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 ...
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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