Garden Visit: All smiles and sunshine at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

Me with Roy Lancaster at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

This picture taken by my friend Karen last Wednesday sums up our day at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens perfectly. Warm sunshine, gorgeous autumn colour, plus time with my garden hero Roy Lancaster and gardening friends from the Garden Media Guild is day well spent in my book. No wonder I'm looking so happy.

Roy worked at the garden for many years and had a huge fund of stories to tell. I reckon we could have followed him round the garden for a month and the supply would be far from exhausted.

The stop-and-look-at-me swamp cypress

I think autumn's come early this year in terms of colour and this pictured swamp cypress agrees. It grabbed lots of attention from all garden visitors who passed it, some even taking advantage of strategically placed benches to wonder at that glory for longer.

Interestingly there's another on the bank (just peeping through on the left hand side as you look at the photo) which is much taller and still green. It shows how different conditions affects what we see and whilst having swamp in the name might make us think it's perfectly happy in that small lake, it may not be quite the right place for it. But ohhhhhh, that colour!

Highlights from the Centenary Border

Our tour started at the Centenary Border and was timed perfectly for the light to be shining behind many of the grasses planted there. It also highlighted the cannas well, and I don't think I've ever seen them as tall as these. I thought one of the dahlias growing there was 'Fascination', but it turned out to be 'Magenta Star'. It was much taller than those I've grown here at VP Gardens. Both are signs of a well mulched and cultivated border, and perhaps I need to up my game in terms of adding organic matter to my garden's soil.

View towards Jermyn House

Sir Harold Hillier was noted for collecting trees and woody plants, in fact Roy Lancaster kept on referring to the garden's former name as an arboretum. I think nowhere illustrates this passion more succinctly than the views around the Hillier family's former home, Jermyn House. It's amazing to think the whole estate was bought for a mere £7,000 in the early 1950s and now boasts more Champion Trees than Kew.

One example of the plentiful art dotted around the garden in 2018

There's currently an art exhibition in the garden and my favourite pieces were these tall combinations of metal and glass placed in the avenue of magnolias leading up from the house. I wouldn't mind having them here.

An autumnal walk through the Winter Garden

The other main part of our tour was the Winter Garden, though on the day it was doing a very good impression of an autumn one. I remarked how autumn bulbs like the pictured Sternbergia lutea (winter daffodil) always flop over for me and Karen suggested I should grow them through low growing plants like geraniums, which hold them up well. It's a useful tip and one I'll bear in mind when I replant our front garden. We also liked the look of the unusual hips of the burr rose, Rosa roxburgii.

Clematis terniflora aka 'Sweet Autumn Clematis'

It wasn't just garden colour in evidence on the day, there were scents to savour too. The distinctive candy floss aroma of the katsura trees was heavenly in the winter garden, and this new-to-me 'Sweet Autumn Clematis' (Clematis terniflora) pulled us - and the bees - in from dozens of yards away. It looked quite rampant, so I need to check its potential spread before I buy one (it's classified as a Category II invasive plant in some parts of the USA according to Wikipedia).

You may wonder why I've included these two ho-hum photos. Well, they represent the garden's future. The left photo is the new 'Valley of Fire', which will have flames of autumn colour throughout from the trees planted for their seasonal colour. It also represents some of the difficulties the garden had over the summer as the drought conditions affected some of the newly planted borders.

The car park photo shows you the new Tom Stuart Smith garden... well its proposed location, which is awaiting funding application success before it goes ahead. It's current working title is the 'Frontier Garden' after a recent staff brainstorming session, and is designed to showcase plants being grown at the limits of their usual range.

Both photos also illustrate the challenges the garden faces. Owned by Hampshire County Council, its grant from them has been slashed from half a million pounds per annum to a mere £23,000 in five years. Visitor numbers and membership are up, which helps to compensate for this substantial loss of income.

There are plans to increase visitor numbers still further to 250,000 per year (currently 200,000) and this will only be achieved by enhancing the garden's attractions and seasonal offerings.

This news gave me food for thought. This garden of excellence is able to face the funding challenge with aplomb, but it's a  story which must apply to nearly all our parks and gardens, many of which would have difficulty in asking visitors to pay or take out membership. How can we ensure the gardens on our own doorstep remain for us as the vital resource they are?


  1. Beautiful!
    I enjoyed your tour of those wonderful gardens very much.
    I like the metal and glass artwork - very pretty! But they pale in comparison to the natural beauty of the plants!
    Have a great day!

    1. Oh yes, the plants win in the beauty stakes. It was a wonderful day = I'm still smiling a week later :)

  2. A most enjoyable post and lovely pictures. xx

    1. Thanks Flighty - I'm still smiling from the day. It was good for the soul - something to think about on World Mental Health Day

  3. That must have been an absolutely brilliant day VP and what a lovely photo of you with your gardening hero. My next door plot neighbour grows dahlia 'Magenta Star' after admiring it on my plot. His plants were taller than me this year.

    1. Thanks Anna - it was a fab day. Have your dahlias been late to bloom this year?

  4. Autumn colour is one thing I miss

    1. I'd say it's not such a good year this year - the summer drought started the leaf fall early and we've not had enough frosty nights to really get the colour into perfection. Having said that, I'd say it's peak leaf colour this week and we saw some very pretty sights on our trip to Lancashire last week :)


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