Despite the lack of shows in the south this year, last Friday I found myself on the road again. We were making the long journey down to Buckland Monachorum on the far edge of Devon to visit Keith Wiley’s lovely garden at Wildside Nursery.
It was a beautiful morning – soft spring sunshine followed us down across Salisbury Plain and the rolling Devon hills.
After a brief stop at Yelverton to purchase pasties for lunch, we slipped down the hill past the Garden House and Buckland Monachorum to Wildside. We arrived an hour or so after opening, slightly concerned that the car park might be full, but as usual there were far fewer visitors than this magnificent garden deserves.
Perhaps that is a good thing; the magic of the garden would disappear if it was crowded with visitors. Remember that this is essentially a private garden, and facilities are limited. 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 quite restricted.
The garden is open for just a few, fleeting periods throughout the spring and summer – for details see their website. I first visited in 2014, and have been nearly every time the garden has been open ever since. By now the garden is very familiar to me, but it is always a thrill to explore what new vision Keith has created over the winter. We have never visited at the end of April before (the garden used not to be open then), so we were hoping to see flowers and views which were new to us.
As we entered the lower garden, the fresh colours of the maples in the Acer glade struck us straight away. The vibrant new foliage in contrasting colours produced beautiful combinations with the grasses and Cornus controversa.
Whilst I wrestled with the tripod to take these first pictures, my wife Helen vanished. I soon found her on the first of the many seats around the garden; whilst I take photos she tries to visit each and every one. This is a shelter we used to call the Eyrie, but which she now calls more prosaically the Bus Shelter.
The view from the ‘Bus Shelter’ looks out over the sunken stream bed Keith has created. Here, new shoots produced a tapestry of shapes and colours as the spring gathers pace. A path leads visitors along a series of small pools lined with waterside plants. Low water-levels give a clear indication of how dry April has been here, and all across Southern England. At the far end of ravine, a lovely plant of Acer shirasawanum (what I used to grow as Acer palmatum ‘Aureum’) stands over a pool. At its base, a golden Hosta echoes the yellow of its new leaves.
On the other side of this pool, a fern caught my attention, with its intricate fronds unfurling.
As the stream runs out from the ravine into the pools of the Water Garden across the bottom of the garden, it flows beneath the spreading branches of a Cut-leaved Crab Apple (Malus transitoria), just breaking into blossom. The flowers are beautiful and delicate, and the spreading branches make it an elegant small tree. It has always gone over when we visit at the end of May.
The pools of the Water Garden were not yet the wonder they become by the end of May, but new growth burgeoned all around, with the promise of flowers before long. On one side, a ginger Iris put in an early appearance.
Around the standing stones at one end of the pools, the shrub-pruned Wisteria were stretching out their claws, before bursting into a foaming torrent of blue and white flowers.
Further along, Magnolia ‘Lois’ with its solid yellow petals (more substantial than the spidery ‘Butterflies’) leans over the pools. Beside it a pink-tinged Magnolia stellata still carried blooms.
The pavilion at this end of the run of pools was surrounded by Azalea bushes and a lovely pink Rhododendron; I have seen these before, but not in flower.
The path up the bank from the pools leads through flowering Cornus to the rock garden.
Underneath the Cornus we found a rather unexpected clump of Gladiolus tristis, but the stars of the show at this time of the year are the Trillium. These are often not out in early April, and past their best by the end of May; we were pleased to see them.
This pink Trillium attracted particular interest among the visitors.
Lichen covered the branches of the cider apple trees in the Orchard, and the buds were yet to break. Beneath them, the Meadow Saxifrage, Saxifraga granulata, and Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) were in full bloom. A fabulous white specimen was particularly eye-catching.
Another wonderful grouping of Acer forms a backdrop to the rock garden, dominated by the glowing light red leaves of Acer palmatum ‘Corallinum’.
Under the Wisteria and Acer at the back of the rock garden, you find more shady banks where some interesting plants grow. Here I came across a fine clump of Trillium parviflorum, a fern with its new spring fronds (Adiantum aleuticum subpumilum ?), and a small Paeonia I haven’t yet identified.
The rock garden itself fell a bit between seasons. The Pulsatilla and Narcissus bulbocodium I photographed when we visited at the end of March were over, but the banks of Rhodohypoxis only held occasional flowers. However, a number of clumps of dwarf bearded Iris brightened things up.
