I’ve known Ed Ikin, head of Landscape and Horticulture for Kew’s country place at Wakehurst, for years in a virtual kind of way; we have pressed the Like button many times on each other’s planty pictures but never met. However, after an in-depth conversation about pots last year Ed asked if I would like to have a Spring 2017 walk around Wakehurst with him. Would I? Too right I would.
A perk of being a gardener and a public-prattler-about-plants-and-planting is that every now and then you get to visit a garden and stroll around it in the company of the person in charge – whether that’s the Head Gardener, owner, curator or manager it is an opportunity never to be missed. I love to visit gardens by myself but to see a garden or landscape from the point of view of a person who knows it intimately is a privilege. I jumped at the chance.
We arranged a date in March. I had only ever seen Wakehurst in the autumn so I indulged in visions of swathes of crocus and early daffodils. March arrived, and with it an email in which Ed apologised profusely but he had an unavoidable meeting at Kew. We arranged a date in late April. I thought about magnolias, late narcissus, camellias. In April Ed, sounding genuinely embarrassed, asked that we go for a May date as a vital grant application had to be completed. Wow, I thought, this is a very, VERY busy man, I bet he’s regretting having invited me! Still, there was no way I was going to do the decent thing and let him off the hook, we arranged a date in May.
The day of my expedition to Wakehurst (2hrs 15 mins away, according to Googlemaps) was a day of uncanny beauty in the Cotswolds. My tulips shimmered in the clear, cold sunshine; the trees and woods along country roads begged us to stop and admire their spring splendour. But no, we had to head east to Sussex in a tin with wheels. My husband was going to Standen to consult some documents and would drop me off at Wakehurst with my camera. As we hurtled along the M25 (strangely clear, for once) the clouds gathered and my heart sank, was it really going to be worth missing a glorious day in my own garden?
Ed met me on the dot of 11am, as arranged, and we set off at a brisk pace. As we strode past the Millennium Seed Bank I began to see that his role involves a dynamic grasp of planning, funding and politics which would horrify most horticulturists. He talked fast and fluently, using many words I didn’t really understand and I became somewhat tongue-tied, as I often do with people who impress me. I also became aware that the shoes I was wearing (I hadn’t had time to clean my walking boots properly) both squeaked.
The sun was, however, beginning to win the battle with the clouds. We strode through Bethlehem Wood and Ed talked of the his desire to revise the National Collection of Betula, perhaps planted too hastily in the years following the hurricane of ’87. I was distracted by the sunshine glinting through the new foliage, and the smattering of bluebells which showed off the silver and caramel colours of the birch trunks.
“So which part of the world do you think we’re entering now?” asked Ed. I could see Eucalyptus and some unfamiliar tallish, narrow trees whose foliage reminded me of young Kauri (Agathis australis). Tree identification is a major weak spot in the battered filing cabinet of my brain but I was confident that we were in Australasia. Thank goodness I passed that test.
The narrow trees, loitering like a spiky group of gawky teenagers around the path, turned out to be Wollemia nobilis. I’ve only ever seen single specimens of the famous Wollemi pine, always confined in a cage and usually looking small and a bit sad. These were obviously growing lustily and to prove it were breaking out in a rash of male and female cones. Ed’s enthusiasm and affection for the tree collection was infectious and I could see that this trip was going to be worth every minute on the motorway. Squeaky shoes or no squeaky shoes.
We talked of intrepid plant hunters and effective staff development. I had to stop and snatch photographs occasionally as shafts of sunlight broke through the delicious fresh greens of new foliage. We emerged from Australasia into Chile and South America. Small trees in a clutch of playpens were precious Araucaria seedlings resulting from a collection made by Kew’s modern-day plant hunters. These trees have now been orphaned by a disastrous fire in their forest of origin – an event which is only going to become more common due to man’s activities and climate change and which highlights the need for conservation work by organisations like Kew.
We talked about bracken control (they cut it, weakening the regrowth rather than trying to eradicate it with weedkiller) and its importance in order to see the detailed contours of the land. The new bracken fronds were just beginning to uncurl above the bluebells, given free rein they would soon cover everything in a thick, green duvet, blurring the subtle undulations of the woods and dulling the drama of Wakehurst’s steep valleys. Another problem plant at the site is Rhododendron ponticum, which would engulf everything if left uncontrolled. Wakehurst is a site rich in native plants as well as exotics, so the engulfers must be curbed.
