very important that we do so because Stern played a critical role in the classification of snowdrops; indeed, Galanthus rizehensis was first named and classified by Stern at Highdown.
You can see on the photo below a snowdrop with a long 'pedicel' - the stalk that attaches to the flower. The length of the pedicel is one of the features that helps us identify a snowdrop cultivar.
Following the snowdrop day, on Monday we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the day the gardens were bequeathed to Worthing Borough Council by Lady Sybil Stern, following the death of Sir Frederick.
The Highdown Team were joined by the garden volunteers, Councillor Diane Guest and the Mayor of Worthing Alex Harman.
The Mayor gave a speech acknowledging the people who for fifty years have worked so hard to maintain Highdown Gardens in the spirit described by Sir Frederick in his seminal work 'A Chalk Garden' (1960).
We all took a moment to reflect on the passage of time and the beauty that still exists at Highdown. A proud day for all.
Photo: Jo Hooper, Highdown Gardens manager, and mayor Alex Harman on the new bench in the Millenium Garden, with staff, volunteers and councillors
Gardens evolve quickly, and it's clear that after a hundred years, Highdown Gardens is a very different place to that enjoyed in 1909. Take a close look at the photo below, taken in the early 1920s for an article in Country Life magazine. The photo is taken from the steps alongside the water cascade in the Chalk Pit. You can see how exposed all of the planting is to sunlight. Imagine the conditions here faced by plants on a hot summer's day: baking hot sunshine, reflected light from chalk and extremely well drained soil.
Photo: Highdown Gardens in the 1920s
For those of you who have visited this location today, you'll know that trees have grown up to maturity, and this whole area is in deep shade. Shady and well drained/chalky makes for a completely different environment in which to grow plants than in Stern's day.
Many of the borders around the garden are now dry, shady environments, and it's difficult to find a wide variety of plants that will cope with these conditions. In spring, when the deciduous trees and shrubs are still missing their leaves, spring bulbs take centre stage, and are very successful and popular at Highdown. However, once the spring show is over, it's Brunnera, Ivy and Vinca that predominate as ground cover (oh, and not forgetting ground elder!). They do a good job, but aren't exactly the most colourful or interesting of plants.
So I've puzzled over plants that will add some flowers, some colour and some summer interest in our dry, shady borders. Last summer, I got excited by the idea of introducing many different fuchsias back into the garden; that was before we noticed fuchsia gall mite had finally reached us and was decimating our existing stock of fuchsias.
We're soon to be sowing some seed of plants that I hope will do a good job:
- Alchemilla erythropoda, the dwarf lady's mantle with its sprays of acid yellow flowers;
- Asperula orientalis, blue woodruff with its lavender blue tubular flowers all summer long;
- Campanula persicifolia 'Telham Beauty', the bellflower with tall flower spikes of china blue;
- Four varieties of foxglove;
- Euphorbia coralloides, the coral spurge with bright yellow flowers all year round;
- and three varieties of scented Viola odorata, hopefully bringing some extra fragrance of Parma Violets to the garden
I'll let you know how we get on.
Photo: Montage of the flowers
This Sunday is when we have an extraordinary Sunday opening of the gardens on behalf of the National Garden Scheme. This ties in with our celebration next Monday of 50 years of Highdown Gardens being under council ownership. In the spirit of the Sterns' generous donation of the gardens to Worthing Borough Council, the Sunday snowdrop day will now be free entry, but I hope any visitor will consider a donation to the National Garden Scheme which supports many cancer charities. Guided tours will still be available on the hour, at a charge of £2.50 per person. The gardens will open at 10am, and close at 4pm. Last admission will be at 3:30pm.
For details see: Snowdrop day detials on the Highdown Gardens website
Next week, I hope to bring you some pictures of these two special days.
When I introduced the team back in late November, each explained the area of the garden they're responsible for. Historically, and for good reason, it has been the case that the gardeners at Highdown each are responsible for a set area of the garden. In working this way, we become intimately familiar with all the plants in our areas, with the particularities of the soil (which can differ enormously across the garden), with the exposure to sun and shade throughout the year, and with any recurring problems such as disease or rabbit damage. By carving up the garden in this way, it becomes a lot more manageable.
