Largest specialist rhododendron growers in the south of England, Millais Nurseries in Churt

Tucked away down some lovely Surrey lanes, you will find the largest specialist grower of rhododendrons and azaleas in the south of England, Millais Nurseries in Churt, which can be traced back to the famous botanist and author, J G Millais

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2011

Tucked away down some lovely Surrey lanes, you will find the largest specialist grower of rhododendrons and azaleas in the south of England, Millais Nurseries in Churt, which can be traced back to the famous botanist and author, J G Millais

Words and photography by Leigh Clapp

Taking a stroll around the six-acre display garden at Crosswater Farm in Churt provides a wonderful opportunity to see mature rhododendrons and azaleas in an idyllic woodland setting with lawns, ponds and streams, protected by the dappled shade of magnolias, maples and arbutus. In addition, there is also a trial garden of new varieties to discover.

The garden is part of Millais Nurseries, where they grow one of the widest ranges of rhododendrons and azaleas in the world, have unparalleled experience in the genus and are frequent Gold Medal winners at the prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

At this year’s Chelsea, they are ‘going for gold’ again with an exhibit demonstrating how adaptable rhododendrons and azaleas are, and how they can be used in small gardens, including around formal patio areas.

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Botanical heritageIt all started back in 1947 when Ted and Romy Millais purchased the then derelict farm, and as their passion was for rhododendrons, this became the focus of the garden.

Over many years of development, they stocked the gardens with a vast array of choice varieties. A large number were found on plant hunting expeditions to the Himalayas where they were on the lookout for unusual and late flowering species to avoid the late spring frosts in their cold garden.

They turned their passion into a business when they opened the nursery in 1970 and today over 35,000 rhododendrons are propagated each year for home gardeners, large estates, botanic gardens, arboretums and specialist garden centres throughout Britain, Ireland and Europe.

Even into their seventies, Ted and Romy continued to organise plant hunting trips and introduced new species into the country – and today the family tradition continues: the current custodian of the garden and manager of the nurseries is their son David.

“Dad was busy planting a new arboretum area until just a few months before he died at the age of 85 in 2003,” says David. “Those trees are now growing up well and rhododendrons are being established in the canopy below.

“However, our heritage actually goes back to the naturalist, botanist and author J G Millais, who identified and described many rhododendrons for the first time and published his great two-volume series, Rhododendrons, in 1917 and 1924.”

Practical tipsMaintaining the garden is important to ensure the health of a woodland environment and the rhododendrons themselves. This has involved felling many mature conifers to allow more light in and to create space for planting more rhododendrons and young trees such as Japanese maples and magnolias.

“We are currently involved with a big mapping and labelling project to ensure that as many plants as possible are recorded for our own use and to help visitors,” adds David.

With the vast array of varieties, it is difficult to have favourites – indeed David says it changes from year to year. However, like his father before him, he really appreciates the early and late flowering possibilities that extend the season.

“They allow me time to enjoy the flowers outside the busy spring season in May,” he says. “Ted bred many new late flowering varieties, such as High Summer and the new Summer Dawn, which is yet to be released. He extended the flowering season of deciduous azaleas to as late as August and we are busy evaluating and naming the best of these.

“The hundreds of seedlings are a sight to behold in late June and July, and any one of them would grace a garden.”

 NEED TO KNOW:Millais Nurseries, Crosswater Farm, Churt GU10 2JN. Gardens open daily from May 1 to June 4 (10am-5pm). National Gardens Scheme openings take place on May 1 and May 2. The nurseries are open all year. For more information, visit the website,, where you can also find details of mail order.

Top growing tips... “Denny Pratt, who is famous for growing late flowering azaleas, had a saying that all they really need is ‘water, water and more water’,” says David Millais. “People forget that many rhododendrons come from monsoon regions and really like a good summer drink in June and July to encourage flower buds for the following year. However, the number one cause of failure is planting too deep. Rhododendrons are surface rooting plants with a very shallow rootball, which likes good aeration and drainage, so it should not be covered at all at planting time.”

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