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.
Paul Abbott, (Senior Gardener at Highdown Gardens) is taking over Head Gardner Gary Prescod's spot on the blog again this week while he takes a very well earned break!
One of the things that I love about being a professional Gardener is that there are so many opportunities to learn and discover new things.
My colleague, Claire and our apprentice Shaun were left puzzled by the identity of a tree at the bottom of the Hellebore Bank.
A leaf and some photos were brought up to our staffroom in case anyone had an idea what it could be.
Despite its fascinating appearance and heavily serrated leaf margin, none of us could fathom it out so we looked in a tree field guide to see if we could spot it there.
Initially, we landed on Ulmus pumila, (Siberian Elm), but some of the features just weren't quite close enough. We decided to put the photos on an online Plant Identification Group.
If you use Facebook, these groups can be so helpful and often a correct answer will be provided within minutes which you can verify in books or on the internet. (If you don't have internet access why not ask at your local Horticultural Society or a friend with a keen interest in plants if they know what your mystery specimen could be)?
Before long we had about five people suggesting the same tree, Zelkova serrata, (Japanese Zelkova). We checked it out and sure enough this was our plant. It is a deciduous, spring flowering tree with a fairly short trunk dividing into spreading branches holding the eye-catching leaves.
It turns out, we were not a million miles out in our initial guess as both plants belong to the same plant family so have some very similar features.
Photo: Zelkova serrata leaf close up showing heavily serrated margin
Continuing on the theme of discovery brings me to the main subject of this week's blog – the Highdown Nerine Collection.
Highdowns' creator, Sir Frederick Stern and his final Head Gardener, John Bassindale, were both keen breeders of Nerine sarniensis otherwise known as the Guernsey Lilly.
There are many types of Nerine, but this autumn flowering, indoor species is one of the most popular and over the years numerous hybrids have been produced by breeders all over the world.
We recently found records of Nerine sarniensis at Highdown from the 1950s to early 1970s including the names of many of the varieties grown here at that time.
It is clear from these records not only the range that was grown in the old Nerine Glasshouse (where the Herb Garden now stands), but also that Stern was breeding Nerines and selling them to people as far afield as South Africa, (where the species version originally comes from).
When I took over care of our Nerine collection, the first thing I noticed was that most of them were sadly missing labels.
These plants are so important to the history of Highdown that I have made it my mission to try to identify the varieties in the collection. I recently contacted the Nerine Nursery at Exbury Gardens in the New Forest for advice on identifying our plants and to learn how to grow them to give the best show of blooms. I was lucky to receive an invitation to attend the Nerine and Amaryllid Society Open Day at Exbury last weekend, where I had a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes of the Nerine Nursery. The spectacle was amazing and the chance to learn from people with specialist knowledge of growing and identifying these stunning bulbs was fantastic.
Photo: A colourful view of Exbury Nerine Nursery
We still have a way to go in identifying what varieties we have, but I now feel better placed to do this and have names of a few specialists I can send photos to for identification as well as having a go myself.
We will keep you posted in further blogs as we discover the identity and history of our collection of Nerines.
We are often asked if garden visitors can enter the glasshouse to view them - sadly as the floors are uneven and narrow the answer is no, but once we discover the names of our varieties we will try to find a way of displaying those which are flowering for all to enjoy.
Photo: The cheery flowers of one of our Nerine sarniensis
If you have an interest in a particular group of plants there are numerous ways to learn more including joining your local Horticultural Society or specialist plant group. Groups exist for plants including orchids, cacti, alpines, bulbs such as cyclamen or nerines, cottage garden, hardy plants and many more.
Surf the internet or ask friends who are keen gardeners what groups they know of locally and see what you can discover to develop your particular interest in the fascinating world of plants.
I'll leave you this week with a picture of the strawberry-like fruit produced by Arbutus unedo, (the Strawberry Tree) in the tree and shrub area of the Lower Garden. This tree forms part our National Plant Collection and was grown from seed in the 1920s. Due to its age, the smooth, light brown bark on this specimen has lost it showiness but the inedible fruits never fail to amaze.
Photo: Strawberry-like fruit of Arbutus unedo
I've enjoyed sharing life in the garden with you over the last two weeks. Next week our Head Gardener, Gary returns from his holidays and will be back on the blog so please be sure to join him then.
- Zelkova serrata - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Hellebore Bank - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Other plants of interest - on the Highdown Gardens website
Paul Abbott, (Senior Gardener at Highdown Gardens) is taking over Head Gardner Gary Prescod's spot on the blog while he takes a very well earned break!
