After one of the wettest, coldest and longest winters that anyone can remember it comes as a massive relief to finally see the Gardens springing into life. With the vernal equinox behind us, (the days are now longer than nights), nature has a fantastic habit of catching up and spring has appeared almost overnight.
One of the benefits of the cool, wet weather means that everything is coming into bloom at once to give probably one of the best displays in recent years.
One group of plants that especially appreciate the cool, wet weather are the large leafed Rhododendrons. We consider these to be the 'royalty' of the Rhododendron family. These magnificent plants form the aristocracy of our plant collection, several of which have been bred and raised here at Exbury.
One of the reasons these plants are seen as exclusive is because they are expensive and difficult to propagate, requiring just the right combination of moisture and drainage and a sheltered woodland sight to be able to perform to their best. Exbury has one of the best collections of large leafed rhododendrons in southern England as they do particularly well when grown amongst our native oak trees and in the sheltered glades flanking the Beaulieu River.
Back in the heyday of woodland gardening, the early part of last century, the large leaved rhododendrons were the perfect weapon in the arms race between competing Gardens and their competitive owners, with new species and forms being introduced by various plant hunters this meant that the early rhododendron shows were a perfect venue for one-upmanship. This tradition has been carried on through the years and is now in the capably hands of the RHS who host two major spring rhododendron competitions held about a month apart. Exbury has long been a stalwart of the shows and is something that myself and the garden team particularly enjoy taking part in as it is the herald of our spring season. This year the early rhododendron show was hosted at Savill Gardens in Windsor by previous Exbury Head Gardener, John Anderson. We were delighted this year to win 'Best Individual Truss in Show' with Rhododendron calophytum. This plant was discovered by one of Exbury's long time friends and my travelling companion Mr Keith Rushforth. The next big event is the main Rhododendron show held at RHS Rosemoor on the 20th April. We will be spoilt for choice for entries as the warm weather has ushered in one of the best flowering seasons in my career.
The other wonderful thing about spring is the opportunity to refresh the garden with new plantings. The volunteers have been especially busy removing older plants and re-planting with new specimens in the Tennis Court Tea Gardens revitalising this sunny corner.
Next door to the Tea Gardens the wisteria adorning the pergola is full of promise as the many buds are waiting to burst forth after a vigorous pruning during the winter when the previous season growth, (the long tendrils), are cut back to 4 buds. This has the added benefit of keeping the plant under control whilst encouraging bud production.
One of the real privileges of managing Exbury is the opportunity to plant young trees that will be enjoyed for many future generations. This is particularly true of our native oak, Quercus robur, which can potentially live for 400-500 years or more, and not only forms the over storey for our wonderful collection of exotic plants they will provide a haven for numerous species of native wildlife. We have planted several of these young trees in daffodil meadow protected by chestnut palings where they will beautifully frame the view to the Beaulieu river for years to come.