The Story of Marwood’s Astilbe Collection

Next month we will be heading to RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival (Monday 4th to Sunday 10th July) we will be exhibiting a magnificent display of flowering Astilbes, with the intention of spreading awareness, telling the story of our National Collection of Astilbes, and hopefully we will sell a few plants along the way.

It is no small feat and has taken many months of hard work and preparation, with staff and volunteers alike involved with the set-up, preparation and running of the plant stall, during the show. It is only the second time in our history we have exhibited our Astilbes at such a large and prestigious event.

At Marwood Hill Garden, we are well renowned for our National Collection of Astilbes and anyone visiting would surely agree the Astilbes look astounding when in full flower. Visitors are in awe when they turn the corner from the middle lake and are met with the scene of a soft pink and white haze of fluffy flowerheads. We proudly boast that it is one of the largest collections of Astilbes in the world, and in our plant sales area we sell a good many of them, many incredibly rare and some which are not sold anywhere elsewhere within Europe. Our collection include over 200 different species and cultivars and it is still growing.

The Astilbe National Collection can be found in a flat grassy area in the heart of the garden, planted in three large beds between two lakes and by the stream. The planted area covers roughly the size a tennis court. The plants benefit from moist soil and (except for needing to be divided every 5-6 years to encourage flowering) and occasional weeding they are very low maintenance plant.

The collection was first established 30 years ago, in 1990 as a result of a chance visit from the then director of Plant Heritage. Plant Heritage is a charity responsible for the conservation of cultivated plants, which is especially important as the plant is no longer being commercially grown. Initially there were only 10 Astilbes cultivars planted in garden, however Malcolm Pharoah (former MHG head gardener) quickly spotted that expanding the collection would enhance the garden. Astilbes are native of wet water meadows and steam sides in Japan, China and Korea, so naturally suit Marwood’s wet valley bottom conditions. They are relatively pest free, don’t suffer from frost damage and the lakeside location shows the plants off to their best. Astilbes flower from Mid-June until early September but look at their best between during July which is a wonderful introduction to the summer colours as the spring candelabra colours fade. Astilbes can grow in a range of soil types and contrary to popular belief many Astilbes will fare well in drier and shadier conditions than first thought. So don’t despair there will be a suitable Astilbe for your garden.

To expand the collection at Marwood Hill Garden, Malcolm worked closely together with Henry Noblett (late director of Holehird gardens and the then Astilbe national collection holder). Their aim was to collect and grow all species and cultivars, still existing in the world today. Together, they travelled to Holland and Germany to seek out “lost” cultivars. They successfully grew the collection, making specialist Astilbe contacts, in both Latvia and Russia.

Malcolm has tirelessly dedicated himself to the propagation, care and promotion of Astilbes and his commitment has certainly paid off. The MHG team are incredibly proud to say Malcolm was awarded the Plant Heritage, prestigious Brickell Award in 2020. Next month’s flower show also coincides well with the fact that Malcolm will be celebrating 50 years at Marwood later this year - and what a way to celebrate!

May and the Platinum Jubilee

This month has been all about memories - making new ones and remenising about old times! Around the morning coffee table, the team have been talking a lot about the late Dr Jimmy Smart, the creator of the gardens, recounting memories of the past (it has been twenty years since his death) and enjoying the great opportunity to discuss the future.

The statue of Dr Jimmy Smart stands proudly in the garden, overseeing the bog garden, his favourite part of the garden. As well as being picturesque, it is also a reminder of a close friend of some of our gardeners, who were lucky enough to work alongside him.

In preparation for the jubilee we had lots of bunting up and flags placed in plant pots. The garden was and is brimming with flowers and looking beautiful.

We have been busy promoting Marwood Hill Gardens and selling plants at RHS garden Rosemoor Plant Fair the first weekend off the month, which was well attended. Towards the end of the month you may have also noticed our attendance at the Ilfracombe Coastal Garden Festival. It was the first year this festival has been advertised and it was popular, with food stalls, crafts, plant nurseries from far and wide.

Finally, we have completed the month with the planting of the Mediterranean terrace (area of garden just below the tearoom). The display should be bright and colourful yellow, white, red and pink. Plants such as Echium, Euryops, Gazania, Osteospermum and Cistus. Big thanks to our volunteer team for working tirelessly to clear the area in preparation for planting and for all of their planting work!

