Head Gardener, Richard Squires,  Reflects on a Challenging Past Year and Hope for New Growth in 2023

On 15th February, Antony Woodland Garden will be opening the gates to our world-famous gardens once again. The very early spring blooms and growth around the gardens are phenomenal. From carpets of snowdrops to a smattering of new yellow heads of daffodils, eye-catching camellias to magnificent magnolia buds, the grounds are transforming each and every day waiting your visit. There is one man responsible for making the gardens look as wonderful as they do, and he’s pretty much a one-man band! Richard Squires gives us a rundown of last year’s activities and exciting plans for 2023…

I find it hard to believe but I’ve now been managing Antony Woodland Garden for three years. I’m still enjoying the job and I’m still discovering things about the garden and the plant collections. Although we don’t open until mid-February, we already have many Camellias in flower. They seem to get earlier every year. There are also lots of healthy-looking buds on many of the Magnolias. We could do with a few weeks without rain to dry out the paths. I’m hoping to do more work on improving paths, diverting water etc. in the spring. The aim is to have grass paths wherever the grass will grow and use woodchip on paths in the more shaded parts of the garden.

2022 was quite challenging at times. At the start of the year, we were just coming to the end of the removal of the Ash trees due to Ash dieback.  This chronic fungal disease of Ash trees, characterised by leaf loss and crown dieback in infected trees, has become an issue for all owners and managers of woodland. It is expected to kill around 80% of Ash trees across the UK and change the landscape forever. There is some hope on the horizon as Initial findings suggest that there might be some trees that are tolerant to ash dieback, meaning that the population could eventually recover over time.  I recently attended a conference and heard a talk from someone who manages a national collection of Ash species, and he was saying that many larger trees, although affected, do survive whilst younger trees die. We were hoping that some of the smaller trees which we have retained in isolated, out of the way locations, would prove resistant, but we perhaps also need to retain some larger trees although we’d need to be sure they were well away from paths etc.

We have felled the majority of the Ash in the Woodland Garden and Woodland Walks simply because as the trees decay, they become unpredictable and thus dangerous to fell.  We can’t afford to leave large Ash trees standing, even if they look healthy, unless they are well out of the way. We have had tree surgeons climb and dismantle some trees that were in areas where they would have caused severe damage to our plant collections if they were felled with large machinery. However, most of the Ash was felled by forestry contractors using large machinery which meant that although the work was done fairly quickly it made a great deal of mess which has to be cleared up.

We were working on this clearance when storm Eunice hit, giving us several large fallen trees to deal with. We traded in our small woodchipper for a larger one and we have made progress but there are still areas to be dealt with. When clearing fallen trees etc. depending on the location and the type of material to be disposed of, I either use the chipper or have a bonfire. Last summer wasn’t a particularly good time for bonfires so some debris in inaccessible areas had to be left until the rains came. The rain didn’t let me down. I’m quite happy that it’s stopped for a while though.

The dry summer also provided a challenge with regard to watering. I normally water selected plants, usually anything that’s been planted in the last 3 years (these are marked with coloured canes using a different colour each year) about once a fortnight through the summer unless we get significant rain which means I can delay the next watering. For several weeks last summer, I was watering every week. Towing a large bowser around the garden to get to the individual plants. To water everything that needs it takes the best part of a day and uses about 3,600 litres of water. Having upped the frequency and amount of water I was delivering I thought I’d solved the problem. Then a hosepipe ban was imposed. We have a national collection of Camellia japonica which are exempted from any hosepipe ban. However, this is not much help as all our plants are mixed together, Camellias growing alongside Magnolias, Rhododendrons etc. Also, the Camellias seemed to cope very well with the dry conditions whereas the Magnolias struggled. Whilst the water can be delivered by the bowser during a ban, the bowser can’t be filled from the mains. Luckily, we have several ponds in the garden, so I ordered a water pump and worked out a method of filling the bowser from the ponds. We then had some rain, so the pump was never actually used as intended. It has been very useful to avert flooding from the Upper Pool during the winter and if we get a hosepipe ban next year we’ll be prepared.  Several large established trees also suffered, losing leaves due to drought stress, including Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood). With large trees like these it would be fairly futile to try to water them, so we are just hoping that no permanent damage has occurred.

As I’ve mentioned before, although maintaining and regenerating the existing features of the garden is my main focus, I also do a certain amount of new planting each year. As in most years I have added to the Magnolia collection, planting several of these in Westdown where the Ash felling provided me with some more suitable planting sites. I’ve also planted some Cornus varieties to continue building up a collection of these. A couple of generous donations have enabled me to plant another Juglans regia ‘Laciniata’ (Cut Leaved Walnut) below the Upper Pool and 3 x Sorbus aucuparia (Mountain Ash, not actually related to Ash) in another area thinned during the Ash felling. I have also done some bulb planting this year: 1,000 narcissus in the Nursery Field and 500 Snowflakes in the wooded area in front of Broomhill. When this woodland was thinned (Ash dieback again) we realised that there were lots of Snowdrops growing there and whilst they flower a little too early for us as we open mid- February, they gave us the idea of a ‘White Wood’ of white flowering bulbs. The Snowflakes which flower a little later than the Snowdrops and are a bit bigger are the beginning of this.

Richard Squires
Head Gardener, Antony Woodland Garden, February 2023.

Keep up to date on all the exciting news at Antony Woodland Garden, please follow the FacebookInstagramTwitter pages.

If you visit the gardens, you may well see me and I’m quite happy to chat about the garden and what we’re doing. If you want to hear about the garden in more detail, I will also be leading regular garden tours. (Please see the website for details.)

Volunteering at Antony Woodland Garden

I do have a couple of volunteers who assist me in the gardens and their work is extremely helpful. I’m also looking for more volunteers to help in 3 different areas.

  1. Assisting with tasks such as clearing brambles, pruning and disposing of debris by bonfires or chipping, maintaining paths.
  2. Helping with plant records and labelling of the collections.
  3. Guiding our visitors around the gardens answering their questions and possibly leading occasional garden tours.

If you feel you have appropriate skills for any of the above, or a willingness to learn those skills, and are interested in helping out please contact [email protected]

Richard Squires
Head Gardener
Antony Woodland Garden
December 2021

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