The Head Gardener at Rhodes House, Neil Wigfield is to be congratulated on his fourth gold medal in the 'Oxford in Bloom' competition. Below is his account of what it takes to create such a stunning outdoor space, which is enjoyed by Scholars and staff alike.
The Victorian plants woman, Gertrude Jekyll, famously designed gardens with borders that flowered at different times of the year. After 4 to 6 weeks of flowers, the area would be ‘abandoned’, and guests were escorted to another part of the ‘Estate’ to the next flowering area. In contrast, the gardens at Rhodes House have to be in flower from the 1stsnowdrops of February, to the last Cyclamens and Nerines of November.
The ‘Oxford in Bloom Awards’are judged on how the garden appears on a single visit, on one single day, at an unspecified date ‘sometime in midsummer’. The challenge is to bring months (and years) of planning, sowing and growing together, whilst allowing for innumerable variables from climate, humans and animals…and hope that it all comes together on the day.
After a challenging summer, with the wettest June since records began, where plants grew tall and lush and promptly keeled over to be eaten by an army of slugs and snails…followed by six weeks of drought and heatwave, as temperatures topped 35oc and the wilting of plants was matched only by the wilting of the Gardener…where squirrels, pigeons and a surfeit of Marquees combined to kill the lawns, and a fox decided that the very best place to sunbathe was to curl-up on top of the large planters full of delicate flowers….where the ‘white themed planting’ of the Giants Grave turned pink, and the seeds promising ‘six foot white Summer Daisies’ produced two foot high yellow acrid smelling weeds….after all this, it really was a surprise to be awarded ‘Most Outstanding Floral Display by a College or University’.
The judges were particularly taken by the use of grasses and mature tender perennials, such as Abutalons, Bananas, Gingers and Sparmania, all of which are lifted for the winter and grown in heated greenhouses. Of the 74 varieties of plants grown from seed this year, 34 were new to the garden, with the use of variegated Persicaria Orientalis, Tithoinia and Cosmos being of particular note. The judges also commented on the replanting of the Wardens Garden, with the introduction of later flowering perennial sunflower varieties and Rudbeckias amongst more naturalistic umbelliferous ‘Cow Parsley’ and Angelicas. There was also favourable feedback on the introduction of several new deep purple sedums and Salvias to the Giant’s Grave area, and the use of over 40 pots and planters in a theme of pink and white with silver foliage.
Particular personal achievements this year include successfully growing Guava plants from seeds collected from an inexpertly made smoothie, and growing Dracunculus vulgaris, an aroid whose dramatic flowers ‘have the scent of rotting flesh’ to attract pollinating flies.