Blogs from Highdown Gardens

Our gardeners regularly blog about what is currently happening in the gardens and what might be of interest for you to see when you come to the gardens.

You can read our Highdown blogger posts on this page:

Find out about our Highdown Garden bloggers below.

6th April 2021: Welcome to the Highdown Gardeners monthly blog

Highdown Gardens - Pete

I am Pete the new Senior gardener at Highdown gardens, my gardening career started over 12 years ago. I trained at Stanmer Park which was then part of Brighton College, since then I have worked at several of the great gardens of Sussex, as well as managing a small National Trust garden for 7 years. I joined Highdown Gardens in August 2020.

It is an interesting time in the garden's history, I am sure many of you know, the garden was awarded heritage lottery funding, to preserve the plant collection and to improve the visitor experience. We are currently shut, but hope to be open as soon as we reasonably can.

The garden team are at present hard at work tidying the mature parts of the garden, as well as putting the finishing touches to the landscaping and planting around the new Sensory garden, visitor centre and accessible path.

This would be a good opportunity to introduce you to the team of gardeners at Highdown:

  • Claire is the longest serving member of the team with several years' experience working in the garden, and Claire has been the lead on the design and planting of the new Sensory Garden.
  • Toby joined the garden in August 2020 like me and has taken on managing the entrance areas as well as the famous old chalk garden.
  • Charlotte has a wealth of garden experience including studying at RHS Wisley, she is looking after the lower garden which contains the main perennial beds, as well as collections of tree peonies and interesting shrubs.
  • Dan is the newest member of the team, after successfully running his own garden business; he is now caring for the middle garden otherwise known as the tree and shrub garden.

As we are a largely new team, we are enjoying learning about the history of the garden, and watching the plants burst into life through the late winter and early spring.

Photo: Left to right Toby, Charlotte, Pete, Claire and Dan

2021-04-06 - Left to right Toby, Charlotte, Pete, Claire and Dan

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23rd November 2019: Winter garden reveals itself
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

Early winter is setting in now in the gardens.

In spite of all the rain our beech trees are on fire now in a last blaze of orange autumn colour. The Gingko Biloba too is a shining beacon of fine butter yellow. As the green pigment breaks down in the cool and dark of the season, the beautiful autumn colour reveals itself.

Photos: Gingko biloba (left) and Snake Bark Maple, Acer capillipes (right)

2019-11-23 - Gingko biloba (left) and Snake Bark Maple, Acer capillipes (right)

There is a slight tension between leaving the leaves for visitors to collect and scuff through as they marvel at their colours, and the professional gardener who knows the damage that rotting leaves can cause to our grass. That said we can only just keep up with the fall so there are plenty to go round.

We have been making some great leaf mould from previous years' leaf and together with garden compost we use this to condition our soil. High up on the chalk hill at Highdown the soil can be described as thin or very thin and is thirsty for the addition of organic matter.

It is easy to make leaf mould at home and just keep it bagged or covered to retain moisture ... and to get the very best, leave it for two years.

The garden borders and shrubbery are also revealing themselves in their winter mode and, unlike us layering up with extra clothes, they divest themselves of their summer attire and sit naked until spring.

Entire borders and areas of the garden are now see through, the woody forms of trees and shrubs laid bare to reveal form and detailed tracery of branch and twig.

Photo: orbus sargentiana

2019-11-23 - Sorbus sargentiana

Winter tree identification without leaf or flower to guide you is quite an art and we have been honing ours and our apprentice's eye for the detail of winter buds and bark.

We are lucky to have some garden plans to help us at Highdown, but as we refine these and delve down into historic records we are often coming up with surprises such as a Paper Mulberry (Bousonetia papyrifera) with its very variable foliage masquerading as a Black Mulberry (Morus nigra).

As the garden sinks into the deep dormancy of winter even now there are signs of new growth and a spring to come. As we winterise our shrub beds and do a final weed and mulch down, the bulbs just below are poised ready for their spring display.

The earliest in the garden is a November Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis reginaeolgae) blooming away with its elegant flowers hanging on little fishing rod stems on our rockery; it just can't wait for the New Year.

Photos: Galanthus reginaeolgae

2019-11-23 - Galanthus reginaeolgae

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26th October 2019: Berries and seeds from our plants
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

Work on our National Lottery Heritage Fund award is well underway now and autumn is a busy time too for all our plants as they ripen this year's berries and their seeds within.

Part of our work is to conserve the plant collection both in-situ and by distributing plants and seeds to other botanical collection holders.

Our new Plant Heritage Officer Annelise and Craft Gardener Paul have been collecting seeds from some of our best and most notable trees and shrubs for the Millenium Seed Bank, held by Kew Gardens at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

The seed bank aims to save plants throughout the world which are most at risk and valuable for the future.

Whilst some of plants are beginning to show some autumn leaf colour our chalky soils do not give the fiery tones associated with more acid conditions as you might for example find in the Sussex Weald. Autumn at Highdown is however notable for its fantastic displays of berries.

Gorgeous orange and red Cotoneaster, coral Spindle berries and shining blue Clerodendron seeds garland our borders in a sumptuous display.

Photo: Red Cotoneaster C.franchetii Sterniana (left) and Clerodendron tricotomum fargesii (right)

2019-10-26 - Red Cotoneaster C.franchetii Sterniana (left) and Clerodendron tricotomum fargesii (right)

There is plenty to go round which is a good job as we compete with Blackbirds and Blue and Great Tits who have begun feasting on the autumn glut.

