I spent Tuesday in the herbaceous borders with gardener Kate and got to deadhead to my heart’s content. Dahlias, cannas, calendula, alstroemeria, tithonia, kniphofia, salvia, and hemerocallis, oh yes!
The dahlias were a delight - so many cultivars of robust, unstaked plants. Kate explained that they’re dug up in October and put on trays inside to dry out. They’re then potted up when spring rolls around in March/April, and finally planted out in May. Though my former dahlia knowledge was by no means extensive, I was impressed. I’m used to having to stake them up, and with my clumsy tendencies, it often involved me breaking a bunch of buds off in the process. This time was better. While the dahlias weren’t staked, near everything else in the borders had been. Pea-staked beautifully with birches were asters and achilleas, heleniums and helianthus - all perky and full, unlike the flopping stems in my garden. I wish I could be here for an entire year to be part of the process: going out in the woods for a week in late winter to cut the young birches, and then taking two full weeks in early spring to stake everything in the four huge beds.
Last Friday I had an impromptu tour of Frogmore, the Royal’s private estate adjacent to Windsor Castle that dates back to the 16th century. The 33-acre estate and house have been through several iterations since the 1680s, including being the country home of Queen Victoria, a family souvenir museum for King George V and Queen Mary, and a picnicking spot for the Queen Mum. Frogmore house hasn’t been inhabited since Queen Mary, but it’s still used by the Royal Family for entertaining, picnicking, and corgy walking.
Head gardener Neil Dobbs kindly took me around the gardens for almost 2 hours and was a wealth of information. The gardens’ existence are due in large part to Queen Charlotte, whose passion for plants enabled the introduction of over 4,000 trees and shrubs in the 1790s to create a model picturesque landscape. During that time, the lake was also created from an existing stream.
The gardens really emphasize spring color, as the Queen is in residence in April, so bulbs en masse, like daffodils play a vital role. Those bulb areas were just starting to get cut down now in late July, so you could see where huge swaths of daffodils had been.
We passed through an opening in the yew hedge to the Royal Mausoleum, which was built specifically to house the tombs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. No one is permitted to go in, so we carried on walking to an 18th-century Gothic Ruin. Shrouded in wisteria, it was once used by Queen Victoria as a breakfast and reading room, and now is a backdrop to the vigorous vines and bright agapanthus. Closer to Frogmore House, a funky brick pavilion building appeared from a distance like two oversized chimneys, but was in fact Queen Victoria’s tea house.
Just opposite the tea house sit two huge Quercus ilex, or evergreen oaks. Robust creatures, they’ve benefitted from decompaction, the practice used on many of the estate’s large older trees. Basically a machine blasts air and mycorrhizal fungi into the hardpan soil around the tree’s root zone to relieve the effects of compaction. Trees normally in lawn are then thickly mulched with their own rich compost mix. Their program was modeled after Kew’s research and work on the subject.
Other trees of note that we passed on our travels include: Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’ - the columnar English oak, Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’ - a fastigiate beech, and Wollemia nobilis - the once thought extinct Wollemi pine. A collection of horse chestnuts includes three very different species growing happily together: a shrubby California one, an more slender Indian one, and a tall English one. The only tree on the estate with a documented planting date is the huge incense cedar from California, or Libocedrus decurrens. It was planted by the German Prince of Hohenlohe on March 16th, 1867, and a great specimen for showcasing old arboriculture practices. The tree is missing an entire side, which it lost in one of the recent winter storms. When the arborists went in to clean it up, they found that the tree’s interior had been braced with a series of metal shackles. The chains are now gone, but the remaining metal braces have become imbedded into the tree’s structure.
Extensive yew hedges line paths, enclose areas, and stretch for miles across the estate. And when they’re trimmed every year, the pruned tips are donated by the truckload to cancer research. Research has shown that the needles of common yew (Taxus baccata) contain a compound that’s toxic to cancerous cells, so yew clippings are now being collected nationwide for manufacturing anti-cancer drugs.
There. That was a mix of highlights from Frogmore - random enough?
Stone walls surround every little courtyard and garden here, and climbers reach over and spill down to escape them. Here, a tight double-flowering clematis (perhaps Clematis viticella ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’?) intermingles with(what I think is) a jasmine nightshade and catches my breath.
The Long Walk is the most direct route into the town of Windsor, and it offers spectacular views to the castle and surrounding park.
But it’s also long - 3.5 miles long. After a long day of walking, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but my only option for getting home. So I walked. Because the views from the Copper Horse are beautiful, because it was an hour before sunset and the sky was dusky, because the air was finally cooling after an unseasonably hot summer day in England, and just because.
I have a view of Windsor Castle at some point everyday in my travels here in the Great Park. Every tree lined path culminates with a view of it, and all trails and roads end there. But the practicalities of getting there are a bit tricky.
If I were to walk, it would be very direct. Long (3.5 miles and about an hour later), but direct. Now, if I wanted to take the quick way on my borrowed bike (26 minutes), I’d have to go around the long way, hop on the highway, and risk my life without a helmet. So, the other day I decided to compromise - bike along the highway, park at one of the gates to the park, Queen Anne’s gate, and then walk the mile to the castle. Well, the last castle tour was at 4pm and it was already 3:30. So, after parking the bike, I ran instead of walked (with my backpack, so I looked like one of those long-distance runners in training, probably with bricks in their backpacks). Point is, I looked crazy. And sweaty, as England was having a “heat wave” at 83 degrees.