Autumn has certainly arrived in the gardens. The leaves are now falling thick and fast and while I enjoy crunching through freshly fallen leaves as much as the next person, it creates rather a lot of work for the team here and our great band of volunteers. But as the temperature drops we are actually all quite happy to head out leaf sweeping first thing in the morning - nothing quite like a bit of physical exercise to warm you up!
The leaves are easier to clear from the lawns than they are the flowerbeds. Here we often find ourselves down on hands and knees with a hand rake removing them and as we do so we realise that a few of our perennial plants, those like geraniums which don't look great over winter, now need cutting back. This of course creates further waste!
The need to dispose of green waste in an eco-friendly way brings me onto the main focus of this blog; that of making black gold (otherwise known as leaf mould!).
Previously we disposed of leaves by spreading them in the tree belts around the perimeter of the garden and in the woodland allowing them to rot down as a natural mulch. This is great for the specimens there, as it conserves moisture around the roots, helps to keep weeds down and in time gives the trees a bit of a nutrient boost.
However, this year there appeared to be quite a build-up of leaves around the perimeter tree belts from previous years which need to further decompose.
Our new solution to deal with the huge number of leaves falling around our varied collection of trees was to create leaf mould bays. A couple of weeks ago one of the team, Colin, spent a morning with one of our much appreciated garden volunteers, Gary, building three smaller compost bays out of old wooden pallets within a large bay.
Photo: Head Gardener, Gary Prescod and apprentice, Shaun, busy cutting old plant material from the garden into small pieces in one of the bays so it rots down quicker
Photo: one of the compounds already beginning to fill up
We will be adding to this throughout the winter and turning it every few weeks to keep the heat flowing, encouraging the leaves to rot down into leaf mould.
Once a bay is full, the contents will be turned into the next section to encourage it heat up further and rot down. The first bay will be filled with more garden waste and once the contents of the second bay has rotted down further it will be tossed into the third bay, freeing up bay two for the contents of bay one. We will continue this process and this will help to increase the quality of the compost for use in the garden.
In a year, this will be ready for us to use to improve compost mixes for potted plants in the glasshouse and plants we are growing on in the cold frames. When we start mulching in early November, we will also use it as a special mulch around some of the oldest and most important plants in the garden.
If your trees are dropping their leaves everywhere, you too can produce your own leaf mould. If you've got only the odd tree or two and little space, I'd recommend collecting the leaves into black sacks, tying the top and leaving them in a dark corner of the garden to break down, or why not use a compost bin which are available in most garden centres? A year's patience will reward you with rich leaf mould to benefit your garden. If yours is a larger space with more trees, why not get a couple of wooden pallets and create a leaf mould bay in a far corner of the garden.
Due to our chalky conditions at Highdown we don't normally get the most spectacular autumn colour. However, as I walked through the garden on my morning walk round to check all is well I noticed this beautiful Fraxinus excelsior 'Raywood', (Ash).
What's stealing the show in your garden this week with beautiful autumn colour and interest?
see also: Highdown Gardens website
I mentioned last week that the number one question I get emails about concerns the disposal of ashes. The second most frequent concerns the pond at Highdown; or rather, the state of the pond. People are concerned that the pond is not oxygenated; the fish are too large; the cascade is too choked; one of the fish looks unwell.
With regard to the latter, the fish in question is 'Bendy Wendy', so nicknamed in ages past. She has a kinked back, but swims around quite normally. Colin, one of the team, has been at Highdown since 2002 and even at that stage, Wendy had been in the pond for as long as anyone could remember. So she's a venerable member of the Highdown team, decades old, and despite her appearance, is always the first to charge up to eat when we feed the fish every morning.
Photo: Bendy Wendy, one of the fish in the ponds at Highdown Gardens
In terms of the pond regime, we clean the pond of surface debris every day using a net. Lots of stuff gets thrown in – sticks, leaves, flowers, and lots of debris falls in from the trees above. Equally, every day we clear all surface debris from the cascade, sweep all leaves from the steps and paths around the ponds, and feed the fish. An organic pond cleaning compound is used weekly during summer to remove the excess nitrates in the water, thus preventing the growth of algae and blanket weed. And finally, the apprentice and I get in the pond with waders every couple of months to cut back plants in the pond and overhanging foliage.
The team at Highdown care passionately about the garden and all the wildlife therein, including the fish. If we thought there was a problem with the pond or the fish, we would of course call on the services of an expert.
This week we're carrying out some major surgery in the garden: the pruning of the holm oak hedge which borders the upper rose garden. This year, the roses have been shy of flowering which I put down to the shade now cast by this massive hedge. Whereas it's important as a wind break, it really was beginning to overpower the space. Cue a chainsaw.
