People always ask us Gardeners 'what do you do in the winter'? Managing a large Garden of over 200 acres means there is always more to do in the winter months than in the summer. The first job once we say goodbye to the visitors is putting the Garden to sleep for the winter. This involves bring in all the seats, benches and picnic tables to be cleaned and refurbished ready for the following season. Along with all the tasks you would imagine, clearing the fallen leaves, cutting back the herbaceous borders and general tidying of the garden we take on several larger projects to keep the garden moving forward and refreshed for the future. In a garden well over 100 years old this can be a substantial undertaking. There are three major projects that we are looking at this winter that we hope will not only enhance the visitor experience in the short term but provide interest for future generations.
Firstly the Iris Garden. Unlike the other ponds and water features in the garden it is not a concrete structure built in the 1920's (which cause their own issues), this is a much more natural feature which utilises a natural depression in the ground and is filled by ground and rainwater. The original planting had become quite tired and infested with perennial weeds. The decision was taken that was a prime candidate for a full makeover which will conveniently be timed to coincide with Exbury's centenary in 2019. The first job was to remove the dam at one end to allow the water level to drop giving greater access. The second and most dramatic stage was to dig out all of the marginal planting and re-profile the banks to improve the shape of the pond. We have decided that in order to ensure we have suppressed all of the weeds it will be left fallow for the next growing season. Finally the most exciting part will be re-planting with a selection of iris plants such as Sibirica, psuedacorus, laevigata and ensata to create a dramatic and beautiful addition to the garden.
Another large project being undertaken is the regeneration of Witcher's wood which is home to Exbury's most diverse Rhododendron collection. Whilst removing Rhododendron ponticum, clearing the paths and extracting brambles we came across these two rare Rhododendron arizelum (pics). It is hard to overstate the importance of these wild collected plants, they are the horticultural equaivalant of finding a Charles Dickins first edition at the local car boot sale. The number on the label with the prefix KW refers to the last great plant collector of the 20th C Frank Kingdon Ward, a renowned explorer, naturalist and cartographer. He was commissioned by Lionel de Rothschild and other notable horticulturalists of the early 20th C and was responsible for discovering and introducing many of the fine Rhododendron grown throughout the British Isles today. When searching back through our records, using the tag number as our reference, we discovered these fantastic pair of specimens were collected in the remote, rain drenched, mountainous forests of Northern Burma in an area he nicknamed 'The Triangle'. This was to be his last trip as he passed away in 1958 five years later whilst leaving a London pub! Fortunately for us not only were many of adventures published in many books and essays many of his splendid hand drawn maps are still in circulation although they are very much of their time.
One of the many pleasures of being responsible for Exbury Gardens is the opportunity to thank our fantastic volunteers and hard working staff by spending a couple of days of professional development in some of the county's other splendid gardens. We were lucky enough to visit Stourhead Gardens managed by the National Trust with the volunteerss to enjoy the autumn colour and we spent the day in the company of Emily and Mark who shared their passion for the garden and its history making us feel very welcome indeed.
Later that week we took the staff to Kew Gardens where we spent a hour in the company of Richard Barley (head of Horticulture and Operations) and the inimitable Tony Kirkam (Head of the arboretum and world expert on all matters pertaining to trees). The weather was glorious and the gardens were looking better than ever, it was a real privilege to spend the day in the epicentre of world horticulture.