Gardens across the UK have shut down, and our usual garden visits have been halted. At Gardens Illustrated, we’re still trying to bring garden people together, which is why we’ve started a virtual garden tour series. Each week we’ll dive into one gorgeous garden, offering history alongside current videos and photographs from the people who run it. It’s not as perfect as wandering the borders in person, but watching a little slice of what’s happening in gardens throughout the country right now is a lovely way to spend some of the time we have in isolation.
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This week it’s #NationalGardenWeek and to celebrate we’re taking you to Exbury Gardens near Southampton where Marie-Louise Agius, the great-granddaughter of Exbury Garden’s founder Lionel de Rothschild, takes us round using beautiful drone-shot footage and accompanied by her Cockapoo Willow. Discover our other virtual garden tours here.
Exbury Gardens was created in 1919 and bought specifically for its ericaceous soil. To overcome the light summer rainfall, Exbury’s founder, Lionel de Rothschild laid over 22 miles of underground irrigation, sinking bore-holes and built a whopping great big water tower as well as a reservoir to ensure that he had a good supply of water for his plants.
He had over four acres of glasshouses, into which his manic hybridising and orchid collections were located, along with his tender rhododendrons and a host of other plants. Along with fellow garden luminaries, such as The Williamses, the Aberconways and the Loders, he sponsored the great plant-hunters such as Frank Kingdon-Ward, Joseph Rock and George Forrest who brought back seed which he then propagated and hybridised. In this pursuit he was prolific – his stud book lists 1210 crosses of which 462 were named and an incredible 238 were given RHS awards.
Lionel was proud to be one of the first ‘woodland gardeners’ and he strongly believed what had been done in herbaceous borders by the likes of Gertrude Jekyll could just as well be done on a large scale in the woodland with azaleas and rhododendrons. He was ruthless in his setting out and if something didn’t work, he either ‘took it for a little walk’ to a different location, or more dramatically, put it on the bonfire. Above all, he had a remarkable eye.
Lionel collected every Rhododendron possible – apart from afghanicum which was poisonous – and was a prolific collector of rare trees and shrubs. Accordingly, Exbury has a hugely diverse horticultural repertoire, over and above the main rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias that it is famous for. As Marie-Louise Agius, the great-grand-daughter of Exbury Garden’s founder Lionel de Rothschild, notes; “the most astounding thing of all was that all of this was achieved in just 20 years. The party effectively finished with the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Marie-Louise is a landscape designer by profession with the practice Balston Agius. Since just after lockdown began, she has been filming the world famous spring flowering season, with the aid of a drone and the superstar (long suffering) family Cockerpoo Willow; frequently used as a scale reference. She has been producing a variety of content, from ethereal aerial footage to more directed informational pieces to camera; bringing her own unique perspective and professional eye to the narrative.
Where Lionel had 70 Gardeners, Exbury is usually gardened by nine. Now, in these times of lockdown – it is one: Tom, the head gardener, plus the family, that are prioritising the key jobs. However, being able to stop, look, listen and enjoy the riot of Mother Nature all around bursting into life fills you with hope.
As and when, the gardens will once again be enjoyed by visitors who will hopefully be all the more excited to come and see what’s happening. As a garden for all seasons, you can guarantee that you will never be short of a barrage of beauty to look at and enjoy.
For more tours and news from Exbury, head to its Twitter feed.