The holm oak will grow new leaves next spring, but in the meantime the roses will benefit from more airflow and more light. Expect a more impressive display in 2018!
Photo: Pruning the holm oak hedge
Photo: The holm oak hedge after pruning
Finally, now we've reached October, the gardens are no longer open at weekends. Winter opening hours are 10am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday. For the first time this year, however, I'm looking into opening the gardens for a one-off event on Sunday 18th February 2018. Working with the National Garden Scheme as part of their Snowdrop Festival, we'll be offering the chance to admire the different varieties of snowdrops in the garden as part of a guided tour, or just have a walk in lovely surroundings in the wintry depths of February. I'll have to make a charge for entry or for tours but I hope you'll support us in this new initiative. Further information to follow.
Having not had a break since March, I'm taking a couple of week's holiday. One of my team - Paul Abbott - will be writing the weekly blog in my absence. Be kind to him!
Monday, 0730. The first job each week for me and the apprentice is sweeping round the pond and fishing out the various sticks, leaves and flowers that have been thrown in at the weekend.
Children like playing pooh sticks down the cascades. This morning, sweeping away, I noticed that ashes had been scattered in a border.
Well, not scattered: more tipped out into a pile. This is the fourth time I've come across ashes in the garden since starting in January. I mention this because it's the subject I get the most emails about. It appears quite a few people specify in their will that they would like their remains scattered in Highdown Gardens, usually in the rose garden. Bereaved relatives obviously want to honour the wishes of their loved one, but unfortunately I have to disappoint: we do not allow the spreading of cremated remains in the gardens.
Firstly, although not toxic, if concentrated amounts are placed on grass or foliage it can cause burning, a similar effect to putting on too much fertiliser. So ashes need spreading out, and if put on the soil should be dug in to prevent too much concentrated matter in one place.
Secondly, it's a bit of a difficult situation for me and the team, often to be found on our hands and knees, to have to weed or plant in an area where ashes have been deposited. Should we be respectful and not touch them? Should we dig them in? Left in a pile, they tend to remain there for months before being washed away by the rain….
Finally, it has been suggested that perhaps we dedicate a part of the gardens just for the scattering of ashes. Checking the legalities of this out with the crematorium, once this happens, the dedicated area can never be used for a different purpose, in perpetuity. So that's not really an option.
Once, during the summer, I was conducting a guided tour, and a visitor remarked on some ashes in a border. “I thought the spreading of ashes in the gardens wasn’t allowed?” he asked. I replied that indeed this is the case, but people still do it. “Yes,” he responded. “We spread mum’s ashes in the rose garden although we knew it was frowned on.” When he saw my horrified face, he quickly added “Oh, don’t worry! We didn’t do it on a windy day!”
A plea from us gardeners at Highdown: please think of us before ignoring the rules and scattering ashes in the gardens! If you want to commemorate your loved one, consider donating a bench for the enjoyment of other visitors. These can be ordered from the council to be put in place and maintained for a period of 10 years. With a personalised plaque, it's a great way to celebrate the life of a loved one, whilst helping to maintain the gardens. More information can be found here: http://www.highdowngardens.co.uk/support-us/#commemoration-benches.
Despite my saying previously that plants growing on chalk don't present a great autumn show, the lovely Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, growing through shrubs in the chalk pit caught my eye this morning. Clearly it's a great choice if you want autumn colour and you garden on chalk. Even better if you have a 20m cliff face in your garden to grow it on!
(Photo: Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, growing through shrubs in the chalk pit)
This coming weekend is the last full weekend that Highdown will be open before we switch over to winter hours. We will be closed at weekends from Sunday 1st October (including that Sunday), and open Monday to Friday 10am to 4:30pm.
So now is the time to come and enjoy Highdown in its autumn splendour. I've mentioned before that on chalk, autumn leaf colour is not generally pronounced, so autumn at Highdown manifests itself in glorious displays of berries. Because we have many mature shrubs, the sight can be spectacular; this is particularly true on the cliffs of the chalk pit where many plants jostle for attention.
I've snapped a few shrubs looking particularly good (and that I can access with just a mobile phone camera!) ...
Berberis jamesiana was collected by George Forest in Yunnan in 1913, and named after his brother James. Stern notes that he raised the plants at Highdown from seed from Wisley in 1925.
