The insider’s guide to Wisley Garden

RHS Wisley is one of the nations most popular gardens. Wisley graduate, Lawrence Wright offers an insider's guide to making memories at this fabulous garden.

Wisley in autumn
Wisley in autumn
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Visiting a garden can be a wonderful experience at any time of year, but there is no better time than the autumn. Live in the moment and go lose yourself in the garden. For many, the misty days of autumn that roll into the long dark evenings of winter are reserved for curling up in front of the fire with a mug of cocoa and a favourite book. But getting outside and exploring this bountiful season is certainly good for the soul.

Summers’ last hurrah

RHS Garden Wisley is a feast for the senses at any time; but none more so than in the autumn. People often think of the autumn as the decline that leads to the desolation of winter – I prefer to look at it another way. Autumn is the culmination of the gardening year. Through spring and early summer we witness the unfolding of life, as buds break and blossom starts to fill the garden. The long heady days of summer are filled with flowers and (hopefully) blissful weather. But it is autumn that is the last hurrah – the final flourish of the season that bring sumptuous colour, intoxicating scent and a cornucopia of delicious produce to the garden.

Wisley highlights

It’s true that if you look hard enough you can find amazing things in the garden on any day of the year. Possibly Wisley’s trump card is that this has been so carefully considered ensuring that visitors to the garden have an inspiring day irrespective of when they visit.

The Alpine houses as well as the glasshouses are definite hotspots and always look good. But try and head off the beaten track and venture out into the Battleston Hill, the Arboretum, and Howards Field. There are some real autumn beauties waiting to be discovered. Don’t forget to pick up a free map of the garden and follow the guided walk for autumn colour and bark of interest.

Here’s my top tips of things to look out for if you have a couple or three hours to spend in the garden this autumn.

Nyssa 'Bonfire' at Wisley
Nyssa ‘Bonfire’ at Wisley

Foliage

Nyssa sylvatica ’Wisley Bonfire’ is arguably one of the best cultivars of Nyssa, ‘Wisley Bonfire’ is the star of Seven Acres at this time of year. With every passing day the foliage colour intensifies until she is draped in a shawl of burnished orange and crimson.

A quick walk over to Seven Acres and you will be sure to see the fabulous Nyssa in all its glory. Walk towards the glasshouse and she will be on your right hand side, looking resplendent next to the Chinese style temple on the lake’s edge.

Franklinia alatamaha is a real rarity worth seeking out of the wild garden whatever time of year you visit, but autumn is the time that Franklinia really sings. This tree really does have it all – beautiful bark, glorious autumn colour and delightful white flowers similar to a single Camellia. Indeed the two are related. For me the thing that makes Franklinia special is how it flowers at the same time as its leaves take on their fiery shades – truly spectacular.

The Wild Garden at Wisley
The Wild Garden at Wisley

Although in the centre of the garden this tree can be a little difficult to find, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for. Indeed it took me a couple of months to stumble across it. Walk from the main entrance towards the rock garden. The Franklinia grows in the wild garden on the right hand side of the path at the bottom of the rock garden, just next to the three way bench.

When thinking of autumn leaf colour, few people consider conifers.  But one of the best is Taxodium¸ the swamp cypress. As its name suggests the trees grow in wet ground and are usually planted alongside water. The large lake on Seven Acres offers brilliant reflections of the fiery tones of Taxodium and another deciduous conifer with good autumn colour, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood.

cyclamen
Cyclamen in the pinetum at Wisley

Colour

Colour is something that changes dramatically through the year. In spring the colours are clear and fresh and have a certain zing about them. By summer they are bright and as vibrant as a Brazilian carnival. But as we move into autumn the colours in our gardens start to become richer and more sumptuous with intense blues, red and oranges. The dramatic transformation of green foliage, to every shade of yellow, orange and red, is followed by falling of leaves and the fading of the last of summer’s flowers. The richness of autumn begins to adopt the golden fawn of late autumn and early winter. Nowhere is a better example of this wave of colour change than on the Glasshouse Landscape, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith and the Glasshouse Borders, originally designed by Piet Oudolf.

If you stop off for lunch in the restaurant, don’t miss the glorious carpets of Cyclamen. As you leave the restaurant, turn right and head down into the Pinetum. A recent planting of Acer ‘October Glory’ promises to add seasonal interest in the years to come, but for minute, it’s the Cyclamen that really steal the show.

Taste

Autumn is the time when nature’s larder is fully stocked and when some of the best eating is available. The expression ‘you eat with your eyes’ is never more true than in autumn. Many of Wisley’s fruiting trees such as the Malus or crab apples are adorned with thousands of tiny fruits that the birds go crazy for. A walk onto Battleston Hill will bring you under the canopy of sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, with the green hedgehog-like fruits hiding mahogany coloured jewels following a good summer; you may even see squirrels hiding away their stores of food for the winter. But a walk into the orchard is a real treat, with row after row of apples and pears almost bending branches double in places. If you head to the catering outlets around the garden, the Taste of Wisley team cook up a seasonal storm, with apples being the ingredient of choice at this time of year.

A walk around Battleston, doesn’t mean you need to get your walking boots on, but be prepared for a walk of a good hour or so. Benches are positioned regularly along the route should you wish to take in your surroundings or simply catch your breath. Walking from the bottom of Battleston to the arboretum is a real joy at this time of year with the Liquidambar at the far bottom corner of the garden being a real treat. Strolling up the hill brings you into the orchard and through the glorious rows of fruit trees, before ending next to the Honest Sausage for a cuppa. If you can manage the walk a little further down to the food hall on Seven Acres though, a whole host of seasonal food and drink awaits you.

Lawrence Wright

About Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright started gardening with his granddad when he was ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ but you would have thought that falling into a runner bean row at 4 years old and being lost in the twining stems would have put him off gardening for life. It didn't. He studied horticulture at Brooksby Melton College in Leicestershire and was a HBGBS (Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme) trainee at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He won the Chartered Institute of Horticulture’s Young Horticulturist of the Year in May 2016 and has just graduated from the RHS Wisley trainee scheme and is now working at Tregothnan as a horticulturist.
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