We have been trained by the Seed Bank to collect, clean and cut test the seed to ensure that they are good, ripe and viable. In the picture you can see the perfect cut seed of our Euonymus grandifloras salicifolius.

We have two large specimens growing on the thinnest of soil near the bungalow and clothed with light pink berries.

Photo: Euonymus grandiflorus salicifolius fruit (left) and cutting one of the seeds open (right)

2019-10-26 - Euonymus grandiflorus salicifolius fruit (left) and cutting one of the seeds open (right)

The seed is then recorded and together with a pressed dried leaf sample for the herbarium are kept in cold storage until they are needed for research or to raise new plants.

We have a great team of volunteers at the garden who help with all manner of horticultural tasks and this week some will be joining us for another training session to help us collect, clean and sort seeds.

We will also be growing some seed ourselves to restock the garden and to distribute to other living collections.

Our Viburnum betulifolium is one of our best berrying shrubs with cascades of bright red translucent berries hanging like redcurrants from its tall spreading branches.

Covered in white flowers in June this is one of the plant hunter E.H. Wilson's introductions from western China and grown from seed at Highdown all those years ago.

Photo: Viburnum betulifoilum

2019-10-26 - Viburnum betulifoilum

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28th September 2019: Fantastic Fungi - A Mixed Blessing
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

‌An almost audible sigh of relief came from the dry earth on Highdown Hill this week as the first and most appreciable fall of rain we’ve had for what seems like weeks arrived from the sea.

Our parched lawns greened up overnight and we’ll be cutting again in a few days even as growth slows down and we slide into autumn.

The early autumn has brought with it the fruiting of many plants including some of our lower plants the mushrooms and fungi.

The garden is a living collection and of course relies on a vibrant ecology of which fungi are a vital part. Playing a role as nature’s recyclers they break down dead plant material and make available nutrients for uptake by new generations of plants.

However, they don’t always wait for the demise of a plant before beginning their work.

Some trees at Highdown host fungi which are decomposing the dead heart wood held within their lofty boughs and bole.

The pictures below show examples of two common fungi both harmlessly living on the trees dead heart wood, in this case Dryads Saddle (Polyporous squamosus) on one of our red Horse Chestnut’s and a Ganoderma bracket (Ganoderma applanatum/austral) on one of our National Collection trees Cercis racemosa.

Photo: Ganoderma on Cercis (left) and Dryads Saddle on Red Horse Chestnut (right)

2019-09-28 - Dual image

The fungi are present all around us as spores in the air and they usually move into the wood of a tree through a wound. There are barriers within the tree to prevent their spread into live wood. Having spent many years as a Tree Officer it’s often this balance between living and dead parts of the tree that is investigated and decisions about the safety of a tree made.

The Cercis here is actually being killed by another much more aggressive Honey Fungus, Armillaria, that will invade and kill living plants and is quite a pest in parks and gardens.

Parts of our collection are particularly prone to its attack including our Cotoneasters, Berberis, and, because the growing conditions on the chalk are so hard, our older Mock Orange, Philadelphus.

The new Heritage Lottery funded Plant Heritage Officer will be tackling this with us by propagating our collection, beginning with those oldest or most at risk plants and working with other plant collection holders to help conserve the stock of these ‘in captivity’ plants. These in turn can assist in global conservation initiatives like the Millennium Seed Bank that provides a safety net for plants that are threatened with extinction.

On our old avenue of Tibetan Cherry the fungi have an interesting maze-like pattern on their lower side, lending themselves to the name of Maze Gills.

Photo: Maze Gill on Cherry

2019-09-28 - Maze Gill on Cherry

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14th September 2019: Thinking about plants that may invoke memories for people
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens - Jo Hooper, Head Gardener

So it has been a hectic few weeks up at Highdown since being given permission to start our Heritage Fund project.

We have been busy recruiting for our new plant heritage officer post and are very happy to announce we will be welcoming Annelise to the team in a few weeks time.

Annelise will be joining us in time to do some autumn propagation and seed collecting from the national plant collection and will spend her time auditing, researching and risk assessing the plant collection alongside propagating our rare specimens. This will give us an opportunity to introduce younger plants to the gardens and provide rare plants to other institutions and gardens to ensure their survival and longevity.

We are also just at the beginning stages of looking at designs for the new sensory garden which will highlight the enjoyment plants can give to not just our eyes but our other senses as well, so plants that smell amazing, feel intriguing to touch and make interesting sounds.

Also we are considering memory and thinking about plants that may invoke memories for people, which will often tie in with smell, for me the smell of sweet peas will forever more remind me of my Grandad as he always grew them in his garden and I'm sure many of us have similar memories and associations.

Studies show that smell is closely linked with memory, potentially more so than any other sense, and for people suffering with dementia it can be a great stimuli for accessing memories.

What we have also done this week is finally order plants to be planted in the rockery below the Rosa brunonii (the huge white rose growing against the cliff in the chalk pit) a volunteer has been going through Stern's original index cards looking at alpines which Stern grew, assessing whether they would still thrive 50 years on with the changes in the climate and also whether we could source a supplier - after months of work we have narrowed the list down to 15 plants which have been ordered and will be planted out later in the autumn.

