Tag Archives: Wisley

A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.


South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.

The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009

No discussion on the Sheffield School is complete with the Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. This is the work of Professor James Hitchmough. We first saw it in late June 2009 and it was an absolute highlight of that trip for us. A joy. Inspiring.

The planting was started from seed sown in 2008 so we saw it in its second year. The selected mix had a heavy focus on North American perennials, hence the Missouri reference. It was still low growing and relatively sparse with gravel mulch. It was also completely different to its adjacent plantings – the Tom Stuart-Smith perennial beds that face the glasshouse directly across the lake and the Piet Oudolf twin borders up the slope. That distinction was a defining character of the area.

And again at the same time of the year in 2014

We next saw it five years later in the same month of the year in 2014. It had matured, changed. The juvenile charm had gone but it was still meadow-like with lots of variety and bloom. The demarcation lines had begun to blur as some plants formed sizeable clumps so it was not as clear where the Missouri Meadow ended and the Stuart-Smith plantings started. I think most of the echinaceas had gone. Ain’t that just the way? I don’t feel so bad about our failures to get them established as permanent plants.

And in 2017

Looking at the photos, I think there are lessons to be learned in  terms of the outcome of a very laissex faire maintenance regime. Meadow it may be but whether this is the meadow effect that is wanted is something else altogether. Also the growth habits of the different perennial plants has a major impact Where plants form solid, vase-shaped clumps, such as the day lily and red hot pokers (hemerocallis and kniphofia), over time they morph into a more traditional herbaceous planting where they will dominate more ephemeral plants and choke them out. Plants which gently spread, rather than clump, like the geraniums and achilleas, retain more of a meadow feel in the longer term. Many of these are quite shallow-rooted so they can get out-competed by more determined neighbours. I am no longer clear where the meadow planting by Hitchmough meets the perennial planting of Stuart-Smith so I am only guessing that the kniphofia may be the former and the hemerocallis the latter.




Three years on, we were looking forward to seeing the Missouri Meadow again in 2017. Same time of the year (note to self: it is time I booked these trips at a different time of the year). One-Who-Knows warned us that we may be disappointed. I would say more interested, than disappointed.

It wasn’t ALL like this in 2017, but there was enough of it to be a worry

Most of it was no longer a visual delight, though it may well be eyecatching for a few weeks when the aster flowers, turning it into a sea of blue. I am deducing it is A. oolentangiensis, as named on the display board, that has colonised the largest area and is on track to smother everything else out. It would seem a problem for Wisley staff in that they cannot continue to leave the area to evolve because it is in a prominent location, taking up substantial space. Garden visitors are more likely to judge on immediate appearances than take an interest in the evolution of a naturalistic planting. The inclusion of this aster in the original mix appears not to have been a good long-term decision for the conditions and climate at Wisley. I wonder if it has been dropped from subsequent seed mixes from the Sheffield School?

Of course there is trial and error in this new wave gardening and that is one of the roles taken on by the Royal Horticultural Society in collaboration with others. Mark observed that the whole area had been in for nine years, requiring very few resources and, seemingly, little maintenance. If it needs a major reworking once a decade, that is still a lot less input than more traditional perennial plantings in herbaceous borders.

As I understand it, the aim of the Sheffield School is to create self-sustaining eco-systems that don’t require even that level of intervention. It will be interesting to see whether the higher proportion of grasses at Olympic Park overwhelm the pretty perennials over time or whether the current balance is maintained. The extensive recent plantings by Hitchmough’s colleague, Nigel Dunnett, at Trentham Park are currently at the show stopping stage of gorgeousness. More on these in a post to come. No doubt the experience gained from the Missouri Meadow will have been applied to these newer plantings in some way or another. And we will continue to follow with interest what the Wisley staff decide to do with their earlier example of a managed meadow of predominantly American perennials.

The Dunnett plantings at Trentham Gardens are like a pointillist painting from the Impressionist era at this time

There is a quandary in gardening: when you have a style that looks its most appealing and delightful when juvenile, do you commit to returning that area to its juvenility from time to time in the ongoing attempt to recapture the charm? Wisley is not alone in having that problem. I see domestic gardeners do it all the time – hacking back shrubs like azaleas and camellias to ground level to encourage them to “come again” amongst other examples of gardening brutalism. We lean more to celebrating maturity and moving on, probably in life as well as gardening.

