Wisley revisited

There are very few things I miss about living in London. One of them, however, is the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, in Surrey. I used to live about 30 minutes' drive from Wisley, and could nip down there whenever I fancied, either to wander round the gardens looking for inspiration, or to buy stuff at the plant centre or the bookshop, both of which are superb.
In the 20 years that I've been visiting, the gardens - and the facilities - have got better and better. There is much more emphasis today on landscape design - Tom Stuart Smith, Robert Myers, Piet Oudolf and Penelope Hobhouse are just a few of the names who have contributed - which means that although Wisley is still very much a show garden designed to cope with thousands of visitors,  it has much more of a sense of place and less of the feeling of being a public park full of plant "exhibits".
So when my friend Helen said she wanted to go garden visiting and did I fancy Wisley, I said yes, please. Helen is such a knowledgeable plantswoman that any garden visit with her is a pleasure.

We set off from Gloucestershire on a cold, rainy morning, but by the time we arrived in Surrey, two hours later, the sun was shining. We'd piled the back seat of the car with an assortment of coats (really warm coats and really really warm coats) but it turned out that we didn't need any of them. It was gorgeous. The figures of the Henry Moore sculpture King and Queen, which is on temporary show at Wisley until the end of September, seemed almost to be basking in the sunshine.

"Is there much to see in a garden like Wisley at this time of year?" a non-gardening friend asked me when I got back. Are you kidding? There are the crocuses, and the hellebores, and the snowdrops, and the bare stems of cornus in colours ranging from yellow to dark red.

Helen wanted to see the Alpine House, which was a delight. There is something very satisfying about all those pretty little plants in their pristine little pots. It's like dolls-house gardening. If you look closely, you can see that all the vents of the glasshouse are open, but it was still too hot to stay in there for long. We spent the whole day saying to each other: "It's so hot!" When we had lunch, in the newly revamped British Food Hall, we were able to sit outside. At a table in the shade!

This bank is in the rock garden, where there were huge drifts of species crocuses, and other spring-flowering plants such as Cyclamen coum.

This grassy area next to the Walled Garden was incredibly colourful and many people were stopping to take pictures. It was quite difficult trying to photograph it without getting someone's shadow in the shot. Helen liked it, but I wasn't sure. I think Dutch hybrid crocuses can provide a good pop of colour just at the time when your spirits need a bit of a lift, and in many garden centres, they are all that you can buy, but I love the subtle colours of the C. tommasinianus cultivars or the original C. vernus vernus from which the Dutch hybrids are descended.

I love grasses, and I think the grass border at Wisley looks wonderful even in winter, when the stems are bleached and dry. I would never have thought of growing crocuses with them (I will now!), but I thought this was a wonderfully dramatic contrast between the soft, almost furry texture of the grasses and the vivid colour and neat shapes of the crocus flowers.

Another interesting idea was to plant crocus beneath cornus, where the flowers contrast well with the bare stems. I'm not sure about this combination of mauve and red, though. White would be better here, I think, while the pinky-purple would look fantastic with yellow stems, such as Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'. But that's just my personal taste.

I love the way the trunk of this magnolia rises like a sculpture from a sea of crocus and snowdrops. The snowdrops are just starting to go over, but their foliage still looks good.
All in all, Wisley still gets top marks. I like the way the new food hall is organised, and the choice of food was good. (We had spinach and ricotta strudel with coleslaw and green salad.) It used to be a rather dreary place, with huge queues, and I can't even remember the last time I ate there before this week.
In recent years, the gardens have become a popular destination for mothers or nannies with young children, which is not always a good combination with keen gardeners. Indeed, I walked straight into a branch, much to Helen's amusement, while trying to pass a large group of pushchairs and meandering toddlers. We didn't even bother going to see the butterflies in the Glasshouse because the queue of small children and their accompanying adults was a mile long.
I think it's fantastic, however, that children - especially very little ones - can experience gardens as fun places to go.  I'm sure it stays with them into later life and I wouldn't grudge them a day out at Wisley for a moment. But I'm glad the RHS is doing all it can to smooth the path of visitors in search of loos, or food, or cups of tea and cake.


  1. Funny how we have similar photos! I did like the crocus and grasses although having poured over a grass book last night looking for something for the front garden to go with the Bergenias I am convinced that Im not that keen on grasses.
    It was a good day, hopefully the first of many more

  2. Hi Victoria, I so enjoyed reading your post about Wisley. I had the same question like your friend: "Is there much to see at this time of the year?", but obviously there is. I love all the different crocuses and the partly unusual (at least for me!) plant combinations that they created with them there. My favorite photo and plant combination is the last one: crocuses, snowdrop leaves and a magnolia trunk that looks like a sculpture, just perfect. Thanks for the tour!