If you are planning a trip to the gardens in the next few days do look out for the Amaryllis which are looking beautiful at the moment. Stern was a great fan of Amaryllis and we still have his original plantings of Amaryllis 'Hathor' (below left and bottom - white) and Amaryllis belladonna (below right - pink).

2019-09-14 - Amaryllis Hathor (left) and Amaryllis belladonna (right)

2019-09-14 - Amaryllis Hathor

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31st August 2019: Colour and interest
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

With the summer holiday season drawing to a close, Highdown Gardens still have much to offer by way of colour and interest.

The 8.5 acre gardens have been busier than ever with children and adults using our guides to explore an area which can feel much larger. We are often asked the way around the gardens, set out as they are in a series of 'rooms' or areas, each with its own character and all sharing that grown-in and slightly hidden feel of the secret garden - see our interactive map of Highdown Gardens showing the different areas or 'rooms'.

I recently made a new discovery myself down among the trees around the southern lawn in front of the imposing Highdown Towers. In one of the oldest parts of the garden, the Hoheria populnea (below left), a classic Highdown plant, was blooming away as if it were spring, its simple, elegant white flowers borne on slender pendulous branches and offered unselfconsciously to the viewer at eye level.

Another of our New Zealand plants, this beautiful large shrub was recorded as a lime hater, yet here it was - oblivious to the books - thriving. That said, I will probably give it a good mulch in the autumn.

The number of shrubs flowering here steadily decline through summer. However there are some real stars putting on a show at the moment; our Hibiscus syriacus (below right) is worth a mention with its purple flowers set amongst lush foliage and again flowering like there's no tomorrow.

Photos: Hoheria populnea (left) and Hibiscus syriacus (right)

2019-08-31 - Hoheria populnea (left) and Hibiscus syriacus (right)

Our humble species, Fuscias, are putting on a good show now too, like here Fuchsia riccartonii (below left) set against our champion Queen Mary tree planted in 1937, the Chinese or Farrer's Hornbeam, Carpinus turczaninowii.

We have been pruning out any growing tips distorted by the dreaded Fuschia Gall Mite which has become a problem for growers in the south of England since it was first found in 2007.

Our showy Colquahounia coccinea (below right) from the Himalayas is enjoying the late burst of heat and sun from its position in the hot borders at the top of the slope with the sheltering beech-wood behind. It makes an impressive backdrop for the families picnicking on the lawns and all finding their own special place within the historic and secretive garden that is Highdown.

Photos: Fuchsia riccartonii (left) and Colquhounia coccinea (right)

2019-08-31 - Fuschia riccartonii (left) and Colquhounia coccinea (right)

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17th August 2019: Protecting Stern's legacy
Blog post by Gary Prescod

Highdown Gardens - Gary Prescod, ex-Interim Head Gardener

I've been invited back to provide a guest blog. I haven't been idle since I left the Head Gardener role over a year ago; in part, I've been managing Worthing Borough Council's application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for funding to preserve Stern's legacy (read the news about our successful Heritage Lottery bid and watch the video).

Most of you will know by now that we've been successful. We're all so excited now to move things forward. And relieved that two and a half year's work has come good!

We have this week been given permission to start so its full steam ahead and we are currently recruiting for the post of Plant Propagation Officer.

So what does it all mean?

It's about improving two things:

  • protecting the horticultural heritage that is Stern's original plantings along with the archive of his written observations of growing plants on chalk
  • and improving access for more people in the community

Let me first reassure regular visitors that in all the work we will carry out, particularly the building work, our core goal is not to upset the spirit of place that is Highdown.

We know it's a magical place, with old plants growing in the most part unchecked, creating a secretive and hidden atmosphere.

All the building work will take place in the upper parts of the garden, and the majority of the garden will not be touched.

Let me also excite visitors with the fact that finally we'll be labelling all the important plants, and telling previously unknown stories about their provenance, about Stern's passion for growing on chalk, and about the surprising visitors that came to Highdown during Stern's tenure.

The really important National Collection plants will be propagated and shared with other gardens and collection holders which means there will be genetic copies of these plants grown elsewhere in the UK & Ireland in case the mother plant is lost at Highdown for whatever reason.

Some of these National Collection plants are now extinct in the area in which they were originally collected, so the Highdown plants are now a unique genetic heritage. Stern's National Collection of plants was the first of its kind when it was awarded in 1989.

The uniqueness of Highdown lies in the fact that Stern achieved what was thought of at the time as an impossibility: growing a wide range of plants in a hostile environment on the chalk Downland.

PR19-098 - Sir Frederick Stern

Thirty years later, this statement is still valid, and reinforces the need to preserve the heritage left by Sir Frederick Stern (photo right).

The accessibility improvements that the Heritage Fund will allow us to make include remodelling the entrance and resurfacing the main pathway to allow wheelchairs, strollers and buggies to enter the gardens more easily.

We'll also be extending the opening hours, opening weekends in winter and later during the summer to allow those people who work office hours better access to the gardens.

I'm really proud to be leading a project which provides enormous benefits to the communities using Highdown Gardens, while at the same time protecting the unique plant heritage for future generations to enjoy.

I'll be writing regular progress reports, watch this space for news and updates in the future ...