April - a time of 'newness'

Happy Belated Easter to all our wonderful garden volunteers, visitors and season ticket holders. At Marwood, we were lucky enough to hear our local church parishioners singing as they passed Marwood Hill Gardens for the Good Friday service. It was really very special to hear the singing across the garden as we worked and was a reminder of the tranquil beauty of the garden.

Easter is often a time of ‘newness’ and that’s certainly the case at Marwood! The volunteer team has continued to grow. As well as our small ‘staff team’ we now have approximately 40 garden volunteers working with us across the gardens, tearoom and admissions team. They really make a positive impact on the garden and have kept it looking at its best this month. We recruited the majority of these volunteers at various stages throughout the lockdown years, which was a particularly vital time to the garden. It’s really wonderful that they have ‘stuck with Marwood’ and shown such commitment, despite all the various social distancing stages. It’s great we can finally work together as a team to bring back a real sense of community!

 March has been all about the Magnolias!

The blue skies and warm weather have set the backdrop to Marwood’s magnificently flowering magnolias in pink, white and purple blooms. They are absolutely stunning to see dotted across the garden. Arguably it has been the best Magnolia displays at Marwood Hill Gardens for 50 years - this has been due to a lack of spring frosts, relatively warm weather and moderate rain all reduced any stress to the trees. Unfortunately, it took just one big wind to scatter the petals to the ground. A sad sight for the gardeners but a happy opportunity for lots of our younger garden visitors to fling ‘confetti’ up into the air.

 Surviving the storm!

It’s been quite a mild February but certainly a windy one! This month was really dominated by Storm Eunice which resulted in significant tree loss for Marwood. An awful, destructive and heart-breaking weekend of weather which saw Marwood lose more than half its shelterbelt, as well a large sequoiadendron, x3 large Eucalyptus, larches, squashed rhododendrons and one smashed pane. The clearing will be slow and steady and we need to deal with the large amount of waste wood and branches generated, so do forgive us if you find the odd fallen tree in the garden un-attended! The plan for much of the wood is to reuse it for garden benches, lake and path edging.

 

Walking around the garden at this time of year, trees are the dominant feature, and probably the most obvious are the Eucalyptus. There are over 30 species in our collection, some planted as far back as the 1960s and many others from 1980 onwards.

One of the most noticeable is a large upright tree called Eucalyptus nitens or “Silvertop” which is its common name in Australia, where it grows in New South Wales. It can’t be missed as it stands in the middle of the Silver Birch/Eucalyptus grove towering over the others with great sheathes of bark streaming from its trunk. It is in fact the tallest tree in the garden and nearly the Champion tree in Britain. Champion Trees are either the tallest or ones with the widest girth. Ours, when last measured was a foot shorter than the tallest tree, which grows in a forest in Argyll on the south west coast of Scotland.

 

Welcome 2022! It’s exciting to welcome a new gardening season. The garden is starting to wake up from its winter slumber, with signs of new plant life emerging across the garden. Snowdrops and daffodils can be seen emerging in the slopes above the bog garden and entrance beds. Hellebores can be seen on the walled terracing, Quarry Garden and entrance beds. Winter scented shrubs such as Daphne, Sarcococca (Japanese Box) can be seen behind the walled garden. Last but not least the Camellias – which are so important to Marwood, are starting to flower. If you haven’t visited us at Marwood Hill Garden before you really must be sure to visit our impressive Camellia plantings located across the garden but also within a large glasshouse. It’s a total joy after the long winter! It is also a good reminder of all the exciting colour waiting to spring out in the coming months.

We are so pleased to start our year with the arrival of our new Business Manager, Georgia Taylor and the whole team is looking forward to working with her and seeing the changes she brings to Marwood Hill Gardens this year. Watch this space as Georgia has also agreed to contribute to the head gardener blog in February, who knows I may even be able to convince the gardeners away from the plants to write their own contribution to the blog- wish me luck.

Christmas Get Together

It has been two years since our last Christmas get together in December 2019. It was so lovely to be able to finally meet and celebrate Christmas, and to thank our volunteers, staff and friends of the garden, and celebrate the past two years of Marwood’s achievements. We were able to skype with John and Libby Snowdon the garden owners and it was fascinating to hear his recollections of the changes to Marwood over the years. It is also a nice reminder that Marwood Hill Gardens is very much family home and business, a business that we all share a sense of ownership in. It was also a chance for everyone to gather to celebrate the past 16 years of Patricia Stout being the Property Manager at Marwood Hill Gardens before she leaves her role in early January. We will welcome Georgia, Business Manager in January 2022 and the whole team are excited to see how she will personalise her role.

