Ever since I got to the UK it feels like a lot of time has past in a short period of time. Like I’ve always lived here (or have been for a few years) and yet at the same time I feel like I just got here and time has zipped away. I don’t know what it means, but it’s an unusual feeling. Though looking back, I can’t believe I have been here a little over three months now! It has been an amazing experience so far and I can’t wait to head off to my next adventure! (Well, after I’ve had a few more minced pies.)
Let’s see, where did I leave off in my last post? I finished my week with the Seed department at the end of October, then I went off to the Glasshouse department, then with the Formal department, then with the Alpine department, last week with the Herbaceous department, and now this week with the Woodland department – my final department.
Gone to Seed / Oct.28 – Nov.1
Slipping into the Seed department on my first day I was greeted by the dusty warmth, and the coziness of the room put me at ease. In the main workroom botanical prints hung on the walls, strange gadgets sat quietly on the counters, and books and sieves were caringly stacked on shelves. In the drying room beyond any free space was covered with boxes filled with drying seed heads, pods, and small berries. At all times of the day I was offered tea and biscuits; I’ve never had so much tea and biscuits my entire life. This was very much grandmother’s house.
The Seed department have many jobs, which include collecting and cleaning seeds for the RHS gardens, but their biggest job is to collect seeds for RHS members annual seed requests. Members are mailed a catalogue every year in late autumn and during winter they can order seeds collected in the gardens free of charge. Employees are also encouraged to request seed. This entire process includes going out – rain or shine – to collect seeds, drying them, cleaning them, packaging them, and filling requests. A lot to do for a department of four, but after the garden went through some internal changes it has been whittled down to two staff members. (Just recently, the two staff just became one.)
The Seed department tries to offer a diverse range of seeds, so all annuals, perennials, shrubs, some trees, and glasshouse plants are fair game. Timing is everything, so whenever seed is collected the date is written down and the earliest time of everything that was ever collected is compiled and saved. This helps the seed collectors keep in mind when they should start checking for seeds of a particular plant species. As you can imagine an ornamental garden is all about keeping up its appearances and long-lived floral displays, so the one main hurdle to the Seed department has to deal with is tidy gardeners. Dead-heading cleans up spent flowers and to induce more flowering on plants, but it makes it difficult – and frustrating – to collect seeds when nothing is left to develop.
After collecting, the goods are brought back to the drying room immediately for decanting. The seed heads are sorted into their own time-stained brown boxes and left to dry and dehisce. With specimens that are particularly wet or need a bit of “ripening” they are laid out on rough parchment paper in the drier. As the seeds dry, everyone rotates throughout the room and eventually end up as pure cleaned seeds.
My favorite gadget in the Seed department is the aspirator (a regular volunteer amusingly calls the asphyxiator). This strange looking contraption is basically a tube and lever emerging out of a Dr.Who-blue box. The aspirator separates the chaff from the seed buy blowing the lighter chaff up and out of the seeds. This is very useful if the seeds are too numerous and fine – thought not too fine – to separate by hand.
Okay so what happens, is that the seed and chaff mixture is placed into a small sieve and slipped into the bottom of that clear tube.
The lever on the left side controls the force of the air flow, and when set at the right force almost all of the chaff will be blown up into the container at the top leaving the seeds in the sieve below.
The key is to have the strength of the air “bounce” the seeds about a third to half way up the tube. This would ensure the majority of the chaff is gone and any lighter seeds are separated as well.
A Glassy Place / Nov.4 – 8
It was wonderful to work inside again (especially when there was a down pour that week). There is something uplifting about being in a warm environment surrounded by lush greenery, the smell of dampened earth and the dreamy fragrances of flowers from far off lands.
The main project this week was to put the chrysanthemum display together for Japanese Week. Due to the wonderfully warm summer some of the chrysanthemums were in full bloom much too early, however we did what we could and pulled the display together.
Some of the chrysanthemums never made it into the displays, instead they were cut back and sent up to propagation to recuperate.
All of these chrysanthemums take a whole year to grow, train, and groom for a show that lasts at most three weeks. The amount of time and commitment that it takes to grow perfect display specimens is really astounding (and this is all one by one staff member up in the Propagation department).
How a about a procession of chrysanthemum photos? You betcha!
Phew! And that was just a sampling. The Plectranthus trials display were wheeled into the empty hallway (first photo) where the chrysanthemums were waiting.