Image: Artist's impression of the proposed visitor centre for Highdown Gardens

2019-08-17 - Artists impression of the proposed visitor centre for Highdown Gardens

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26th July 2019: Midsummer Glory - Hollyhocks, Smoke Bush and the Strawberry Tree
Blog post by Paul Abbott

Highdown Gardens - Paul Abbott, Senior Gardener

The sun is out and Peter is on his holidays so this is Paul, one of the gardeners, happy to be back here sharing my love of Highdown and its fabulous plants with you.

There is much to see in the garden at the moment including plenty of colourful flowering plants in the lower and middle gardens.

One that particularly caught my eye earlier this week was the splendid range of hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) we have flowering at the moment.

These showy plants are seen at Highdown in a range of colours including peach, pink and scarlet. The colours really pop out the border and the tall towering shape of the flowering stems add some height amongst the smaller plants and larger mounds of the shrubs.

2019-07-26 - Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

Plants provide interest in many different varied ways. Some of them like the hollyhock I've just mentioned do this with their blousy flowers, others have interesting bark and some use fabulous foliage to catch our interest.

As you wander back up from the Lower Garden you may come across a large, fluffy claret mound.

This showstopper is Cotinus coggygria 'Grace', one of the smoke bushes. It provides interest through much of the year and is well worth considering if you are lucky enough to have a larger garden.

2019-07-26 - Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria Grace)

One of the most common questions I am asked at the moment is:

“What's the beautiful tree on the glasshouse lawn that looks like the trunk and stems have been painted in all sorts of coppery, red-brown and orange hues?”

This is Arbutus x andrachnoides, one of the strawberry trees. It was named this way because the fruit, (born only on some specimens), although inedible and very hard to the touch, looks similar to a strawberry.

The 'x' in the name tells us that this particular species is a hybrid between two species of the same plant. Plants are hybridised for all sorts of reasons but basically it is to gives you the best of both worlds with the most desirable features of both parent plants in one plant.

I suppose it's the horticultural way of having your cake and eating it!

2019-07-26 - Strawberry Tree (Arbutus x andrachnoides)

I hope you've enjoyed this stroll round the garden.

My only frustration in writing this blog is that there is never enough time to mention all the fabulous plants doing their thing in the garden at the moment.

To see for yourself what delights the garden currently as to offer, I hope you will pay us a visit soon and find some shade in which to enjoy this beautiful garden.

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6th July 2019: A golden age of gardening and the golden month of July
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

We were thrilled to find out last week that our Heritage Lottery bid had been successful, and a big thank you to the team who made that possible is needed ...

We are looking forward to getting started and spending the £1.1m grant which will improve the garden experience for our visitors, further engage the community, and safeguard the unique plant collection created by Sir Frederick Stern (read the news about our successful Heritage Lottery bid and watch the video).

Because it is a living collection, the plants are in a constant state of flux, growing, flowering, setting seed, dying back and occasionally dying out. The oldest plants here are the Holm Oaks which shelter Highdown Towers next door from the prevailing south westerly winds. I recently counted 120 rings on the stump of an old tree fatally damaged in the Great Storm of 1987 that we recently had reduced ... which takes it back to a planting around 1900.

Stern began experimenting with other plants that would grow on the Chalk Down of Highdown Hill. In an era heralded as the 'Golden Age of Gardening', he experimented with plants brought back from western China by plant hunters such as E.H. Wilson.

Stern purchased our famous Acer griseum (Paper Bark Maple) and the Magnolia delavayi at Sir James Veitch's Coombe Wood nursery sale in 1912. The trees live on well into their second century. Shrubs, however, like our Viburnum rhytidophyllum and Viburnum henryii purchased at the same time, are not so long living.

Reduced vigour in the demanding conditions on the hill and some inevitable pests and diseases like Honey Fungus have begun to open up gaps in the borders. The lovely old Lilac, Syringa 'Madame Lemoine' succumbed, and its neighbouring S. Jan Van Thol, which is part of our National Collection of the Plant Collections of Sir Frederick Stern, is affected.

The Heritage lottery grant will fund a new Heritage Officer who can identify and help conserve parts of the plant collection most at risk and also support our decisions as gardeners to keep Highdown looking beautiful.

The later flowering Mock Oranges or Philadelphus like Beauclerk and P. insignis are looking and smelling gorgeous at the moment. The latter is nestled beneath our wide spreading champion Chinese Hornbeam (C.turkzaninowii) and, whilst we are enjoying the golden July sun, like us it too relishes a bit of its wonderful green tinged summer shade.

Photo: Philadelphus insignis

2019-07-06 - Philadelphus insignis

Photos: Berberis jamesiana (left), Amorpha fruticosa (middle) and Helianthemum and Erigeron karvinskianus (right)

2019-07-06 - Berberis jamesiana (left), Amorpha fruticosa (middle) and Helianthemum and Erigeron karvinskianus (right)

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22nd June 2019: Top tips for getting your garden competition-ready
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens - Jo Hooper, Head Gardener

So it's been a really busy couple of weeks up at Highdown as we count down to South & South East in Bloom judging day on 25th June 2019. This is a real red letter day in our calendar and much as it can be stressful getting everything ready, it always amazes me how much can be done when you have a goal to aim towards.

We enter two awards each year: Green Flag, which we have held since 2005, and South & South East in Bloom heritage parks and gardens category, which we first entered in 2014.

Green Flag Award and South & South East in Bloom Award logos

The team, both staff and volunteers, all really get behind the awards and everyone pulls together to get things ready; volunteers do extra hours, staff do too and when we get a good result it's a real acknowledgement of all the hard work everyone puts in all year round, not just in the few weeks before the judging.

