About the garden
The Royal Horticultural Society
RHS Garden Wisley is the most important horticultural demonstration garden in Europe - perhaps in the world. It has many incidents of great intrinsic value - the vast Pulhamite rock garden which fills an entire hillside, for example - but its true worth lies in its comprehensiveness: everything that a gardener could possibly want to see and learn from is here within its 240 acres. The only problem is its very size: Wisley is not a garden you could ever hope to get round properly in just a day, let alone a few hours. It is somewhere to explore over many visits at different times of the year, until the layout and the principal features become familiar and you learn where you should go to see what is good and instructive at the time of your visit.
Sir Thomas Hanbury bought the Wisley estate and gave it to the Society in 1903 for 'the encouragement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture in all its branches.' When the Society moved its experimental garden from Chiswick, Wisley was in a remote part of Surrey with no public transport to serve it. The move would not have been possible without the invention of the motor car: 6,000 Fellows (as members were then called) visited it during its first 12 months. Now more than 700,000 visitors come to the garden every year. Wisley was unashamedly a trials garden where the Society practised the perfect cultivation of every type of plant that could be grown in the British Isles from alpines to hothouse orchids, whether in the open ground or in artificial conditions. This was backed up - then, as now - by an important system of trials which grew, tested, examined and made awards to flowers, fruit and vegetables. Those trials remain one of the garden's most important activities. Wisley was, above all, conceived as a scientific garden: to this day, the main building which dominates the formal garden near the entrance is known as the Laboratory and contains scientific and administrative offices.
Sir Simon Hornby, Past-President of the RHS, described Wisley as 'a garden to delight, instruct and inspire.' His assertion is true at every time of the year. For many visitors the pulling power of Wisley is greatest in the short, dark days of winter. That is the time when such plants as cyclamen and narcissi fill the alpine pan house: there is always colour and interest here because suitable pots are brought from the growing-frames and plunged into its sandy benches specifically to maintain the display through every week of the year. In the landscaped alpine house, too, there is much of interest even in deep midwinter. Wisley really begins to come into its own in spring. The alpine meadow is the best of its kind anywhere in Britain: from about the middle of March onwards, for at least four weeks, it is completely carpeted with hoop-petticoat narcissi (forms of N. bulbocodium). In September, the same meadows are thick with autumn-flowering crocuses.
Beyond them is the Pulhamite rock garden, constructed in 1911-12, which is probably the finest in Britain. It does not provide the variety of habitats that more modern rock gardens offer, but it is a majestic and beautiful construction. It covers the whole hillside from the Alpine beds at the top to the stream at the bottom of the valley, whose margins are thick with such plants as Lobelia cardinalis and lysichitons. Beyond is an area of light woodland where magnolias and tall rhododendrons give shelter to such woodlanders as Meconopsis, hellebores and snowdrops and huge patches of candelabra primulas. By late spring, one of the best areas is Battleston Hill, the highest point in the gardens, where winding paths take you through a beautifully laid out woodland garden underplanted with rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and camellias. Crocuses in late winter, lilies in high summer and colchicums in autumn extend the season so that this is always an area of colour and interest.