I arrived at the castle with time to spare, but decided against the Audio guide - most people just look like zombies with those things, and I didn’t want to sweat all over the headphones. I didn’t get far before I had to stop and take pictures of all the plants. Phlomis was alit by the afternoon sun, and I couldn’t just pass it by. Then, approaching the Round Tower I came upon some climbers creeping over a low wall - wisteria, clematis, climbing hydrangea, trumpet vine, and others. And when I looked over, I had such a surprise - a garden below! The Moat Garden was such a sight: a wild hillside of huge yuccas and dry garden plants, a stunningly green lawn, neat beds of carefully clipped roses, a lily pond, and lush greenery obscuring a trickling waterfall. Needless to say, I stayed here and skipped the castle’s indoor exhibits.
The original moat was constructed as a dry ditch and never actually flooded. The Round Tower above it dates back to the 1170s, and the mound it sits on the 1070s. I hadn’t realized, but Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, inhabited continuously for almost 1,000 years.
I ended my castle visit by attending the free Evensong service at St. George’s Chapel, because why not? Who wouldn’t want to hear beautiful singing in a 660-year old chapel?
The Valley Gardens are so vast you could easily lose yourself or child or pet amongst the many windy paths and miles of trails, shrouded slopes and steps, and hundred-plus garden beds.
Covering 250 acres, the gardens follow the steep ravines, hilltops, and lakeshore of Virginia Water at the southern tip of the Great Park.
Large trees provide focal points and the high canopy for hybrid rhododendrons and the National Collection of species rhododendrons. Varying heights of shrubs and small trees form the undulating lower layers that guide the eye from ground layer to tree top and back - maples, magnolias, hydrangeas, and other choice plants. In the open areas, grass is left rough, and specimen trees stand out in the swaying meadow grasses. Young birches with chalky white skin and older ones with chunky black bark punctuate Breakheart Hill. Old plantations of Scots pine, pencil thin and perfecty arranged in rows, have since been thinned out. Massive redwoods, both dawn redwood and giant redwood, grow happily and puzzlingly together in the native sandy soils. Huge masses of the rogue Rhododendron ponticum line the lakeside, but successful efforts at clearing it have opened up the views and access to the water again.
The infamous Punchbowl was a serene display of green, a complete switch from the spring display of candy colored Kurume azaleas - the main draw to the Valley gardens in April and May. I was more than happy to see it post-flowering in all its many hues of green, varying textures, and accent plants of maples and magnolias.
I was tasked this afternoon with deadwooding trees and shrubs in the Valley Gardens’ Breakheart Hill, and I got pretty intimate with this magnolia. Named after plant collector and former director of the Arnold Arboretum Ernest Wilson, Magnolia wilsonii was discovered in China in 1904 on one of Wilson’s collection trips. I was first struck by the cool green fruits hanging like spiky cucumbers. And then I saw the one flower remaining on the tree - it was about 4-5” wide and hanging down so I could gaze up at its bright rosy stamens.
My tour of the Valley Gardens yesterday led me to some good garden oddities that were new for me, and perhaps old or new for you. The monkey puzzle tree stood out in the lawn like some strange wig on its stand. The last huge one I’d seen was in Vancouver, and before that at the Barnes Arboretum in Philly, so this really took the cake.
A beautiful brown slug crept across the gravel path in the morning, so unlike the spotty gray ones I’m used to.
The Montezuma pine, originally from Mexico, was striking with its deliciously long blue needles and bushy stature. A weeping form of the giant redwood seemed impatient to be released from the Heather Gardens, and flopped over the fence to a more comfortable position.
A crater in the lawn surprised me as quite unusual until it was explained that a bomb had caused it during the second World War. And then in a wooded area we came upon the shortest, most squashed looking chestnut tree. It’s adorable really, like one of the various talking trees from childhood movies and cartoons.
Oh there were a million other plants that I stopped and photographed, and of course I’ve already forgotten what they are. So, think of this as just a sampling. I’ll try to update the mystery plants later.
I had an all-day tour of the Valley Gardens with section gardener Jeff today. He kindly walked me around some 250 acres of gardens - through rhododendrons, down sweeping valleys, along the lakeside, past towering gunnera, under massive redwoods, - all the while giving the most impressive history of the gardens and their gardeners.
Here’s just a sampling of some of the more impressive trunks I saw along the way.
I’m currently working in the gardens of Windsor Great Park for three weeks through a staff exchange with the Morris Arboretum. Now in its third year, the program allows horticulturists from both institutions to travel and work in the various sections of each garden. It’s an incredible opportunity for our respective staff to work alongside each other and study the plant collections, histories, and characteristics of those plants, learn different tools and techniques, and be completely immersed in another culture, climate, and landscape. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity that I’m very lucky to have.
I’ve been in the Valley and Heather Gardens three days now, and after taking in as much as I can, I come home to my temporary flat and live my new normal: time in the day for long walks, fields and hills and trees for miles, sunsets after 9pm, cool nights, and a borrowed bike.