Wisley Gardens

Whilst we were traveling through that part of the country we stopped on a gloomy April day at the RHS garden in Wisley, Surrey.

This was my first time coming to Wisley and I knew it was a big garden but was incredibly surprised to be ushered to a packed car park that seemed miles from anywhere! As a result of this we entered the garden through the pinetum and worked our way south to the main garden.

A destination that we were keen to visit was the new(ish) glasshouse. But before we got in I was amazed by the planting outside. A sculptural arrangement was created with clipped beech trees (Fagus sylvatica), winter box (Sarcococca confuse), alliums (Allium ‘Beau Regard’) and miscanthus (Miscanthus sinesis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’). The beech trees were trained and clipped into columns, holding onto their brown leaves and the winter box created a cloud like shroud. The miscanthus had been cut back to the ground to allow it to shoot up again this spring and I can imagine the wonderful upright explosion this produced. The clumps of alliums are drifting through the rest of the arrangement. 

To record this arrangement, I drew a sketch of how it looked when I visited in April and how I envisage it will look later in the spring and in nicer weather!

The planting in April when I visited and how I think it will look later in season

This fantastic little bit of planting forms part of the wider glasshouse landscape that was set out by Tom Stewart-Smith in 2007. It has been designed to link the interior of the glasshouse with the rest of the garden. Structure throughout is created with beech hedging, a nod to the remarkable beech tree that is found close by in the garden. As you travel west around the glasshouse the planting becomes more dry and arid. This is to mirror what is inside the glass house and creates the south African prairie meadow. 

Sadly, whilst I was there all this planting was not in its prime, however, at this time of year the structure and thought that has been put into this landscape is so clear and the beech hedges look wonderful with their crispy leaves. I think that this is a great use of the level change presented by the site, the compacted gravel paths are not only accessible but comfortable for walking.

The area around the glasshouse with the South African prairie meadow to the right

There is so much in this garden to take in but what particularly fascinated me were the trees. Firstly, I was amazed to see such a large Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides). In its age, it has gracefully lowered its branches. To protect this remarkable tree the RHS have cordoned it off reducing soil compaction and letting it relax in peace. I am fond of Catalpas and this one in particular looked so magnificent on the gloomy day. The broad leaves were yet to emerge but its fruit, large slender capsules which look like massive runner beans were still hanging on. I have seen C. bignonioides used before as a street tree in Swindon, Wiltshire and was amazed how exciting it was to have such an interesting tree right in an urban setting.

The elegant droping boughs of the Catalpa bignonioides

Another tree that caught my eye was the tulip tree ‘Fastigiatum’ (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Fastigiatum’), it is like the usual tulip tree except it has a more upright habit with branches starting low down. The tree is part of the magnolia family, it is fast growing and its name comes from the shape of the leaves and I think that the unusual shaped foliage is what makes this tree special. The leaves turn a nice yellow in autumn which combined with the lobed shape make this tree an interesting tree for the urban environment as well as a wonderful specimen for garden situations. In Leeds we have a particularly splendid L. tulipifera right in the centre of the city. When the trees mature they flower in the summer with greenish flowers with orange marks near the base.

One last part of the garden at Wisley that I would like to reflect on is actually a piece of hard landscaping as part of the new welcome building which has just opened. A sinuous path connects the back of the new building with the Jellicoe canal. A small change in level is dealt with in such an elegant way by using long and thin sandstone setts laid down in a running bond. The edges are very neatly resolved with a low weathering steel retaining wall containing the soon to be planted borders and preventing accidental trampling. This well thought out design has created an accessible, functional and beautiful route linking the old and the new.

The new sinuous path

As the rain closed in, it was time to head home via the well stocked plant shop cunningly positioned to rinse the wallets of the inspired but hard done by landscape students. A convenient shuttle bus took us, and our purchases, to the far away carparks. I look forward to visiting RHS Wisley again it has such a huge array of plants and trees and it is amazing to see the place so busy with all sorts of people all with the common appreciation of this great garden.

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