Photo: Berberis jamesiana
The rose I've photographed in the middle garden is a chance seedling, unexpected as it's in the shade of the champion Carpinus turzaninowii tree. Given the shape of the hips, I suspect it's a seedling of Rosa moyesii: the species roses always give the best hips. However, they're a particularly rich shade of red, deeper in colour than usual, which just goes to prove the exciting variations you can get in plants from sowing seed. That's exactly how Stern bred the original Rosa x highdownensis, also a seedling of R. moyesii, which has proved to be an enduring and much-loved rose.
Photo: Rosa moyesii
The cotoneaster pictured is a bit of a mystery: perhaps you could help me? There are two shrubs of this plant in the upper rose garden, yet it has larger berries than is normal on a Cotoneaster, all held in clusters of three. The colour of the fruit is particularly dark, a purplish-red rather than the usual orange-red. The leaves are smooth, larger than usual for a cotoneaster, and have a blue-ish tinge. The nearest I can come to identifying the plant is Cotoneaster multiflorus, but I'm only half convinced since the habit is different. Suggestions on a postcard please?
Photo: Is this a Cotoneaster multiflorus?
Tomorrow, one of my team - Colin - and I go to the South & South-East in Bloom Awards to see what classification we've achieved this year. Last year, for the first time ever, the gardens just bumped into the Gold category of awards. I'm hoping we may have retained this accolade, albeit we were judged in July which is not the time when the garden is at its most glorious. I'll let you know next week how we fared…
- Plants of Interest - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Awards (including South & South-East in Bloom Awards) - on the Highdown Gardens website
Welcome back to my weekly blog looking at all the ongoings at the unique Highdown Gardens.
Now that the school holidays are over, a certain calm has descended over the gardens. I can feel it in the atmosphere, and I see it in the wildlife that has begun to reassert its presence.
We start at 7:30am each morning and the time before the gardens open allow a privileged view into the life of its inhabitants.
This morning we watched a green woodpecker tapping away on one of the Himalayan Cherries in the main avenue. Yesterday morning a large, healthy-looking hedgehog was ambling its way across the greenhouse lawn. Many visitors may have spotted one of our two resident pheasants, which unusually have been here all year.
In our recent online consultation, 27% of respondents indicated they visit Highdown for the wildlife, so clearly the opportunity to potentially see these animals on Worthing's doorstep is important for many people. I'd be interested to know if you have ever spotted anything surprising at Highdown: it's useful for us to keep a note of sightings.
As well as animals and birds, insect life is important to the biodynamics of the garden given we don't use chemicals and rely on natural forms of pest control.
You may not be aware that since 2009 we have had an expert monitoring moths in an annual survey. Using a light trap, moths are captured overnight, and are identified before being released back into the gardens.
The Highdown Species list total now stands at an incredible 190 species; one new species was added to the list this year: the Small China Mark. But here's a picture of the beautiful Light Emerald (below), pictured on Nicotiana, the tobacco plant, at the gardens this summer.
Yesterday I gave a tour of the garden to a lovely group of house guides from Parham. This is a service I offer at Highdown for those interested in learning more about the history of the plants grown here. The tour takes about 75 minutes, costs £2.50 per person (minimum £25 per tour) and highlights what's looking particularly good at that moment.
It's a lovely way to share the passion for Highdown we have as a team, and I enjoy the reaction from visitors when the penny drops as to the uniqueness of this lovely place: its location and terrain, and its history.
It's also another way in which I try to generate some revenue to help pay for the maintenance of our planting displays. Thanks to your donations this year, we're well into the planting of some new bulb displays.
In the coming months, look out for autumn crocuses and cyclamen along the cherry tree walk, and next spring a new display of the species tulip Tulipa humilis in the Chalk Pit should have a great impact.
- Wildlife in the Gardens - on the Highdown Gardens website
- The Chalk Pit Garden - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Plants of interest - on the Highdown gardens website
Photos: Light Emerald moth (on Nicotiana, the tobacco plant) and Tulip (Tulipa humilis) in the Chalk Pit
From my office in the garden bungalow I currently have a very fine view of Viburnum betulifolium. This shrub has masses of redcurrant-like fruits that are just colouring up, and I have to say is one of the finest fruiting shrubs at Highdown, particularly since the birds leave the fruits well alone right through the winter.
Stern notes 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.
Photo: Viburnum betulifolium
Today, my head is full of the history of plants growing at Highdown having just conducted a review of the National Collection with Plant Heritage. These regular reviews are held to monitor the state of the collection - detailing any plants lost, any new diseases in the garden and any propagation being carried out.
So we have lost a few plants over the year - one to Storm Doris back in February, one to old age and one to honey fungus. Honey fungus is a disease that rears its head in the garden (as in any old garden) from time to time, depending on the weather. A really cold dry winter is great at knocking it back. A warm damp one, as we had in 2016/17, provides the ideal conditions in which it thrives.