That said, there are a few tricks to getting the garden competition-ready. My top tip is to concentrate on the edges - where we have beds and borders meeting the lawn we ensure the edges are crisp and freshly half mooned with the grass trimmed and the edges clear of weeds. This draws the eye and can hide a multitude of weeds lurking in the bed! With the best will in the world we are never going to get rid of all the ground elder we have.

Both awards quite rightly give importance to environmental sustainability and that's something we take seriously here at Highdown. We are chemical free, using no weed killers or pesticides in the garden at all. This means all weeding is done by hand and for anyone else who suffers with ground elder in their garden you will know the labour involved in trying to keep it under control! We use peat free compost for our propagation and make our own compost and woodchip, returning all compostable green waste back into the gardens. We're proud of that!

Other quick wins are to dead head old blooms, especially on roses; this immediately makes the garden look cared for and helps encourages new flowers to form.

Removing dead from trees and shrubs helps too, dead branches draw the eye, going over the garden to remove any dead stems will makes things look 100% better.

One area we will certainly be taking the judges to is the herbaceous garden in the SW corner of Highdown (see photos below). Due to the slope this area has the deepest top soil anywhere in the gardens and is ideal for growing herbaceous plants. It is looking stunning at the moment with a riot of colour emerging in the beds. Please do come and see for yourselves and if you can't make it, enjoy the photos, although they don't do it justice.

Just before judging, we mow the lawns and sweep the paths and pray for a nice sunny day. Although thank goodness for the recent rain - that has really saved us this year, everything was so dry and the garden looks really refreshed for a good downpour. Keep your fingers crossed for us next week.

See also:

Photos: The Herbaceous Garden at Highdown

2019-06-22 - The herbaceous garden at Highdown (views 1 and 2)

2019-06-22 - The herbaceous garden at Highdown (views 3 and 4)

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8th June 2019: Clouts are cast for summer at Highdown
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

The old saying “ne'er cast a clout till May is out” advises folk to keep wearing winter clothes until the reliably warm weather arrives, either at the end of May or when the May Tree (Hawthorn) blossoms.

This has been good advice this year as we have had some cool days and nights, but now with some joy our clouts are truly cast and summer has begun. The gardens are gearing up for the next gorgeous displays, and that most traditional English garden flower, the rose, is bursting onto the stage.

Our rose garden is one of the favourite attractions at Highdown and is planted with a good selection of alba and modern climbing roses.

Although not shy of our chalky soils, growing rose varieties at Highdown has been a struggle and those that do best are the reliable old alba or York roses. Their elegant and scented flowers in pink, blush and white have been grown since medieval times and retain enough of the wild toughness of its hedgerow parents to give good disease resistance and vigour even when part shaded. They also pair well with clematis whose blooms take over and infill gaps.

Photos: Rosa Shropshire Lad (left) and Rose Garden with Clematis (right)

2019-06-08 - Rosa Shropshire Lad (left) and Rose Garden with Clematis (right)

Elsewhere in the gardens the species roses are much more successful. Highdown has some original Rosa moyesii (below left) purchased from James Veitch and Son nursery, and sent back from western China by our old friend E.H. Wilson in 1903. It grows as a tall bush covered in ruby red flowers adorned later with large red hips.

A seedling from this plant and raised in the garden has deeper red flowers. Named Rosa x highdownensis (below right), it can be seen on the way out of the chalk pit.

Photos: Rosa moyesii (left) and R.x highdownensis (right)

2019-06-08 - Rosa moyesii (left) and R.x highdownensis (right)

At Highdown we always get back to the great plant hunters of their day and as we are talking of roses, we again meet Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) whose huge Rosa brunonii will flower here across the chalk cliff later this month. It has also given rise to several seedlings which feature as large rambling white and yellow roses throughout the garden.

Frederick Stern, who created the garden crossed Rosa moyesii with R. sino-wilsonii (below left) ended up with the strong growing climbing rose whose flowers are apricot yellow in bud opening pure white and fading to pink. It first flowered on his wedding anniversary (m. Sybil Lucas) and still bears the Wedding Day (1950) (below right) name today, and a fine rose it is too.

Photos: R.sino - wilsonii seedling (left) and Rosa Wedding Day (right)

2019-06-08 - R.sino - wilsonii seedling (left) and Rosa Wedding Day (right)

It's interesting to note that in those days this first flower appeared on 26th June; today it is in flower a full month earlier. What this means for our clouts I'm not sure, but gardening can be hot work, so it's on with the shorts for me.

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25th May 2019: Let's hear it for Alliums!
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens - Jo Hooper, Head Gardener

Who would have thought that the humble onion could become such a useful and ornamental garden bulb? Well, perhaps not the culinary onion itself, but the allium genus as a whole has a growing number of varieties and cultivars that can look splendid this time of year in herbaceous borders and mixed planting.

Stern, who created the gardens in the early 1900s, noted that alliums “seem to enjoy this soil” referring of course to the chalky soil we have at Highdown Gardens and they do indeed do well here.

If you wander around the garden today you will see a number of different cultivars raising their heads amongst the other plants. Some are already in full flower and some are still pushing their way out of the translucent sheath which surrounds the flower head. Watching the flowers emerge is as much a part of the pleasure of growing alliums as enjoying the full blown globe flowers bobbing in the wind.

