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

Spring moves on…

The weather hasn’t been conducive to growing this spring – a prolonged drought, late frosts, followed by heavy rain, with temperatures continuing to be disappointingly low for the time of year. But in my garden as much as elsewhere, the plants are getting on with it regardless. One of two new apple trees, this blossom is on Worcester Pearmain. Blossom on the other (James Grieve) is all but over…

I planted two purple hazels (Corylus maximus ‘Purpurea’) as focal points in the main bed. The dark leaves make a great contrast with the various shades of green, and particularly with the variegated plants, such as the grass Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’ (known as ‘Gardeners’ garters’).My hazels are still only just over 2 feet tall, but they are going into their second season now, so should hopefully start to put on some growth. Both are fully in leaf now…

I put in lots more bulbs last year. Various tulip varieties have done their thing and are ‘going over’ now, but the alliums (Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, and Allium christophii) are just coming out…

I put some of these into the miniature wildflower meadow in the front garden too. A bit cheeky, as they aren’t wild flowers (not in the UK at least), but I thought they would add some sparkle. A few have expired – some of the soil there is more builders sand than soil – but most have survived. I’ll post pictures next time (the meadow is beginning to look good).

Another plant used to add early colour is wallflower (Erisymum). They’re biennials,as opposed to annuals, which means they grow foliage one year, sit out the winter, and then flower early the next year…

I think of them as slow annuals – they don’t have time to grow into a mature plant and produce flowers in one year, so they have to struggle across two. And boy do they struggle. The plants come ‘bare-rooted’, and in my experience are never in great shape, which doesn’t help them to establish. You can grow them from seed, and while I’ve never found the time or been sufficiently organised to do this, I suspect it would give a much better result. Pretty and colourful as they undoubtedly are, they create problems. In theory, they do their thing, then you rip them out in time for the perennials (as well as any annuals you want to put in) to take over. In reality, the wallflowers go on for long enough to get in the way. Plus, some of the plants don’t stop at all, and even survive into the following year. Great, but they tend to look a bit scruffy, a bit ‘leggy’. You need to be ruthless, and pull them out as soon as you need the space, even if they’re still looking good. But for a plant lover (and an environmentalist) it can be difficult to do.

What you’re looking at above is a beech tree, even if it is small as yet. It’s Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’. Closer to the house, and in the same bed, is the green version (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’!) These will eventually make very tall trees, but with a narrow profile. A mature beech would eventually take up most of the garden. With the Dawyck varieties (there’s a ‘gold’ variety too) you can have more than one and yet still have a garden. I do love a beech tree.

This magnolia was here when we arrived. I’m not sure of the variety. I thinned it out last year, because it was very congested. Sadly the flowers get hit by late frosts every year. This is a cold, exposed area, but I’m hoping that in years to come it may be more protected by the plants around it, as they increase in size…

The broom next to it is spectacular, but to me, the colours clash. It’s also in the way of what on my garden design is a grass path, so it will have to go. The roots on broom appear to go straight down, so getting enough out to transplant it isn’t feasible. Fortunately there is another large specimen by the pergola. That one is a lighter, more subtle yellow, and is much more fragrant.

The ‘landscaping’ is continuing slowly due to other commitments (like work!), so you may notice random piles of brick or rubble, or covered heaps of lifted turves. Forget-me-nots have settled in to this little semi-wild area. I’ll let them set seed and then sprinkle them around the garden to add to next year’s supply of plants-for-free

With all the rain we’ve been having, the wildlife pond has finally filled up. I had to make some minor adjustments to the edge levels so that it over-flows into the bog garden at the front. The water is still beautifully clear, and I have to put my hands up and admit to not knowing why. It cleared after I put some bunches of rosemary into the water, but I tried the same trick with the holding pond for the fish, and it didn’t work. I’m not complaining though…

The garden is slowly coming together, and many of the plants that have been languishing in pots for too long are now in the borders. But some are still waiting. The new shady border at the back of the house is yet to be dug. That will have to wait until the builders have finally finished and gone (which is way overdue!) Among the plants that will go in that border are these ferns, Polystichum polyblepharum. I potted them on so they could bulk up prior to planting. They too have suffered with the weather, but they’re coming on now…

The weather shows no sign of warming up just yet. But from the forecast, it looks as though we could just have seen the last of the frosts. The garden is really beginning to grow. I’ve got seedlings of annuals, perennials and veg coming on, including more tomato and chilli plants than you can shake a stick at. And I’ve booked a trip, in mid-June, to visit the new RHS Bridgewater garden in Salford, the prospect of which fills me with excitement. Expect a review on this blog in due course…

text & images © graham wright 2021