In a garden of mostly trees and shrubs, honey fungus is the most dreaded disease, because it will infect and damage the roots of a plant without causing visible symptoms, as well as producing tough rhizomorphs (fungal 'roots') that branch out through the soil in search of fresh hosts. It's almost impossible to control - it's just a case of removing the dead and diseased material for burning.
Perhaps the most important thing is not to plant any woody plants near the site where the dead material was removed: bulbs and herbaceous plants are OK. And then pray that the surrounding trees and shrubs are strong enough to resist attack!
Photo: Laburnum tree lost to Storm Doris back in February
One of the diseases I had to report on was Fuchsia Gall Mite. Some of our fuchsias were planted in the 1920s and are only just succumbing to this relatively new disease which is sweeping up the south coast. It was first reported in 2007 in Fareham, and causes abnormal growths on infected plants. Again, the only control is to cut out infected material and burn.
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for, maintaining and protecting these heritage plants. There's a lot that can, and does, go wrong, and there are inevitable losses. But then as Head Gardener, I tend to focus on the negatives - what needs weeding, what needs pruning, what disease needs managing. In reality, we have only lost about 5% of the National Collection, which against all these odds is a testament to the robustness of plants, and the hard work of the team here.
- Viburnum betulifolium - one of our Plants of interest - on the Highdown Gardens website
- More plants of interest - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Tour of the gardens - on the Highdown Gardens website
Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer sympathy for our recent burglary. One good thing has come out of it: a couple of people indicated they'd like to donate to the gardens directly by bank transfer, so I'm trying to set up an online donations facility on our website. I'll let you know when it's launched.
Last Friday we pushed the button on our application for a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, the culmination of seven months' work. As well as our internal strategy work to define a vision for Highdown in the years to come, we had over 400 responses to our online public questionnaire, which helped greatly.
One of the outcomes of all of this work is the need for us to improve access at the gardens, both intellectually and physically. Intellectually, we are aiming to improve our story-telling about the gardens: the history, Stern's work and the unique plants as well as the chalk landscape in which we sit. There are over 400 plants at Highdown that are part of our National Collection, some of which are very special indeed. We intend to label all plants, and tell stories about some of the most exciting.
In terms of physical access, we want not only to upgrade the surface of the main pathway through the garden to make it wheelchair accessible, but also open the gardens for longer during the summer, and across weekends in winter. For people that are working office hours, it's not always easy to visit given our current opening times.
Over 200 people have indicated an interest in volunteering in some way in the gardens, so we're looking to upgrade our 'Friends of Highdown' programme to offer more opportunities to get involved. I think increasing the 'community feel' at Highdown is an exciting departure from the way we have traditionally managed the gardens, and will really help in delivering all the projects we've defined.
It goes without saying that if we get a chance to deliver all of these projects, our primary concern will be to retain the unique atmosphere of the gardens at Highdown, and protect and propagate the rare plants within. While there are over 640 National Collections of plants in the UK and Ireland, the majority are collections of a single genus. Highdown is one of only 8 historic multi-genera plant collections, alongside for example the great collections at Hilliers, and Nymans. Unlike our sister gardens, Highdown will remain free of charge to visit, and looking after the plant heritage will remain at the core of what we do.
We won't know if we're successful until December, having been judged alongside other applicants. Of course the Heritage Lottery Fund receive many worthy applications, far too many for everyone to receive a grant. But I believe we've defined a cohesive vision and strategies and above all have presented a strong case as to why we need to act now to preserve our unique heritage garden sitting in the South Downs National Park.
- Plants of interest - on the Highdown Gardens website
- Friends of Highdown - on the Highdown Gardens website
Photo: Sir Frederick and Lady Stern, pictured in 1934
Sorry folks. I know you probably don't want to hear it, but all the horticultural indications are there: Autumn has arrived, in the gardens at least!
For me, the botanical harbinger of autumn is Cyclamen hederifolium. This lovely little species cyclamen generally might come into flower in September but seems to be several weeks early this year. I heard it said the other day that this August has been the coldest for 30 years, and what with the rain after a much dryer mid-summer, I guess the plants are reacting appropriately. We are also seeing the goblet-like flowers of colchicums appearing, the large lily-like Amaryllis belladonna flowers erupting from the soil and the berries of many of the shrubs are colouring.
Plants growing on thin chalk generally do not give great autumn foliage colour; for spectacular displays, you're better off going to a garden on acid soil (think Japanese maples). On chalk, rather than colouring, the leaves just tend to drop quickly, and we're beginning to see evidence of this.
