Hydrangeas

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Hydrangeas

As the dog days of August approach and other flowering shrubs give up the ghost those stalwarts of the late summer border, the hydrangeas, come into their own. The common hydrangea, H. macrophylla, has spawned a huge range of varieties that divide neatly into two main types, the lacecaps and the Hortensias, or more descriptively the mopheads. The latter, also known as florists hydangeas, were originally bred as pot plants and were the classic floral decoration for tarting up the podium at significant municipal events where their brassy flowers were only outdone by the chains and gongs of the mayor and other civic dignitaries. These were unsuitable for outdoor cultivation but numerous garden varieties are now available.

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Hydrangea “Annabelle” by Apple store at West Dean Gardens

Whilst not being the most subtle of blooms they nonetheless have a bouncy, Barbara Windsor like vitality about them as they sprawl and bulge under the weight of their fleshy, deep green leaves and outrageously over the top “afro” flower heads. This “Carry on up the Border” quality combined with a colour range that tends to the day-glo makes them ideal for a bit of “in yer face” seaside jollity but not so suitable for low key, subtly nuanced schemes! Where subtlety and sophistication are required the lacecaps are a better bet as the impact of their flowerheads is softened by the combination of a central plate of fertile flowers surrounded by a ruff of the larger, infertile ray flowers, similar to the Viburnums. Finally, continuing their slightly fairground quality remember that both types have the chameleon like capacity to produce blue flowers on acid soils and pink ones on alkaline soils such as at West Dean Gardens. Don’t be fooled by names like “Blue Wave” if you live in the Downs because she’ll be pinker than a stick of Brighton rock!

Hydrangea sargentiana on Woodland Walk

Hydrangea sargentiana on Woodland Walk

Whilst enjoying the “full on” feel of the common hydrangea it has to be said that the more refined pleasures of the other species and their varieties are generally more companionable and easier to place in the garden. With similar flower power to a mophead but of a more understated nature H. arborescens “Annabelle” has a graceful, open habit that errs on the pendent as its stems are bent over by the weight of its large, spherical creamy-white flowers. This characteristic that lends it to spilling down a bank or casting its cloak over front of border plants that are past their best. Larger and stiffer, H. paniculata is vigorous, spreading to upright, and bears large conical panicles of creamy white flowers that become tinged with pink as they age. “Praecox” flowers early in June, and is very informal and pretty but the most popular variety is “Grandiflora” which has massive flowerheads of mainly sterile flowers in September, a real late season blast! Slightly earlier and a little less over the top by dint of its mix of sterile and ray florets H. paniculata “Floribunda” is a more understated choice. Even more subdued is the N. American H. quercifolia, the oak-leaved hydrangea. Here it is the foliage that is the major attraction, like oak leaves on testosterone they are a cool soft green, colouring rich tones in the autumn, the pyramidal cream turning purplish flowers are pretty good to! H. aspera subsp. sargentiana is another strikingly foliaged beast. Here the leaves are very bristly and very large, up to 25cm, and evenly but fairly sparsely distributed over the stiffly upright framework of stems creating a dramatically sculptural effect when well grown. Like most of the hydrangeas the flattened terminal flower heads of blue-purple fertile flowers surrounded by white sterile ones also age well remaining on the plant in ghostly, sere form till next spring.

Hydrangea macrophylla with Agapathus in foreground

Hydrangea macrophylla with Agapathus in foreground

Closely related but with a different feel is what some consider to be the Queen of the tribe, H. aspera Villosa Group, previously known as H. villosa, aah the wonders of nomenclature! In August there is no lovelier shrub as its well shaped dome of downy foliage is smothered with lilac-blue flowers, combined with Pennisetum alopecurioides, Sedum spectabile and Rosa glauca its one of the highlights of the late summer garden. Finally we shouldn’t forget that there is also an extremely useful climbing member of the family, H. petiolaris. With the same self-clinging capacity as ivy and with similar vigour it is a wonderful, more unusual subject for cladding shaded walls. Its handsome dark green leaves which colour rich yellow in autumn plus its domed white flowers in June- July make it an invaluable climber, its pretty good at cladding old tree stumps or trunks as well.

