American skunk cabbage

RHS Wisley: A Tom Stuart-Smith garden and thoughts on innovation

I've been a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) member since moving to Britain, and I treasure their monthly magazine, The Garden, as an exemplar of horticultural journalism. However, I'd yet to visit one of their four major gardens (soon to be five when RHS Bridgewater opens in 2019). But today I was on an errand in Hampshire and realized I was very close to the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. Of course I stopped in, flashing my membership card and gaining free entry for myself and my companion. 

On this clear and cold Sunday in November it seemed that every London family had chosen Wisley to exercise their children. The garden had the feel of a theme park totally overrun with strollers and overly-cautious city parents. "We don't touch red berries," warned one hipster dad to his daughter, probably setting her up for a lifetime of soft-fruit aversion. 

The garden surrounding the large glasshouse complex was less populated than other areas of the property, and it was pure joy to wander amongst the plants under a clear blue sky. This area was designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, one of Britain's most well-regarded garden designers. I've always wanted to see this garden, and as I am now working in a Tom Stuart-Smith-designed garden I'm particularly keen to experience more of his work. I enjoyed pointing out plants at Wisley that I tend every day and noticing stylistic similarities between the two properties. 

I am also particularly interested in the management of gardens in the style of Tom Stuart-Smith, which are designed for four-season interest. Traditional herbaceous perennial management has dictated that all plants are cut to the ground in autumn, leaving bare earth over winter. The newer thinking--led by the New Perennial et al. movement--advocates growing herbaceous perennials that "live well and die well," in the words of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch master who popularized the style. This means growing plants that look good even as they turn brown and crispy, and that are able to stand up through winter providing not only visual interest but also food and shelter for animals, birds, and insects. 

In my nascent professional horticulture career I've come across more than one gardener who still believes all herbaceous material must be cut down, removed, and the garden "put to bed" for winter under a thick layer of compost. I've no truck with the compost layer--more compost is usually always a good thing--but I do believe that gardens designed in the style Tom Stuart-Smith uses should be left standing as long as possible into winter. On the flip side, though, I do understand that time, staffing, weather, and seasonal changes dictate what happens when in large gardens. Sometimes there are simply too many other jobs in an already packed calendar to delay the autumn chop. What's most interesting to me is the intersection between what designers are creating and what boots-on-the-ground gardeners believe is the best way to manage these same gardens, even if they aren't actually able to put their knowledge into practice. I notice a disconnect here, as I do in many areas of horticulture. The "newer" ideas about garden design and management--including new best practices backed up by scientific research--so very rarely make it into everyday gardening at many established properties. 

For example, this summer I interviewed for a gardener job at a historic garden run by the largest gardening charity in England. On my walkaround I noticed American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, growing along a stream that ran through the property. Lystichon americanus is a bog-dwelling North American native that was introduced to Britain in 1901 as an ornamental. Like so many ornamental plant introductions, Lystichon really liked its new territory--so much so that it's run wild, outcompeting native British plants in boggy and marshy areas. Lystichon is now considered an "invasive non-native species" subject to EU regulation, according to the RHS, which does not recommend that the plant be grown in Britain. At Dawyck Botanic Garden, part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh portfolio, all the Lystichon was dug up and removed from the garden once gardeners realized that even with frequent deadheading to remove seeds before they could spread through the watercourse, the plant was still making its way downstream:

"American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has also been removed following its recognition nationally as an invasive non-native species of significant concern. The plants at Dawyck were popular for their spring flowers and grew well for many years...Dawyck has taken the lead on the removal of this plant and will look forward to replanting new species in the areas once occupied by the skunk cabbage." --RBGE

And yet the gardener who was interviewing me for this job openly scoffed at the idea that Lystichon could ever be a problem.  

All this to say, I wonder how best to disseminate new ideas about gardening out to professional gardeners, particularly when many still have "old-school" attitudes rooted in Britain's Victorian horticultural glory days. I wonder how much change will really happen, outside of botanical and research gardens such as the RHS, until that old guard returns to the nitrogen cycle. 