Autumn is perhaps our busiest time of year. Think of all the trees and shrubs at Highdown, and think of the leaf drop. Clearing fallen leaves will be months of work, and we'll be thankful of our volunteers giving a hand. At the same time, we'll have the spring bulbs to plant, and we'll be starting the herbaceous clear up.
There are various schools of thought about whether we should cut down perennials at the end of the season. Here at Highdown, we won't cut until we are working on that bit of the garden, for several reasons.
Firstly, old top growth protects the soil. We've got such thin topsoil here that is easily eroded by heavy rains. From experience, the soil under a border with all the old stems left is in a more workable condition. Secondly, the skeletons of plants are also a useful reminder of where plants actually are! If everything is cut down in the autumn, you are left scratching your head in the spring as to what's there at all.
Another reason to let things be is so the wildlife can eat the fat-rich seeds before winter. Why would we pay good money to stock bird feeders and then discourage the natural sources that may already be present?
But along with the pros for keeping foliage, there are cons. Old foliage can hide spring bulbs, and because we have some snowdrops that begin to flower as early as November, we need to remove any foliage that's in the way. Also, old foliage can harbour slugs and snails, not that we have a great problem with these pests at Highdown.
Finally, we mulch the beds each year in December and January with rotted horse manure and compost to try to improve the soil as much as we can, and it's easier to do this on a clear bed.
So we've got to be practical. If the plant looks a mess, we tidy it up and take away all the dead matter. If we want to work on a bit of border to plant bulbs or mulch, we go ahead and cut down. But if there is no reason to do so, we leave well alone.
Photos: Cyclamen hederifolium (top), Amaryllis belladonna (right) and leaves starting to drop (bottom)
I mentioned last week that this year we have grown all annuals, biennials and perennials from seed to save money.
As well as propagating plants to enhance the gardens, it's also incumbent on me to propagate the existing National Collection of Stern's introductions (photo of Sir Frederick Stern, right).
Many of the plants introduced by Stern are, or are fast approaching, 100 years old which, growing on thin chalk, is a major achievement.
When we're dealing with plants of this age, size and weight, there is an obvious risk of them being blown over in a summer gale as well as an increased risk of fungal disease.
So we have to try to propagate from the original stock to safeguard the future of the plants. There are 181 defined plants in the National Collection at Highdown, and over the past 3 years we have lost 5% (9 plants) to storms, disease and old age.
Given Stern grew many of the specimens at Highdown from seed collected in the wild by Edwardian plant hunters, the collection represents an important genetic resource of plant material.
This is evidenced in an ongoing study of Acer griseum, the Paper Bark Maple, by Anthony Aiello, Director of Horticulture and Curator of the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania.
He is conducting a project to determine the genetic diversity of A.griseum in cultivation because the endemic range of this tree in central China is endangered.
Living material of A.griseum was introduced into Western cultivation by Ernest Wilson by seed collected in 1901 for James Veitch and Sons Nursery.
The 1901 seed collection resulted in 100 seedlings, and this collection forms the basis of the majority of plants now in Europe and the US. Veitch nurseries first listed it for sale in 1912, and Stern purchased a plant for 5 shillings.
“The young plant that Stern purchased from Wilson’s 1901 collection is a beautiful specimen, albeit uprighted and staked after the gale of 1988. The tree is testimony to the longevity and durability of A.griseum, and serves both as an important source of germplasm and an insight into the conservation value of living and documented collections. It was one of the most impressive trees that I visited last summer as part of the A.griseum conservation project.”
It is easy to underestimate the conservation value of even familiar garden plants. Collections in botanic gardens and private gardens are playing an increasing role in the preservation of species given increasing threats to natural habitats.
It is vital that we minimise the risk of the loss of such plants at Highdown Gardens.
For Acer griseum that sets few viable seed, we're taking batches of seeds every 2 weeks to sow, to ensure that we have the best possible chance of germination success.
For other important plants in the collection, we are propagating using air layering, softwood and hardwood cuttings. We're having some success, and every cutting that roots successfully gives us a thrill.
This week, a cutting of Hebe 'Highdownensis' successfully rooted, after 3 or 4 attempts. The most difficult form of propagation is grafting, where a stem of a plant is grafted onto roots, often of a different plant species.
This process is necessary for plants such as tree peonies that do not root from cuttings. Our Heritage Lottery Fund bid, should we be successful, will greatly help us achieve the propagation of our tree peony collection by giving us better facilities to carry out this type of delicate work.