Will the Missouri Meadow be developed further or should it be wiped and resown to achieve that early charm again?

All for show? Not necessarily

“Our Garden” by Andy Sturgeon – I wouldn’t mind this as my garden

“Our Garden” by Andy Sturgeon – I wouldn’t mind this as my garden

We have never been to the Chelsea Flower Show and have no particular desire to go. We went to the NZ equivalent, the Ellerslie Flower Show maybe three times, just to keep in touch. Maybe we are just too cynical about show gardens.

A six-way discussion on this topic recently illustrated the division. The four hands-on gardeners around the table felt there was little cross-over from show gardens whereas the two academics with a design focus (whom I do not think ever allowed dirt beneath their finger nails) argued that show gardens were trend setters. I guess the divide may be whether one thinks designers are more important than gardeners.

We were at the Royal Horticultural Society flagship garden, Wisley (near Guilford) for a couple of days and their installation of model gardens in the area they call “Witan Street” suddenly took on new meaning. These are show gardens, all measuring a uniform 9m x 6m, designed by members of the Society of Garden Designers and installed between 2004 and 2008. Where else are you going to see what show gardens look like up to ten years on, after being given only a moderate level of routine maintenance?

“I don’t think much of these,” sniffed a passing garden visitor, dismissing the whole lot in one sweep of the hand. On the contrary, we thought quite a lot about them. What these gardens showed is that good design lasts, fashion items don’t. A well designed show garden can mature gracefully and become a softer-edged back garden appropriate for a domestic setting.

Perspex panels, no thank you. Dated already, as fashion items do.

Perspex panels, no thank you. Dated already, as fashion items do.

Perspex panels were not a good long term option. The clear perspex example was a bit grungy and in need of a good clean. The coloured perspex panels no longer looked cutting-edge contemporary in style. They looked like outdated, tacky gimmickry.

The full length mirror also looked grubby and unappealing. We never liked this idea, even when it was promoted in this country. “Make your garden look larger and reflect light”, some suggested. Mirrors are best in bathrooms and bedrooms. They are a bit contrived in a garden setting, in my opinion. It appears they don’t age gracefully either. We felt further vindicated when an English gardener commented on how dangerous mirrors are for birds who can fly into them at speed. No garden mirrors here, thanks.

The blue and yellow colour scheme is very “of the day”. I am reserving judgement on the stainless steel

The blue and yellow colour scheme is very “of the day”. I am reserving judgement on the stainless steel

I am keeping an open mind on the use of stainless steel. It looked okay in Dizzy Shoemark’s “A Garden of Contrasts”. It did, but I would want to see it in another decade before deciding whether it is legitimate long term material or fashion item.

Flat planes of colour on boundary walls can date a garden quickly but are relatively easy to update – if you notice. The danger is that the aubergine, Mexican gold or solid blue that looks so sharp and edgy when first painted then stays on well past its use-by date, in danger of achieving floral carpet status over time. The owner can become so used to seeing it there, that he or she fails to register that it is now tired, faded and dated.

The Rill Garden. I am sure it would have had many scatter cushions in its original inception

The Rill Garden. I am sure it would have had many scatter cushions in its original inception

Each garden has an information board  in show garden style

Each garden has an information board in show garden style

I fear that the Rill Garden by Roger Webster showed too much bare concrete to achieve its aim of “a sensual and social space evocative of a warm climate”. But I would bet money that in its original concept, all that expanse of concrete benching was luxuriously encased in the many scatter cushions that featured in most show gardens of the day. Without said cushions, the seating looked cold, damp and very hard to the derriere.

Water is clearly problematic and much depends on design and installation. Some water features looked decidedly stagnant and unappealing whereas others were standing the test of time. Water is not low maintenance and you need to get it right – or live with the consequences of mosquitoes, in our climate at least.

I think the maturing block planting had achieved the status of being dull in ‘Intersection” where the designer states: “Blocks of yew and box reflect the geometric design of the garden and contrast with the more informal drifts and random planting that flows around the static elements.” I have seen it done better and the square blocks were not inviting as a back yard option.

But some of the gardens had mellowed out to charming effect. These gave lie to my dismissal of show gardens. Yes you can learn from them. They demonstrate trends and fashion and focus the mind on design. I just think they are a lot more interesting a few years later if given the chance to settle in, lose the hard-edged perfection and to actually grow.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.