Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Making the most of the new start to the year

Highdown Gardens - Peter Keefe, Senior GardenerHello, my name is Pete and I am the Senior Gardener at Highdown Gardens.

After the dark leaden skies that to me seemed to dominate in December, it is finally a relief to be a couple of weeks into January 2022. The days are now noticeably lighter and the garden is starting to show signs of life. On the occasions when the sun shines on a cold crisp day, it is a real joy to be outside.

One plant that is making the most of the new start to the year is the Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a member of the buttercup family with a bright yellow flower that is native to the woodlands of France, Italy and the Balkans. It was introduced to the garden by Frederick Stern and it now thrives in our alkaline soils, having naturalised into large swathes of the garden and in some places it forms a carpet of flowers. A feast for the eyes at this time of year.

Photo: Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

A plant that you might smell before you see it, while walking around the garden, is our fragrant Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia). A flowering shrub and a member of the box family native to China, it is found throughout Highdown Gardens providing a lovely scent that can hang in the air when the weather conditions are right. As it is evergreen when not in flower, it also gives constant structure in the garden. It is a great plant if you have a difficult shady situation and you are looking for some all year interest in your own garden. It will also tolerate being controlled and shaped by a prune after flowering in spring.

Photo: Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

These are just a couple of the plants that increase the interest in the garden throughout the winter season. Soon we will get to the inevitable explosion of growth and colour that the spring will bring.

Viburnum x bodnantense - Bodnant Viburnum

Plant Focus – December 2021: Bodnant Viburnum – Viburnum x bodnantense

This month Roy Philpott, a Friend of Highdown Gardening Volunteer, has written about the Viburnum x bodnantense.

Bodnant Viburnum: Viburnum x bodnantense
Season: October to April
Location: A single specimen in the middle garden

Viburnum x bodnantense is one of the few plants that flower at Highdown throughout the long winter months when little else is blooming. Clusters of white and pink, sweetly fragrant flowers are produced on bare wood stems from October through to April.

Photos: Viburnum x bodnantense – Bodnant Viburnum

Viburnum x bodnantense - Bodnant Viburnum

V. x bodnantense is a large, upright, deciduous shrub growing to a maximum height of 4m with a maximum spread of 2.5m. Like most Viburnums, it is very tolerant of soil type, is happy in full sun and partial shade and is fully hardy in sheltered or exposed positions.

Purple tinged leaves begin to appear in spring and gradually turn to a deep green as they mature. While happy on chalk, it does not like drying out completely and last summer I lost one of my specimens in the very hot and dry spell during May and June. Another V. x bodnantense, in a shadier situation, survived and is now in full flower.

Viburnum x bodnantense is a hybrid cultivated from two species: V. farreri and V. grandiflorum, both of which originated in the mountains of Northern China.

Viburnum farreri was collected from Northern China in 1913-14, by Reginald Farrer, a plant hunter whose expeditions were part funded by Sir Frederick Stern, and is sometimes called Viburnum fragrans. V. farreri was first introduced by William Purdom in 1910 and named for Farrer.

Sir Frederick germinated seeds brought back by Farrer, and V. farreri first flowered at Highdown in 1921-22. Stern also received some cuttings of V. grandiflorum from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and grew them on at Highdown.

Viburnum x bodnantense was first raised at Edinburgh in 1933 and then by Lord Aberconway’s head gardener, Charles Puddle, at Bodnant Garden in North Wales in 1935, from which the cultivar acquired its name. V. x bodnantense has a more elegant habit than either of its parents with long straight stems arching up from the base, forming an attractive cone shape.

In 1947 Viburnum x bodnantense was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and Lord Aberconway presented Stern with a plant that same year. Alas, the plant currently in the middle garden at Highdown is unlikely to be this original shrub.

(left) Coronilla glauca in flower and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

Stillness speaks

Highdown Gardens - GlennHello my name is Glenn, I am one of the Craft Gardeners at Highdown Gardens.

