Leonardslee Gardens To Open Again
The greatest woodland garden in the UK is set to reopen in West Sussex with an excitement for nature lovers akin to Willy Wonka opening up his doors. With spectacular displays of Azaleas and Rhododendrons, Leonardslee is world famous.
Andrew Staib, principle garden designer for Glorious Gardens Sussex, goes on a tour of the gardens with Head Gardener, Ray Abrahams.
For 8 years, the 240 acres of Leonardslee has been a neglected place. But when Penny Streeter bought the property and gardens in 2017 work started immediately. Last year Ray Abrahams was brought in to renovate the gardens.
“This garden is so full of wonderful surprises I am still discovering new and rare trees and plants.” says Ray, looking around into the still, sunlit Winter landscape. “The first thing we have to do is make it ready for the public. With are putting in new paths, of which there are 6 miles, and building benches and a new reception area. Then we will start work on the Rhododendrons. Over a period of six to ten years, we will slowly take the height out from some of them to encourage growth lower down and have taken huge volumes of dead wood out of the canopies already.”
The statistics of Leonardslee are mind boggling. The gardens consist of over 15,000 Rhododendrons , 8,000 Azaleas and 15,000 other trees including giant Californian Redwoods and over 30 species of Eucalyptus. In the ancient woodland there are trees over 500 years old and there are 22 Champion Trees (A champion tree is recognised as the best living example of the species in the UK), two of which are Magnolia cambelii and Molecromata.)
More heart breaking are other figures like the gardens are home to over 150 trees on the Red List, which is the list of trees in the world near extinction, including Pinus paulustri and the Algerian Oak.
“And see that tree there,” he says, pointing to a beautiful 20 foot Rhododendron changi, “ they think there might be only 30 left in the whole of China which they come from. A valley was flooded to make a damn and wiped out most of them”
“Our aim is to replicate the entire garden by collecting seeds and cuttings and either growing them on or storing them in seed banks. There are too many rare trees here too loose. WE aim to share them with other gardens.There is such rare stuff here. Edward Loder, the 19th Century founder of the gardens, had the pick of the bunch from plant hunters who returned from their world adventures. His son, Robin, planted over 120 different species of oak trees on that high ridge over there.”
“This is such a valuable and prestigious garden We would like to label every plant here and become an educational centre specialising in acid loving plants.”
Ray has devoted his whole life to acid loving plants, running away from school when he was 14 to work at Windsor gardens as well as the Queen Mother’s gardens and then on to managing other great woodland gardens in the UK and around the world.
He is full of quiet passion and focus. We come across a glade with a small stream running down the hillside.
“ We aim to make a forest of Australian tree ferns here and further down restore a large bog garden- to bring it all back to life!”
Ray goes on to explain the positive side of the garden being closed for so many years.
“A tremendous amount of nature has established itself over these years. Emperor Dragonflies down near the lower lake, insects I’ve never seen before, a lot of bird life and lizards and some wild orchids that I’ve never seen before in the UK. And in the deer park there are still eight pure white deer which are ancestors of the deer raised here a 100 years ago.
We come to the succession of lakes that lie on the valley floor.
“These were once iron stone pits in the Middle ages. Then they filled up with water. We aim to dredge the silt ponds and re fish them as well as putting in water lilies.”
I mention that I love Cryptomeria. Ray dashes into the undergrowth and eventually shows me the most extraordinary species I didn’t know existed. “ There are still lots of surprises, and that woodland next the deer park used to be part of the gardens. I’m still finding specimen trees there.”
Ray is still in awe I think about what he has taken on. He is both ambitious for the gardens whilst recognising that they are already still very beautiful. and simply need to be preserved. We have over 500 hundred species of Camellias and half of them have never even been named! They have interbred and it will take years to classify them all.”
What is clear is that Ray, and owner Penny, have the excitement and commitment to make Leonardslee special again.
What to see in March
Leaonarslee is due to open towards the end of the month, the the great Rhododendron flower show lasts all the way till June. Keep looking for updates on their website for the opening dates.
What to Do this Month
Get busy in the vegetable patch – sowing both indoors and outdoors can begin
You can give Shrubs like Cornus And Salix a hard prune back- look on the RHS website to see how ruthless you can be!
If the water starts warming up you can start feeding the fish.
If you haven’t finished pruning your roses now is the last time to do them before they come into leaf.
Clean up the beds now to give bulbs a chance to get as much light as possible
Lastly, look up summer flowering bulbs and tuber plants such as Dahlias. They can be planted now.