RHS Garden Rosemoor is reopening after weeks of lockdown

PUBLISHED: 12:54 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 13:45 10 June 2020

RHS Garden Rosemoor - Primulas in The Rock Gully. Photo: Jason Ingram

RHS Garden Rosemoor - Primulas in The Rock Gully. Photo: Jason Ingram

© RHSPhoto: Jason Ingram

RHS Garden Rosemoor, which is 30 years old in June, has started to reopen after lockdown, for pre-booked visits only

The Lake at RHS Garden Rosemoor. Photo: Jason IngramThe Lake at RHS Garden Rosemoor. Photo: Jason Ingram

There has been no rain to speak of for weeks, fields and gardens in North Devon are starting to look so dry and parched, which makes arriving at RHS Garden Rosemoor on a hot weekday afternoon all the more special.

This beautiful garden, which first opened to the public 30 years ago this June, is so lush and green. Surrounded by mature woodland, the trees provide a glorious backdrop to the site which is set in a valley on the outskirts of Great Torrington.

The garden is still closed to the public when I visit, although the plant sales area is open. It’s very quiet, and such a summer’s day would normally bring hundreds of visitors to explore the garden and visit the restaurant. The open-air dining terrace should be packed, but there’s no one here – just me and the garden’s curator Jonathan Webster.

The sparrows are still around though; the cheeky crumb-snatchers are a familiar sight here and they flit between the empty tables and up into the wisteria that edges the pathway.

Aerial view of heart-shaped lawn art in support of the NHS at RHS Garden Rosemoor. Photo: Soundview MedaAerial view of heart-shaped lawn art in support of the NHS at RHS Garden Rosemoor. Photo: Soundview Meda

Jon points to a corner of the restaurant roof, just above us. “There’s one nesting up under the eaves - thinking its nice and quiet,” he says. “We’re seeing birds nesting in funny places, as we don’t have the activity in the garden.”

It’s a special year for Rosemoor, the 30th birthday celebrations would have included a garden party in early June, a celebration for people, past and present, associated with the garden, and a visit by special guest, the garden designer and TV presenter, Adam Frost.

But this, and all events, including the annual flower show, are cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Speaking about the weeks of lockdown Jon says: “It’s been a surreal experience but we count ourselves lucky to have such a place to work in. As gardeners, we get very attached to the places where we work.”

Allium 'Purple Sensation' in the hot garden at Rosemoor, Devon. Photo: RHS Jon WebsterAllium 'Purple Sensation' in the hot garden at Rosemoor, Devon. Photo: RHS Jon Webster

Two thirds of Rosemoor’s staff were furloughed. The garden team was reduced to 24 and split into two with each team working a seven-day garden shift on alternate weeks. When not in the garden they’d do admin and research from home. Keeping two teams, with a careful mix of skills across each team, meant garden work could continue if infection hit.

A few team members opted to stay onsite, in the garden’s holiday apartments. It had the benefit of keeping a security presence on site, although, with the luxurious surroundings including roll top baths, Jon says: “I may have trouble getting them out.”

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The 70 plus band of volunteers, of which 45 work in the gardens, had to stay at home too.

Plans were changed to accommodate the new situation. They decided to stall any spring planting, cutting the workload in the vegetable garden and the potager garden; planting of annuals was cut back too – instead they focused on preparing for later summer.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how we’ve kept up with it,” says Jon. When you’re working in the garden for seven days, it’s very concentrated and hands-on, so very productive.”

With no visitors, the team has been a bit more relaxed about its work, there’s no need for the early morning pre-opening tasks and checklist, and equipment and machinery can be left out without risk to the public. “We have been able to be a bit messier without the visitors,” admits Jon.

Mulching was done early this year, just in time before lockdown, which has helped reduce watering requirements. That, combined with Rosemoor’s acid loamy soil, and good groundcover planting, has kept moisture in the ground.

Jon and his team have found solace too, working in the garden at a time of such stress and anxiety in the outside world.

They’ve spotted more wildlife around the grounds and been aware of birdsong in the quietness.

Jon says: “We’ve noticed things in the garden more, we’ve had more time to soak it in and reflect, it’s been very calming.

“We sit in our yard during breaks, in a big circle of benches and we can forget the world outside the garden and the strange and unhappy things going on.”

With no visitors to stop and chat and ask questions, they’ve been fully absorbed in their gardening tasks, but as Jon says: “We do miss it, as we like that interaction. We even have some regulars who visit every day – it will be funny to see them back again.”

And there have been glorious spring sights that people have missed, including the alliums that herald the beginning of the hot garden display, and the wisteria which was “awash with flowers”, says Jon.

“We had cracking Japanese cherries in blossom season and the apples in the orchard were amazing. This year the blossom has been really good. With no frost and coolish winds it seemed to go on for a long time.

“We’ve had the driest Easter for many years and it was cracking – as soon as we open it will probably rain!”

Most people visiting Rosemoor think the garden looks much older than it is. It feels like a mature, very well-established garden. Part of this is due to its setting, it’s bordered by mature woodland and still retains old trees that were originally on the site. Also, as curator Jon Webster says: “In Devon plants don’t stop growing over the summer and they put on a lot more growth than they do in the south east, where they tend to have a summer stop.”

Rosemoor was gifted to the RHS by Lady Anne Berry who owned the house and had created the garden that surrounded it. The site consisted of eight acres of gardens and 32 acres of pastureland. After a new visitor centre and formal gardens were built, it opened to the public on 1 June 1990.

The most recent project is the restoration of a canal and pathway which borders the lower end of the garden and leads to a lime kiln. When complete it will offer a different view of Rosemoor and reveal more of the site’s fascinating past.

To visit RHS Garden Rosemoor now you’ll need to go to their website and book a timed ticket.

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