Hydrangea panic ulama

Hydrangea panic ulama

Cultivation of Hydrangeas is pretty straightforward but a few basic points are worth noting. Firstly, the name Hydrangea comes from the Greek for water vessel a reference to the shape of the seed capsule, but it might better refer to the genus’s fearsome capacity to suck up water faster than a thirsty elephant! Be warned, a large specimen can hoover up more than 100 litres a day so a moist but well-drained, moderately fertile soil is essential. In areas of low rainfall and sharp drainage partial shade is preferred but in wetter, cloudier climes full sun can be tolerated, either way shelter from cold or drying winds is required. Pruning of H.quercifolia, H.aspera subsp. sargentiana and Villosa group and H. petiolaris is minimal consisting of the removal of spent flower heads in the spring as growth recommences. H. macrophylla and H. arborescens “Annabelle” are dealt with by removing all weak, spindly growth plus a proportion of the older less productive wood to the ground each spring and then tipping back any damaged branches by up to 30cm to a fat bud. H. paniculata can be pruned as H. quercifolia etc but to obtain really huge flower spikes it is best to establish a permanent framework 25 to 60cm high depending on its position in the border and cutting all growth back to the lowest pair of buds above this framework each spring.

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager

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June – a peach of a month!

gfr.820 Peach Duke of YorkHaving just passed the longest day, 21st June, I think it’s fair to say that summer is here and so far it’s proving pretty good, fingers crossed! That combined with a mild and moist Spring means that West Dean Gardens is probably looking as good as it ever has in my 23 years as Gardens Manager, so if you haven’t yet paid us a visit then make sure you do so soon.   If you come in the next few weeks you might well be able to buy a punnet of our fabulous peaches and nectarines that are just starting to be picked.

079The production of top quality fruit for the “big” house was an important part of the Walled Gardens historic role and within that, overall brief glasshouse fruit production was the highest demonstration of the fruit gardeners art. In the restoration of the Walled Garden in the mid 1990’s we decided that we would try to revive that tradition and as a consequence still have two fig houses, three vineries, a dedicated nectarine house and a further 4four fan trained peach trees on the rear wall of what had originally been two orchard houses, but that now grow tomatoes in the summer and protect plants needing a frost free environment overwinter.

 

gfr.790 Fan trained FigOur peaches and nectarines are all grown as fan trained trees and, as with all trained wall fruit, rely on having a robust wire support system of tensioned 12.5 gauge (2.5mm) galvanised wire, approximately 3mm of the wall and at 23cm spacings, on which to train and tie the branch framework. Again, as with all plant training, the most important stages are the formative ones and these can’t be skimped or hurried, suffice it to say that to produce a decent fan you need to start with a feathered maiden and then follow the steps as described beautifully in Harry Baker’s “Fruit”, publisher Mitchell Beazley, out of print but is the best guide to fruit pruning for the novice, well worth seeking secondhand. Alternatively Michael Pollock’s “Fruit and Vegetable Gardening” is also good and in print. gfr.783 Nectarine blossomWhatever your guide you are looking at, it takes four years to get the thing established and ideally you should not let it fruit at all in the first couple of years so that it’s energy is focused on establishing a strong framework. Despite that it’s well worth the wait because there is nothing more sensuous than eating a perfectly ripened, sun warmed white peach fresh from the tree. The old story was that they should only be eaten in the bath because they are so full of nectar like juice that you can’t avoid getting drenched eating them! However, they are awkward to harvest as they bruise as soon as you look at them. The secret is to gently cup them in the hand and give a slight twist and if it doesn’t come off in the hand it isn’t ready. But having gone over the trees early in the morning it is frustrating to go back a couple of hours later to find half a dozen of those fruits that seemed so firmly attached earlier now lying pulped on the floor two hours later! But the pro’s certainly outweigh the con’s so have a go or at least come and have a look at ours (but do not handle the goods!!)

