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Highdown Gardens
A hidden gem on the South Downs

Jo Hooper and Peter Whish, Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardeners

About Highdown Gardens: These beautiful chalk gardens in the South Downs countryside situated between Ferring and Goring, overlooking the sea, are a tranquil haven for all to enjoy. They are home to The National Plant Collection of the plant introductions of Sir Fredrick Stern - a unique collection of unusual plants and trees to be discovered all year round.

Find out about Jo Hooper and Peter Whish, Highdown's gardeners, below.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

You can read Jo and Peter's current blog posts on this page below:

6th July 2019: A golden age of gardening and the golden month of July
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

We were thrilled to find out last week that our Heritage Lottery bid had been successful, and a big thank you to the team who made that possible is needed ...

We are looking forward to getting started and spending the £1.1m grant which will improve the garden experience for our visitors, further engage the community, and safeguard the unique plant collection created by Sir Frederick Stern (read the news about our successful Heritage Lottery bid and watch the video).

Because it is a living collection, the plants are in a constant state of flux, growing, flowering, setting seed, dying back and occasionally dying out. The oldest plants here are the Holm Oaks which shelter Highdown Towers next door from the prevailing south westerly winds. I recently counted 120 rings on the stump of an old tree fatally damaged in the Great Storm of 1987 that we recently had reduced ... which takes it back to a planting around 1900.

Stern began experimenting with other plants that would grow on the Chalk Down of Highdown Hill. In an era heralded as the 'Golden Age of Gardening', he experimented with plants brought back from western China by plant hunters such as E.H. Wilson.

Stern purchased our famous Acer griseum (Paper Bark Maple) and the Magnolia delavayi at Sir James Veitch's Coombe Wood nursery sale in 1912. The trees live on well into their second century. Shrubs, however, like our Viburnum rhytidophyllum and Viburnum henryii purchased at the same time, are not so long living.

Reduced vigour in the demanding conditions on the hill and some inevitable pests and diseases like Honey Fungus have begun to open up gaps in the borders. The lovely old Lilac, Syringa 'Madame Lemoine' succumbed, and its neighbouring S. Jan Van Thol, which is part of our National Collection of the Plant Collections of Sir Frederick Stern, is affected.

The Heritage lottery grant will fund a new Heritage Officer who can identify and help conserve parts of the plant collection most at risk and also support our decisions as gardeners to keep Highdown looking beautiful.

The later flowering Mock Oranges or Philadelphus like Beauclerk and P. insignis are looking and smelling gorgeous at the moment. The latter is nestled beneath our wide spreading champion Chinese Hornbeam (C.turkzaninowii) and, whilst we are enjoying the golden July sun, like us it too relishes a bit of its wonderful green tinged summer shade.

Photo: Philadelphus insignis

2019-07-06 - Philadelphus insignis

Photos: Berberis jamesiana (left), Amorpha fruticosa (middle) and Helianthemum and Erigeron karvinskianus (right)

2019-07-06 - Berberis jamesiana (left), Amorpha fruticosa (middle) and Helianthemum and Erigeron karvinskianus (right)

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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22nd June 2019: Top tips for getting your garden competition-ready
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens logo

So it's been a really busy couple of weeks up at Highdown as we count down to South & South East in Bloom judging day on 25th June 2019. This is a real red letter day in our calendar and much as it can be stressful getting everything ready, it always amazes me how much can be done when you have a goal to aim towards.

We enter two awards each year: Green Flag, which we have held since 2005, and South & South East in Bloom heritage parks and gardens category, which we first entered in 2014.

Green Flag Award and South & South East in Bloom Award logos

The team, both staff and volunteers, all really get behind the awards and everyone pulls together to get things ready; volunteers do extra hours, staff do too and when we get a good result it's a real acknowledgement of all the hard work everyone puts in all year round, not just in the few weeks before the judging.