In the winter months nearly all plants go dormant, but this period of rest is crucial to survival in order to regrow and therefore dormancy during cold conditions is so important. It may also be equally important during times of stress during heat and drought, especially, for example with trees shedding their leaves early in order to conserve water.

Nature can be a great teacher if we take our time to observe. It is equally important that we also rest during times of stress. Christmas can be for many people one of those times – hectic, stressful and full of expectations to live up to.

Highdown Gardens are very therapeutic and each season offers something different to the senses. Winter time is the perfect opportunity to tap into the rejuvenating energy of the garden. The garden at Highdown stands so tall and majestic it has a real presence especially at this time of the year.

Come to the middle garden and take three or four conscious breaths, free yourself from the fog of the time bound mind and allow yourself to sit in the pristine present moment, listen to the silence, the absolute peace of mind, body and spirit.

Highdown Gardens is a space to feel at peace.

After all, the gift of peace is the only gift worth giving.

Happy Christmas from all the Highdown Team.

Photos: (left) Coronilla glauca in flower, and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

(left) Coronilla glauca in flower and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (credit Mark Emery)

Plant Focus – November 2021: Strawberry Tree – Arbutus X Andrachnoides

This month Mark Emery, a Friend of Highdown Gardening Volunteer, has written about the Arbutus x andrachnoides, or most commonly known as the Strawberry Tree.

Strawberry Tree: Arbutus x andrachnoides
Location at Highdown: Opposite the front of the Visitor Centre and Performance Area

Species from the genus Arbutus commonly known as Strawberry Trees are represented at Highdown by several closely related specimens. Arbutus x andrachnoides, the Hybrid Strawberry Tree, is pleasing to the eye throughout the gardening year.

It has glossy dark evergreen foliage, with white or pink pitcher-shaped flowers borne in autumn and winter. A mature specimen can produce small strawberry-red fruits, giving it its common name. The fruits are orbicular in shape and smaller than a strawberry.

Its most outstanding feature is its flaking bark in varying shades of cinnamon-brown, providing striking colour all year round, especially in autumn and winter. The bark has a beautiful warm glow when bathed in sunlight. Classed as a shrub or small tree it can reach 12m in height. The plant is tender when young but hardy when mature.

Photos: the Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (Credit: Mark Emery)

Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (credit Mark Emery)

There are several examples of Arbutus growing at Highdown:

Arbutus x andrachnoides is to be found on the lawn opposite the new Visitor Centre. It’s the smallest of two but still striking in appearance and not dissimilar to Acer griseum, the Paper Bark Maple.

An additional and stunning mature specimen of Arbutus x andrachnoides can be found east of the Performance Area of the lower garden.

Arbutus x andrachnoides is a hybrid between Arbutus unedo the Strawberry Tree and Arbutus andrachne its Grecian relative, the two parent plants stand together left of the visitor centre.

Photos (credit: Mark Emery):
(left) bark of the Arbutus x andrachnoides in the Performance Area

(right) trunks/bark of the Arbutus unedo and Arbutus andrachne

(Left) Bark of the Arbutus x andrachnoides in the Performance Area (Right) Trunks of the Arbutus unedo (L) Arbutus andrachne (R) (credit Mark Emery)

Frederick Stern mentions the Grecian Strawberry Tree in his book A Chalk Garden:

A. andrachne is also well, now about 16ft high with charming downy-grey bark turning red. The seed was sent to us in the 1920s by S. C. Atchley from Greece. So it seems that several of the Arbutus do not mind calcareous soil although they belong to Ericaceae. P.183

Atchley was a British diplomat and botanist, one of many early plant collectors who contributed seeds collected from foreign habitats to Stern. In 1938 The Wild Flowers of Attica by Atchley was published, Attica being the ancient Greek name for Greece. These collaborations were directly responsible for many of the unusual plants growing at Highdown. Early plant collectors and experimental gardeners such as Stern were pioneers in introducing many of the plants we grow in our gardens today.

