Just over half an hour’s drive from Kingsfold is RHS Wisley, one of the world’s greatest gardens. Absolutely packed with inspiration, it’s a total joy and a must-visit for keen gardeners – and anyone who would enjoy a double dose of natural zing!
‘Lockdown’ has meant that the garden’s doors have been shut to visitors for too long. However, the considerable RHS team have clearly used the time industriously as ever, with several new gardens, demonstration areas and the construction of a beautiful discovery building with curved roof and footprint harmoniously melting into the landscape since my last shot in the arm there.
See it’s own website for a glimpse of the breadth and depth of Wisley’s offerings and work. There really is something for everyone, with special events to promote learning, or simply enjoyment of the natural environment, throughout the year.
I visited early one Sunday morning at the start of May, before the sun had remembered that it was, by then, late spring. But the grey weather did not put off hoards of enthusiastic visitors, who arrived in a steady stream as I waited in the car park for my daughter, Holly, to join me.
The 240 acre site is plenty big enough to absorb it’s 1,232,772 enthusiastic visitors each year. The second most visited paid for garden in the UK (after Kew), Wisley’s original 60 acre site was gifted to the RHS upon the death of its owner: businessman, scientist, inventor and keen gardener George Fergusson Wilson. A former Treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society, George had purchased the site in 1878 and created ‘Oakwood Experimental Garden’. His plan was to experiment how best to succeed with plants that were perceived to be difficult to grow. This ethos of experimentation, research and discovery remains amongst the many scientists, RHS students and inquisitive gardeners fastidiously employed in work or ‘play’ there each day.
A garden of inspiration – the destination for those wondering which variety of apple tree to grow, how to train it, or what size root stock to start with; you will find examples in spade fulls of any plant or horticultural project you want to undertake.
The 75 garden staff, 25 students, four apprentices and 100 volunteers are all experts, and happy to break for a chat about green matters, giving practical advice, asking the right questions, and understanding that not all have the budgets or scope that they may be working with.
Wildlife, jungle, arid, Japanese, English country, or formal are all just tastes of Wisley’s different areas to absorb, inform and incite.
Or just potter, enjoy beautifully presented refreshments in one of the restaurants or outdoor hospitality stands, and chill – or bask, depending on your preference!
As well as an enviable range of demonstration and working greenhouses, Wisley is home to a gigantic glasshouse. The 2 floors offer different perspectives of the tropical planting and the warm atmosphere provides an other worldly haven in all seasons. Built by the electronic experts Siemens, it seems that no expense has been spared in creating an extraordinarily breathtaking structure, in function and form.
Covering an area equivalent to 10 tennis courts, and rising 40 foot, the highly technical structure looks like a vast, glass cathedral. Inside, it is a carefully curated jungle – where tender plants are worshipped; as much by those caring for them as those visiting. There are 3 climatic zones; tropical, moist temperate & dry temperate.
Following the pathway through the glasshouse, the environment and climate gradually changes. The pathway leads you through the world in plants, many of which are rare & endangered species.
Wisley often hosts special exhibitions or events – outdoor sculptures are one of my favourite. The beautiful, varied setting, with so many areas to ‘discover’, is perfect for displaying substantial visiting works of art. Just after the garden’s reopening following Lockdown, in May 2021, there was indeed a special exhibition of sculptures in the grounds; but a very different offering to anything I have seen in the elegant grounds before:
“An unmissable exhibition of larger-than-life sculptures – The Four Seasons by contemporary American sculptor and filmmaker Philip Haas – features at RHS Garden Wisley, near Woking in Surrey, from 9 March 2020 t0 27 June 2021.
Standing proud at nearly 5m tall, the figures are 3-D interpretations of paintings by 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The exquisitely detailed pieces imagine Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter in human form, rendered with exuberant arrangements of seasonal fruit, vegetables, flowers and crops”. (Wisley’s website: What’s on?)
Described as ‘offering a bold new perspective’ the enormous (almost gross, I felt!) busts are indeed ‘exuberant’, and quite a sight to behold..!
Five Facts about Wisley
- The original laboratory, housed in the old manor house, was opened in 1907. Wisley works on a grand scale, and the available space was soon found to be inadequate. The offices & research facility was expanded, with the exterior being rebuilt during World War I, when the building was also designated Grade II listed status in 1985.
- The construction of the vast Centenary Glasshouse commenced when Alan Titchmarsh cut the turf on which is stands, in 2005. The glasshouse covers .75 acre (3000m squared) and overlooks a huge glassy lake, created at the same time.
- Wisley is the place to visit if you are wondering which variety of a particular plant to grow – you will see different, clearly labelled examples from which to choose. For example, there are 650 Aster plants across 20 cultivars – that doesn’t actually make choosing easy!
- Wisley nurtures visitors as well as plants – with a choice of 8 restaurants, cafes, and quirky food vans / stalls throughout the grounds, different tastes and dining options are available for any time of the day.
- No surprise that Wisley has an extremely comprehensive plant centre, with an extensively mind boggling selection of indoor and outdoor plants, tools and accessories. The gift shop is irresistable, too. That IS a fact.
Gertrude Jekyll, gardener‘The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies, but grows to the enduring happiness that the love of gardening gives.’
Gertrude Jekyll – gardenerA garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.
Allan Armitage, professor of horticultureGardening simply does not allow one to be mentally old, because too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realized.
Albert Einstein:Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.
Spring wildflowers amongst long grass: No Mow May!
Follow this link for Wisley’s website, and visiting information.