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager

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West Dean Gardens – June 2014

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Wild Flower display

Last winter’s rain has acted like rocket fuel to the gardens, there is fabulous growth on trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials everywhere. As a result the early season wild flower display was floriferous in the extreme – always a glorious sight. Shortly it will be mown down (before it falls down!), however there will be a second flush of wildflowers allowed to develop in restricted locations for late season enjoyment.

ImageColour is coming to the borders, roses are strutting their stuff and the yellow and blue border is beginning to look exactly that – yellow and blue. Here we’re winning the battle with Nigella (love in the mist) which seeds everywhere if left to its own devices- but what a lovely plant! New plantings opposite the Pergola and in the Sunken Garden are being lovingly attended by garden volunteers and staff and are worth a visit if you haven’t yet been to the gardens this year.

Under glass, William – who 079normally manages trees and shrubs throughout the gardens with Stuart, has been pruning the grape vines and thinning bunches of grapes. In each bunch over 50 % of the grapes are removed to allow the remainder to swell and develop comfortably. It’s one of the most laborious tasks we do in the glasshouses but very rewarding. The peaches are colouring up too although the colour is deceiving as they are still rock hard…but not long now! Elsewhere aubergines, chillies and tomatoes are all potted or planted in their respective glasshouses ready to develop and produce the goods.

Pesky snails and slugs have proved to be a challenge this year, after the mild rainy winter there are squadrons of them roaming the beds. They have reduced a few plants to an unrecognizable state which is not a common occurrence with us as we don’t generally have hoards of them. Just shows how each season brings its own set of challenges.

Anne ‘the Border Queen’ has completed the planting and sowing in the cutting garden area and will now be paying attention to its upkeep. Like a spinning top she rotates from border, to border pinching back, weeding, staking and tying in where necessary. Her workload is relentless at this time of year and it requires an energetic person like Anne to keep on top of it all.

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Shaun ‘the Kitchen Gardener’

Shaun ‘the Kitchen Gardener’ has been erecting hazel and cane supports for various crops such as peas, beans and small gourds in the Kitchen Garden. The gourds have just been planted along with celery, more peas, dwarf French beans and chard and the next generation of parsley has just been pricked out ready for harvest in July through to the winter. Winter squash are about to go into the ground as are a selection of grafted tomatoes – let’s see how they cope with the great outdoors. We’re even training a couple of tomato varieties up wigwams just to see how productive they can be.

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St Roche’s Arboretum

As ever, St Roche’s Arboretum beckons those who delight in a healthy stomp before a hearty West Dean tea-break or lunch at the Gardens Restaurant. I really do entreat you to make the effort to see for yourself the wonderful landscape at the top of the valley – just follow the orange markers along the track through the Parkland into the Arboretum.

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2 for 1 Offer until 12th June, quote AOH241 http://www.westdean.org.uk/designandcraft

Like all gardeners at times we feel as though we’re struggling with the weed population and after the winter rain the weeds are showing unrestrained vigour. Jack who’s in charge of looking after most of the grounds, and his merry band of volunteers hope to have all the gardens weed free in time for the Design and Craft Fair featuring MADE, 20-22nd June 2014. Come and try your hand at the crafts on offer, you may be pleasantly surprised by your latent talent!

Sarah Wain, Gardens Supervisor

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The Chelsea ‘Chop’

The 'Chelsea' Chop

The ‘Chelsea’ Chop

Jim4Chelsea week is the one time of the year that gardening dominates the airwaves and takes centre stage in the public’s mind which is slightly curious because as any “real” gardener knows gardens are an all year round obsession that occupies one’s thoughts and efforts for 52 weeks of the year . It is that constant input and long term commitment that really produces the results and offers the rewards. I am therefore a little ambivalent about the razzamatazz of theatrical horticultural perfection, seemingly achieved in an instant, that Chelsea and other shows purvey to a ravening public desperate to be told that you can buy a perfect garden in the same way you can buy a perfect interior if you throw enough money at it. Having said that the whole show is a triumphant tour de force demonstrating huge skill and dedication from all involved in its presentation and I was oohing and aahing along with everyone else as I wandered round, just don’t mistake it for the real thing!