  3. I have snowdrops beneath my Cornus with a Himalayan birch above them. It's one of my best combos, but it happened quite by accident :)
    Looks like you had a great day - I love the new Henry Moore, wasn't really sure about the one which preceded it.

  4. "But that's just my personal taste." That is such a depressing remark. Would you add such a disclaimer to a comment about a good book or some food you loved??

    1. Interesting question. I don't know - it depends. I might well say: "I loved the curry, but I thought it could have done with more salt. But that's just etc etc etc" I like my food quite salty, lots of people don't. I suspect you think I'm wimping out of making the criticism by adding that disclaimer, but that wasn't my intention. Where colour is concerned, I hate the idea of saying to people: "You can't use this colour with that colour." I feel that is straying into the realms of style dictatorship, to which I am slightly allergic. Perhaps a better, less lazy way of putting it would be to point out that the pinky-mauve of the crocuses has less impact against the dark red stems of the cornus, because they are not of equal tonal strength, and a combination of complementary colours (eg purple/yellow) always provides more drama. White, in this case, despite being an achromatic colour, would behave as a complementary colour because it always appears to increase the saturation of any shade. If anyone wanted to read up on colour theory, they could see that there is even a scientific basis for why this is so. But I'd still feel a bit wary of laying down the law to people. Do you think there are colour rights and wrongs? And if so, should we impose them on everyone?

    2. I think it's really odd to think that expressing a clear opinion should be seen as laying down the law, rather than -- expressing a clear opinion. If the curry was bland you might feel ok just to say so, I hope? If you thought a book built up to what turned out to be an anticlimax - you could say so? Maybe even on Amazon? (ie publically)
      But I know that's the kind of anxiety - that expressing an opinion is some kind of dictatoring - that goes round the garden world. The interesting question is - where on earth does that anxiety come from?

    3. O - and loved the analysis which explained your thoughts about the colours. We could do with more of that clarity and detail couldn't we?!! XXx

    4. In my opinion colour rules are there to guide those with little confidence and are based in the views of those who feel strongly or maybe who other look up to. I think colour is very subjective and thank goodness it is or the world will be very dull. I like light colours in my house as I don't like to feel hemmed in however I like bright clothes and accessories and often bright flowers as opposed to pastels. In terms of the crocus I liked the mixed ones as they made me smile and gave me a burst of energy just like one of the gardens Victoria and I saw in SF. I think it is the exuberance of the colour combination I liked but if I saw the same colours in summer bedding scheme I doubt I would like it. It was of the moment for me, after so much grey for so long this winter they hit the mark more than the monochrome planting Victoria preferred. I wonder if after a day or two of the bright combo whether I would tire of it and prefer the paler version

  5. Ha! Yes, where does it come from? I don't completely trust my own taste, for a start. I don't think I have bad taste (does anybody?) but it can always be shaped and influenced by what I see. I think that to be open to other ideas and to be able to change one's attitudes is a good thing, so I'm reluctant to shut off that process of change, both in me and in anyone else, by subscribing to "rules". I think too much of British gardening is set in aspic as it is.
    I think the key word here is "Why?" Every time I express an opinion, I shall try to remember to explain why I think that.

  6. OK..though I don't always trust my judgement of, eg a play I might have seen with someone - the tentativeness tends to be expressed as a question about what the other person thought of this or that aspect...
    And whatever I might be inclined to criticise about this play, it's unlikely to be about creating or expressing a 'rule' - more to do with the complexities of how this particular play was working, or how an actor performed...
    So I'm curious about how expression of opinion about an aspect of a garden suggests a rule. Do we have particular assumptions about gardens to do with rules? You mention colour theory - but using colour in the garden with all the variety of tone and light is an inexact science.
    The 'why' question, of course, is the biggy and where real illumination takes place. Xxxx

  7. Of these photos, I was more struck by the sculptures (so much could be said about their backs!) and by the magnolia trunk than by the flowers. But I'm not a very 'spring' person.

    About the paths - gravel which is firm to walk on can be difficult to push pushchairs through. Maybe something could be made of that - certain routes not exactly prohibited to particular groups but surfaces consciously made more comfortable for some rather than others without actively 'excluding' the 'others'. ?

  8. Lovely pics, Victoria. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. One day I will come there and coax you to visit Wisley with me. It's beautiful!


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