So our responsibilities are:
- Me - the Chalk Pit and the Tree and Shrub (Middle) Garden;
- Colin - the Lower Lawns and Rose Walk;
- Paul - The Entrance, the Old Orchard and the Rose Gardens;
- Claire - The Herbaceous (Lower) Garden.
- Shaun the apprentice - works two days with me, two days with Claire and spends one day at Plumpton College each week.
Map showing areas in the Gardens - click on the map for a larger (more readable) interactive version
This method of working is effective, but it does have its downsides. Firstly, I'm the only one with an overview, so team members don't necessarily know the plants in another's section. And secondly, it can be solitary, working individually in isolation.
So when opportunities come up to work as a team, it's a great day in the Gardens. This week, we had such a day. Once a year, we work together to lay fresh hardwood bark-chips on the main path that leads from the entrance down to the Chalk Pit. With all the recent wet weather, the path had become worn and slippery in places, so whereas we usually re-lay the bark just before Mother's day and the start of summer hours, I decided that now was the time.
The refresh makes a huge difference to the welcoming feel of the garden, but the bark path is not a great solution in terms of sustainability and ease of access. That's why when we develop the garden with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we'll be looking to upgrade the path to a hard (but permeable) surface appropriate for wheelchair users. I imagine that Paul will be very happy at that point: it's his job to rake the path smooth each morning, which can be an onerous task!
At the same time, we're just finishing off the hard landscaping in the Millennium Garden, ready for the commemoration on 19th February 2018 of 50 years since the gardens were handed to Worthing Borough Council. Again, we've laid hardwood bark chips around the newly created island beds, and have commissioned a new bench. It's still my plan to make a botanical style of herb garden in this space, given that it's hot, sunny and dry. I envision the air being fragrant with the sun-baked oils of lavender, rosemary, pinks, and fennel. A delicious place to sit and dream of the Mediterranean, before dropping down to the coast for a dip in the English channel!
Working as a team for the day, we achieved a lot - and all with good humour and 'banter'. We each slept well and contentedly that night.
Photo: New bench loaded up and being taken to the Millennium Garden (by Claire, Paul, Colin and Shaun)
Photo: New bench in the Millennium Garden surrounded by hardwood bark chips and newly created island beds
Horticulturally, this is my favourite time of year. Personally, it's my worst.
What wears me down, like the majority of the population, is the 6:00am alarm, and driving in the dark to get to work by 7:00am. What I detest is being in a traffic jam on the coast road at 6:30am in the morning! But all that is forgotten during the day at Highdown when presented with the sight of crocuses opening in the sun. For me, snowdrops are OK, but it's the rich purple of crocuses at the end of January which lifts my heart and acts as a beacon to say that spring is not far off.
Take this morning: it's cold, 2°C when I defrosted the car, but the sun came out around 11:30am. And the crocuses began to open.
At Highdown we've got carpets of Crocus tommasinianus (photo above), the best crocus for naturalising. Why? Because it self-seeds, and the seedlings quickly develop into flowering bulbs. As a whole, they create a blaze of colour: the first strong colour of the year. A tapestry of rich purple in late January - you can't ask for more. Also, because it seeds, there is a fair bit of colour variation in the flowers, from pale lilac to rich purple. You can see in the photo I took this morning some of this variation. You can actually buy specific cultivars, but of course as soon as they start self-seeding, the colours will vary.
Some of the best cultivars are:
- 'Barr's Purple' (amethyst violet)
- 'Lilac Beauty' (lilac)
- 'Roseus' (pink)
- 'Ruby Giant' (purple)
- 'Whitewell Purple' (silvery reddish purple flowers, pale mauve on the inside)
Oh, and the early bees absolutely love these flowers; another reason to plant them with abandon. And finally, because they flower in January, by the time you drag the mower out in late March, they should have seeded and stored enough energy to reappear next year.
I saw another bulb this morning that stopped me in my tracks: the spring snowflake Leucojum vernum (photo below). There are two main types of snowflake - this and the summer snowflake Leucojum aestivum. We have a lot of the latter around Highdown, and it's quite a tall plant that to my mind gets a bit lost in the jostle for attention in late spring. Leucojum vernum, however, is a jewel.