As we made our way back from the rock garden towards the house, we passed more Cornus in flower.
Instead of heading directly towards the Upper Garden, Helen and I gravitated towards our favourite seat, in a secluded dell under the maples. You can sit here in calm and quiet, and listen to the birds, and the bees busy above in the maples, and people passing by on other paths. All around, and overhead, you hear the rustle of the breeze stirring the maple leaves, and glory in the colours, patterns and textures of the different trees blending together.
More Rhododendrons lined our way out of the lower garden. Again these were familiar plants, but we have not seen them in flower before.
After a break for lunch (pasties) and a cup of coffee, we returned to the courtyard garden. Right at the entrance a bright, flame-coloured specimen of Azalea mollis stopped us in our tracks. Once again I knew this plant was there, but have never seen it in flower.
Moving inwards, we came across some very beautiful elegant azaleas with small pink flowers on long branching stems.
The beds below the pergola, and below the shrubs, were full of the same woodland flowers we had seen in the lower garden: Erythronium and Helleborus reaching the end of their season, with Epimedium, Trillium and Corydalis. Among these, there were fine clumps of both the regular deep yellow form of Uvularia grandiflora, and the pale yellow Uvularia grandiflora var pallida.
In a sheltered position against the wall of the courtyard I found this lovely small flowered Magnolia. The size of the flowers makes you think it is a Camellia until you look closely.
In a sunnier part of the courtyard, a large Daphne provided a backdrop for the first Osteospermum flowers of the summer.
On the far side of the courtyard, the blood-red globes of Paeonia tenuifolia were bursting open.
We will have to wait until the end of May before the large clump of Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’ fills the courtyard with scent, but Keith has judiciously raised the canopy of these, and underneath there are clumps of Camassia quamash (?) and Asphodelus. The blue flowers of the Camassia work particularly well with the silver leaves above.
On leaving the courtyard garden, I turned left, up onto the mound that overlooks the new garden Keith has built in tribute to his late wife Ros. On my left were two lovely blue / lilac Rhododendrons.
On the far side of this mound, Keith has worked hard over the winter to plant an azalea glade, and the path winds down between the azaleas to the new garden. Keith has designed this to look like an abandoned quarry, with a stream running down one side and forming pools as it winds across the quarry floor.
As you descend the path into the tribute garden, a large plant of Daphne ‘Colinton Crown’ sits on a bank overlooking the pools, surrounded by emerging clumps of Rhodohypoxis, rock roses and a single blue dwarf bearded Iris.
The Iris theme extends further with a scattered planting of yellow flowers on the raised sand beds on the floor of the quarry.
The small orange flowers of a South African daisy, Cotula duckittiae, surround the irises and unify the plantings around the garden. They weave among the white flowers of Limnanthes alba, and larger daisies in white, yellow and orange. These include some fine orange Ursinia, and a yellow Euryops.
I was excited to find among these South African plantings several clumps of a yellow form of Moraea (formerly Homeria) ochroleuca. I am very familiar with the peachy orange form of this, which seeds itself gently around my greenhouse, but have never managed to obtain and grow this yellow form.
Keith has also made initial plantings up the banks of the quarry, mainly of plants which will bring colour through the summer, including massed Rhodohypoxis and clumps of a number of Watsonia cultivars. On one of the slopes I spotted this little Hebe, looking happy and flowering well. In Surrey I find this suffers in cold winters, and tend to keep a cutting hostage under cover, but it may be fine here in Devon.
Also on the banks, I found one of the little Eschscholtzia species, probably E. lobbii. Seed grown as E. caespitosa often produces the same thing. This is one of my favourite annuals, and I hope it self-seeds here.
In amongst the Cotula and Ursinia in the beds closest to the water, clumps of Ranunculus gramineus provide yellow highlights among the shale. I hope they too will thrive.
Although Keith and his helpers only finished and planted this garden over the winter, and the planting has yet to mature (indeed it is still being embellished), the shaly scree sparkles with colour. There is a seamless blend of plants from all around the world. It is easy to get the impression of the jewel garden Keith was inspired to create.
It is a delight to visit this garden at any time of the year, but remember that it is only open for short periods scattered through the spring and summer. For details of opening times see the Wildside website. This previous article gives an idea of what you might see at different times of year, and this one describes a visit to the garden in early April when the Erythronium are at their best.
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 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 still visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors, and is actively involved in other plant photography, both in gardens both public and private, and on 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