West Beckham gardeners John and Judy are a real inspiration

Monday, July 9, 2012
10:07 AM

On June 20 it was my very great pleasure to present a gardening trowel on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme to Judy and John McNeil-Wilson in their garden at Chestnut Farm, West Beckham. They have been opening their garden for this very worthwhile charity for the past 10 years, which is laudable indeed. Their first open day is always in February for they have a vast collection of snowdrops, more than 80 different varieties all of which are labelled - so for all you galanthophiles this is the ideal opportunity to see some interesting varieties.

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However, that is not all for this is a garden where there are a huge number of interesting plants from the minute Pratia pedunculata that has sown itself into the lawn studding the grass with blue, jewel-like stars to rare and majestic trees like the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera just opening its first blossoms. I felt very lucky, for I knew that I was in for a treat being given a personal guided tour of the garden of two very knowledgeable and interesting plantspeople.

Having tried to grow peach trees outside and seeing them ravaged by peach leaf curl, I was surprised to see that John has a ‘Peregrine’ peach, trained as an espalier and growing outside but almost free of this debilitating fungal disease. I asked him how he managed this and was surprised to hear that he covers the peach with clear plastic sheeting around Christmas time only removing it in June. Of course, the cover is removed several times when the plant is in flower so that pollination, with the aid of a rabbit’s tail, can take place. After that, it is replaced, the aim being to prevent peach curl fungal spores which are carried by rain, from settling on the foliage, the treatment works and is, I think, a tip worth passing on.

Drimys lanceolata is a very graceful shrub with a rather refined appearance, unlike its cousin D. winteri it has small evergreen leaves that make it worth a place in any garden but, it is for the flowers which are creamy-white and held in conspicuous bunches in February that it is principally grown, ideal here as an accompaniment to snowdrops. When John handed me a leaf and said taste that, I didn’t know quite what to expect and was pleasantly surprised by its rather hot, spicy flavour, now I know why it is known as the ‘Mountain Pepper’!

Judy likes plants that ‘die well’ for they keep the garden looking tidy without too much effort from the gardener. One such shrub that obliges her is Dipelta floribunda, in early summer this is covered with masses of tubular, pale pink flowers with yellow throats rather like a refined Weigelia, these are followed by fruits that are surrounded by very decorative papery bracts giving two seasons of interest and in Judy’s opinion ‘dying well’! As the shrub ages the bark peels in a most attractive way giving it added interest in winter.

In our garden we have some plants of a relatively new cornus called C. Venus; this has very large white bracts and at the moment is looking quite enchanting. In Judy and John’s garden there was a really lovely specimen of Cornus capitata covered with beguiling green bracts looking like exotic green flowers. Again this cut the mustard for Judy by producing masses of strawberry-like fruit in winter which are greedily taken by birds when they are ripe.

I also loved the flowers on a Rubus that I hadn’t encountered before, they were large, pink and packed with stamens, I thought that they looked like a large single rose to which, of course, they are related. This is almost certainly Rubus odoratus, I have been promised a cutting which is easy as like many others of this family of plants it suckers so detaching one of these at the correct time is quite easy, I wonder, if like others in this family, it produces fruit?

Judy and John are great garden visitors themselves as I witnessed when I espied a rather good looking shrub rose which they acquired from Helen Dillon’s garden in Dublin many years ago. The name had long been lost but, a quick call to Dublin told Judy that it was Rosa Marie Padic. It has pale pink flowers with a slight scent, thornless red stems but, a few thorns on the backs of the leaves.

Here was also a very dark, devilish red Astrantia that had come from the great Piet Oudolf’s garden in Holland. This is a garden full of personal memories but, not one that stands still for both its incumbents are always adding new plants such as the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. This tree has a bad reputation, not without good reason for it can take years before you see it flower. However, if you do your research as these two enterprising gardeners had, you will find that there is a named clone called ‘Sonoma’ which starts flowering at the tender age of four to five years old which in tree terms is quite young!

Another intriguing and fascinating shrub is Sinocalycanthus raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’, this was in full bloom and I can’t make up my mind whether or not I like it. The flowers are a sinister shade of maroon and are said to be around 7 ½ cms (3 inches) across although I think that here they were a little larger than that. Again, this is a relatively new plant that was introduced from the J. C. Raulston Arboretum in North Carolina. In the autumn the leaves on this deciduous shrub turn yellow before falling, I note that one or two nurseries tell customers to keep a watch out for marauding molluscs on young plants, so if you intend growing this you have been warned!

Ornithogalums are a rum lot! One thinks immediately of the Star of Bethlehem plants of which abound in country gardens with their white flowers each with a green stripe on the reverse side of the petal. Here in light woodland shade was O. Pyrenaicum with ramrod stems of flower buds to a height of 60 cms (2 feet), the plant is known as the Bath asparagus for its new shoots are edible and it is naturalised in the West Country however, I don’t think that Judy will be harvesting hers for she loves its spires of sophisticated green flowers too much.

I ended my tour of this fascinating garden with its many rare and unusual plants by making the presentation of the trowel in the Fountain Garden. Here beneath a late flowering, swooningly scented white Wisteria, surrounded by a melee of plants including delphiniums, geraniums, aquilegias, oriental poppies, irises, knautia, roses and clematis not to mention a really smart buttercup with pale lemon flowers and a delightful, pale-pink erigeron called E. pensylvanicus, Judy and John received their trowel with great thanks for their efforts in helping to raise money for the National Gardens Scheme over the past 10 years.

One question that Judy was asked by a snowdrop visitor was: “Is there much to see when the snowdrops have finished?”

What a stupidly banal question for this is a year-round garden full to bursting with rare and unusual plants. I loved my visit and I think that you will too, the garden is next open on Sunday July 22 from 11am to 5 pm when there will be visiting nurseries with unusual plants for sale, refreshments will be available too. Do take the time to go and enjoy it and to get to know some new plants too like Salix magnifica, a willow with catkins so large that they are almost unbelievable; on female trees they can reach 18 cms (7 inches) long!