Monthly Archives: September 2012

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A glorious harmony of garden and music

The musical reputation of West Green House and Gardens continues to grow. Every summer, when the glorious gardens are at their peak, the elegant 18th century house provides a magnificent backdrop for an increasing range of musical events. This glorious harmony of gardens, house and music is the brainchild of garden writer, designer and ex-marketing manager of Sydney Opera House, Marylyn Abbot.

Under Marylyn’s knowledgeable eye, the gardens have expanded to become a firm favourite with both garden visitors and opera lovers. How many of them realise just how close the property came to being demolished?

The house was built by General Henry Hawley in the 1800s. In the two hundred years that followed, it passed through the hands of several owners all of whom made their own mark on the grounds. The last of West Green’s private owners was Sir Victor Sassoon who, in 1957 left it to the National Trust. Sadly, while the house was under the tenancy of the Trust’s first tenant, Lord Alistair McAlpine, an IRA bomb exploded in the forecourt. The damage to the fabric of the house was so extensive that demolition was considered. Instead, it was agreed that the Trust would restore the exterior and look for a tenant who was prepared to work on its interior, garden and buildings. Garden and opera lover Marylyn purchased the lease in 1993 and so began a new phase in West Green’s history.

When Marylyn arrived at West Green, it was Lake Field (that lies beyond the formal garden) that was badly in need of attention. The lake was clogged with weeds and the eclectic mix of follies (designed for Lord McAlpine by the architect Quinlan Terry) was in a state of disrepair. If the garden was to be self-supporting, work on its restoration had to begin.

Once this major project had been completed, Marylyn began the gradual introduction of new garden features. In 2004 she designed the Paradise Courtyard, a minimalist conception to the south of the lake: a clever foil to the arcadian delights of the Lake Field. Be sure to walk up to its centre rather than simply admiring it from below. The sounds of the tumbling water and the simple combination of grass and Malus ‘Evereste’, framed by Betula utilis var Jacquemonti are very calming.

Not all the garden features are purely decorative. The Garden of the Five Bridges was originally designed to solve a drainage problem. Cleverly hidden drains form a serpentine rill that catches run-off from surrounding fields. Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’, drifts of grasses, ferns, Hellebores and Viburnum disguise its practical function and make this a delightful extension to the garden.

There is a danger in any garden that, when an increasing number of garden features are introduced they threaten to overpower rather than to nourish the senses. Perhaps as a result of Marylyn’s understanding of the dynamics of opera, this has not happened at West Green. There are plenty of breathing spaces in her garden. Sections of pure green are carefully placed between lively features giving the visitor the freedom to savour each of them.

There are many sections of this garden worthy of description but Marylyn’s latest project must have a mention. Concerned about the decrease in bird species, Marylyn decided to take positive action. A selection of wild plum, cherry, hazel, and bramble are among those planted in two large arcs to form ‘The Edible Hedge’. Over the next few years, as the hedge matures, a wildflower meadow will be planted at its centre to attract increasing numbers of insects and birds.

Marylyn sums up her vision of the perfect garden as one that is ‘wild enough to paint its own pictures’. It takes a great deal of work to prevent ‘wild enough’ from descending into chaos and confusion. Much like Marylyn’s beloved opera, everything behind the scenes at West Green is well planned and carefully choreographed. There is a delicate balance to be struck and it is one that Marylyn and her team make look effortless.





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Problem plants

What do you do if you have a problem in the garden that you can’t solve: a plant that’s failing or a particularly persistent pest? Perhaps you turn to The Royal Horticultural Society’s website for help. Perhaps if you’re an RHS member you contact their Advisory Service.

It’s easy to assume in this digital age that every organisation we contact for advice replies with a computer-generated response. Having looked behind the scenes at Wisley (the RHS flagship garden in Surrey), I can confirm that, as far as the RHS is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. The people generating the advice the world’s largest gardening charity provides include ‘real’ scientists of the microscope-and-petri-dish variety. They spend a good proportion of their time sharing their very considerable expertise with Britain’s gardeners.

Last year, over 60,000 enquiries reached the RHS of which almost 4,500 were directed to the pathology section. Geoffrey Denton, one of Wisley’s plant pathologists, talked to me about the work they carry out.

Plant pathologists deal with ‘things that go wrong’ with plants. They look for, identify, and then advise gardeners about pathogens; that is to say, anything that causes disease in a plant. While terms such as ‘rust’, ‘canker’, and ‘blight’ bring a shiver to the spines of gardeners throughout Britain, plant pathologists (the detectives of the horticultural world) find them positively exciting.

During the busy summer months, the pathology team can receive between 15 and 20 samples of plant material from Britain’s gardeners every day. Quite often they can readily identify whatever is causing disease in the specimen they’ve been sent. Their next step is simply to supply the advice for dealing with it.

Sometimes they receive a specimen about which they are not certain. Their first task is to isolate and then try to identify whatever organism seems to be causing the problem. This is where the detective work begins. It can be a very complicated procedure.

There are for example, over a hundred species of the pathogen Phytophthora worldwide; twenty to thirty of which can be found in the United Kingdom. Many of them look very similar even when viewed under a microscope. The only way that the scientists can be sure which Phytophthora they are looking at is to investigate its DNA.

While Phytophthora are known to be harmful to plants, other fungi may or may not result in plant problems so identifying a fungus through its DNA is not always enough to provide an answer. The only way to prove that it is the true cause of a plant’s problem is to re-infect the plant and then monitor the results. Then and only then can the fungus be called a pathogen.