- find out about Sir Frederick Stern and Ernest Wilson on the Highdown Gardens website
- find out about the Acer griseum on the Highdown Gardens website
Photos: Acer griseum at Highdown Gardens; some of our softwood cuttings
We were burgled today. Overnight, someone climbed the fence to Highdown, and cut the padlocks off the donations pillar box to steal the donations. Industrial padlocks. A lot of work for just a few quid.
Funnily enough I was going to write about donations this week, because they're significantly down on last year.
When the gardens were donated to the Council in February 1968, it was on the basis that the gardens would remain a free resource to the people of Worthing in perpetuity.
Of course, the gardens are still free to visit today, but we're living in very different economic times. Whenever I have visits from botanical experts, particularly from overseas, they're astounded that the gardens are free to enter. How do we maintain and protect the National Collection?
The Council is of course to be applauded to still be funding the gardens, but not surprisingly cost pressures are ever present and I am rightly tasked to look for revenue generating initiatives.
As Head Gardener, public donations do help to maintain the quality of the gardens through the purchase of seeds, plants and bulbs.
This year, to economise, for the first time we've propagated the vast majority of our plants from seed - from annuals and biennials such as foxgloves, violas, stocks and snapdragons, to perennials such as Anchusa and Polemonium.
This presents additional challenges: in the most part, protecting vulnerable seedlings from mice and slugs. We've been very Heath-Robinson about it, but have had great success, as evidenced by the regular positive comments we have from visitors.
I do have to buy some bulbs this autumn, however, the cost of which quickly adds up. Highdown is famous for its spring bulb displays, and whereas many are perennial and come back every year, some (like tulips) need replacing annually.
So I'm grateful to anyone who donates a small amount to allow us to continue the good work. Having the donations stolen is a kick in the teeth, but I empty the pillar box regularly so the impact is limited.
So why are we receiving less donations? I have to conclude it's because people are counting the pennies harder these days.
Given we have increasing visitor numbers, particularly at this time of year during the school holidays, it's evident that cash is increasingly being kept in purses and pockets.
But a little plea from me: if you enjoy visiting Highdown and want to help us keep it looking good, do consider putting in a few coins as a donation when you visit. And for my part, I promise to empty the pillar box daily so you know your money is going to fund the gardens rather than something more dubious.
Photo: One of the padlocks that was cut off the donations box at Highdown Gardens
Every job has its downside. And every garden has its areas that make your heart sink. For me, one of the frustrations at Highdown that perhaps many visitors don't see or recognise, is ground elder, Aegopodium podagraria. Ground elder is a weed that strikes fear into the heart of any gardener. Why so bad? Well, it grows in sun or shade (i.e. anywhere), it spreads like wildfire, and is very, very difficult to get rid of. That's because you can dig it out, but if you leave behind the tiniest piece of root, it will grow back again as a whole new plant. The plant itself looks harmless enough - it's just a few stalks and leaves, but that conceals a mass of underground spreading roots called rhizomes, which store the food for the plant.
So my week commenced with a four hour stint, on hands and knees, digging out the rhizomes. This is made all the more difficult when the ground elder has spread amongst other plants: in this case the roots of lily of the valley. Ground elder was originally introduced into the UK, it is said, by the Romans, who used its new leaves as spring greens. So no one to blame, just one of those jobs that needs doing and you just have to get on with. We’re blessed at Highdown by having a group of volunteers who come in fortnightly to help us. What’s great is when there are 10 or 12 people attacking a large infestation of ground elder – the satisfaction is immense when you step back after a couple of hours and see the results of 24 man-hour's work!
In place of the dull green ground elder, we've planted some violas that have all been grown from seed this summer. This should give us a burst of colourful flowers into September and October.
Photo: Violas at Highdown Gardens
Now the rambling roses have finished flowering it was time for some judicious pruning.
Our eponymous Highdown Rose, Rosa x 'Highdownensis' had been completely swamped by a more vigorous rose Rosa sinowilsonii.
The Highdown Rose was a chance seedling raised by Stern from Rosa moyesii. It differed from its parent by having many more flowers to a cluster, about eight or nine instead of the usual three or four, and the flowers and fruit being a deep red.
Despite this rose being widely available from specialist rose growers like David Austin, it is vital we protect Stern’s original mother plant.
On his reference cards, Stern notes that the seedlings took two years to germinate, which they did in 1924, so our rose is not far off 100 years old.
Now it has had its more vigorous competitor removed, it should benefit from more light and a good mulch to give a good display for years to come.
Everyone loves scent in the garden, and at the moment the jewel of Highdown is Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii, the beautifully named Harlequin Glorybower.
