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Wildside Nursery Garden in mid-May

May 25, 2022
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In mid-May, Helen and I found ourselves back at Keith Wiley’s garden at Wildside Nursery, in the far west of Devon, barely two weeks after our previous visit.

It is amazing how much a garden can change in just two weeks. But the garden has never previously been open in mid-May; so despite many previous visits, we hoped to see some new wonders.

Wisteria floribunda

The entrance to the garden signalled the transformation immediately.  Candles of Wisteria festooned the pergola around the courtyard garden; they were in perfect condition, with the upper flowers open and buds below.

Azalea mollis

Underneath these scented lilac drapes, the bright flowers of azaleas shone with colour.  The red one in particular made a beautiful combination with the yellow flowers of Meconopsis cambrica.


In one corner of the garden, this lovely white Rhododendron was starting to go over.

Disporum cantoniense

In between the azaleas, this Disporum displayed its rather more subtle, elegant flowers.

Together, the Wisteria and azaleas made a wonderful backdrop to the gravel garden in the centre of the courtyard.

Iris ‘Pacific Coast Hybrid’

This Pacific Coast Iris provided an attractive clump of pale lilac flowers among the gravel.

Euphorbia palustris (?)

The wonderful grove of Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’ was just starting to flower, filling the garden with scent. Beneath its silver leaves, a bank of Euphorbia, perhaps E. palustris, mingled its lime-green flowers with pink Silene dioica, and a red peony.  The latter was probably P. peregrina, although it showed a hint of magenta as the flowers aged.


Under the other side of the Eleagnus, a large planting of asphodel was coming into flower.


Opposite the Eleagnus, the flowers on a large Deutzia caught my eye.  I think this is Deutzia purpurascens or something similar.

Viburnum plicatum ‘Rosace’ and Roscoea humeana ‘Snowy Owl’

On the bank of the other path leading back down to the courtyard, a pretty Viburnum sheltered the new shoots of the pristine white Roscoea humeana ‘Snowy Owl’.  Opposite, another Pacific Coast Iris bloomed under the Wisteria.

Beyond this, behind the scenes and away from public access, this bank with its rhododendrons and tree peonies becomes a mass of self-sown wildflowers: Geranium pyrenaicum, Welsh poppies and red campion (Silene dioica).

Ros Wiley Tribute Garden

The path from here leads up over the shoulder of the ridge, past more pink Azalea mollis.  From here, there are lovely views down through the azaleas to the new tribute garden.  This was designed and planted in memory of Keith’s late wife Ros.

The Rhodohypoxis on the banks leading down into the tribute garden are starting to flower.  Below them, the winding pools, topped up with recent rain, reflect the colours of the recent plantings around them.  It is too soon to tell how well these plants will establish, and naturalize, but they look fantastic at the moment.  I loved especially the way the pools reflected the white flowers of Limnanthes alba.

Keith is trying all sorts of plants in the steep quarry-like banks around the pools. Two of the more experimental introductions are the South African Gladiolus carneus, and this Delosperma (possibly ‘Jewel of the Desert Rose Quartz’).


The Prairie planting never has much flower before the end of June, and is at its peak in late July and August.  However, a textured mass of green gives the impression of vibrant health, boosted by a winter top-dressing with cow manure.  Beside it, the first flowers have already appeared on the massive bank of white Cistus which is so wonderful at the end of May.

Cornus controversa

At this point, after a quick comfort break, we moved down to the lower garden.  The entrance to this, by the new house, looks distinctly Mediterranean; an effect created by the wood façade and balcony, the rough bank / wall covered in Erigeron karvinskianus, and of course by the olive tree.  Our trip to the facilities gave a lovely view through the screening Acer and Cornus controversa, the Wedding Cake tree.  From the other side, the blue of Iris sibirica complements the flowers and new variegated foliage of the Cornus.

The gully which forms the top end of the stream in the lower garden is already full of flowers, mainly Primula and small forms of Iris sibirica.  I think this yellow candelabra primula is what we used to call Primula helodoxa; nowadays people now seem to call it Primula prolifera.  However, I’m not certain of the naming, and the Plant List shows P. prolifera as an ambiguous name.  From here, the stream plunges down a slope into a deeper ravine, past a lovely pale lilac form of Iris sibirica.

Camassia leichtlinii

A large patch of self-sown Limnanthes douglasii (the Poached Egg plant) marks the beginning of the herbaceous border.  At this time of year, self-sown Camassia leichtlinii in a wide palette of colours dominate the border; they will look even better when fully out at the end of May.