Once or twice a year, the RHS Pathology team discover something that is not found in the UK. Their first response must be to report the finding to the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate at Fera. Occasionally their discovery can be the start of a much bigger investigation.

Box blight, caused by Cylindrocladium buxicola, was first spotted at Wisley.   The gardener who enquired about the unsightly problem affecting their box hedge could never have imagined the importance of their question. Discussions, conferences and many investigations amongst the worldwide scientific community have resulted from that one enquiry. No doubt in time we’ll have a solution.

The enquiries received by the RHS from Britain’s gardeners create a ‘snapshot’ of what is going on in our gardens; information that can be crucial for predicting and understanding plant problems throughout the world. It’s little surprise that organisations devoted to the natural world are realising the potential of ‘citizen scientists’. Those of us who spend a great deal of time with plants can make a real contribution to the investigations of both horticultural and environmental scientists. This year the RHS has joined with The Sylva Foundation in an investigation into European pear rust. They’re looking for gardeners willing to volunteer to help record its development and distribution.

European pear rust is caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium sabinae. Until relatively recently it was confined to mainland Europe and was rarely seen in the UK. Over the last ten years, the RHS Advisory Service has noticed an increase in enquiries about it: a good indication that it is becoming more common. However, the scientific community is not sure why this should be the case. They need to understand more about its biology. This is where the volunteers come in.

Like all rusts, European pear rust feeds on the living cells of the host plant without killing it. In common with many other rusts, it needs to live on two completely unrelated plants in order to complete its life-cycle. One half of its life is spent on junipers and the other on pears.

Symptoms of the rust appear during summer on both surfaces of pear leaves. On the upper side are bright orange spots, with corresponding brown, raised mounds on the lower. It is the brown fungal growths on the underside of the leaves that release potentially damaging spores. These do not re-infect the pear but are dispersed by the wind to infect several juniper species.

Once happily settled on a juniper, they produce swellings on the stems and branches. These are followed in spring by orange horn-like growths that release yet more wind-blown spores. These spores infect pears, and so the cycle continues.

If you would like to help as a European pear rust volunteer you will need to find a pear tree (Pyrus communis) that you can observe. You then have a couple of options: either submit your results as a one-off record or make monthly observations (something the project calls ‘adopting’ a tree). The latter will help scientists understand more about the rusts’ development throughout the year. Finally, you can submit your results on-line via the Tree Watch website, or if you prefer, send samples to the RHS Advisory Service. Whichever option you choose, you will be helping plant scientists to build up the bank of knowledge they need.






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A garden worth watching – Mottistone Manor on the Isle of Wight

Mottistone Manor, on the Isle of Wight is playing a pivotal role in the National Trust’s investigations into the effects of climate change on garden plants. Overseeing the project is Head Gardener, Robert Moore.

 Robert has lived on the Isle of Wight since the early 1980s and has been working at Mottistone since 1984. He knows and understands the peculiarities of the site and the island’s microclimate and takes them into account when assessing how plants are coping with the extremes of weather that we are experiencing.

Robert was first taken on as a gardener by Mottistone’s tenants, Sir John and Lady Nicholson. He was employed on the understanding that he studied for his City & Guilds qualifications. In those early days the garden was rarely open to the public. Today, Mottistone’s team welcome up to 32,000 visitors a year. As the garden has developed so has Robert’s knowledge and plant expertise.


Mottistone is perfectly placed for the National Trust’s research. Although the Trust has gardens in Cornwall that are further south, they tend to have more rainfall. Mottistone is the most southerly ‘dry’ garden under its control. It has another advantage; it is not an ‘historic’ garden. Rather than keeping to an historically accurate planting scheme, Robert can experiment with the many plants that might suit both the garden’s soil and our changing climate.

The first change in approach to Mottistone’s planting came after Lady Nicholson’s death in 1990. Not only was Lady Nicholson responsible for much of the present layout of the garden, but she was also a keen gardener. She spent time watering any annuals in the long herbaceous borders near the house that struggled with the free-draining soil. Since her death, the annuals have been replaced instead with drought resistant perennials in the bright colours that she enjoyed. Robert’s only rule has been that they must be able to tolerate a lack of watering.

Robert had been using drought resistant plants elsewhere in the garden for many years, as they are ideally suited to the soil. In recent years he has simply extended the variety of plants he tries and then monitors their progress.

In spring 2008, a new planting programme was started in the Sunken Garden. Plants, many of which were from the southern hemisphere, were chosen for their bold tropical foliage. Ginger lilies and aloe vera rub shoulders with ligularia and banana. The ligularia appeared in the garden by accident and Robert expected it to struggle without the moist conditions that it is said to prefer, but it seems to be thriving. Although Robert describes his planting experiments as ‘trial and error’, he says that there have been surprisingly few failures.

Robert’s most recent project is a monocot border that he is developing in an area close to the entrance barn. Here, the planting provides a striking contrast to the large, predominantly rounded leaf shapes that populate the nearby Sunken Garden. However, the same rules apply; nothing is watered and nothing is fleeced for winter protection.

The only part of the garden that is watered is the organic Kitchen Garden. It is here, close to the Plant Sales and Propagation Area that we can see the results of Robert’s winter projects. A keen and talented woodworker, Robert has built and designed a potting shed that is perfectly tailored to the garden’s aesthetic and practical needs. Look out for his ingenious design for a cold-frame. He based its sliding panels on those he noticed on a supermarket freezer cabinet.

With the help of his team, Robert is working hard on our behalf to discover the plants that may well be populating our gardens in the future. This is a garden worth watching.



Mottistone Manor