It has lampshade-like bells, made up of six pointed petals held open wide, showing green tips. It carries two flowers per stem, above lush, strap-shaped leaves. The flowers are said to be fragrant, but with ours growing on the north face of a rockery, they air is too cool to carry any scent.
A day spent outside, observing these two gems of a plant, and I'm just about ready for the long commute home!
This week sees the culmination of months of work re-writing the Management Plan for Highdown Gardens. You may or may not be surprised to learn that gardening in a historic and public garden is not just a case of seeing where the fancy takes you, grabbing some secateurs or a pruning saw, and getting stuck in! I would say at least half of the role of Head Gardener is desk-based, dealing with administration, as well as planning and strategising for the future. With the Heritage Lottery Fund project funding being approved, the management plan becomes more important than ever.
So what's a management plan?
It's a document that helps us to manage, maintain, develop and improve Highdown Gardens (or any park or garden) in the most appropriate way.
It is updated regularly, so is not something gathering dust on a shelf; it is a working tool in the Gardens and in the Council.
Imagine someone had to take over this job from me quickly with no time for a handover. The new Head Gardener could look at the Management Plan, and in one place find a summary of all the work carried out to date in the Gardens, the vision and strategies for the Gardens over the next 5 to 10 years, and documented lists of everything scheduled to happen in the Gardens in this financial year, and for the next few years. It contains ideas that need to be explored and things that need to be improved; it identifies which plants are vulnerable and need special care and attention; it specifies which plants should be considered in new planting schemes, and which plants avoided; and to all these points, it discusses why this is the case.
You can see that it's effectively the Head Gardener's brain in one document. So not a small piece of work (he said, modestly).
As well as being used to describe the site and define current and future work in the Gardens, a Management Plan is also critical to help us communicate our ideas and plans to all stakeholders, officers and elected members of the Council. If no one centrally knows what we're doing or planning at Highdown, how can the right decisions be made about, for example, future funding for Highdown?
An effective management plan is also one of the criteria we're assessed on in the Green Flag Awards. The Green Flag Award is the national standard for quality parks and green spaces that are freely accessible to the public. Winners are judged to be welcoming and well maintained, and have the support and involvement of the local community.
The award, celebrating its 22nd year in 2018, recognises and rewards the best parks and green spaces across the country. A Green Flag flying overhead is a sign to the public that the space boasts the highest possible standards, is beautifully maintained and has excellent facilities.
Highdown Gardens was first awarded a Green Flag in 2004/05 and has successfully retained the award every year since. I hope that with the work put into the Management Plan, reflecting the exciting future plans for Highdown given the Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Highdown will retain this proud achievement in the years to come.
See also: Awards - on the Highdown Gardens website
Photo: Our first Green Flag Award Certificate from 2004/05 (sorry for the image quality)
Non-horticulturalists will often remark “But what do you do at this time of year?!”
I think that often people have visions of us huddled around a fire with steaming mugs of tea watching the rain pour down the windowpanes. Sadly not true: we're on the other side of the window! I have to say that this is now the start of the busiest time of the year for us, and the pressure will continue ramping up until we reach late spring. Whatever the weather, here at Highdown, pruning waits for no man.
Picture all the trees and shrubs here; it's only now that most have lost their leaves that two things become apparent. Firstly, how rapidly that thug of a plant, common ivy, has climbed up trunks and branches; and secondly, the amount of diseased wood in trees and shrubs. It's easy to become overwhelmed in an old garden with the amount of work to be done. But like most projects, once you split the objective down into smaller component tasks, you can see a way through the maze.
So, the team's first job in the New Year was to pull out all ivy that's grown up into trees and shrubs. It's also a good opportunity to clear a circle of ivy on the ground around the plant to allow for mulching later on. Any ivy that's obscuring snowdrops or other spring bulbs is also removed. The ivy removal is no mean task, but we had help last week with the first outing of the Friends of Highdown volunteers. Remember - our Friends of Highdown meet every 2 weeks on a Thursday morning. If you've got a resolution to be more active, I'm always looking for more volunteers! Email firstname.lastname@example.org
So my deadline for removing unwanted ivy is end January.