It was a day of speeches, and the event was opened (via Skype) by the owners John and Libby, who recounted a brief history of the garden spanning from the death of Dr Smart in 2002, the arrival of Patricia, briefly outlining the successes and challenges faced by the business during this time.

Autumn treeNovember is such an atmospheric month in the garden, the lakes display beautiful golden reflections, the (somewhat slippery) paths are now covered with a confetti of pink and yellow leaves. Leafless trees, reveal the beauty of bark and tree structure. Conifers and evergreen trees begin to be more noticeable. In reaction to low light levels, wet conditions and cooler days, the plants have started to slow down and head for cover, not to unlike our hardy gardeners and volunteers, who favour more indoor based work such as propagation, nursery work, label making when it all gets too much. 

This is definitely a favourite time of year in the garden for both myself and many of our visitors. The herbaceous perennials of late summer begin to die down but autumn colour has not quite arrived. It could be presumed that the garden would begin to look quite tired, however here in the gardens there are several truly spectacular flowers that choose this ‘sleepy’ time to flower.

Marwood’s Garden Tearoom is the perfect place to gaze at the tall, golden flowered Stipa gigantea, which really looks beautiful in the low afternoon light. The black leaved Actaea simplex, with its contrasting white fragrant flower spikes looks striking in the borders. The deep blue hooded flowers of Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ and Salvia ‘Amastrad’ contrast well with the silver foliage of ArtemisiaRubus tibetanus (Tibetan bramble) and Plectranthus argentatus (silver spurflower). Topping it all off are masses of pink flowering Clerodendrum bungei and magnificent clumps of Kniphofia rooperi (red hot poker). Its bright orange beacons lighting up the garden.

‘The Planting a Bog, Blog’

      

Looking back at the August 2020 blog, we were just emerging from the national lockdown. I wrote at the time that regrettably the three B’s ‘Brambles, Bindweed and Balsam’ took control of many areas of the garden. This month the B’s ARE BACK and our attention has been frustratingly spent on tackling and removing these weeds. Once more our apologies if you’ve visited and seen grumbling gardeners lost in the brambles.

 Astilbe Ice Cream

Marwood Hill Garden was featured on Gardener’s world this month!  It was filmed on a sunny June day in 2019 and featured Malcolm Pharoah sharing his expertise on Astilbes. It was great to see Malcolm get much deserved recognition for his dedication to the national Astilbe collection and to Marwood Hill garden.

We are now officially open. a quick initial opening of the plant sales area over the Easter weekend before an official opening of the site on 14th of April. The garden is starting to feel like its old self again. Our loyal season ticket holders have not forgotten us, with many choosing to renew their membership and visit the garden. Many holiday makers are already arriving coming from across the UK.

This month in the garden it has been all about the bluebells displays, enchanting flowering cherries and the more subtle flowering dogwoods. Everywhere you look plants are emerging and unfurling in the first green flush of growth. Blue sky, dry and sunny weather, has framed the garden beautifully.

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Now is a great time to take a walk across Marwood Hill Garden, the floral scent is phenomenal. The weather has been amazing this past week. Blue skies, sun, and warmth. Let us hope it continues into the Easter weekend. Flowers are sprouting up across the garden in a colour explosion. With no frost to worry about, the magnolias have put on a great display with an eruption of pinks, purples, and whites across the garden, contrasting well with the whites, reds, and pinks of the late flowering Camellias.

As I write this month’s blog, the sun is streaming in through the window. The garden is very spring like, a small colony of white and purple crocus have colonized the tearoom lawn. Snowdrops and hellebores which are still flowering but will soon give way to the masses of daffodils that are spread across the garden. Camellias are in full bloom in shades of red, pink, and white and the magnolias are covered in fat flower buds promising a good display in the next few months. There is an air of optimism in the garden with many local residents and garden volunteers having already received their first vaccinations, so there is a feeling of real positivity and that normality is just round the corner.