This shrub has one of those sweet lily-like perfumes that stops you in your tracks, wondering where it's coming from. Funnily enough, it's also called the Peanut Butter Tree because if you crush a leaf, it gives off an odour that many liken to peanuts.
Finally, in autumn, the flowers turn into beautiful metallic-blue berries surrounded by maroon coloured calyces. So much in one plant!
This week I've been working hard on finalising the Heritage Lottery Fund bid documentation. If you haven't heard, we're applying for a grant to preserve the horticultural heritage at Highdown, label the collection and improve the visitor experience.
Six months of hard, but very interesting work to define a 10 year strategy and plan. It's important we safeguard this garden for the future - you still have time to have your say in the public consultation on the Highdown Gardens website.
Photo: Highdown Rose, Rosa x 'Highdownensis', before and after some judicious pruning
One of the pleasures of gardening full time is the variety of work.
One moment you're contemplating how best to prune a large tree, the next you're on your knees dealing with fragile alpine plants.
This week, one of my projects was to begin to replant the chalk terraces with Cyclamen graecum, an exquisite autumn-flowering cyclamen that has several characteristics that are unique to the genus.
It is a tender bulb, meaning that in theory it should not grow outdoors in the UK because the slightest bit of frost will destroy it.
Sir Frederick Stern, the founder of Highdown Gardens, successfully planted this bulb on the chalk-face and was very satisfied that it survived outdoors.
He was certainly a bit of a risk-taker and not afraid to challenge gardening pre-conceptions.
The original plants have been lost over the years due to changing conditions (more shade, wetter winters) and competition from other plants, but I'm trying again.
It had to be planted practically in rubble to ensure it is perfectly well drained. It's sitting in winter wet that means curtains for this bulb.
It's usually grown for its handsome and striking foliage, so take a look on the chalk banks if you're visiting in the autumn.
Also this week, our new apprentice Shaun has started.
He will work full-time in the Gardens, but from September he'll have a day release to study for a diploma at Plumpton College near Lewes.
I spent the day up at Plumpton to mentor him through his assessments and interviews, as well as to demonstrate the Council's commitment to supporting him in the work place.
Shaun is really (and I mean REALLY) keen to get going, and I can't help but be a bit envious of the opportunities that are open to him at the beginning of his horticultural career compared to (ahem) 20 years ago for me.
Plumpton even has a Wine/Viticulture department! A resurgence of English wine; who knew?!
Photo: Shaun our new apprentice at Highdown Gardens
As Head Gardener at Highdown Gardens, I find it's not just the plants that I have to respond to.
A couple of months ago a lady telephoned to complain she thought the garden was looking untamed and unloved.
This was particularly true, she said, in the rose garden where hardy geranium species were being allowed to clamber through the roses.
Sir Frederick Stern, the founder of Highdown Gardens, loved the wild and unruly look, where herbaceous plants, trees and shrubs jostle for space in a natural way. Pruning, he believed, should be kept to a minimum.
Although naturalistic planting schemes are increasing in popularity, the trend is still for regimented pruning regimes, end-of-year clear-ups, and nature contained.
As Head Gardener, I have to try to keep the spirit of Sir Frederick's vision for the garden, as well as please our visitors.
In this case, I already had in mind to replace some of the hardy geraniums in the rose garden with earlier flowering deep pink primroses and Sweet Williams, so we went to war for a few days to make the necessary changes.
I'm happy to report there was a message on my answerphone this morning from the same lady, saying she'd visited again and congratulating us on the improvements she'd noticed. Job done!
This week marks a very important point in the garden's history: Monday 10th July 2017 marked exactly 50 years since the death of Sir Frederick.
To commemorate the event, I arranged a tree planting with the Borough's Mayor, Councillor Alex Harman.
We planted a snake bark maple - Acer davidii 'George Forrest' - in the chalk pit area of the garden: the place where the garden began.
We lost an old specimen of this tree over the winter, so it's satisfying to plant a replacement which I'm sure, in another 50 years, will be a talking point in this part of the garden.
Photo left: Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Alex Harman, planting a snake bark maple
Photo right: Group shot after planting the tree with members of Rainbow Theatre who performed A Midsummer Night's Dream at Highdown Gardens
Group shot - left to right:
- Cllr Alex Harman, Mayor of Worthing (holding the spade)
- Member of the Rainbow Theatre cast (in blue dress)
- Dan Humpreys, Leader of Worthing BC (holding the tree)
- Mark Bodicoat of the Rainbow Theatre, dressed as Bottom (next to the tree)
- Cllr Cllr Diane Guest, Executive Member for Environment, Worthing BC
- Gary Prescod (crouching far right)
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