Between all the chrysanthemum madness, I helped with preparing the glasshouse every morning before opening and watering, repotting, and staking in the growing houses in the back.
Life inside the warmth had to come to an end, but next week I would get acquainted with a world I was not very familiar with.
Formally with Formal / Nov.13 – 15
This was a shorter week because I spent the beginning of the week with the former curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden (which I still need to finish and post) and her family. Unfortunately I also didn’t take any photos this week, so please bare with me. First, I have to say that formal gardens are not my thing, but I can appreciate them. My personal garden at home was far from formal (though my mother wishes it were) and, when I was an intern at the Smithsonian Gardens a summer ago, I barely scratched the surface of formal gardening.
At this time of year, what was mostly happening was cleaning up and prepping for winter. The bedding had all been designed and planted – though I did help with planting some conifers in the walled garden – the main tasks was weeding, and cutting back and dividing tired perennials.
The Formal department is responsible for the “face” of Wisley: the canal, both rose gardens, the walled garden, the country garden, both the mixed boarders and the AGM borders, the model gardens, and the E.A. Bowles’ Garden. They are the first gardens that greet visitors and the last ones to send them off. It really is tough joggling all of these sights, especially in an ornamental garden where everything needs to be pristine and immaculate.
Pining for Alpine / Nov.18 – 22
Gosh, what a chilly week! I was glad I was (mostly) under shelter again, but unlike the Glasshouse, these houses were kept a little above freezing. The Alpine department is a fun quirky group who look after the Rock Garden, the Alpine Meadow, the Alpine Display Souses, the Crevice Garden, and the Bonsai Collection.
Like the Glasshouse, every morning we would start by unlocking all the display houses and checking up the displays. If flowers have faded or a plant is starting to look tired, a perkier one is taken out of the grow houses to put in its place. This ensures that the display houses are always showing the best of what is in bloom and showcasing
the diversity of the collections. Though during this time of year, it was a bit difficult finding anything other than foliage. Most of the autumn blooming bulbs had finished and like all alpine-y plants the bloom period is quite short. (If your growing season is short, you gotta take care of business quickly.)
Most of my week was spent dead-heading and grooming plants, but I also got to try my hand at striking saxifrage cuttings and repotting Sempervivum (the now trendy hens-and-chicks plant).
How about a few more photos from the display house? I was attracted to the undersides of the leaves of this Lachenalia bolusii. The pattern reminds me of 80’s zebra print leggings.
Speaking of Lachenalia, just look at the flowers of this species! Amazing!
Check this Oxalis palmifrons out! Usually they like have shamrock-shaped leaves, but this one has done something completely different. Each little adorably fuzzed pinwheel is actually one leaf.
Okay last photo. Pterostylis is a genus of terrestrial orchids found in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and New Caledonia. This particular species (Pterostylis coccina) is endemic to New South Wales Australia, meaning it can only be found there in the wild. It looks like it could bite…
One glasshouse leads to another, so next week I went further up the hill and found myself in the Propagation department for a week.
Props to Propagation / Nov.25 – 29
Remember those ‘craze-anthemums’ and the bedding plants in the formal display beds? Well, this is where all the magic happens! I see the Propagation department as the blood of Wisley. Without the Propagation department many plants would have to be bought in year after year, lots of rare wonderful things in the gardens could be lost without making copies, and without a place to quarantine new plants for assessment, potentially new pests and diseases could be introduced.
All the seasonal displays (there is about eight to nine back to back) are propagated, grown, groomed, and prepared here in the Propagation glasshouses, and not only that, this is all done by one person. It’s actually quite unbelievable and this is really an art form where impeccable timing is everything. Remember those chrysanthemums in the Glasshouse for Japanese week? Here they are now:
These are also waiting for next year too:
Seriously, this is all done by one person. How perfect are these poinsettias? I couldn’t find a single blemish or find one that was wilting and dropping leaves. (These have been taken down to the Glasshouse two weeks ago and the Christmas display should be completed now.)
I did a little bit of everything while I was with Propagation . I struck a few cuttings, potted rooted ones up, watered, groomed, and helped deep clean the main house. The Herb Garden, which is under the watchful care of the Fruit Department, is getting revamped and many of their herbs are getting propagated as cuttings. (The powers that may be decided that the Herb Garden should really only contain culinary herbs, so all the medicinal herbs were removed and dispersed elsewhere.) I did my little part and helped pot up their Hyssopus officinalis, which should be ready to go out next spring.