That said, there are a few tricks to getting the garden competition-ready. My top tip is to concentrate on the edges - where we have beds and borders meeting the lawn we ensure the edges are crisp and freshly half mooned with the grass trimmed and the edges clear of weeds. This draws the eye and can hide a multitude of weeds lurking in the bed! With the best will in the world we are never going to get rid of all the ground elder we have.

Both awards quite rightly give importance to environmental sustainability and that's something we take seriously here at Highdown. We are chemical free, using no weed killers or pesticides in the garden at all. This means all weeding is done by hand and for anyone else who suffers with ground elder in their garden you will know the labour involved in trying to keep it under control! We use peat free compost for our propagation and make our own compost and woodchip, returning all compostable green waste back into the gardens. We're proud of that!

Other quick wins are to dead head old blooms, especially on roses; this immediately makes the garden look cared for and helps encourages new flowers to form.

Removing dead from trees and shrubs helps too, dead branches draw the eye, going over the garden to remove any dead stems will makes things look 100% better.

One area we will certainly be taking the judges to is the herbaceous garden in the SW corner of Highdown (see photos below). Due to the slope this area has the deepest top soil anywhere in the gardens and is ideal for growing herbaceous plants. It is looking stunning at the moment with a riot of colour emerging in the beds. Please do come and see for yourselves and if you can't make it, enjoy the photos, although they don't do it justice.

Just before judging, we mow the lawns and sweep the paths and pray for a nice sunny day. Although thank goodness for the recent rain - that has really saved us this year, everything was so dry and the garden looks really refreshed for a good downpour. Keep your fingers crossed for us next week.

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Photos: The herbaceous garden at Highdown

2019-06-22 - The herbaceous garden at Highdown (views 1 and 2)

2019-06-22 - The herbaceous garden at Highdown (views 3 and 4)

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8th June 2019: Clouts are cast for summer at Highdown
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

The old saying “ne'er cast a clout till May is out” advises folk to keep wearing winter clothes until the reliably warm weather arrives, either at the end of May or when the May Tree (Hawthorn) blossoms.

This has been good advice this year as we have had some cool days and nights, but now with some joy our clouts are truly cast and summer has begun. The gardens are gearing up for the next gorgeous displays, and that most traditional English garden flower, the rose, is bursting onto the stage.

Our rose garden is one of the favourite attractions at Highdown and is planted with a good selection of alba and modern climbing roses.

Although not shy of our chalky soils, growing rose varieties at Highdown has been a struggle and those that do best are the reliable old alba or York roses. Their elegant and scented flowers in pink, blush and white have been grown since medieval times and retain enough of the wild toughness of its hedgerow parents to give good disease resistance and vigour even when part shaded. They also pair well with clematis whose blooms take over and infill gaps.

Photos: Rosa Shropshire Lad (left) and Rose Garden with Clematis (right)

2019-06-08 - Rosa Shropshire Lad (left) and Rose Garden with Clematis (right)

Elsewhere in the gardens the species roses are much more successful. Highdown has some original Rosa moyesii (below left) purchased from James Veitch and Son nursery, and sent back from western China by our old friend E.H. Wilson in 1903. It grows as a tall bush covered in ruby red flowers adorned later with large red hips.

A seedling from this plant and raised in the garden has deeper red flowers. Named Rosa x highdownensis (below right), it can be seen on the way out of the chalk pit.

Photos: Rosa moyesii (left) and R.x highdownensis (right)

2019-06-08 - Rosa moyesii (left) and R.x highdownensis (right)

At Highdown we always get back to the great plant hunters of their day and as we are talking of roses, we again meet Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) whose huge Rosa brunonii will flower here across the chalk cliff later this month. It has also given rise to several seedlings which feature as large rambling white and yellow roses throughout the garden.

Frederick Stern, who created the garden crossed Rosa moyesii with R. sino-wilsonii (below left) ended up with the strong growing climbing rose whose flowers are apricot yellow in bud opening pure white and fading to pink. It first flowered on his wedding anniversary (m. Sybil Lucas) and still bears the Wedding Day (1950) (below right) name today, and a fine rose it is too.