Jim6So fantasy aside what have we been up to at West Dean Gardens over the last few weeks? Well Chelsea has given its name to more than the Show as we now also have the eponymous “Chelsea chop”. No, this is not a karate move or a particularly succulent cut of lamb but a simple device used to reduce the bulk of and delay the flowering of a wide range of herbaceous plants such as sedums, geraniums, acanthus etc. Like most things horticultural it is not an exact operation in either its execution or timing and is dependent on a number of variables including the nature of the plant, the effect desired and the season that year. Thus this year is “early” so the Chelsea chop was in fact happening a couple of weeks prior to the event, nonetheless the name is a useful aide memoire. One of the plants that we “chop” annually are the larger Sedums such as “Autumn Joy” as left to their own devices their crowns tend to overextend themselves and then flop out from the centre as the flower heads develop. By cutting the developing crown back to about 3” at about the middle of May they will remain much more compact and self-supporting. It’s as simple as that and well worth experimenting with anything that tends to flop in your conditions, plants are generally forgiving and rarely die because of an ill-advised intervention on the part of the gardener. However if you really want the low down on the subject there is no better guide than Tracy Di Sabato’s book “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden”, which although written for the USA market is still an exemplary guide.

That aside May is undoubtedly the “crunch” month when everything needs doing at once and even the best organised gardener begins to doubt whether everything will all get done in the right time frame. This has been a particularly balmy spring but mild temperatures, reasonable sunshine and regular showers mean that the grass is growing apace and our usual weekly cut is barely enough to stay on top of the growth, waiting until your lawn looks like a silage crop is not a good policy, once a week is! With the risk of frost past we are furiously trying to get all of our annual displays and half hardy perennial material out of the frames where they have been hardening off and into the ground. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of time spent watering pots! Under glass many hours are being spent pruning, tieing in and deflowering the grape vines. Experience has taught us that time invested now pays huge dividends. By getting the fruit bearing framework properly trained at this stage you can then afford to be a little more relaxed when they start fruiting and reduce their growth rate. Early investment of time nearly always pays dividends in the garden.

jim3But despite the pressure don’t forget to look up and smell the flowers! Good luck!!

Jim Buckland, Gardens Manager

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Welcome to West Dean Gardens in May

Apple Blossom

Apple Blossom

Wild Flowers and Dandelions in the Apple Orchard

Wild Flowers and Dandelions in the Apple Orchard

April was such a benign month at West Dean, mostly rain-free days and glorious enjoyable sunshine. What a blossomy year so far – I feel as if the garden is garlanded with these magical blooms at present. The pear blossom was magnificent in March and April and now the orchard is a riot of pink and white apple blossom with a carpet of wildflowers including cowslips, dandelions and spears of blue camassias adding to the palette. May is definitely ‘Wild Flower Month’ at West Dean.

Apple Cox's Pomona

Apple Cox’s Pomona

The kind weather is astonishing but I’m looking around the corner for another meteorological disaster- wind, rain, hail or frost. So far though the pears have set fruit and soon the apples will have too which is such a relief after the miserable months of winter rain we have endured.

Around the garden certain areas are bursting into growth, nowhere more so than the newly planted Sunken Garden. Responding to the muck and magic incorporated into the beds last year, the plants are leaping out of the ground; so soon the lion tamer will have to be brought in to sort it out.

Sunken Garden

Sunken Garden

After reporting for years about the state of the Sunken Garden it’s rather marvellous to be able to encourage you to incorporate it into your garden tour and enjoy the scene; enjoy the wisteria on the nearby Pergola too.

Much of the evergreen shrubbery element throughout the gardens has also been tamed for a further twelve months. This year you will see lots of new vistas as the diseased spotted laurel, probably planted in the late nineteenth century, comes to an end and is removed, creating in its wake many and varied photographic opportunities.