Of course, ivy is generally a very beneficial plant, and its wildlife benefits are huge. Both the pollen and berries can be an essential source of food for many insects and birds and ivy provides shelter for invertebrates, birds, small mammals and bats. That's great in woodland, but here in a garden of nationally important trees and shrubs, it's the latter that are my priority.
One of the main implications of ivy growth into shrubs and trees is that it may hide defects or structural issues, so that's the second stage of work that we undertake: removal of all dead and diseased material from the plant. Only when the ivy has been cleared is it easy to see any branches that are dead, or infected with fungus. At this time of year, the fungus itself often becomes a thing of beauty, but of course for the protection of the tree or shrub, infected branches are removed. Any diseased wood at Highdown is burned to ensure the fungal spores are removed from the garden. We do of course chip all healthy wood, and use it as a mulch or add it to our compost heaps.
So my aim until mid-February will be to have removed and burnt all diseased wood.
That means for 6 weeks after mid-February, the team can concentrate on renovation-pruning shrubs and giving them a good mulch of leaf mould or composted manure. Renovation pruning is a subject I'll write about when we start to do the work, and of course mulching will help to protect and feed the roots of the trees and shrubs, and give them a good start to the year when spring gets under way.
It goes without saying that as well as the pruning, I have numerous other projects to occupy the team at the moment:
- We're still working on the Millennium Garden getting it cleaned and ready for the 50th anniversary commemoration on 19th February 2018.
- We're still trying to identify snowdrops as they emerge, ready for the Snowdrop Festival open day on Sunday 18th February 2018.
- We still have to top dress all the paths with hardwood chippings ready for the new season.
- And I personally am still involved in starting up the Heritage Lottery Fund project.
So, sitting with cups of tea around a fire dreaming of spring couldn't be further from the truth!
Photo: Ivy overtaking rose stems
Photos: Ivy growing into trees (left) and diseased wood becomes apparent (right)
Photos: Strangely beautiful fungal growth
Happy New Year, and good health from the team at Highdown. We hope to see you in the gardens soon.
My New Year's present was mole-mageddon in the chalk pits. Actually, a mole made its presence known back in October, and it's been a daily chore to remove the hills from the lawn during 3 months. I was hoping a trick I learned from an old neighbour in France would work to evict the culprit. You have to create a smell in the burrows because, having poor eye sight and a strong sense of smell, they will subsequently avoid that tunnel. In France, a small amount of petrol was used, but here we opted for crushed garlic. The problem is, in France the moles would tunnel away to neighbouring fields: great! problem solved! In the chalk pits at Highdown, however, there's nowhere for the mole to go, so he just digs a new burrow in the vicinity.
Photo: mole-mageddon in the chalk pits
After 3 months, and with the wet weather we've suffered, the lawn has become a sea of mud and the ground has become unstable with all the burrowing. In a public garden, health and safety has to be the first priority, so I've called in an expert to trap and remove the miscreant. It's great when you talk to experts and get a better understanding of a situation. Our problem, apparently, will be a single male who, during the hours of darkness, will paddle overground to move between the two chalk pit lawns, always searching for new areas of food. Judging by the amount of molehills, I'd assumed it was at least a couple of families of four!
In the spring, we'll have to build up the sunken parts of the ground with soil and top-dress the lawn to make the areas safe again.
While this is going on, it's encouraging to see the resurgence of early spring bulbs and hellebores. We all need a pick-me-up in these dark months and renewed growth and early flowers will always do it. Snowdrops and winter aconites are appearing in abundance, and hellebore flower buds are slowly opening. A heartening reminder of the turning of the seasons.
Talking of snowdrops, you'll remember that we're setting up a garden open day on Sunday 18th February as part of the National Garden Scheme snowdrop festival. In the spirit of community and encouraging family outings, we've decided to make the event free for under 16s. Visitors to Snowdrop Festival gardens will have the benefit of knowing that the entrance fee is supporting wonderful causes; the NGS currently donates around £3 million annually to their beneficiary charities, including Marie Curie and Hospice UK.
Photo: Snowdrops emerging on the chalk cliff
Further details about the event can be found on the websites below:
- Winter snowdrops, bulbs and shrubs - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Snowdrop Gardens - on the NGS website
- Hellebores - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Winter aconites - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Spring flower photos - on the Highdown Gardens website
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