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Witch hazel

I love the gardens at RHS Wisley in winter. It’s such a boost at this time of year to see winter flowering shrubs and the early spring blooms. Last year we made the mistake of visiting on a Saturday during half-term when there butterflies in the glasshouse. We had no idea it was school holidays, that there was a special event on or that this combination would prove so popular with visitors. Blissfully unaware we turned into the car park and immediately our naive thoughts that it would be quiet at Wisley in February were dispelled as a sea of sparkling metal greeted us. We had never seen the gardens so busy.

This time though we were prepared. The butterflies were back so we were going to go during the week. I didn’t, however factor in the fact that Wisley seems to be the hub for every mother and toddler group in Surrey. Fortunately though, it was the cafe and coffee and cake that they had come for, and once we were in the gardens it was blissfully quiet.


For me, Wisley is the plant equivalent of wandering around an amazing deli where everything is so temptingly delicious and, greedily, I want to eat it all . . . well maybe not the patés. Here at Wisley it wasn’t long before I’d said to Wellyman, “I’d love a daphne”, followed by, “it would be amazing to have a witch hazel”, and “I wonder if we’ve got space for another hydrangea?” Of course, the answer to the latter is no. I’ll often get a raised eyebrow from Wellyman or notice a slightly worried expression on his face as he works out how to point out that we’ve got no room for those sorts of plants. Seeing such a rich diversity of planting does make me want to grow it all, even if reality is a smaller than average garden and not vast acres.

Everything is so well done at Wisley; plants are properly staked, beautifully pruned and mulched. It all looks so perfect but then I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything less from the showcase of horticultural expertise. It does however make me feel quite inadequate when it comes to my own attempts at gardening. And, as the photo shows, even the sheds are temples to organisation.

A tidy shed

Daphnes and witch hazels were the stars of the show on this visit. We could smell the daphnes before we saw them, walking around a corner to be greeted by evergreen bushes pumping out a sublime and potent perfume.

It was a pity to see a sign that said they were suffering from plant theft in particular parts of the garden. I’m not sure why I was so surprised, I suppose I think of gardeners as being more respectful but I realise this is a rose-tinted view. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people helping themselves to plants when visiting gardens. Several years ago I was lucky enough to visit Highgrove, the garden of Prince Charles, with a group from college. One of my fellow horticultural students was very keen on coming away with a plant souvenir. It was only when we were given a security briefing on the coach and told about the security cameras dotted about the gardens and he realised he may be manhandled from the gardens by Special Branch that he left his carrier bags and secateurs behind on the coach. I suppose all gardeners like to get plants for free but most of us know when this is appropriate and when it’s not.

I did come away with some plants but these were legitimate purchases from the incredible plant shop. I had planned to while away some time in the bookshop but we never even got there. The budget wouldn’t stretch to the temptation of books as well. I have got some plans for a bit of a garden redesign and I came armed with a list of potential purchases. Face with all that choice it wasn’t long before I had dispensed with the list though . Wild carrot, apricot coloured foxgloves, some euphorbia and primulas all came home with us and will hopefully add to the naturalistic feeling I want from the garden this year.