I have been chasing round the country for the last two weeks, giving talks to local groups, but somehow I found time last weekend to visit Wildside Nursery garden, during its first open period of the season.
My local group arranged a trip, staying overnight at an excellent local hotel, and visiting The Garden House the following morning before returning up the A303 to Woking, while Helen and I began the long trip north to speak to the East Lancs AGS Group.
Wildside is undoubtedly the most inspiring garden I have ever visited. It’s a magnificent piece of landscape creation, which utilises vast earthworks on a scale beyond any modern garden I have visited to implement garden environments in which plants will thrive and naturalise. This is clothed with skilful plantings, created with the eye of an artist. The titan who has forged this wonder is Keith Wiley, his vision amplified by the artistic contribution of his wife Ros.
The garden is open for just a few, fleeting periods throughout the spring and summer – for details see their website. We arrived slightly early; it is always a wonder to me that there aren’t cars queuing all down the lane, but as usual the number of cars failed to reach double figures all day.
Perhaps that is a good thing; you are visiting what is essentially a private garden, and facilities are very minimal. There is no provision for lunch, or even tea and coffee, though both are available a mile or so up the lane at The Garden House; we always take a packed lunch and a flask. Disabled access is very restricted.
I first visited the garden in 2014 and have been more or less every time it has been open ever since. It is a garden I am very familiar with but it is always a thrill to explore what direction Keith’s creative muse has moved in over the winter. Here are a few pictures from this latest trip, focusing on the areas of the garden that perform best at this time of year.
Entering the garden, we turned first downhill. On our left was this magnificent patch of Prunus tenella ‘Firehill’. Keith says it performs best if cut to the ground every year after flowering and allowed to sucker. The wonderful display of flowers on last year’s suckers bears out his words.
As we followed the path down the hill, a vista opened out on our left, where the old, heavily planted valley that Keith created originally to contain his stream was deepened and widened last year to produce a ravine with a series of new pools, ready to be planted this spring, as time and budget permits. It is hard to believe walking round that 15 years ago this 4 acre property was an orchard sited on a gently sloping meadow.
On our right, paths wind between mature rhododendrons in flower, and Acers with fresh new leaves in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours. Below, the golden shoots of a hosta provide a focal point.
On our left, the bank is topped by the yellow flowers of Magnolia ‘Butterflies’.
As we approach the top of the rock garden the trees to our right are a blaze of red. This is Acer palmatum ‘Corallinum’ – wonderful spring colour for six weeks or so, next to nothing in the autumn.
At the top of the rock garden there is a small bank with a conifer on top. On the north side of this there is a bed full of woodland flowers, including Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus and Erythronium revolutum.
To the left, between us and the orchard, there is a clump of Magnolia stellata, underplanted with Erythronium revolutum ‘Knightshayes Pink’. What a wonderful combination.
The path through the rock garden winds between raised banks, packed with masses of Rhodohypoxis, which were just coming through. On top of one of the banks was this nice Pulsatilla.
Further down, there is a strong clump of the creamy-white South African Gladiolus tristis, perfectly hardy in the open garden given reasonable drainage.
As we approach the bottom of the rock garden, the banks are crowned with dwarf maples rather than conifers. In the shade on the north side of these, there are large clumps of Erythronium. First Erythronium ‘Janice’ (I think).
I think this might be E. ‘Minnehaha’ because of the way it holds its flowers.
Now a huge drift of Erythronium ‘Joanna’. The pale pink and apricot flowers should be horribly jarring but somehow they just work, particularly in the sun.
I didn’t get the name of this bright red Primula cultivar. It is not as easy when you are in a garden and there are no labels, so you have to remember to ask.
At the bottom of the rock garden there is a small area of woodland, primarily Cornus and Magnolia, again grown on raised banks to increase their height. The banks below are a mass of woodland bulbs. Here, it is almost impossible to focus on a single clump among the swirls of Erythronium, Anemone, Epimedium, Trillium and, of course, the Devon primroses.
Since I have been visiting this garden, this has become one of my favourite Trilliums.
The fresh flowers of Trillium chloropetalum are a wonderful colour when they catch the sun. As the flowers age, they become more muddy and less attractive.
Near it, a lovely white Epimedium cultivar – again I didn’t get a name.