Anyway, I would love to know the management strategy used at Wisley to care for such a large area (two hectares) of herbaceous perennials. I know similar gardens use hedge cutters or even mowers to take everything off in one fell swoop in late winter--eliminating much tedious and hand-numbing secateur work. If anyone is reading from Wisley or Tom Stuart-Smith's team is reading, please let me know what you do so I can make better management decisions going forward. 

Snowdrops and stories: A winter visit to Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yesterday dawned reasonably mild and almost sunny, so the decision was made to drive down to Dawyck Botanic Garden, a Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh property in the Scottish Borders known for its snowdrop display. The clouds had once again closed thickly overhead by the time we arrived, and it was spitting rain, but we had a warm welcome from the reception staff and were encouraged to join one of the volunteer-led tours as something of a insider quality assurance scheme. 

The tour guide went over much of what was covered during a class trip last year, but for someone with no experience of the garden it would definitely be educational. So often it's easy to look at gardens superficially as just a collection of plants and trees in an aesthetically appealing arrangement. However, gardens are always full of stories, whether they are as globally influenced and influencing as a botanic garden or the personal histories of a private home patch. Because plants can't speak, and designed interpretation can only explain so much, garden tours are the only way to learn these stories that bring gardens even more to life. 

From the Dawyck tour guide I learned of the rumors that C. Linnaeus, father of the binomial naming system used today, may have planted the European larch (Larix decidua) near the Dynamo Pond. The story is contested, as Linnaeus is thought to have not traveled further north than Oxford. However, examination of mycorrhizal fungi from the roots of the tree found it to be unique within Britain and originating in Linnaeus' home country of Sweden. That's a botanical mystery--just one of thousands that make horticulture so endlessly fascinating. 

The American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has been removed from the banks of the creek winding through the garden. Last year we learned that the garden staff were carefully monitoring this planting, which was dispersing its seed into the watercourse and becoming invasive downstream. In the ensuing year this plant's status as an invasive non-native of serious concern meant it had to go. Our tour guide expressed remorse at losing part of the collection, but I applaud Dawyck for modeling environmentally responsible behavior, which I believe is one of the major obligations of botanic gardens today. Throughout history, plant collectors and horticulturists have sometimes done more damage than good, and with our increased knowledge and sensitivity to the effects of our actions on the living world, now is the time to reverse that trend and begin protecting our environments through more considered husbandry.

I also learned a few new words, including "indumentum," a kind of catch-all term to describe plant surface coverings of any kind, such as hairs or scales. This bit of botanical vocabulary was passed on whilst examining a fuzzy Rhododendron leaf. In addition to its snowdrops, Dawyck is known for its collection of Rhododendron species, the earliest of which were just on the brink of bloom. 

But back to the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalus), the real reason for the trip. This was my first visit to a "snowdrop wood," and it did not disappoint. Snowdrops grew throughout the entire garden, but were mostly concentrated along the burn, where they grew so thickly as to actually look, at a distance, like a blanket of snow. 

Snowdrops are sweet and pretty, and if I ever garden a woodland I'll definitely turn a bunch loose to spread at will. I understand their importance as one of the first flowers of the year, bringing hope for the spring just to come. But I'll never be a galanthophile, which is just as well given the seemingly ridiculous prices paid by some collectors for specimens, such as the rare yellow-bloomed varieties. At right, Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii' Lowick blooming last week in the alpine backup area of RBGE. 

Paying up to $2,500 a bulb for a tiny plant that pushes out a chlorotic-looking bloom just seems silly to me, but people get very passionate about their snowdrops, fueling what could be the tulip bubble of the 21st century. 

The mass effect of a snowdrop wood is impressive, and I imagine it would be even more so with a little bit of sun. But until I garden on such a scale I'll enjoy my snowdrops close-up, in simple clay pots, where I can appreciate their perfectly delicate form. And I'll get my Galanthus fix from places like Dawyck, where snowdrops and stories abound.