West Dean Weekend Breakfasts

West Dean Weekend Breakfasts

While you’re visiting the gardens do make sure you walk to its furthermost reaches to the west of the house- you’ll get a different perspective of the garden entirely. And if you’re really feeling fit and frisky, aim for St Roche’s Arboretum which is looking superb at the moment with a few areas covered in sheets of cowslips. Tea and a magnificent slice of cake at the Gardens Restaurant await you on your return. Or try our new weekend breakfasts (open from 9am) before setting off on your walk.

gher.964 Basil Sweet Green seedlings

Basil Seedlings

Within the Walled Gardens we have not been standing still either; the fruit trees are now pinned in place after an Easter training session from Jim the tree tamer. See the 2010 fruit tree plantings in the Kitchen Garden along the eastern wall for some inspirational designs. ‘Shaun the Kitchen Gardener’ continues to hurl himself from one task to another to plant, sow, weed and train at the appropriate time, training tomatoes under glass also engages him. Glasshouse winter lettuce has been consumed so now the basil collection will shortly be planted, most of these varieties are AGM (Award of Garden Merit) winners from a basil trial at Wisley in 2012 so are good do-ers for the home gardener. We are also growing complimentary trials of dill and coriander as a satellite to the main trial at RHS Wisley, all worth a look-see.

gveg1305 Vegetables under woven barn cloches‘Anne the Border Queen’ races around the garden too, keeping on top of tying in roses and clematis on all the borders as well as controlling the exuberant border growth with her magical hazel weaving. She will shortly be planting out half hardy perennial plants and annuals to fill in all the border spaces- an interesting and creative activity.

Finally the glasshouses – Chris’ domain, are awaiting a visit from you to see how the collections grow and develop. Tomatoes, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers and melons are just some of the crops you will find growing at West Dean along with loads of ornamentals – always worth a visit.

Have you heard about our new show the West Dean Design and Craft Fair featuring MADE on the 20-22nd June? You can book for workshops and event tickets online now and entry to the Gardens is free. www.westdean.org.uk/designandcraft

Sarah Wain, Gardens Supervisor

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Spring Fever!

Spring Fever!

Spring Fever!

Well spring has certainly sprung and everything is roaring out of the ground as if its life depended on it, which in a way of course it does. This is a lovely time of the year, full of promise, everything looking fresh in the first flush of its youth and as yet unblemished by the vagaries of weather, pests or disease. However it’s also a time of year when a thousand garden jobs need to be completed in a very short space of time inducing a kind of horticultural schizophrenia in the beleaguered gardener as, amoeba like, she tries to be in five different places completing ten different jobs, all at once. The secret of course is to prioritise. Cast an analytical eye over the list of jobs needing to be done in as ruthless fashion as a medical officer carrying out triage in a casualty clearing station (which some potting sheds can feel like at this time of year) and decide what should have been done a week ago, what needs sorting now and what can wait for a few days and then go at it vigorously and systematically. There is nothing as good as standing back at the end of the day with that slightly smug sense of having tamed the beast by crossing off all those jobs you have now completed, yes, just do it!

So what have we been up to at West Dean over the last few weeks?

Pond Life!

Pond Life!

Amongst the many tasks one of the more enjoyable is reducing the marginal plants in our pond at the west end of the garden. It is supposed to be a naturalistic, conservation pond but is of course entirely artificial and only retains water because it has a butyl liner. All ponds ultimately aspire to becoming dry ground and ours, left to its own devices, would in the space of a couple of decades be completely swamped by herbaceous vegetation, which would then be invaded by tree seedlings which would pump moisture out of the developing boggy soil and before you know it you have a swampy “carr” woodland instead of a reflective water experience. Experience has taught us that the only way we can tackle the control of the marginals is  to “prune “ them annually using an axe to slice chunks out of them and a back hoe on a small tractor to haul the very smelly and very wet pieces of surplus vegetation out of the pond and into a trailer and ultimately onto the compost pile for shredding and composting. Of course the great danger is that in your zeal to hack and remove you inadvertently pierce the liner and cause a rapid reduction in water level as the water swiftly drains away through your modest incision. Fortunately we have, thus far, managed to avoid such an eventuality and the pond once more looks clothed with verdure but not entirely swamped.