A mass of foliage fills the ravine which houses the lower part of the stream, swirling with different textures and colours.

Keith widened and deepened this gully one winter a few years ago, but now it looks established and natural once again.  On one side of this run of pools, a large peony (probably a pale P. mlokosewitschii) seems to love its situation.

Wisteria floribunda

The bottom of the garden ends with a string of larger pools.  At the eastern end of these, a ring of standard-grown Wisteria floribunda bushes surrounds a standing stone.  When we visit at the end of May, these are typically past their best, and going over.  For the first time, we encountered the flowers in perfect condition, and they looked beautiful.


The pools themselves were full of colour, with the yellow candelabra primulas (P. prolifera ?) and Iris sibirica.  In the water there were Bog Bean flowers (Menyanthes trifoliata), and Cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium).  But even in the distance, the Wisteria bushes drew the eye.

The pool at the western end of this water garden is wrapped in a rather different planting, which by the autumn becomes lush and tropical.  Magnolia, Rhododendron and Cornus surround the pool.  Below them large, leafy plants lean over the water: Impatiens tinctoria, Rodgersia, Crocosmia, Lobelia, Canna, Verbena, Veratrum and Begonia.  In May, looping stems of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum x hybridum) take this role.

Above the pool, a comfortable hand-built pergola provides shelter from sun and rain alike.  From here you can look up, through the small strip of Cornus and Magnolia (including Magnolia sinensis), past the white Azaleas, to catch glimpses of the sun on deep-red Acer leaves and lilac Wisteria flowers on the rock garden.

Wisteria glade

A copse of more wonderful Wisteria floribunda bushes, provides a backdrop to the rock garden.  The latter was a bit between seasons, with the seedheads of Pulsatilla waving, and mats of Rhodohypoxis on the banks just starting to produce flowers.  Bluebells, yellow Welsh poppies, and self-sown Eschscholtzia californica provided the counterpoint to the Wisteria flowers.


From the rock garden we crossed into the small remaining area of orchard. The cider apples are aging and lichen-encrusted, and produced relatively little blossom.  However, the beds below them shone with the magenta spikes of a Gladiolus (byzantinus ?).  A patch of bright scarlet on a neighbouring bank proved to be Tulipa sprengeri.

Azalea Alley

The path back to the house runs through the Acer wood; normally, the leaves of these are what catches my attention.  But the maples are underplanted with azaleas, mainly Azalea mollis; these were glorious on this visit.  Beneath these, the lilac pompoms of a Thalictrum (aquilegifolium ?) provided a softer contrast.

Ros Wiley Gallery

A new side-path turns off the ‘Azalea Alley’, and takes you to a new gallery showcasing some of Ros Wiley’s paintings, open for the first time.  Some of the paintings are old friends; others we had never seen before.  It was lovely to see them again and to remember her.  You could see clearly how her painting style changed and developed, from the tighter, more defined images of the Garden House days to the looser experimentation with light, pattern and colour which characterised her later work at Wildside.


Right by the gallery, this unnamed Menziesia (now Rhododendron), given to Keith by the late Barry Starling, had a more subtle appeal than the azaleas.

Cypripedium fasciolatum x macranthos album

As you reach the end of the azaleas, near the house, the Epimedium-like leaves and buds of Vancouveria hexandra cover the ground.  On one side of the path, a large yellow peony (‘Bartzella’ ?) draws the eye.  On the other I found a new experiment – a Cypripedium hybrid apparently enjoying the shady situation.

Maple leaves

Overhead, the canopy of maple leaves was a beautiful tapestry of shapes and colours.  We soon gravitated to our favourite seat, where we could enjoy the peace and sunshine.

Between us and the house is a bank where clumps of Beschorneria yuccoides were stretching up their extravagant flower spikes.  Nearer still, a fern was unfurling its curious fronds.  But we were content for a while to sit and enjoy the garden, the scent of the azaleas, the rustle of leaves, the hum of the bees and the birdsong.

This wonderful garden is opening again this coming weekend (May 28th to 31st).

By then, it should be full of flowers: the Primula, Iris and Camassia should all be at their best, the Rhodohypoxis will have formed mats of pink, red and white, and the long Cistus cliff between the prairie and the tribute garden should be magnificent.

More details are available on the Wildside website.

Image of Jon Evans Jon Evans

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