The views across the top of Bloomers Valley from Chile (Coates’s Wood) and down towards Horsebridge Wood made me gasp. I had to stop for more pictures, while we discussed landscape and the silver lining of the devastating ’87 hurricane, namely opened vistas and opportunities for fresh, accurately sourced specimens and well-planned planting. As we descended the side of the valley Ed told me about the vast acidic meadow which lies in the centre of the valley, containing treasures such as adder’s tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) and I gazed across at the sunlight filtered through new oak leaves on to pools of bluebells leaking out of the woodland.
Now we were in North America. More bluebells gushed between the trees and swirled over banks under pines, maples, giant redwoods… The discussion turned: should a geographically arranged collection like this plant an understorey to match the origins of the tree specimens? Apart from the fact that visitors love them, I think the bluebells are the equivalent of honesty in the visible repair of ancient buildings – this is a collection of exotic trees, and a very fine one, but it is still in an English landscape, and to try to disguise that fact would be futile, if not downright harmful. Unlike the bracken, the bluebells are fine and bright enough to highlight the shape of the land rather than disguise it, so they have a useful aesthetic function. The steep valleys and creased hillsides of Wakehurst make this enhanced landscape so much more than a stamp collection.
We hurtled through America, past the Westwood Lake (“An iron age industrial estate”, said Ed), paused to consider the Inula plants which are on the brink of becoming weeds, and the Lysichiton americanus which is officially a weed, and headed up to the Himalaya. “An advantage of working in a place like this is that it keeps me fit” said Ed as he hurtled up the side of Kangchenjunga. I’m an enthusiastic walker but this steep path did make it hard to talk casually without sounding out of breath. Luckily my camera gave me excuses to pause and admire the views to the Loder Valley Nature Reserve and back across the Wakehurst valleys.
The colours of the azaleas near the top of the hill actually made me laugh. What bonkers plants they are! The Iris Dell is yet to do its main thing, but this and the stream are surrounded by azaleas, acers, and rhodies, with Primula, Rodgersia galore, hostas, ferns, Kirengeshoma palmata and all the luscious, damp loving plants which are forbidden fruit in my dry, sandy garden.
Pausing only to admire Ed’s favourite Sorbus, we emerged (slightly sweatily on my part) on to the Asiatic Heath, which is unprepossessing at this time of year, especially after the dramas of the valleys, but as Ed talked of Wakehurst’s plans for redevelopment of this area into huge meadows in the style of Kyrgyzstan steppe I began to see visions of acres of Eremurus. This is definitely a space to watch, it’ll be spectacular in a few years, and as it lies on the high ground not far from the Mansion, will be easily accessible to more visitors than the steep valleys are.
We swept past the Mansion Pond and surveyed the remnants of the Winter Garden, which is being re-designed and re-planted to give a more immersive experience. I’ll definitely be watching progress on this as I spend a lot of time in the Winter Garden at the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens. We peeped into the Walled Garden and finally inspected the pots which had started our conversation. I reckoned it was time to let Ed go back to his meetings and grant applications, and I needed a little pause to digest my world tour. I thanked him and forced him to pose for a photograph (nobody gets away without this now). We had covered several miles, a whole world of trees, many crannies of horticulture, and the nature of time management and busy-ness. Time had proverbially flown.
I stopped for a drink and a sarnie in the restaurant – and then I went and meandered the whole route in reverse, but walking up the other side of Bloomers Valley along the astonishing seam of sandstone rock. Luckily I had not yet read about the Tunbridge filmy fern (Hymenophyllum tunbridgense), which lurks translucently here, or I would have spent too much time hunting for that and failed to turn up at the car park for my ride home. I did take some time to sit on a bench and watch the wind swooshing the redwoods about and whisking clouds across the sky. I took a million photos of bluebells. I stood in the middle of the meadow and had it all to myself, even though I expected Julie Andrews to come running out in her pinny singing The Hills Are Alive. Instead of her I saw a woodpecker.
I’ve already written too much – but if you have the stamina for it you can join me on a supplementary walk through more photos. There may be a few more bluebells…