In the gentle rolling hills of the Sussex High Weald sits Wakehurst botanic garden. It’s the home of the Millennium Seed Bank, a James Bond-style bunker that ensures the future preservation of more than 2.4 billion seeds. Often referred to as ‘Kew in the country’, Wakehurst has long been considered a botanical haven and is still regarded as holding one of the finest collections of temperate flora in the world.
Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1963, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has leased the property since 1965, managing some 535 acres that encompass wetlands, woodland, pinetum, garden, meadows and a nature reserve.
What A contemporary winter garden.
Where West Sussex.
Soil Predominantly acidic clay with pockets of sandstone.
Size Approximately eight acres.
Climate Warm temperate.
Hardiness zone USDA 9.
Despite this, Wakehurst receives little public attention in comparison to its globally renowned London-dwelling sister. However, its current curatorial team has strong ambitions to change this, and under the guidance of new director Ed Ikin, the gardeners are working hard to showcase the historic collection to best effect. Old features, such as the Meadow Boardwalk, have been improved, while new developments include the Coronation Meadow, created in 2015, and more recently the American Prairie.
Creating a winter garden
In 2017, garden supervisor Francis Annette was given the task of redesigning an existing Winter Garden that dated back to 1986. Having worked in the garden for 18 years and studied at the London College of Garden Design, Francis set about evaluating the site. “The existing garden was of its time; not bad, just dated. Planting was mixed and heavy, with interesting specimens scattered through so there was no real impact.”
The location nonetheless was perfect: nestled beside the walled garden on the west side of the Elizabethan manor house, overlooking a large expanse of lawn that allowed for low winter sunlight going into evening. Inspiration for change came from the surrounding countryside, the multi-layered vegetation found on the Downs.
In the Winter Garden this translates to swathes of vegetation that interlock over mounded beds, creating undulating interest and drama while referencing the lowland hills of the Downs. Canopy and height are created using ornamental birches, which structurally help to generate a scale that is in keeping with the proportions of the manor house. Lower-storey plants include various dogwoods, daphnes and rhododendrons, ornamentally sitting alongside the existing specimens of Corylopsis pauciflora and Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’.
At ground level, bergenias, hellebores and ophiopogons ramble through shadier parts, while Phlomis russeliana, ornamental grasses and sedges, and heather occupy the sunnier spots. “It’s about creating simple yet striking combinations,” explains Francis, while looking at a colourful sandwich of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Feuerzauber’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Carex morrowii. A slight turn of the head sees a river of striking Erica x darleyensis ‘Mediterranean Pink’ dramatically bleeding into the brilliant, pure-white form. “Combining strong or opposite colours, such as red and green, makes the display really pop, though you have to be careful it doesn’t look too contrived.”
Adding bands of deciduous grasses, with their dried buff foliage and wild-looking seedheads, can help to diffuse and naturalise anything that looks too artificial. Delivering such a bold design of colour requires restraint, an amazing discipline on Francis’s part in limiting plants to just 46 taxa, spread over the 33,000 plants that were used to bring the design to life.
After planting, the garden was initially mulched with composted bracken to aid establishment, reduce weed colonisation and protect the soil. Long term, Francis intends to use groundcover to achieve this. “Mulches can often look unsightly during winter and drain the colour from ornamental stems,” he explains.
Now in its fourth year, the garden feels as though it is establishing well. Groundcover species mesh together below an abundance of vibrant stems that appear dramatically after leaf fall. Late winter and early spring bulbs have been interplanted to enrich the display further, with large clumps of the beautiful Crocus ‘Ard Schenk’ looking skywards, as amiable Cyclamen coum decorate the base of trees. A selection of snowdrops add charm, in particular Galanthus woronowii with its verdant green foliage, hinting that winter is almost over.
Looking forward, the future of Wakehurst and its Winter Garden appears dazzlingly bright, even on the dullest days of winter.