Photos: R.sino - wilsonii seedling (left) and Rosa Wedding Day (right)

2019-06-08 - R.sino - wilsonii seedling (left) and Rosa Wedding Day (right)

It's interesting to note that in those days this first flower appeared on 26th June; today it is in flower a full month earlier. What this means for our clouts I'm not sure, but gardening can be hot work, so it's on with the shorts for me.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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25th May 2019: Let's hear it for Alliums!
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens logo

Who would have thought that the humble onion could become such a useful and ornamental garden bulb? Well, perhaps not the culinary onion itself, but the allium genus as a whole has a growing number of varieties and cultivars that can look splendid this time of year in herbaceous borders and mixed planting.

Stern, who created the gardens in the early 1900s, noted that alliums “seem to enjoy this soil” referring of course to the chalky soil we have at Highdown Gardens and they do indeed do well here.

If you wander around the garden today you will see a number of different cultivars raising their heads amongst the other plants. Some are already in full flower and some are still pushing their way out of the translucent sheath which surrounds the flower head. Watching the flowers emerge is as much a part of the pleasure of growing alliums as enjoying the full blown globe flowers bobbing in the wind.

2019-05-25 - Allium flower2 coming out into bloom

Looking particularly nice at the moment at Highdown is Allium 'Purple Rain' pushing up through the Phlomis russeliana; this cultivar has a thin elegant stem and an airy top structure with noticeably star shaped flowers. It brings added interest to the emerging flower stalks and limey green foliage of the Phlomis. Our gardener Claire planted it in 2016 - the year Prince died!

2019-05-25 - Allium Purple Rain

Also successful, and living up to its name, Allium 'Purple Sensation' is providing vibrant colour which is set off beautifully by a backdrop of iris foliage. Alliums bridge the gap between early spring bulbs and summer herbaceous flowering very well.

2019-05-25 - Allium Purple Sensation

However the allium I most associate with Highdown is the beautiful Allium bulgaricum (Nectarscordum siculum) with its delicate scent and subtly coloured bell shaped flowers; it really is unique amongst alliums. You can find swathes of them in the middle garden coming up amongst Cephalaria gigantea with a backdrop of early roses (roses are really very early this year!) and lilacs. This allium variety comes back year after year and multiplies well without becoming invasive. I thoroughly recommend having a go at growing it if you like the way it looks.

2019-05-25 - Allium bulgaricum

When planting alliums they are much better grown through things rather than standing alone, as all the interest is at the top of the stalk and the foliage is neither here nor there. They pair particularly well with lime greens such as Euphorbia, or blues such as Iris, Brunnera and Forget-me-nots and I really like them coming through swaying grasses; shorter stemmed varieties coming through Stipa tenuissima are very pleasing.

So please do come and enjoy them in the gardens and maybe get inspired to plant some yourself this autumn.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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10th May 2019: Highdown in May is in full bloom with a wonderful collection of spring flowering plants
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

As our displays of tulips and early spring flowers reach their peak - like these Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not - our flowering trees shrubs really get going.

When I came to Worthing as a young arboriculturist, I came across at Highdown what has become one of my favourite trees, Davidia invloucrata, which when you look at its unusual flowers, it is immediately apparent how it got its common name of Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree.

The white handkerchiefs are - usually two - large bracts which drape themselves around the small brush like flowers, making this tree such an arresting site in May.

Photos: (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata (Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree)

2019-05-10 - (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata

There two Davidia at Highdown; the original was wind thrown in the great storm of 1987 from high on the chalk ridge above the old chalk pit, and a new young tree down in the chalk pit entrance itself. Both I believe are the variety Vilmoriniana.

As testament to the regenerative abilities of many deciduous trees, the stump quickly re-sprouted as if it had just been coppiced and now 30 years later we have fine small tree again gracing us with its beautiful flowers. During the winter we undertook a bit of a thin and prune of the trees around it to open it up to the light and views.

