RHS Bridgewater – the Good and the Bad…

Seeing pictures of the new RHS garden in various stages of construction, it was difficult to envisage how the garden would turn out. I couldn’t see how those restricted planting holes between the paths could support the necessary enveloping mass of foliage and flower that make a garden. From above, the emerging layout of the new Kitchen Garden (one of two new gardens within the original walls – the other is the Paradise Garden) looked rather like an airport, with a wide runway crossing diagonally. There was an awful lot of path.

RHS Bridgewater finally opened on the 18th May, after a long delay due to the on-going pandemic, and I was very excited to visit the gardens for the first time a few weeks ago.

Now that the plants are in, and filling out, the effect is less stark, but it still looks to me as though there’s too much path, and not enough planting. And the designs for the main formal parts of the garden are largely on one level. In the wider landscape, and around the lake, there is more height, with native woodland, and mature trees. And non-native trees have been incorporated into the planting in the Chinese streamside garden.

Close to the stream they are small – cloud-pruned pines and smaller varieties of Japanese maples. Further from the water there are larger trees, such as Davidia involucrata (hankerchief tree). But in the formal gardens, the trees are all both small – either by their nature, or by training – and isolated.

The designs for all three main areas are along the same lines – a geometric pattern of paths, interplanted with a mix of perennials and grasses, with regular, individual vertical highlights from clipped beech, and in the case of the kitchen garden, from metal structures.

RHS Bridgewater is unusual in this respect. Most gardens have combinations; groups of trees and shrubs of varying sizes, with vertical interest from the ground up to the top of tall trees. Shrubs and trees are allowed to grow naturally to the shapes and sizes they would achieve in the wild. RHS Bridgewater doesn’t appear to have that. Instinctively, it feels as though there’s something missing. Intellectually, you might consider it to be a good thing that the RHS are giving us something new; something different.

The formal gardens at RHS Bridgewater are a patchwork, populated by plants that are diverse, interesting and beautiful. But it feels somewhat two-dimensional – apart from the clipped beech, the metal structures and a small arrangement of pleached Parrotia (Persian ironwood), it’s all on the same level.

Beyond the formal gardens are large, open expanses of wildflower meadow leading up to woodland. Both add to the overall experience. They contrast with the formal planting, and it’s great to be able to stretch your legs through these more natural areas, after shuffling through the intensity of the formal gardens. But moving from the open, formal gardens, with most of the planting on one level, into native grasslands, one phrase kept repeating in my mind. PRAIRIE STYLE!!!

It is though. It’s very Piet Oudolf, albeit a segmented version of that style which, according to the horticultural press, is still very popular. Personally, I’ve never been that sure about it. For me, the style has too many grasses (though at Bridgewater, they’ve managed to reign that in). It’s too cold; too open. There’s no sense of mystery, no horticultural embrace; where’s the love? The trees and shrubs are too controlled, too isolated – they look lonely to me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now; the overall effect is of massed carpet bedding, but with perennials and grasses – carpet bedding on steroids.

Maybe it just takes time. Come back in a few years and it may all look very different. Despite the criticism, there are some great features. And if you’re not enamoured of the design style, it’s very easy to ignore that and lose yourself in the wonderful selection of plants on show. Plants such as this lovely Iris…

This variety appears in a few places, but I couldn’t see a label for it anywhere. Labelling is a work-in-progress I think – very good in some areas, non-existent in others. This, for instance, was very clearly labelled…

Such vivid blues are not always easy to come by, so this could prove useful. It’s a speedwell called Veronica ‘Shirley Blue’. The individual flowers are similar to those of the tiny ones of the speedwell you find in lawns (possibly my favourite wild/native flower) but a little bigger, and arranged around flower spikes.

Still on the blue theme, this one looked better in real life than the camera portrays it. This is Amsonia illustris (shining bluestar’), apparently good for well-drained soil in part shade…

The peonies were doing well when I visited. I didn’t find a label for this deep red one…

And while I might have preferred a different layout and design approach, I do think Tom Stuart-Smith has done a great job on the Paradise Garden. This is the lily pond (which will be better once the lilies have established) and rill, showing a great use of symmetry and combining curves and straight lines…

Towards the back of the Paradise Garden, where it becomes less formal, he’s used a small, shrubby tree called sea buckthorn (Hyppophae rhamnoides), once again arranged as isolated specimens. It has long, thin, silver-green leaves and lots of character, with twisty, gnarled trunks. They would look great in a Mediterranean style garden, and they look great here too. Olive trees are vulnerable to the dreaded xylella, and in any case, tend not to thrive (or even survive) in our cold, wet, windy climate, but sea buckthorn is as hardy as they come, apparently taking strong winds and even salt spray in its stride, so would make a superb alternative to olive.

They may be selling us short in the tree and shrub department, but the RHS have managed to pack a fantastic array of lower growing plants into the garden in such a short time. This is in the Paradise Garden…

This area is essentially a gravel garden. I love this low-growing, creeping thyme, which would make a fabulous alternative lawn, for an area you didn’t need to walk on much. You can see that here, the labelling has been done.

The glasshouses are looking impressive, with grape vines along the front and soft fruit against the back walls. They’re just a little bigger than my greenhouse…

There is still some work to be done at RHS Bridgewater…

But no cause for complaint – love the design style or not, the amount of work they’ve done, and what they’ve achieved, is phenomenal. The amount of time, money, and ingenuity that’s gone into the place is awe inspiring. The empty areas just add interest – I can’t wait to see what they do with them. I loved the contrast between two arrangements of pots; one at the front entrance, the other somewhat more tucked away…

In case you’re wondering, the cafe is great too – good food, not bad coffee, and a lovely terrace overlooking the new lake. But even after restrictions have been lifted, I suspect it will be busy – you may need to be flexible over what time you eat, if you want to avoid queuing for too long. There’s an extensive plant sales area which is more like one of the larger garden centres. The prices are not low, but plant prices have gone up noticeably in the last few years, probably down to rising costs of production. Having spent so long in the gardens, I took one look at the plant sales and decided I didn’t have enough time left to do it justice (I also know that I really don’t need any more plants at this time!) Sadly, it was time to leave.

So there you are; a brief introduction to a rather different garden. RHS Bridgewater is shiny and new in every respect, from the hard landscaping and the garden seating, to the welcome building. That newness felt different to the gardens I’m used to visiting in the UK; it reminded me of some gardens overseas – the Desert Botanic Gardens in Phoenix had the same freshness and energy.

I can’t imagine Bridgewater will ever be my favourite garden, but there is a lot to admire, and I suspect I will grow to love it in time. I’m sure it will be interesting watching it develop and mature.

text & photographs © graham wright 2021

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