2019-05-25 - Allium flower2 coming out into bloom

Looking particularly nice at the moment at Highdown is Allium 'Purple Rain' pushing up through the Phlomis russeliana; this cultivar has a thin elegant stem and an airy top structure with noticeably star shaped flowers. It brings added interest to the emerging flower stalks and limey green foliage of the Phlomis. Our gardener Claire planted it in 2016 - the year Prince died!

2019-05-25 - Allium Purple Rain

Also successful, and living up to its name, Allium 'Purple Sensation' is providing vibrant colour which is set off beautifully by a backdrop of iris foliage. Alliums bridge the gap between early spring bulbs and summer herbaceous flowering very well.

2019-05-25 - Allium Purple Sensation

However the allium I most associate with Highdown is the beautiful Allium bulgaricum (Nectarscordum siculum) with its delicate scent and subtly coloured bell shaped flowers; it really is unique amongst alliums. You can find swathes of them in the middle garden coming up amongst Cephalaria gigantea with a backdrop of early roses (roses are really very early this year!) and lilacs. This allium variety comes back year after year and multiplies well without becoming invasive. I thoroughly recommend having a go at growing it if you like the way it looks.

2019-05-25 - Allium bulgaricum

When planting alliums they are much better grown through things rather than standing alone, as all the interest is at the top of the stalk and the foliage is neither here nor there. They pair particularly well with lime greens such as Euphorbia, or blues such as Iris, Brunnera and Forget-me-nots and I really like them coming through swaying grasses; shorter stemmed varieties coming through Stipa tenuissima are very pleasing.

So please do come and enjoy them in the gardens and maybe get inspired to plant some yourself this autumn.

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10th May 2019: Highdown in May is in full bloom with a wonderful collection of spring flowering plants
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

As our displays of tulips and early spring flowers reach their peak - like these Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not - our flowering trees shrubs really get going.

When I came to Worthing as a young arboriculturist, I came across at Highdown what has become one of my favourite trees, Davidia invloucrata, which when you look at its unusual flowers, it is immediately apparent how it got its common name of Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree.

The white handkerchiefs are - usually two - large bracts which drape themselves around the small brush like flowers, making this tree such an arresting site in May.

Photos: (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata (Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree)

2019-05-10 - (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata

There two Davidia at Highdown; the original was wind thrown in the great storm of 1987 from high on the chalk ridge above the old chalk pit, and a new young tree down in the chalk pit entrance itself. Both I believe are the variety Vilmoriniana.

As testament to the regenerative abilities of many deciduous trees, the stump quickly re-sprouted as if it had just been coppiced and now 30 years later we have fine small tree again gracing us with its beautiful flowers. During the winter we undertook a bit of a thin and prune of the trees around it to open it up to the light and views.

The tree, planted early in the 1920s is one of the originals brought from a 1912 sale at Veitch & Sons Coombe Wood nursery. In 1901 James Veitch had sent the notable plant hunter and explorer E.H. Wilson (1876-1930) to look for it after its discovery in the mountains of western China by the French missionary Pere David from whom it derives its name.

The story is that, after reaching the reported location of the unique tree, Wilson found a cut stump next to a rather smart new wooden house. More specimens were thankfully rediscovered some 600km away and seed collected during the two year long plant hunting trip.

The tree is supposed to do best in damp, sheltered conditions, but our trees seem to like the chalk.

Moving from flowers in trees, the conditions this year are also perfect for our more terrestrial Tree Peonies which are giving stunning displays of their large voluptuous flowers borne on woody stems throughout the garden.

Another plant from the mountains of China and Tibet, the Tree Peony was a particular favourite of the gardens founder Sir Frederick Stern who after 20 years work on them wrote a study of the genus. We are still cataloguing and recording the collection, and our gardener Claire in particular is having fun photographing and identifying the myriad varieties on show.

These are not to be missed, and their exotic beauty awaits your discovery throughout, but notably in the lower gardens.

Photos: Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

2019-05-10 - Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

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13th April 2019: Hidden treasures revealed
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

Highdown is most noted for its national collection of the plants of Sir Frederick Stern (1884-1967) which are able to grow on demanding chalk soil. The gardens naturally boast other plants too from around the world which grow in similar conditions.

For example, the collection features many plants from Gansu in north-west China which shares a similar geology. The Buddleia farreri in the middle garden (photo below) was grown from seed from Reginald Farrer's ambitious first expedition to Gansu in 1914 in which Stern had a share, and this year there's a magnificent display of its tiny tubular, lavender coloured and sweetly scented flowers.

2019-04-13 - Buddleia farreri

However, the gardens contain other plants that tolerate the local conditions whilst not necessarily demanding chalk; for example, cherry trees do well at Highdown too.

On the lawns nearby, the settled weather and shelter has given us long lasting displays of Japanese cherry blossom. First out was the dainty Yoshino Cherry, Prunus x yedoensis (photo below) with wreaths of white blossom growing right around delicately spreading branches.

2019-04-13 - Yoshino Cherry

The larger pure white Prunus Tai-Haku flowers (below left) mentioned in my last blog have been out for over a fortnight now and are being joined by P. Ukon (below right) which has a pale yellowish tinge to its flowers which flush from pink buds.

2019-04-13 - Tai-Haku (left) and P.Ukon (right)

The surprise to me was a pair of plants from New Zealand right next to our glasshouse.