The tree, planted early in the 1920s is one of the originals brought from a 1912 sale at Veitch & Sons Coombe Wood nursery. In 1901 James Veitch had sent the notable plant hunter and explorer E.H. Wilson (1876-1930) to look for it after its discovery in the mountains of western China by the French missionary Pere David from whom it derives its name.

The story is that, after reaching the reported location of the unique tree, Wilson found a cut stump next to a rather smart new wooden house. More specimens were thankfully rediscovered some 600km away and seed collected during the two year long plant hunting trip.

The tree is supposed to do best in damp, sheltered conditions, but our trees seem to like the chalk.

Moving from flowers in trees, the conditions this year are also perfect for our more terrestrial Tree Peonies which are giving stunning displays of their large voluptuous flowers borne on woody stems throughout the garden.

Another plant from the mountains of China and Tibet, the Tree Peony was a particular favourite of the gardens founder Sir Frederick Stern who after 20 years work on them wrote a study of the genus. We are still cataloguing and recording the collection, and our gardener Claire in particular is having fun photographing and identifying the myriad varieties on show.

These are not to be missed, and their exotic beauty awaits your discovery throughout, but notably in the lower gardens.

Photos: Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

2019-05-10 - Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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13th April 2019: Hidden treasures revealed
Blog post by Peter Whish

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Highdown is most noted for its national collection of the plants of Sir Frederick Stern (1884-1967) which are able to grow on demanding chalk soil. The gardens naturally boast other plants too from around the world which grow in similar conditions.

For example, the collection features many plants from Gansu in north-west China which shares a similar geology. The Buddleia farreri in the middle garden (photo below) was grown from seed from Reginald Farrer's ambitious first expedition to Gansu in 1914 in which Stern had a share, and this year there's a magnificent display of its tiny tubular, lavender coloured and sweetly scented flowers.

2019-04-13 - Buddleia farreri

However, the gardens contain other plants that tolerate the local conditions whilst not necessarily demanding chalk; for example, cherry trees do well at Highdown too.

On the lawns nearby, the settled weather and shelter has given us long lasting displays of Japanese cherry blossom. First out was the dainty Yoshino Cherry, Prunus x yedoensis (photo below) with wreaths of white blossom growing right around delicately spreading branches.

2019-04-13 - Yoshino Cherry

The larger pure white Prunus Tai-Haku flowers (below left) mentioned in my last blog have been out for over a fortnight now and are being joined by P. Ukon (below right) which has a pale yellowish tinge to its flowers which flush from pink buds.

2019-04-13 - Tai-Haku (left) and P.Ukon (right)

The surprise to me was a pair of plants from New Zealand right next to our glasshouse.

Clianthus puniceus (below left) has an abundance of unusual scarlet flowers looking like lobster claws which gives the plant its common name. This can be grown in milder areas and can stand a degree of frost.

But the flower that particularly excited me was born on the Kowhai tree, Sophora tetraptera (below right), an unassuming 8m tall rather gaunt stick of a tree that wasn't on any plan. As a semi-deciduous tree its spectacular saffron and lemon pea like flowers appear as it sheds its previous year's leaves. The flowers were once used by the Maori as a dye and I have since found out that this beauty is the unofficial flower of New Zealand.

2019-04-13 - Clianthus puniceus (left) and Kowhai (right)

2019-04-13 - Kowhai Seed

Another interesting feature of the Kowhai tree flower which helped its identification are the short necklace like seed pods which apparently float and aid its seed dispersal along the river valleys it inhabits.

The gardens are full of surprises so please come along and make some discoveries for yourself.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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30th March 2019: Spring has sprung at Highdown
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens logo

So spring has well and truly sprung at Highdown and spring flowers are in abundance. Move over snowdrops the next show has arrived!

