A Personal View, by Head Gardener Ray Abraham
When the position of head gardener at Leonardslee became available I knew I had to go for the job.
I first came here in 1977 with Sir Eric Saville and John Bond from Windsor Great Park and met the Loder family. A tour around the garden made a big impression on me as it seemed similar to the Valley Gardens at Windsor, which are very impressive too.
The gardens at Leonardslee continue to fascinate me because of the incredible amount of history. Also the amount of work that it took for the Victorian plant hunters to create these incredible woodland gardens, Grade I Listed.
They now need to be kept and preserved not only for future generations to see but because of the botanic value of these plants in a world that unfortunately is destroying habitat on a global scale.
We need to keep these wonderful gardens and their collections so that nothing is lost in the plant kingdom and future generations can marvel at the extraordinary lengths people went to, to retain the beauty of flowers that are so important to us all.
This is still in my view the best example of a Victorian woodland gardens in this country.
These gardens have immense value in the education of new generations of horticulturists. They offer a unique opportunity to learn about not only the plants and where they came from but also the history behind them.
I can see in the future that examples of these plants may well be used in restocking areas of the world where they were native and have sadly become extinct.
The Rock Garden is one of the finest examples of James Pulham’s work in any of the great Victorian estates. Very few of this size and magnificence have lasted.
This one is particularly well preserved. The plants have rooted into the crevices and over the rocks in a spectacular way. What made it especially difficult for us to restore the garden was the sheer volume of plants in the rockery. We had to make the often painful decision of which ones to cut out and which ones to leave, in case they go on to threaten other flora.
Hard choices were made in order to keep the best. Some have grown through the manmade rock and this made it difficult to remove them and prune them back.
Restoring a garden of this kind is so difficult as many of the plants have grown into each other. Some cast shade on smaller plants and we have to make the choice of which ones to leave and which to cut down.
Much of the undergrowth was dead and many plants had single stems up to 20 feet in length that had to be pruned so as to induce growth lower down the stem to a more manageable level; this is ongoing and will take years to work as it can only be done gradually.
Many trees had branches that had to be lifted as they were creating too much shade - and in doing this work the plants will flower so much better.
Endangered plants that are flowering include Rh Strigillosum, Rh Aberconwayi, Rh Beanianum, Rh Barbatum species Smithii and Argipeplum, Rh Arboreum, Album Rh Macabeanum, Rh Sherriffii, Rh Packysanthum, Rh Calophytum variety Jinfluense and Pauciflorum in the garden - the other endangered ones are due to flower until May.
We are going to have a programme of hand pollinating plants to collect pure seeds in the Autumn. The way this is done is by using pollen from the flowers of the same plant that have not been pollinated by insects using a small paint brush; then very carefully taking the stamens away and the petal part of the flower and leaving just the stigma that the insects are not interested in, as there is no flower and the seeds are collected later.
This process can be used for Hybridising by using the pollen from two different species; it is long term but is so exciting as you never know what will happen until the actually flower. This is what I enjoy the most, creating new life. We have already taken cuttings from some of the rarer plants and some have rooted. The old Alpine house is where we are propagating these cuttings.
In my career I have hybridised and created many new flowers but never put new names to them, usually it has been for my own pleasure - I always use Species as they tend to make stronger colours and the plants seem to be more resilient.
At Minterne I used the technique of Micropropagation; it uses test tubes in a controlled environment, which is a quicker way as you can flower the plants using plant hormones in the tube. If it is not the hybrid you are after then you can start again. It take months rather than years to work.
To create one for Penny Streeter, I will use Rh Augustinni which is blue and a Rh fragrantissimum white with pink tinge, which also has a wonderful perfume. The best way to understand hybridizing is to see it being done.
That’s it from me!