Stern began his garden against the advice of some experts, given that Highdown consists of a few inches of topsoil resting upon the solid chalk of the South Downs. As a true adventurer and man of imagination he persisted and succeeded gloriously. In the above quote from Stern we learn that the plant belongs to the botanical family Ericaceae, which normally indicates an intolerance for alkaline soils and a liking for acidity. Stern further writes:

A. andrachne was raised from seed from Greece, and it’s growing on the edge of the Downs, making a bush with a lovely smooth reddish bark and deep green entire leaves. P.159

I first came across the Strawberry Tree at Mewsbrook Park in Littlehampton. There are also some fine specimens of Arbutus x andrachnoides adjacent to the bridge that crosses the river Arun as you enter the West Sussex town of Arundel.

Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

This is the Wild Flower Conservation Society

Highdown Gardens - TobyHi, my name is Toby. I am one of the craft gardeners here at Highdown Gardens.

Did you know that some butterflies are producing up to three broods a year? Due to longer warmer temperate seasons, butterflies are laying more clutches of eggs, unfortunately the wild flowers they rely on for food are not keeping up.

This is just one of the fascinating insights you’ll learn while chatting with John Gapper, founder of the Wild Flower Conservation Society. With the apt moniker ‘The Green Man of Sussex’ he was raised in the village of Stanmer on the South Downs, so John has spent his entire life working with and observing nature.

John Gapper, founder of the Wild Flower Conservation Society

Photos: John Gapper

I first met John while studying Horticulture at Plumpton College and doing research for a wild flower unit, so when the opportunity arose to develop a meadow in the old orchard at Highdown Gardens, he was the first person I thought of.

John’s pioneering work in collecting wild seed has been bolstered in recent years, with support from the Brighton & Hove Council and the South Downs Communities Sustainable fund, who have equipped he and his volunteers with a new polytunnel where they produce plug plants to sell to the public.

During my visit I was lucky enough to be given some seeds to germinate in the new glasshouse here at Highdown, so that we may plant out our own plug plants next spring. John recommended devil’s bit scabious and corn marigold to get us started, as their flowering season goes right through to October and even November, which will be of great benefit to the Downland butterflies.

Seedlings growing in glasshouse

Photo: Seedlings growing in glasshouse

If you’d like to support John’s vital work helping to preserve the Sussex downland wildlife, pop up to Stanmer and pick up some plug plants for your garden, and please come and see our new meadow develop here at Highdown next year.

Hopefully, with plenty of butterflies!

Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

Photo: Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

Verbena bonariensis - a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

Plant Focus – October 2021: Verbena – Verbena bonariensis

Highdown is launching a new series of monthly blogs called ‘Plant Focus’, written by our fantastic volunteers. Each blog will explore a different plant at Highdown which currently has seasonal interest, so you can learn about the wonderful plants we have at our garden and come see them for yourself.

We are kicking off Plant Focus with a plant familiar to many: the Verbena, written by Highdown’s Engagement & Volunteering Assistant, Rebecca Jones.

Verbena: Verbena bonariensis
Season: June to October
Location at Highdown: next to glasshouse and Sensory Garden

I first saw this eye-catching, purple-flowered plant in gardens in Worthing when I moved there a few years ago. With its fragile looking stems I’m always amazed it doesn’t blow over in the blustery coastal wind and rain!

Verbena bonariensis, as seen at Highdown Gardens, has quite a few common names including vervain, tall verbena or purpletop verbena. This plant is just one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena, of which only about half a dozen are in cultivation. V. bonariensis is native to Argentina and Brazil, which makes sense when you realise that the species name is derived from ‘Buenos Aires’.

