Inspiration from RHS Wisley

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit the historic home of the Royal Horticultural Society: RHS Garden Wisley.  Like its northern counterpart RHS Harlow Carr which I have visited several times, it is jam-packed with inspiration for home gardeners and designers alike.

Since I was visiting in May, that helped me narrow my focus somewhat, which since there are 240 acres to explore helped me make the most of what I'm sure will be the first of many visits.

Here are a few snapshot impressions of some of my favorite areas, together with the design lessons I took away (because every garden – in every climate can inspire us)

Jellicoe Canal & the Walled Garden

This iconic view of the Laboratory at Wisley showcases the terraces and Jellicoe Canal, home to many waterlilies which were still waking up from their winter slumber. This area was laid out by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in the early 1970s.

Design tip:  brick (and stone) buildings absorb heat during the day and release it at night. Planting beds adjacent to west- or southern-facing masonry walls may be at least one full climate zone warmer than outlying areas, especially if drainage is good. That's is the main reason that these sunny Laboratory walls can support vines  (e.g. trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) that would otherwise struggle.

The gardeners were busy at work hand clipping the tapestry of foliage plants

Just beyond this area are The Walled Gardens, one of the most formal displays consisting of carefully clipped tapestries of foliage plants. Boxwood was traditionally used as the hedging material here but Wisley is currently testing three boxwood alternatives (barberry, box honeysuckle and plum pine (Podocarpus) since boxwood blight has been as much of a problem in the UK as it has here in the USA.

The (new) Wildlife Garden

Adjacent to the newly opened RHS Hilltop, the Home of Gardening Science, the Wildlife Garden is divide into segments with lots of take-home ideas. It is the first wildlife garden at Wisley and the first garden to have an extensive aquatic planting scheme

This may well have been my favorite part of the whole garden, even though it was very new. The Wildlife Garden was as educational as it was inspirational with great signage, opportunities to interact and places to simply sit and savor.

Two large pools introduce aquatic life and marginal planting that any homeowner can glean ideas from.

Design tip: the bridge that crossed these ponds, while being very safe for children and adults alike, was only inches above the surface of the water, ensuring optimal viewing (see the leading photograph in this blog post). Not every bridge has to be arched or high.

Swathes of Iris are planted along the margins – their rich color was stunning

Dominating the scene are several large chestnut and willow structures created by Tom Hare which provide habitat for all manner of insects. I loved being able to walk inside these.

Spheres of woven twigs attract insects to shelter and nest

There are lots of other opportunities to learn about pollinator plants and wildlife friendly features including artistic log piles and decaying trees in addition to a number of interactive activities for the young at heart including wildlife rubbing discs.

Log piles become sculptures within the pollinator garden

This is truly a place you could spend at least an hour exploring. It was also interesting to note that this garden transitioned smoothly into the Wellbeing Garden and also the World Food Garden, linking them physically as well as metaphorically.

The (new) Wellbeing Garden

As the new Wellbeing Garden matures it will be interesting to observe how visitors interact with it, but even today it is proving a popular place to meander and explore.

The connection between gardening and a sense of wellbeing is well established and this garden is a celebration of that interconnection, even though it is still in its infancy having been opened in June 2021.

From this birds-eye view you can see the succession of interconnected rooms where one can be alone, meander or interact with nature. The rill was fascinating and an obvious draw for the children who loved to splash their way through it as they looked for the endpoint.

I can't wait to go back and see how this is filling in.

Insider tip: there is a sitting area on top of RHS Hilltop where you can take your picnic lunch (sandwiches can be purchased in the cafe downstairs), and that is where I took this photo from.  As you can see it offers stunning views across the garden to the vista beyond. Not only that, you can purchase a glass of bubbly or a delicious ice cream up there. I considered that an important part of my research of course!

Additional Highlights

These windmill palms anchored the Mediterranean terrace

Just a few random snapshots to close, of areas or vignettes that spoke to me. The Mediterranean Terraces, featuring plants from South Africa, New Zealand and Chile are a great source of inspiration for those hot, dry areas of your garden.

Design tip: frost always gathers at the lowest point  – so this south facing slope benefits not only from great water drainage but also from the cold air and frost that rolls on by! Consider where frost will sit in your garden when experimenting with tender plants.

The new World Food Garden at RHS Wisley – one of the most recent additions

Taking its cue from traditional kitchen gardens the new World Food Garden adds a twist with familiar favorites and exotic edibles including edible flowers. The boundary is planted with an array of espaliered or cordon-trained fruit with abundant ideas for structures on which to grow everything from runner beans to gourds. To me it was 100% about the practical side of food gardening – the "how-to". Everything from ways to make a containerized courtyard work as a grocery-growing space to how to incorporate edibles into ornamental gardens. Only one year old at the time I visited, this is another one to watch and revisit.

And of course Wisley offered an abundance of gloriously planted borders to inspire you such as the beautiful vignette above.

A Return Visit – and you're invited!

I simply have to go back:  on Thursday July 6th 2023 to be precise, when I'll be there for the whole morning with 20 of my closest gardening friends. Would you like to join me?

I have room for just a few more on the tour I'm leading. I hope to see the waterlilies and magnolias in bloom, the Cottage Garden at its peak and the Glasshouse Borders looking fabulous which is why I've called this tour England in Full Bloom. Yet we are visiting so many more amazing gardens too, including Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Beth Chatto's garden plus spending a full day at the RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival.

I do hope you'll consider joining me for this very special, personal tour.

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  1. Lois Liere on November 18, 2022 at 8:39 am

    Just lovely Karen, beautiful, unusual, easy to understand and see your delight in visiting these inspirational gardens.
    Thank you for sharing them!

    • Karen Chapman on November 18, 2022 at 5:39 pm

      I'm so glad you enjoyed this post Lois – thank you for letting me know.