November to mid-February, is an ideal time to look at tree work in the garden. With leaves removed the branch structure of a tree can be better accessed and with most bulbs and herbaceous perennials lying dormant and protected under the ground, falling branches can do little damage. Conifers put on a new flush of growth in April and deciduous trees tend to lie dormant in the winter months, with sap only again beginning to rise from mid-February onwards. which makes it an ideal time to prune trees.

With the leaves having fallen from the trees, the bones of the garden have now been revealed. The bright white bark of the birch and eucalyptus are very striking and many of the smooth-barked magnolias are covered with a wide diversity of lichen in an array of interesting colours, white, grey, orange, blue, green and yellow. Some flowers persist including early flowering Camellias and Rhododendrons which are starting to show, flashes of pink, white and red. The white bell flowers of Leucojum (Spring Snowflake) and early daffodils can also be seen emerging from the woodland floor.

November has been a quiet month. The November national lockdown meant that holiday makers and visitors to our gardens all but disappeared, despite this we felt it was important to keep the garden open to provide a place for people to get a bit of fresh air and recreation.

It’s October and despite the rather wet weather the trees are still putting on a good show. An explosion of colour has erupted from Marwood’s woodland canopy. Flame-like reds and oranges, cooler lemon-yellows vie for attention against the richer, buttery tones. Trees that have been quite indistinguishable during spring and summer suddenly draw attention.

Wow what a busy month!!! This September has been an unusually busy month. Traditionally September would be a quieter time in the garden, when we see fewer visitors, as summer holidays end and the new school year begins. This year has been quite different. Children may have gone back to school, but much to our delight, garden visitors have continued to come to explore Marwood. Which has allowed us to show off the late summer highlights in the garden.

It has been several months since I have sat down and written the Head Gardener’s Blog. That is not to say when lockdown happened Marwood completely stopped, far from it.

Regrettably like other businesses many of our staff were furloughed. At the time of lockdown all the hard work had been done and our plant centre was full of a fantastic range of plants ready for sale and the garden was looking immaculate. After a week of trading the door was duly shut again (mid March). Despite this’ always keen to focus on the positive’ the Marwood Team viewed lockdown as an opportunity. It was the ideal time for us to set up the Online Shop. Boxes were sourced, couriers were chosen, and the Online Shop was developed. Much needed income started to flow into the business.

Take a tour of Marwood Hill Gardens in April 2020

If you go down in the woods today.......

Spring has finally reached the garden. Marwood is now dotted with pink, reds and whites. The early flowering Magnolia, Camellia and Rhododendron are blooming across the garden. The richly perfumed pale pink Magnolia sprengeri. The dark pink cabbage sized flowers of Magnolia campbellii subsp. Mollicomata are looking amazing, contrasting well with the nearby magnolia purple-pink flowered Magnolia ‘Charles Raffill'. Salix gracilistyla 'Mount Aso' is looking resplendent, with its bright red winter shoots above its pink and silver fluffy male catkins (available for sale). Look out for early spring flowering herbaceous perennials such as strikingly blue daisy like Anemone blanda and dark blue flowering Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’.

After four successive storms Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara and Dennis, three large trees have failed in the garden. One large Eucalyptus has fallen into the upper lake, with two other trees coming down in the bog garden and folly area. Many branches and detritus litter the garden. The tree surgeons made clever use of a small boat and a winch to remove the eucalyptus from the top lake and the garden team have been busy clearing fallen branches and logs away. With so many fallen trees, much space has been created for new planting opportunities.

February is here, bringing with it the prospect of lighter evenings, much to the relief of the garden team. We are however not out of the woods yet; the continuing battle with the wet weather which has fully saturated the garden and the threat of frost is still a very real possibility.

Early flowering Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ was the first bulb to emerge throughout the garden followed quickly by snowdrops, Hellebores and most recently Leucojum vernum (Spring snowflake). Early flowering Camellias, Rhododendron nobleanum and R. ‘Christmas Cheer’ have provided splashes of purple, pink, white and red.

My Name is Matthew Brewer, I have recently taken on the role of head gardener at Marwood Hill Gardens.

In all honesty, before last June, I had never heard of this garden but for a chance visit to Marwood whilst holidaying with my family. Upon entering the garden we naturally headed for the tearoom. Halfway through a ginger scone, an impromptu interview with the Garden Manager and my fate was sealed. Before joining Marwood I was working as a woodland Horticulturalist at RHS garden Harlow Carr in Yorkshire, together with a hardy band of volunteers clearing and developing its woodland.