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Wisley's castles for the bugs and the bees - Lucie Ponsford

Posted by Sara Draycott on 13 Nov 2012 at 01:23 PM

Here we are November, with the autumn rain and wind driving in under our waterproofs, reminding us that summer has gone and nature is encouraging the plant kingdom to hunker down for the winter’s big sleep.

This is my favourite time of year, would you believe it?  On a good day: the light, the temperature, the colours and the relative calm of slow dormancy in the garden reminds me why I became a horticulturalist.  I say calm, the Formal Department, of which I am part of at Wisley, has been working like whirling dervishes - ripping out summer bedding and replacing it with tens of thousands of pansies and bulbs in quick succession! It is quite a process and well worth a visit to see us with a muddy trowel in hand and determined look on our faces as we work through: the Old Bonsai Garden, Top Terrace, Walled Garden East and the Canal Borders – quite a performance.  In fact as a convert to gardening from Costume Design I see bedding schemes as the ultimate theatrical flora show.  With months of prep and growing-on of garish-coloured pansies or pelargoniums and central eye catchers with urns and coiled box the energy and effort for a three month run is on an operatic scale, exhausting but what a crowd pleaser – I love it.

In the Model Gardens, on the other hand, in between the destruction and creation of the floral drama I am now getting to implement some cherished projects that have been conceived over the summer months. I hope to improve the different characters of each of the gardens and hopefully spark ideas for your outdoor spaces at home. 


The project I wanted to share with you today is in the Family Garden (pictured above), which has a great structure that would suit the different uses required by a family.  With pleached hornbeam around the perimeter the garden you would not be overlooked by neighbours. It also has Astroturf, which I heartily approve of, and various sculpted shapes in box, yew and beech giving definition to the garden.  Yet with all gardens, after a while the planting is in need of a refresh and with my interest in getting kids into the garden I wanted to appeal to the parents and kids alike and bring a spirit of wonder to the space.

The changes began with a theme inspired by a trimmed yew and a terracotta container in the garden – both looking like castles – so what better than dungeons and dragons!!  There is a yew hedge which I crenulated to spark the imagination and opposite a grassy gravelled area, this become the Grass snake/ Dragon, loosely termed.  And then the exciting and limiting problem of three stone sinks, initially with water and sand as a small play area – they stood empty and unusable for plants: too shallow for anything water loving and with no drainage for alpines.  I racked my brains for ages and then an idea a castle in miniature, for insects and observation.  Two sinks either side could be made into seats and the central one house the maison d’etre (a bugs ‘reason for living’!!!!).  Not a shabby affair but a turreted estate.


I enlisted help for the construction and James Poulton (above), a new addition to the team and I set about a Wisley themed chateau. 

As far as residents of such an establishment are concerned you are unlikely to get much more than earwigs, snails, spiders and woodlice, none of which gardeners are desperate to preserve, but this is not the purpose of the insect hotel. It is more the fascination of young minds, and the odd masonry bee in a bamboo cane is a bonus. 

To make your hotel/ castle/block of flats, get biodegradable paper, cardboard, wood, stones, in fact anything - even plastics can be used. I had the below bits and bobs for ours. Really anything goes, just make it secure enough not to blow away and water it after construction, speeding the degrading process and therefore making it a more desirable residence.


This is a great project with the kids or even a project to complete for the grandchildren in these autumn days when the soil is too saturated to stand on or the late summer flowers too good to cut back.  Give it a go or just have a look in the Family Garden next time you’re at Wisley.


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