At the bottom edge of the woodland, the Erythroniums pour out and down the bank to the last in a row of pools fed by the stream Keith has created in the garden. Here, there is a wide stream of a lovely pink-backed Anemone nemorosa, which I think may be A. nemorosa ‘Tinney’s Blush’.
By the next opening period at the end of May, these pools will be a seething mass of flower. Now few plants have started far into growth and you can see the bones of this part of the garden.
The last pool in the row is Keith’s newest addition to the garden. For a number of years there has been a roped off depression but little landscaping around it. Now the pool is complete, overlooked by a small covered seat and walled beds whose swooping geometry is reminiscent of the Ovals Keith created long ago when he was head gardener at The Garden House just up the road. It will be interesting to see how they get planted.
The boundary hedge at the southern edge of the property has been opened up to let the light stream in to the pools, and to provide a view out from the garden into the surrounding landscape.
Following back up the row of pools, we come to a deep ravine edged with trees containing a row of smaller pools linked by the stream. This area was deepened and widened by Keith and his mini-digger during the winter of 2017-18, the pools were formed and planting has begun. The photo of the bank gives you some idea of the depth of the recent excavation – this is 10 feet or more high. The rocks in the water were discovered during excavation.
On the banks above the stream, in the shade of the trees, there is a large bed of Adiantum venustum. The new foliage always glows when it catches the sun.
At the top of the bank overlooking the stream is another new seat, perfectly situated with sight lines across the stream and up the path leading to the back of the orchard (here is my wife Helen setting off down this path toward the seat), and also up across the lawn to the house Keith and Ros are building.
The top half of the garden started with a warm walled garden, laid out with more formal rectangular raised beds, with a bit of a beach feel – the beds are full of shingle and old stumps/driftwood. Again, this part of the garden will come into its own later in the year.
In April, there are few flowers apart from the woodlanders we have seen elsewhere in the garden underneath the pergola around the sides of the area – Erythronium, Epimedium etc. Without flowers, the careful design and view lines of the garden are evident. In the centre there is a huge Hebe ochracea. Underneath the pergola, I found this delightful combination of yellow and amber Epimedium flowers from two different cultivars.
The bank at the far side of the walled garden is crowned by a clump of Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’, beautifully pruned to open an airy space among them. The new leaves are just breaking; by the end of May it will be a cloud of shimmering silver leaves and the scent will fill the top of the garden.
After crossing this bank, the ground falls again to create another area of mounds and hollows, with a naturalistic prairie-style planting. It will be at its best at the end of July, when blowing tussocks of Stipa mingle with flowers of all colours, Agapanthus from white through all the shades of blue imaginable, Crocosmia in vibrant yellow, orange and red, Hemerocallis, Kniphofia and many others.
Parts of the top of the garden form Keith’s unfinished canvas. It is reshaped every winter but I believe that Keith’s vision is now solidifying. Before long these shallow depressions will contain crystal clear water and the banks around them will be masses of flowers reflected in the waters below.
For most, that is the end of the tour. But as a close friend of Keith and Ros, I have permission, if the garden is quiet, to go behind the scenes to see some of the plants growing on for the garden in the nursery. I am also able to view the covered polytunnel rock garden where Keith grows some of the trickier alpines, to protect them from the 40+ inches of rain the garden receives every year.
Keith hopes to create a South African area in the top part of the garden and in the polytunnel there are many pots of South African bulbs. You might be forgiven for thinking that these two pictures are of the same plant but a number of different South African bulbs have evolved this same pattern of a blue/purple cup with a wine red centre, presumably to attract the same pollinator. The two here are Geissorhiza radians and Babiana rubrocyanea.
The covered rock garden is full of Daphne. I am not sure what the first one is (it looks like a D. arbuscula clone) but the second is Daphne petraea ‘The Beacon’. Again, I couldn’t find a name on the white one (probably D. cneorum or a hybrid of it) but it is very floriferous.
There are several dwarf clones of D. cneorum here, including D. cneorum ‘Czech Song’ and one of the clones collected by Peter Erskine and Chris Brickell in 2007.
Keith says he struggled to germinate this Daphne from seed he collected and sowed but left to its own devices it is seeding happily down this gravel slope.
One of the lime-green Clematis cultivars from New Zealand rambles happily around on this raised bed.