West Dean Pyramid_L

Trained Fruit Trees

We’ve also been having a big push on finishing the pruning of all our trained fruit forms. Although a little unorthodox, we find that pruning now, just as the tree is leafing up and flowering, is a brilliant time to wield the knife because you can see exactly what is happening and prune accordingly. At the same time the grapes under glass are growing like Olympian triffids and have to be kept pruned and tied in otherwise they will rapidly become a vegetative Gorgons head. Their flowers are already opening and soon the grapes will set and we will then be faced with the neck cricking task of thinning the embryonic fruit in the bunch, but that’s another story!

Finally I am working hard in my own garden at Gardeners Cottage, West Dean to prepare for its opening for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 11th of May between 10am and 5pm, parking in West Dean Gardens car park and follow the signs. Sadly all of the spring bulbs will be over by then but there is plenty more to see and over the years people have very kindly been extremely complimentary about it so why not come and have a look.

A piece of homemade heaven!

A piece of homemade heaven!

Even if you don’t fancy the garden, the tea and home-made cakes have won great renown in their own right!

West Dean Gardens are clearly signposted off of the A286 equidistant between Chichester and Midhurst and are open daily from 10.30am to 5pm. See our website http://www.westdean.org.uk for more details or ring 01243 818210.

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Magnolia Madness

Magnolia Madness

Magnolia Madness

People often talk about good blossom years when the combination of prolific flower production and perfect climatic conditions at the time of flowering i.e. still, no hard frosts nor torrential rain or even worse sleet or hail, all come together to produce a display which is mind blowing in its intensity and over the top profligacy. When that happens you are witnessing one of the best bits of nature bling you could wish for and it’s my impression that the last couple of weeks have been one of those magic moments for Magnolias. Everywhere I go I seem to be met with stunning displays of exquisite goblet- shaped flowers that are so elegantly unmistakeable and which exude a sophisticated charm matched by no other flowering tree or shrub. I went to a conference at the Chelsea Physic Garden the other day and wandering the streets of Chelsea on the way there every street was enlivened by some Magnolia specimen flowering it’s socks off and I even spotted one street that had Magnolias as their street tree, only in the “Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea”!

Magnolia sprengeri 'Diva'

Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’

Close up of the 'Diva' flower

Close up of the ‘Diva’ flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bit closer to home our very own Magnolia sprengeri “Diva” planted on the southern perimeter of the Pergola has been in full song for two weeks now! Standing about 25 feet high it is an amazing sight covered in huge pure pink flowers. Sadly most years they either get turned to brown mush by a hard frost or blown to pieces by high winds but not this year.
Being located on the dip slope of the South downs means that our soil is resolutely alkaline, very free draining, prone to drought in a dry summer and consumes humus building compost like a builder with a fry up, hardly ideal for most magnolias. The general wisdom is that most species prefer a fairly heavy, neutral to acid, humus rich loam and with a rainfall of 30 inches plus per annum however there are a few that will thrive in our soil given generous doses of humus rich mulch and our average annual rainfall of 41 inches per annum. These include:Magnolia wilsonii, grandiflora, kobus, sinensis, highdownensis and delavayi. Interestingly you may have noticed that Magnolia “Diva” is not one of these so take anything I say with a pinch of salt, as I often say to trainees amenity horticulture is not an exact science!

'Diva' in all her finery!

‘Diva’ in all her finery!

Like Magnolia “Diva” Magnolia wilsonii will form a small tree of about 25 feet high and with a clear stem so they both make spectacular trees for the smallish garden. In contrast to “Diva” who holds her flowers proudly upright M. wilsonii is more modest and has pendent, fragrant white flowers that are a joy to look up into in May and June. Magnolia grandiflora is a quite different beast with its large evergreen leaves and magnificent lemon scented, cup shaped creamy white flowers in July and August, traditionally is this most often seen in the UK grown against the wall of some stately pile but I can’t really see why it should not be grown as a specimen tree assuming you have the space. Anyway as in all things it’s always worth experimenting and possibly proving the experts wrong!

West Dean Gardens are looking marvellous now with sheets of daffodils and other bulbs providing lots of colour, the Kitchen Garden building up a head of steam and lots of lovely new season’s plants for sale in the Visitor Centre.

Come and have a look!
Jim Buckland, Gardens Manager

Spring bulbs en masse!

Spring bulbs en masse!

 

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