Photos: Verbena bonariensis – next to the glasshouse and in the Sensory Garden (credit Rebecca Jones)

Verbena bonariensis - next to the glasshouse and in the Sensory Garden (credit Rebecca Jones)

They were first grown as a garden ornamental in 1726 by Englishmen James and William Sherard, who got the seeds from a dried specimen sent back to England from Buenos Aires. In the wild it is naturally perennial but is grown as an annual in cooler climates, such as ours. It is considered a weed in many mild climates, such as California, Texas, Australia, southern Africa, Fiji, and New Guinea, where it has naturalized.

The small purple flowers bloom in clusters on top of long, slender but sturdy stalks and can grow up to 6ft tall and 3ft wide. It’s very attractive to butterflies and moths and has a long flowering season so is good for nectar-feeding insects late in summer and into autumn. If you look at the flower heads you can see why the butterflies like it so much – the flowers are very similar to buddleia. Having multiple flowers on one flower-head enables insects to get lots of food without having to expend much energy to do so.

Photos: Verbena bonariensis – a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

Verbena bonariensis - a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

It’s easy to grow and isn’t too fussy about soil type providing it is well drained and is usually cultivated from seed. It does have a tendency to self seed and can look great in informal prairie style borders. However, if you don’t want it to spread make sure you deadhead it immediately after flowering.

If, like me, you are interested in the etymology or meaning of plant names, you might like to know that Verbena is derived from Latin, meaning ‘sacred bough’. This refers to the leafy twigs of Verbena officinalis, Common verbena or vervain, that were historically carried by priests, used in wreaths for druidic rituals, and for medicine. Vervain comes from the Celtic name, ‘ferfain’.

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters, flowers and pergola

Summer gives way to Autumn in Highdowns sensory garden.

Highdown Gardens - LisaHello my name’s Lisa and I’ve been a Craft Gardener at Highdown Garden for just over two months now. The Sensory Garden is one of my areas of responsibilities and I’ve seen the plants change a lot while I’ve been here.

I started at the beginning of August when lots of plants were still looking wonderful, the bright orange Californian Poppies and Calendula were very eye catching and the white Lychnis and the powdery blue Nigella filled the raised beds with colour. The plants were still enjoying the sunshine in August so the Calendula and the sweetpeas had to be deadheaded regularly.

But as the summer started to come to an end, mid to late August, lots of flowers faded and it was time to cut some perennials down to the ground, this encourages new and fresh foliage and flowers. The Nepeta, Geraniums, Stachys byzantina and Alchemilla mollis were all cut down to the ground when their flowers faded, with the warm and sunny September we’ve experienced they’ve all bounced back with young new foliage.

In September annuals such as the Poppies and Calendula finished their show of flowers and had to be removed to tidy up the beds, but other perennials were having their time to look wonderful. Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’ and Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’ with their numerous and floating dark red and purple flowers and Symphyotrichum (Asters) with their mass of dense purple flowers are now still grabbing people’s attention.

Now we’re in autumn this is a good time to identify gaps in the Sensory Garden, some plants have been eaten by slugs and rabbits so some beds are looking less full than they should be. Autumn is a good time to plant, with moisture and warmth still in the ground, so new plants will soon be planted to fill these gaps. Come and have a look at the Salvia, Asters, Verbena bonariensis and the new plants in the Sensory Garden this Autumn, it’ll be good to meet you!

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - path and flowers

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - flowers, benches and pergola

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters and benches

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters, flowers and pergola

One of our Irises - prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside - spaced out newly divided plants

Among the Iris

Highdown Gardens - CharlotteHello my name is Charlotte, I am the Craft Gardener here at Highdown Gardens.

I have spent much time in August amongst the Irises in the Lower Garden.

There are many at Highdown due to them being one of Sir Frederick Stern’s garden favourites. Is not hard to see why with their elegant tall leaves and flowers in shades of yellow or purple, they have become one of my favourites too. Stern even cross bred species creating hybrids to plant out in trial beds to see how well they performed.

It is time to divide bearded Iris once they have finished flowering, so from the end of July onwards depending on the season’s weather of course. There are a lot of different types of Iris, check which type you have if you are doing yours.

