Big Sky Thinking

Clover Hill in Summer

Clover Hill in Summer - Credit: RHS / Lee Beel

RHS Garden Hyde Hall near Chelmsford has a new curator as well as some bold new projects to champion the garden’s horticulture offering. Philippa Pearson paid a visit to find out more

RHS Garden Hyde Hall, located in Rettendon near Chelmsford, is undoubtedly one of the county’s horticultural highlights — and there are plans for bigger and brighter things to come.

‘This area will be covered with swathes of perennial meadow planting,’ explains James Brett, the new curator at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, with his arms outstretched as he stands at the top of a hill overlooking the rolling Essex countryside below us. We have just walked through an inconspicuous opening in a hedge adjacent to the Robinson Garden, a contemporary space in the Hilltop Garden at RHS Hyde Hall. The views from the hill where we stand are stunning and it is the slopes and the undulating meadows below that will be blooming with large-scale, perennial, cultivated meadows.

‘The meadows will cover about 46 acres,’ Robert continues, ‘and there will be a mixture of grasses and perennial plants.’ The Big Sky Meadow project is a collaboration with international wildflower expert James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape. James is responsible, along with fellow Sheffield professor Dr Nigel Dunnett, for the outstanding wildflower meadows at London’s Olympic Park. It is hard to take in that huge sections of the expanse below us will be a wafting expanse of colourful meadow as the sheer scale is amazing. The first meadow area was sown with a special seed mix by James himself, with a little help from the Hyde Hall gardening team, back in January.

The Big Sky Meadow project is one of several in a ten-year plan to extend the horticultural remit of RHS Garden Hyde Hall which also includes a new Winter Garden, an extension of the dramatic planting on Clover Hill which links the Visitor Centre with the renowned Hilltop Garden and a new global vegetable garden. Robert’s enthusiasm and grasp of needs for the existing garden areas and new plans for the site is impressive considering he only took up the post of curator in April.

With training at the Welsh College of Horticulture, a Kew Diploma in Horticulture and having previously worked at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, The Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge and The Eden Project, Robert’s horticultural pedigree is sparkling. His aim at RHS Garden Hyde Hall is to develop plant collections and horticultural displays which he describes as ‘gardening from 28 to 360 acres’. Ian Le Gros, the previous curator and head of site, is now dedicated to head of site with responsibility for overall site management and key project development.

Back in the Hilltop Garden a whole border of roses has been removed and replanted elsewhere so that the existing grass avenue can be made wider; at the end of the avenue is a tall beech hedge.

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‘We are going to make an opening in the hedge,’ Robert begins to describe, ‘as on the other side there will be a new vegetable garden.’ Plans for this new initiative, the Global Growth Vegetable Garden (sponsored by Witan Investment Trust), include a glasshouse and circular beds that will grow fruit and vegetables from Europe, North America, South America and Asia. ‘It will be an innovative as well as educational place that will be quite inspirational,’ Robert adds.

Currently on this space is the nursery and gardeners’ work area, which is in the process of moving to another site, and the new global productive garden is planned to open in spring 2016. Work has also begun on the new Winter Garden located near the visitor centre. Crossing over the Millennium Avenue, it will take in views of Clover Hill and the lake. Robert’s input is to raise the levels by creating earth landforms which surround the pathway and extending the planting here. This will give a sense of enclosure as well as blending with the surrounding undulating countryside.

Elsewhere, the Dry Garden improves year on year with more planting being added, while the Robinson Garden is looking stunning some seven years after it opened. Planting and borders in the main Hilltop Garden are also being overhauled and re-planted.

RHS Garden Hyde Hall is establishing itself even more as the horticultural hotspot in East Anglia and a place where garden lovers of all levels will be enchanted, inspired, educated and charmed by the versatility of what is on offer.

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