Clianthus puniceus (below left) has an abundance of unusual scarlet flowers looking like lobster claws which gives the plant its common name. This can be grown in milder areas and can stand a degree of frost.

But the flower that particularly excited me was born on the Kowhai tree, Sophora tetraptera (below right), an unassuming 8m tall rather gaunt stick of a tree that wasn't on any plan. As a semi-deciduous tree its spectacular saffron and lemon pea like flowers appear as it sheds its previous year's leaves. The flowers were once used by the Maori as a dye and I have since found out that this beauty is the unofficial flower of New Zealand.

2019-04-13 - Clianthus puniceus (left) and Kowhai (right)

2019-04-13 - Kowhai Seed

Another interesting feature of the Kowhai tree flower which helped its identification are the short necklace like seed pods which apparently float and aid its seed dispersal along the river valleys it inhabits.

The gardens are full of surprises so please come along and make some discoveries for yourself.

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30th March 2019: Spring has sprung at Highdown
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens - Jo Hooper, Head Gardener

So spring has well and truly sprung at Highdown and spring flowers are in abundance. Move over snowdrops the next show has arrived!

When you visit you will find the beds and borders studded with the delicate and mainly pastel blooms so typical of early spring, anemones and the first bluebells in the woodlands, cherry blossoms just breaking forth on the middle lawn and swathes of Scilla messianica and primroses in the tree and shrub garden to mention a few.

A couple of notable exceptions to the usually delicate hues of spring are the Anemone pavonina a riot of bright reds, pinks and purples that erupt like jewels along the hot dry south facing lawn edges, intermingled with the grass, conditions that mimic well their native landscape in the Mediterranean. The blooms open and close for the sun and seem to me to be the living embodiment of children's drawings of flowers!

The other example is the wonderful deep cerise pink flowers of the Cyclamen repandum.

Photo: Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

2019-03-30 - Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

Unlike the Anemone pavonina they shy away from the hot sunny spots and prefer the dappled shade of the woodland edges.

Over the last five years as we have pulled back ivy and pruned back overgrown shrubs we have revealed dormant colonies of these wonderful plants which have sprung back to life and are once again gracing us with their presence.

A deeply satisfying outcome, especially considering they were originally planted by Stern at least 50 years ago.

It is worth bending down low enough to catch a waft of their wonderful scent, a delectable lemony sherbet affair.

With the unseasonably warm temperatures in March the spring bulbs and flowers have come along a couple of weeks earlier this year.

With seasons becoming more and more unpredictable it is difficult to know when things are going to flower these days, and many of our daffodils are already over and making way for the bolder coloured tulips usually seen in late spring.

Looking on the bright side though, this year has provided plenty of early nectar for the bees Peter mentioned in the last blog and gorgeous spring days for us all to enjoy.

With that in mind it is a good time to mention that from the beginning of April we will be open at weekends again and move to our summer opening hours of 10am to 6pm giving you plenty of opportunity to come and enjoy the gardens - see also opening times.

Hope to see you soon!

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2nd March 2019: Soaring temperatures and warm winter sun
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

With soaring temperatures and warm winter sun, it's been good to be working outside at Highdown these past two weeks. And it hasn't just been the team of gardeners who have been hard at work either - as the pictures below show ...

There is no early morning slumber for both these honey and bumble bees, whose pollen baskets on their legs were full at 7:45am when these pictures were taken.

Highdown is really waking up to spring now, with winter and early spring flowering bulbs and shrubs adding colour and scent to the cooler displays of Snowdrops that we enjoyed last month.

The honey bee (below left) is pictured on one of the earliest flowering cherry trees. Prunus 'Okame' is a beautiful small tree originally raised by Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981), who was an authority on Japanese Cherry trees.

2019-03-02 - Honey bee (left) and bumble bee (right)

We look forward to the flowering of another of Collingwood's introductions later in March, the Great White Cherry, Prunus 'Tai-Haku'. In 1926 he was invited to Japan to talk about their national tree and noticed a white cherry in an old painting which had been thought to have died out. Ingram recognised it in an unusual old tree he had raised cuttings from in a Sussex garden, and he was able to re-introduce it to cultivation. Only this week, by chance we planted a new young 'Tai-Haku' tree to ensure a place in the garden for the next generation.

The warmth has spurred us on to complete our winter work and get those trees and shrubs planted, beds mulched and begin pruning before spring begins in earnest. We can only hope that the weather is kind to us and does not revert to winter as it could so easily do, catching out wildlife and tender young plant growth.

The bumble bee, as shown in the second picture, was found on one of the most fragrant of our winter flowering shrubs, Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'.

With changes in agricultural practices, gardens are increasingly important for early sources of pollen and nectar for our all-important bees on which we rely for the fertilisation of so many of our food crops.

Highdown Hill has seen a busy few weeks with the unseasonably good weather which has brought many visitors to the gardens and to our new neighbours at Highdown Towers. We are pleased to welcome The Highdown, a hotel, restaurant & pub and Tea Room, and hope that many of our visitors will now able to enjoy tea and cake after a visit to the gardens as they used to.

See also:

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9th February 2019: Snowdrop Festival
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens - Peter Whish, Head Gardener

After a short break in blogs from Highdown Gardens, we're pleased to be back and to tell you all about our recent Snowdrop Festival!