Typically they are divided every three to five years, I have only started at Highdown this year so I don’t know exactly when they were last done, but I can tell from looking that they are very congested and this would benefit them. The purpose is to give each individual more space to grow and help to keep it healthy and perform better. It’s quite a fun garden task, though it is time-consuming.

I use a border fork to gently lift them all from the soil. You are then faced with a prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with the tall strappy leaves coming from the topside.

This just needs preparing for replanting, the rhizome itself can be trimmed down to remove the older parts, leaving the healthier and fresher looking growth.

Very small ones can be discarded or potted up until they have grown larger for new stock to plant elsewhere. I did plant a few small ones just to see how they do. The leaves should be trimmed down to keep the energy at the roots and prevent wind damage, the Highdown rabbits have been helping us with this by feasting on them.

Whilst we were doing this, it was a good chance to remove any perennial weeds that we found. We are constantly battling ground elder here, so took the roots out as we went. There are a lot of bulbs such as snowdrops and gladioli underneath the Iris so care was taken to replant these.

After I had dug up a good few Iris, and had a nice clear weeded patch of earth, I spaced out the newly divided plants evenly to replant. They just need the roots to be fully in the soil, the rhizome needs to stay on the surface as it will not flower well or could rot if fully buried.

That’s really all there is to it, I gave them some growmore and water to help them on their way to beautiful blooms next year.

Be sure to come and see them next May and June.

One of our Irises - prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside - spaced out newly divided plants

One of our Irises – prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside – spaced out newly divided plants

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds)

Introducing Highdown’s New Sensory Garden

Ellen Mascard, Engagement & Volunteering OfficerHello my name is Ellen, I am the Engagement & Volunteering Officer here at Highdown Gardens.

One of Highdown’s most significant developments, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has been the Sensory Garden. This space used to occupy the Rose Garden, which had over-mature, weak and diseased roses, as well as worn down and narrow paths inaccessible to wheelchair users and buggies.

An important aim of the redevelopment project was to increase accessibility and encourage a more diverse audience to Highdown, so we decided to utilise this flat area to create a Sensory Garden.

Sensory gardens are designed to stimulate the senses by using plants and features which interact with a person’s hearing, taste, sight, smell and touch. This engagement taps into the practice of mindfulness, which increases a person’s awareness of their surroundings, helping them to connect with nature and relax.

Highdowns sensory garden’s planting scheme was designed by Craft Gardener, Claire Garcka, who chose plants for their different heights, textures, scents and noises when moving in the wind.

As you walk into the space, you will also notice a transition from pastel to much hotter coloured plants. Claire also cleverly underplanted the garden beds with bulbs to extend the season of interest. Highdown’s Sensory Garden also has ample seating, raised plant beds, and solid even ground throughout making the space accessible for all, particularly wheelchair users and visually impaired people.

What plants are currently available to interact with?

The following plants are Senior Gardener, Peter Keefe’s, top picks to interact with this September:

left Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) and right Lambs ears (Stachys byzantina)

(Left) Common name: Chocolate Cosmos
Latin name: Cosmos atrosanguineus
Sense: The flowers smell of chocolate!
Credit: Rebecca Jones

(Right) Common name: Lambs ears
Latin name: Stachys byzantina
Sense: The leaves are soft to touch
Credit: Rebecca Jones

left baby sage x autumn sage (Salvia x jamensis, Nachtvlinder) and right Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis, Kleine Silberspinne)

(Left) Common name: baby sage x autumn sage
Latin name: Salvia x jamensis ‘Nachtvlinder’
Sense: Look at its vibrant purple flowers
Credit: Ellen Mascard

(Right) Common name: Chinese silver grass
Latin name: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’
Sense: Listen to the grass rustle in the wind
Credit: Ellen Mascard

So, they’re Peter’s top picks – have you got any favourites?

Views of the Sensory Garden:

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds)

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds and pergola)

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (new bench)