When you visit you will find the beds and borders studded with the delicate and mainly pastel blooms so typical of early spring, anemones and the first bluebells in the woodlands, cherry blossoms just breaking forth on the middle lawn and swathes of Scilla messianica and primroses in the tree and shrub garden to mention a few.

A couple of notable exceptions to the usually delicate hues of spring are the Anemone pavonina a riot of bright reds, pinks and purples that erupt like jewels along the hot dry south facing lawn edges, intermingled with the grass, conditions that mimic well their native landscape in the Mediterranean. The blooms open and close for the sun and seem to me to be the living embodiment of children's drawings of flowers!

The other example is the wonderful deep cerise pink flowers of the Cyclamen repandum.

Photo: Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

2019-03-30 - Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

Unlike the Anemone pavonina they shy away from the hot sunny spots and prefer the dappled shade of the woodland edges.

Over the last five years as we have pulled back ivy and pruned back overgrown shrubs we have revealed dormant colonies of these wonderful plants which have sprung back to life and are once again gracing us with their presence.

A deeply satisfying outcome, especially considering they were originally planted by Stern at least 50 years ago.

It is worth bending down low enough to catch a waft of their wonderful scent, a delectable lemony sherbet affair.

With the unseasonably warm temperatures in March the spring bulbs and flowers have come along a couple of weeks earlier this year.

With seasons becoming more and more unpredictable it is difficult to know when things are going to flower these days, and many of our daffodils are already over and making way for the bolder coloured tulips usually seen in late spring.

Looking on the bright side though, this year has provided plenty of early nectar for the bees Peter mentioned in the last blog and gorgeous spring days for us all to enjoy.

With that in mind it is a good time to mention that from the beginning of April we will be open at weekends again and move to our summer opening hours of 10am to 6pm giving you plenty of opportunity to come and enjoy the gardens.

Hope to see you soon!

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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2nd March 2019: Soaring temperatures and warm winter sun
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

With soaring temperatures and warm winter sun, it's been good to be working outside at Highdown these past two weeks. And it hasn't just been the team of gardeners who have been hard at work either - as these pictures show ...

There is no early morning slumber for both these honey and bumble bees, whose pollen baskets on their legs were full at 7:45am when these pictures were taken.

Highdown is really waking up to spring now, with winter and early spring flowering bulbs and shrubs adding colour and scent to the cooler displays of Snowdrops that we enjoyed last month.

The honey bee (below left) is pictured on one of the earliest flowering cherry trees. Prunus 'Okame' is a beautiful small tree originally raised by Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981), who was an authority on Japanese Cherry trees.

2019-03-02 - Honey bee (left) and bumble bee (right)

We look forward to the flowering of another of Collingwood's introductions later in March, the Great White Cherry, Prunus 'Tai-Haku'. In 1926 he was invited to Japan to talk about their national tree and noticed a white cherry in an old painting which had been thought to have died out. Ingram recognised it in an unusual old tree he had raised cuttings from in a Sussex garden, and he was able to re-introduce it to cultivation. Only this week, by chance we planted a new young 'Tai-Haku' tree to ensure a place in the garden for the next generation.

The warmth has spurred us on to complete our winter work and get those trees and shrubs planted, beds mulched and begin pruning before spring begins in earnest. We can only hope that the weather is kind to us and does not revert to winter as it could so easily do, catching out wildlife and tender young plant growth.

The bumble bee, as shown in the second picture, was found on one of the most fragrant of our winter flowering shrubs, Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'.

With changes in agricultural practices, gardens are increasingly important for early sources of pollen and nectar for our all-important bees on which we rely for the fertilisation of so many of our food crops.

Highdown Hill has seen a busy few weeks with the unseasonably good weather which has brought many visitors to the gardens and to our new neighbours at Highdown Towers. We are pleased to welcome The Highdown, a hotel, restaurant and pub, and hope that many of our visitors will now able to enjoy tea and cake after a visit to the gardens as they used to.

