17th May: Rhododendron Walk

I did something which I never normally do which was to sign up for a guided tour – in this case a “Rhododendron and Azalea” tour at Exbury gardens.  The tour started at 11am and driving there I found myself in a long line of cars all taking the road from Hill Top to Exbury and all going to the gardens.  At 10:10am the car park was already half full, Mr Eddy’s restaurant was too busy for a coffee, and there was a queue of people at the ticket office.  Fortunately they did not seem to know that you can go in via the Gift Shop (often the only weekday entrance).

Inside the gardens I wandered past the bog garden and through the Rock Garden to the Dragonfly Pond.  The cherry trees, which were laden with blossom on the 3rd May, now had no sign of flowers at all.  I hadn’t realised they are so ephemeral, now I understand why the Japanese make such a fuss of them.

Wandering back I joined the group going on the tour which, thankfully, was relatively small – there seemed to be various other tours going on as well as just a lot of day visitors.

Thomas Clark, Head Gardener, starts the tour

I’d expected to learn where the best views of the Rhododendrons and Azaleas were, but Thomas Clark, the Head Gardener, had more of an educational style. I learnt that Azaleas are, in effect, small Rhododendrons and only have 5 stamens or fewer.   Rhododendrons like lots of moisture but don’t like waterlogged ground; wet, freely draining acidic ground seems the ideal.

The tour did not go far but went into a bit of the “Home Wood” which I’d somehow missed on previous visits. We saw the Old Bell hanging from a sessile oak, some 18th century cedars, and the “wiggly tree” which is a type of plane tree which has self layered. I got the impression that our guide, Tom, was really more interested in the trees.  He described how they try to minimise root damage from all the visitors by laying out carpets of bark, and opening up the soil by injecting compressed air and then slow formed charcoal.

The tour only lasted an hour and I was glad I had gone. However it was good that I had arranged to go with Wendy and Zoe on the 10th when the weather was showery, because on this very sunny day there were so many more people. Tom put it down to the Rhododendrons being in bloom and the good weather after the very mixed weather this spring. We would never have been able to get drinks at the Old Tennis Courts cafe on this day!