A garden, it’s said, is a creation in four dimensions; the fourth dimension, the one that often gets overlooked, is of course time.
At Exbury Gardens, in the New Forest, time is a relative concept. With custodianship of the estate still in the hands of the de Rothschild family which created it, the century since the garden was created in 1919 feels like the blink of an eye; the generations which have gone before are spoken about as if they have just momentarily left the room.
I was at the gardens as a result of a very generous invitation extended by Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway to the Garden Media Guild to explore the gardens and to get an exciting first look at the new Centenary Garden, which is being unveiled this year as part of the centenary celebrations. We were lucky to spend the day with five members of the de Rothschild family as our guides, as well as head gardener Tom Clarke and David Millais of Millais Nurseries, who is working with Exbury to conserve some of the more rare and threatened hybrid varieties.
Exbury is known internationally for its prized Rothschild Collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare trees and shrubs, so in mid-April, we knew we were in for a treat. The dimension of time is certainly masterfully managed at Exbury. Early rhododendrons are in bloom in January, and three months on, lots are still in bud. As we walked through the many distinct areas of the gardens, all the seemingly-endless varieties are known by name, as well as their origins and whether they are a de Rothschild-bred rhododendron. Exbury was created at a time when plant collecting expeditions were still going strong, and the de Rothschilds of the time sponsored several trips. Hybridising was also a fashionable pursuit, and the volume of varieties simply exploded in Exbury’s glasshouses before spreading around the grounds.
Unveiling a new garden
New this year is the Centenary Garden, and we were lucky to be some of the first to see it. It has been designed by Marie-Louise Agius, Chelsea gold medal-winning garden designer and great-granddaughter of founder Lionel de Rothschild, to celebrate this milestone in Exbury’s history.
Although this is the first year it will be open to the public, it’s actually now going into its third season, so it’s had some time to bed in and look at its best – a real secret garden! Created in one of Lionel de Rothschild’s two tennis courts, long since disused, it’s a late-flowering garden of summer and autumn herbaceous perennials, adding a new facet to an estate known for its spring and autumn colour.
In contrast to the woodland planting all around the estate, and on a necessarily much more intimate scale, the new garden has been created on neutral soil brought to the site, and features a more contemporary planting style. Drifts of miscanthus flow through the beds, with a rich selection of late-flowering perennials including helenium, penstemon and echinacea surrounding the strong vertical structure lent by a number of ginkgo biloba ‘Tit’. This is a compact variety, which will be managed to prevent them getting too big for the beds. Spectacular cloud-pruned azaleas surrounding a bench at the far end give a nod to the essence of Exbury.
It’s an exciting new garden, and will be stunning under summer skies. Surrounded by the old tennis court’s existing yew hedges, the centenary garden will be a real suntrap. Even in mid-April, as the perennials and grasses were just starting their season, already tiny geraniums peeked from corners, and bright euphorbia glowed under the gloomy skies. It will be wonderful to visit again in high summer to see it at its best.
River of Gold, and dendrophilia
Also to celebrate the centenary, a River of Gold was still looking spectacular after flowering for weeks already. New for this year to celebrate Exbury’s centenary, a colossal 150,000 bulbs were planted in shades of yellow and blue, the de Rothschild family colours. Planted last autumn in preparation, incredibly the bulbs took just three hours to plant by machine; you can view a video of the process here.
Exbury also has much to offer dendrophiles, too. The site is home to no fewer than eight National Champion trees; these are the tallest or largest of their species in the UK. Certainly the historic Cedar of Lebanon was absolutely towering. Another striking specimen we visited is the Oriental Plane. Remarkably, it spreads via suckers and has some of the most striking bark I’ve ever seen – a very pleasing camo effect. Very pleasingly also, the hollow original tree is now home to bees and bats.
There’s so much to explore at Exbury, but be warned: the site is huge! If you have the opportunity to visit, be prepared to walk. At 200 acres, even with the miniature steam train, and buggy tours available, there is a lot of ground to cover. What’s more, the gardens have been laid out working with the natural topography of the site, so are slopes to tackle and lakes to circumnavigate.
So after an inspiring day spent with rhododendron experts, what have I learnt? Firstly, the right soil is an absolute must; ideally somewhere between very strong and medium, that is, a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 or 6.0. At Exbury, 150 men were employed for ten years to dig bracken into the soil to create the right acidity. If you don’t have similar resources at your disposal, a raised bed filled with acid soil will do nicely, but in a neutral or alkaline soil they won’t thrive.
Secondly, rhododendrons are surprisingly easy to transplant. Their root structure is relatively shallow for such large plants, allowing them to be transplanted easily, despite the received wisdom that they don’t take to being moved.
And finally, there’s a rhododendron for every garden. With colours from pure white to the hottest oranges and the coolest mauves, and flowering seasons from as early as January through even into July, they’re an ideal way to bring spectacular spring colour to your garden. As with all gardening choices, it’s simply a matter for finding the right plant to flower at the right moment – managing that all-important element of time.
With thanks to Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway and the Garden Media Guild for organising this hugely enjoyable and informative visit.