As any keen gardener will know, Winter is one of the busiest times of the gardener’s year. With over 200 acres of fabulous woodland garden to maintain, Exbury is no different. This year we have been particularly busy with the new railway extension to landscape, borders to renovate, ponds to repair and exciting new plants to propagate and find a home for in the grounds. With all this in mind here is a taste of winter at Exbury.
With thousands of trees, leaf clearance forms a large part of our winter work! Where possible leaves are blown onto the borders to decompose both to improve the soil and reducing weeding, this is of course not possible everywhere so inevitably a large proportion still needs to be collected (in our case upwards of 50 tonnes!) This is in turn allowed to breakdown slowly over several years producing leaf mould, a relatively low nutrient medium which is a first class mulch and soil conditioner and a real favourite with our rhododendrons. There are many benefits to mulching, the most obvious is to reduce the need for weeding but also the rich dark mulch warms the soil quickly in late winter as the sun rays are absorbed triggering microbial activity which in turn releases much needed nutrients. We have found mulching also benefits our young trees as the increase in microbial activity creates a healthy soil and a great growing environment! The other added benefits are avoiding compaction from mowers and reducing competition for food and water.
Tree management is another important part of our winter programme of work. We annually survey our trees to assess their health and vitality and to ensure that they are looked after properly. Trees like any living organism have a life expectancy and some species are much shorter lived than others. This means that inevitably each year several dead or dying trees need to be removed or assisted through a “managed decline”, both to minimise the risk but also to enhance bio diversity. This is why when you explore the outer reaches of the garden you may well spot some large stems left standing to create habitats for invertebrates, wood peckers and as bat roosts. Standing dead wood plays a important part in any woodland ecology and this is something that Exbury is keen to develop.
Our Nursery team along with our volunteers have also had a very busy winter propagating and tending to a whole range of horticultural treasures all destined for our gardens. These include some critically endangered conifers and several rare species of Rhododendrons (some yet to be identified). Needless to say that they will greatly enhance a collection of already international importance over the coming years.
You may notice the unusual pot in the picture which is known as an air pot, a new innovation in the plant world designed to stimulate root growth, particularly in plants which are traditionally considered hard to grow in containers.
As the nights begin to slowly draw out, a few of our very early Rhododendrons are beginning to stir. This intense red flower is from Rhododendron arboretum found in Nepal and Northern India which grows in the cool temperate forests at mid altitude in the Himalayas and is particularly happy in our damp woodlands down by the Beaulieu river. Introduced in the 1850s by Joseph Hooker from the kingdom of Sikkim this wonderful plant kick-started the craze for hybridising of Rhododendrons and is a sure sign that spring is not too far away.