One of the other beds in this polytunnel is given over mainly to Paeonia species (Iris bicapitata in the foreground). The one on the left is Paeonia mascula subsp. russii. I am not sure about the one on the right (last photo). At the other end of the bed was a white P. clusii with at least ten buds on – sadly none of them were open.
In the beds in the shade, around the edge of this polytunnel, there are a number of Erythronium clones and seedlings from the garden which are being grown on and bulked up. Here are just three which caught my eye.
As the afternoon drew to a close, we became more and more in need of a cup of tea and the group retired to our hotel five miles or so away. It was a great place to stay – wonderful views across the edge of the moor right down to Plymouth harbour – and we had an excellent meal in the restaurant that evening.
After a very ample and enjoyable hotel breakfast the next morning (sufficient to avert the need for lunch), we decided to visit The Garden House, where Keith was head gardener for 25 years, until he left in 2003 to pursue his own project. This is easier to visit – it is open every day and I believe entrance is free to RHS members on Fridays (though sadly not on Sundays). More details can be found on their website.
Our tour here started with an immaculate, sloping lawn – immediately we were in a very different garden from Wildside.
By one corner of the lawn was a large group of Paeonia mairei.
Much of the lawn was surrounded by shrubs, including this lovely red Rhododendron and this Skimmia in full flower. Between the shrubs there were spring bulbs. I particularly liked this grouping of Erythronium and Bergenia (possibly B. ‘Pink Ice’).
Our route took us along the ‘Long Walk’ through an area known as the Summer Garden, to the ‘Cottage Garden’ , with its view across to Buckland Monachorum church. All this part of the garden was created by Keith in his time there, even the ruined ‘cottage’, and you can still see the strength of the landscape he designed. Fortunately, the latest head gardener seems to appreciate what Keith created and seems to be working sympathetically to restore, enhance and extend the landscaping. There are new views across to the church through the boundary hedge which I don’t remember from my last visit.
Next to the cottage garden we have an area now termed the Quarry Garden, where the delving digger met bedrock, overlooked by a covered summer house providing a vantage point.
As you proceed further down Keith’s Long Walk (a sinuous, narrow, sloping strip of lawn flanked by borders but with views back all the way to the house), the shaded beds on either side are full of woodland flowers, including hellebores, Dicentra, Erythronium revolutum and Scilla lilio-hyacinthus (?).
At the end of the Long Walk, there is a ‘Magic Circle’, apparently an ancient monument, but again created by Keith from unwanted stone gateposts off the moor. From here, there are lovely views back along the lawn, past the wonderful and carefully planted multi-stemmed birch.
Longing down the slope of the hill we can see the spring colour appearing in the maples that Keith planted. Walking down, we get into a wilder area of the garden, where Crocus tommasinianus has flowered en masse, where Erythonium revolutum nestles under the maples and Primula rosea grows along the banks of the little rivulet that rushes through the grass here, before the path turns back up to the wildflower meadow.
Turning back along the hill from the ‘ruined cottage’ a lower path took us through another area with carefully selected and pruned trees and shrubs, over a Wisteria bridge and eventually led us to an area described as the Bulb Meadow, which was surprisingly lacking in colour at this time of year.
As we left this area, and walked down the road to the Walled Garden, in the shade on the bank to our right was a lovely group of this lilac-flowered Epimedium.
Entering the Walled Garden marked the start of the more formal part of the garden; it is harder to see Keith’s hand here. In one sheltered corner this Ribes x. beatonii worked rather well with the colour of the wall behind it and I found Mike and Janet from the AGS Woking group enjoying the first real sun of the morning.
Moving up a terrace, we came to the Tennis Court Lawn, with a wonderfully textured and coloured herbaceous planting which seemed to hint at Keith’s handiwork, and we much admired the lichen-covered seat at the end of the lawn.
Rounding the corner, we came across the architectural Ovals, again created originally in Keith’s time as head gardener, viewed both from the bottom and from the top where there is a splendid view across the valley with tree buds just breaking in a variety of colours.
No trip to a garden would be complete without a visit to the Plant Sales area and so I leave you with this splendid Euphorbia, and a wheelbarrow full of Camellia petals.
Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.
However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.
If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at email@example.com