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9th February 2019: Snowdrop Festival
Blog post by Peter Whish

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After a short break in blogs from Highdown Gardens, we're pleased to be back and to tell you all about our recent Snowdrop Festival!

Following an approach by the Sussex coordinator of the National Garden Scheme (NGS), and last year's successful open day, we welcomed nearly 300 visitors to the garden in glorious sunshine last Sunday (3rd February 2019) to enjoy the splendid collection of snowdrops on show.

Sir Frederick Stern, who created Highdown Gardens, was one of the founder members of the NGS, an organisation which gives the public access to some unique gardens and raises significant amounts of money for nursing and other charitable causes. Although the gardens were bequeathed to the residents of Worthing Borough in 1968 and are now public, we continue to support the NGS with special open days.

Photo: NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

2019-02-09 - NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

Highdown has a great collection of snowdrops dating back to Sir Frederick Stern's time. He had a particular interest in the flowers which he picked up as he explored the plants that could be successfully grown in the demanding conditions in his garden on the chalk of the South Downs.

Photo: Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

2019-02-09 - Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

Snowdrops belong to the family Amaryllidaceae and members of the genus Galanthus, and there are approximately 20 recorded species and hundreds of varieties. Stern had picked up on an earlier Victorian craze for snowdrops which had begun in the 1880s, and because they are such a promiscuous plant they give rise to endless hybrids and varieties. Indeed they are the perfect collector's plant - those who are bitten by the Snowdrop bug are known as 'Galanthophiles'!

Together with another famous plantsman E.A. Bowles, Stern published a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) book on Snowdrops and Snowflakes in 1956, developing a way of classifying them that is still in use today.

Familiar with the native wild snowdrop, G. Nivalis, I have been amazed by the variety of the genus and the many good garden plants among them ...

In flower now and for the next few weeks we have a great show of naturalised G. Gracilis. With their blue-green twisted leaves and delicate nodding bell shaped white flowers, they hang as if from a little fishing rod below a bright olive green ovary. These come from coastal areas around the Black Sea. British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850s brought bulbs home with them, having been amazed to see battlefields blooming with them after the harsh winter.

The early flowering G. Atkinsii is larger and has the RHS Award of Garden Merit, meaning it is considered to be an excellent and reliable garden plant - a good one to try at home.

G.Elwesii is another large snowdrop with handsome broad grey-green leaves. It was first brought into the country by H.J. Elwes, another Victorian plant hunter on a visit to the mountains near Smyrna, now Izmir, in Turkey in 1874.

Like the Snowdrop, Snowflakes are winter flowering bulbs - but as members of the genus Leucojum and again they are well represented at Highdown. The pretty white bell shaped flowers with green or yellowish markings on both the spring and summer snowflakes are, like the snowdrops, a herald of spring to come.

Photos: Snowdrops - G. Elwesii (left) and G. Gracilis on rockery (right)

2019-02-09 - Snowdrops - G.elwesii (left) and G.gracilis on rockery (right)

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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About Jo Hooper and Peter Whish:

About Jo:

Jo Hooper, one of the Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardens

Jo has been Head Gardener at Highdown since 2012 and since returning from maternity leave last year now works part time and job shares with Peter. Jo first discovered her love of plants and gardening growing up in rural Devon with a keen gardener for a Mum, but the bug really hit when she spent two years living on a farm in Costa Rica. She returned to England and studied at Plumpton College and has been a gardener ever since. Amongst various roles Jo has previously been head gardener at Peckham Rye Park in London and Alfriston Clergy House / Monks House for the National Trust, as well as training garden staff at Holland Park and various sites across London.

About Peter:

Peter Whish, one of the Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardens

Peter has worked in Adur & Worthing Councils' Parks Service for 25 years and now job shares with Jo. He is a Master of Arboriculture. He has a background in nature conservation and has spent much of his career here working with volunteers, landscape design and trees. Peter has a keen interest in history and is enjoying his role at Highdown where he manages three staff and an apprentice to help bring out the best in this nationally important garden and plant collection.

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