Another day I seeded some stock flowers. When I come back in May, I should be able to see and smell them then.
On my final day I was able to help inspect and repot some Chinese peony cultivars that came all the way from China. They got accidentally sent to the main offices in London, so the poor things sat in a hot, dry, and dark box since early October. Luckily they are very tough plants, so all but maybe one survived just fine.
Peonies are one of my most favorite flowers – it’s probably due to my father’s love for them – so working with them was not a chore. Rather it reminded me of home and my own garden.
The shipment comprised of both tree and herbaceous peonies. Though their habit and form are quite different, but they all want three main things: good drainage, full to part sun, and not to be planted too deeply. Traditionally these two types of peonies almost impossible to cross, but Mr. Toichi made this miraculous cross in the 1940’s and these hybrids came to be known as Itoh peonies.
They look much more comfortable, don’t you think?
While we were cleaning the main house Emma found a dormant butterfly and in the warmth it started to wake up. At first I thought it was a Mourning Cloak, but when it opened its wings it was a beautiful Peacock butterfly!
In the cool house a few of the Vireya were blooming. This particular cultivar was intensely tangerine – a wonderful sight on a dreary gray day.
Remember the Nerine photo at the being of the post? Here are the rest of them:
Here is a couple of the many benches filled with plants for the next growing season. They all look so young and full of promise.
That’s so Herbaceous / Dec.2 – 6
Remember I mention about that reshifting in the Seed department section? Well, both Formal and Herbaceous were one department, but they got ripped apart into two departments during that time. The Herbaceous department looks after the Glasshouse Landscape, the Glasshouse Borders (which was designed by Piet Oudolf), the Wild Garden, and Seven Acres. These are quite large areas, but they manage with the limited team that they have.
I started out first in the Wild Garden where my main job was to help Mike shred clippings and leaves back into the beds and groom the bamboo collection. The Wild Garden has been cultivated before Wisley became a thing. It is a remnant of the Oakwood Experimental Garden (a garden on the estate of George Fergusson Wilson) which its main purpose was to try out different methods of growing difficult plants successfully. Today the garden is kept in that style to honor George Fergusson Wilson and some of the plants in the garden are the originals.
At the other end of the wild Garden Mike and I worked away at clearing up bamboo rhizomes he had dug previously and cutting back canes that were falling over. On my way over in the first morning I noticed a stand of bamboo that looked a little dead. It turns out it was very dead, in fact it had bloomed and set seed earlier in the summer. Many bamboo species die after they bloom and sometimes leaving whole dead forests. Though this doesn’t happen often since on average bamboo blooms every 65 years or so, but some species can take up to 120 years before they bloom.
The work that week was mainly clearing, mulching, weeding, cutting back, dividing perennials, and prepping for winter. One of the bigger tasks I helped with was fleecing the South African Meadow to give the seedlings a chance to establish before they are left to their down devices in the future. The South African Meadow lives on the outer edge of the Glasshouse Landscape, and like the American Meadow, it was started entirely by seed. The South African Meadow is somewhat slow to establish because the top dressing of sand was placed to discourage weeks and help with drainage, was applied a little too deep and the seedlings are taking longer to reach the soil below.
Woody, a Goodie / Dec.9 – 11
Unfortunately I also forgot to take any photos, so again, please bare with me. Also, this was week was cut short unexpectedly and for the latter half I was confined to my bed with a virus. (I got over it within 48 hours and I am fine now.)
Anyway, the Woodland department is small team that essentially looks after the rest of Wisley. These areas include the Arboretum, Battleston Hill, and the Pinetum – which are all huge areas.
Most of my time this week was helping with the revamp of the Mediterranean beds on Battleston Hill. The beds are undergoing a layout change so that plants from the different Mediterranean-like climates of the world are grouped together by geography, i,e. the Mediterranean Basin, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa, California, and Chile (plus a slightly random succulent bed).
Other than that I helped remove bedding plants and leaves for the winter and on Wednesday I helped the Fruit department sow poppy seeds in the Wildflower Meadow to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of WWI next spring.
PHEW! That was the longest post ever! Anyway, I hope that was a good read, but there will be more to come soon. I can’t believe this is already my last week working at Wisley and after this I will be off to Scotland. It’s so exciting – I can’t wait to see and experience a new place! Anyway, until next time!