Following an approach by the Sussex coordinator of the National Garden Scheme (NGS), and last year's successful open day, we welcomed nearly 300 visitors to the garden in glorious sunshine last Sunday (3rd February 2019) to enjoy the splendid collection of snowdrops on show.

Sir Frederick Stern, who created Highdown Gardens, was one of the founder members of the NGS, an organisation which gives the public access to some unique gardens and raises significant amounts of money for nursing and other charitable causes. Although the gardens were bequeathed to the residents of Worthing Borough in 1968 and are now public, we continue to support the NGS with special open days.

Photo: NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

2019-02-09 - NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

Highdown has a great collection of snowdrops dating back to Sir Frederick Stern's time. He had a particular interest in the flowers which he picked up as he explored the plants that could be successfully grown in the demanding conditions in his garden on the chalk of the South Downs.

Photo: Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

2019-02-09 - Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

Snowdrops belong to the family Amaryllidaceae and members of the genus Galanthus, and there are approximately 20 recorded species and hundreds of varieties. Stern had picked up on an earlier Victorian craze for snowdrops which had begun in the 1880s, and because they are such a promiscuous plant they give rise to endless hybrids and varieties. Indeed they are the perfect collector's plant - those who are bitten by the Snowdrop bug are known as 'Galanthophiles'!

Together with another famous plantsman E.A. Bowles, Stern published a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) book on Snowdrops and Snowflakes in 1956, developing a way of classifying them that is still in use today.

Familiar with the native wild snowdrop, G. Nivalis, I have been amazed by the variety of the genus and the many good garden plants among them ...

In flower now and for the next few weeks we have a great show of naturalised G. Gracilis. With their blue-green twisted leaves and delicate nodding bell shaped white flowers, they hang as if from a little fishing rod below a bright olive green ovary. These come from coastal areas around the Black Sea. British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850s brought bulbs home with them, having been amazed to see battlefields blooming with them after the harsh winter.

The early flowering G. Atkinsii is larger and has the RHS Award of Garden Merit, meaning it is considered to be an excellent and reliable garden plant - a good one to try at home.

G.Elwesii is another large snowdrop with handsome broad grey-green leaves. It was first brought into the country by H.J. Elwes, another Victorian plant hunter on a visit to the mountains near Smyrna, now Izmir, in Turkey in 1874.

Like the Snowdrop, Snowflakes are winter flowering bulbs - but as members of the genus Leucojum and again they are well represented at Highdown. The pretty white bell shaped flowers with green or yellowish markings on both the spring and summer snowflakes are, like the snowdrops, a herald of spring to come.

Photos: Snowdrops - G. Elwesii (left) and G. Gracilis on rockery (right)

2019-02-09 - Snowdrops - G.elwesii (left) and G.gracilis on rockery (right)

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About our Highdown Garden bloggers:

Current Highdown Gardeners:

Highdown Gardens - Pete

I am Pete the new Senior gardener at Highdown gardens, my gardening career started over 12 years ago. I trained at Stanmer Park which was then part of Brighton College, since then I have worked at several of the great gardens of Sussex, as well as managing a small National Trust garden for 7 years. I joined Highdown Gardens in August 2020.

Let me introduce you to the team of gardeners at Highdown:

  • Claire is the longest serving member of the team with several years' experience working in the garden, and Claire has been the lead on the design and planting of the new Sensory Garden.
  • Toby joined the garden in August 2020 like me and has taken on managing the entrance areas as well as the famous old chalk garden.
  • Charlotte has a wealth of garden experience including studying at RHS Wisley, she is looking after the lower garden which contains the main perennial beds, as well as collections of tree peonies and interesting shrubs.
  • Dan is the newest member of the team, after successfully running his own garden business; he is now caring for the middle garden otherwise known as the tree and shrub garden.

As we are a largely new team, we are enjoying learning about the history of the garden, and watching the plants burst into life through the late winter and early spring.

Photo: Left to right Toby, Charlotte, Pete, Claire and Dan

2021-04-06 - Left to right Toby, Charlotte, Pete, Claire and Dan

Previous Highdown Gardeners:

Jo Hooper, Head Gardener:

Highdown Gardens - Jo Hooper, Head Gardener

Jo was Head Gardener at Highdown from 2012 to 2020. She first discovered her love of plants and gardening growing up in rural Devon with a keen gardener for a Mum, but the bug really hit when she spent two years living on a farm in Costa Rica. Jo returned to England and studied at Plumpton College and has been a gardener ever since. Amongst various roles, she has previously been Head Gardener at Peckham Rye Park in London and Alfriston Clergy House / Monks House for the National Trust, as well as training garden staff at Holland Park and various sites across London.

Gary Prescod:

Highdown Gardens - Gary Prescod, ex-Interim Head Gardener

Gary Prescod used to manage the National Lottery Heritage Fund project at Highdown Gardens. He was also the interim Head Gardener in 2017/18. Having studied at both Cambridge University and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, Gary brings a solid botanical knowledge and a passion for growing the right plant in the right place, essential for the unique collection of plants growing on chalk in the 8.5 acre gardens at Highdown. He oversaw the National Lottery Heritage Fund project in the Gardens, with more than £800,000 awarded to help save the exotic rare plants that grow there and enhance the visitor experience.

Peter Whish:

Peter Whish was part of the Parks Department, and former joint Head Gardener at Highdown Gardens.

Paul Abbott:

Paul Abbott was a former Senior Gardener at Highdown Gardens.

See also:

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