In the Footsteps of Plant Hunters: Borde Hill

Commemorating the birth of Colonel Stephenson R. Clarke 150 years ago*.
L-R we have: great grandson Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke, RHS President Elizabeth Banks,
Head Gardener (HG) Andy Stevens & Estate Manager Jonny Morris
I must confess that until a few weeks ago Borde Hill hadn't featured on my garden visiting radar. Now having gone there last week on a blowy, snowy day, I'm pleased to say it now very firmly is.

Even on a winter's day in April, Borde Hill is special. Why? Because just over a century ago, the then owner Colonel Stephenson R. Clarke was one of the major sponsors of plant hunters. The likes of Ernest Wilson, George Forrest, Reginald Farrer and Frank Kingdon Ward were despatched to bring back as  many wild treasures as they could muster; particularly rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and exotic trees.

Stephenson R. Clarke was influenced hugely by the wild gardening approach advocated by William Robinson and was also an early pioneer of 'right plant, right place'. He took great care in selecting sites on his estate which closely matched the conditions under which the plants and their seed were growing at the time of collection.

For the plants this means they've often grown to their maximum potential. For the visitor it can mean quite a walk to see everything as some of the choice specimens are spread over the 200 acre estate instead of being confined to the main garden area around the house. For me it meant a supplementary trip with the Head Gardener, Andy Stevens after the main day's activities to one of the estate's woodlands to see many of the prize rhododendrons just beginning to bud up ready for their spring display :)

On our garden tour - is there a champion tree out there?
We proved ourselves a hardy lot by insisting on an extensive garden tour whilst it was trying to snow. Here Andy Stevens is explaining how the garden uses the wider views of the landscape wherever possible. That hedge line behind him marks the line of the ha-ha used as the boundary between the garden and the wider estate. Next to him is Owen from the Tree Register, whose job is to measure and confirm the UK's champion trees. Borde Hill has around 80 of them - the largest number in a private collection - thus confirming many of them were indeed planted in the right place :)

I also learned they've been digitally mapping the collection - not just the champions - but some 8,000 trees and shrubs. Whilst they have records of what's been planted, it often just cites a vague location, so this will enable the creation of a much more detailed database. I was involved in a similar project with the National Trust a while ago - who've digitally mapped 100 of their 300 gardens - and I believe this has massive potential, not only for Borde Hill's management, but also in identifying key plants of conservation (and possible propagation) value. For example some of the specimens at Borde Hill are extinct in the wild now, so the garden is akin to a giant 'Noah's ark' for these plants.

I don't mind visiting gardens on wintry days because it gives me the chance to get to grips with a garden's structure. Here we have the Italian Garden stripped down to its bare bones. I was standing under one of the champion trees when I took this photo - a bonsai-like Discaria discolor - there's a little bit of it framing  the top centre of the shot.

The other aspect of Borde Hill this photo illustrates is the family's keenness to not let the garden stand still. Yes, they are very aware of the garden's heritage and history, but it doesn't stop them from changing things. Eleni Stephenson Clarke loves Italy, so this part of the garden acknowledges the memories and influence of good times spent abroad.

Elsewhere, the garden's heritage is acknowledged via an ongoing programme of replanting, some of which this year is in celebration of Stephenson R. Clarke. I saw some of the amazing correspondence on file between him, the plant hunters he sponsored and other families who were establishing plant collections in the late Victorian/Edwardian era. It was fascinating to see and will be a very useful resource for this project.

This is Jay Robin's Rose Garden, another newer part of the garden and named after the current Stephenson Clarke's eldest daughter. Studying it provides a masterclass in training and pruning roses as well as understanding I don't manure mine enough! Once again, I have walled garden envy plus a desire to see what's in the greenhouses you can just see to the left of the photo.

Closer to the house are more enclosed, intimate spaces. Some of them make use of existing landscape features such as a secret, sunken garden called the Round Dell. This was a former quarry and full of sticky clay, perfect for damp loving plants. Most of the garden is on Wealden clay, so I sympathised with Andy over its claggy nature.

I also learned Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke is currently developing a garden app for Borde Hill's visitors. I've given him some of my ideas for how it could work and the kind of content I'd like. What would you like to see on there?

Borde Hill is poised to wake from its winter sleep and become a mass of colour as the rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias put on their display. It'll be well worth a look from then, right up to the autumn tree colours seen at the end of the season in October. My thanks go to Andrewjohn and Eleni Stephenson Clarke for their hospitality and to Andy Stevens and Jonny Morris for providing me with loads of information on the day of my visit.

This is the first post in a mini-series of snippets I have planned on plant hunting - a subject I'm keen to explore further in 2013. More to come soon :)

Update 11/4: I've just heard that Owen Johnson confirmed Borde Hill's 83rd champion tree last week: Meliosma beaniana. More info can be found on Borde Hill's facebook page.

* = the tree planted is a Styrax obassia supplied by Crug Farm Nursery from seed they collected in Japan in 2005. A rather nice connection between Stephenson R. Clarke's plant hunting sponsorship and 2 of today's modern plant hunters.


  1. say hullo to their Veiled Lady for me!

  2. It doesn't look the warmest of days!! It obviously didn't take anything away from your enjoyment of the day.
    Hopefully more and more private gardens such as these will subscribe to such recording methods - they can only be beneficial.

  3. This looks a genuine comment from Aron, but just in case...

    Just came across your blog, it was interesting and engrossing, my favorite topic. Nice to know that you are so fond of visiting private gardens and being an eminent blogger, it seems you get easily invited to many of the private abodes to take a look at their pride of place, all the while waiting for your opinion with bated breath.

  4. Diana - too late I've seen her already :)

    Angie - it's such a useful technique, but a lot of work!

    Aron - thanks. I think this was a one off - I'm just a garden blogger.

  5. I love looking at gardens out of season as like you I think you see so much more as long as you can brave the weather.I would love a walled garden more than anything but of course it would mean learning to garden in a completely different way to the way we do now.Thankyou for a lovely insight into Borde-hill I had never heard of it until now but it is another one to add to the To Visit list.

  6. Digital mapping makes so much sense in that context, a great tool for monitoring and teaching. You do get to go to some interesting places with some interesting guides.

  7. flowerlady - I have tons still left on my visit list :)

    Janet - I think it's a potential solution to the to label or not to label question too. Keeps things looking good and with the right material (app or whatever) visitors can identify the plants they like the look of or want to know more about.


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