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.
17th August 2017: Working hard to preserve 100 year-old Highdown plants
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
10th August 2017: Burglars deprive Highdown of vital cash
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
3rd August 2017: Every job has its downside
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
27th July 2017: The scent of sweet lily carries on the breeze on Highdown Hill
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
20th July 2017: Restoring a tricky customer to Highdown
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
13th July 2017: Celebrating 50 years at Highdown
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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