Published: 17 September 2015
Plants take centre stage
Started by the distinguished nurseryman and plantsman Sir Harold Hillier in 1953 the collections now include over 42000 plants from the world’s temperate regions, 400 champion trees and 14 National Collections
The name of Hillier is known internationally not only in the horticultural profession with a major wholesale production nursery but also to UK gardeners through  their chain of garden centres and a record breaking number of Gold winning Chelsea Flower Show displays.
I first visited the gardens in 1975 when our student group was given a tour by the inspirational Curator Roy Lancaster who is recognised as a world class plantsman and was no doubt also inspired by Sir Harold himself.  I also purchased on that trip my first copy of The Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs that I still use today. Even at that time, this garden and plant collection had gained an international reputation.
Sir Harold bequeathed the gardens [not the commercial operations] to Hampshire County Council who are now sole trustees and should be congratulated on not only the high standards that are achieved throughout this garden but also their commitment to the long term horticultural development.

Evidence of Hampshire County Councils commitment to the gardens is seen with the recently built visitor and educational pavilion where many educational programs are run.

Director of the gardens Wolfgang Bopp looks at the female flowers that recently appeared for the first time on a specimen of Wollemia nobilis, a fairly recently discovered tree species native to the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia.
The whole garden is an inspiring outdoor learning resource for people of all ages, from pre-school through all the key stages within the national curriculum; amateur gardeners wishing to increase their skills on one of the many courses and the horticultural students from around the world who are studying plants and science based subjects who wish to see a living collection of world class importance and status.  
Throughout the gardens interpretation boards have been introduced to give visitors the opportunity to learn more about what they are seeing.

The Nature Explorer’s Shelter has solar powered microscopes for visitors to examine plant and insect specimens in greater detail. On the walls identification charts help with identification of items seen around the garden. 

There are some dedicated areas where structured learning sessions take place with the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens education staff and volunteers. Themed ‘outdoor rooms include the Mediterranean Room with its scented and edible plants for hot dry regions and the Bamboo Room where sound is a key element and the Growing space where hands on grow your own takes place in the edible plots

Visitors of all ages can get a closer look at plants when following certain trails. Points indicated on their trail sheets indicate where these ‘trail posts’ are located, here the questions will relate to examining the intricate patterns that form the Sunflower heads grown by different local schools.

The importance of education was summed up by Wolfgang ‘The entire 180 acre garden is a learning space for visitors of all ages to explore and enjoy. Within the Education Garden we have a concentration of plants and learning opportunities particularly suited to schools and families. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens is such a rich learning environment, the opportunities are almost endless’

The Herbarium is an ongoing project that is increasing the number of dried plant specimens each month from the current 8000. It has become a valuable resource accessed through the data base for use by researchers across the globe. Researchers can see the collections for specific studies by appointment. It is a vital permanent reference collection.
Wolfgang commented that the cross referencing of plant collection information and research is becoming more important, not only with the accurate classification of plants but also how plants have adapted over time and which plants may have the potential to cope with the effects of changes to climate and habitat; one example where this information will be valuable is the selection of tree species that will thrive in cities in the future where temperatures and pollution levels will be higher than those at present.   ‘The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens is part of the global network of botanic gardens that supports and carries out such vital research and advisory work’ said Wolfgang.   

The 250m long Centenary Border is the longest double border with over 800 different varieties of perennials, grasses, climbers and shrubs that give dramatic displays throughout the year.
The formal design for the central axis is highlighted by the white stone paths, however the planting scheme also allows glimpses into the gardens beyond enticing visitors to walk through the border paths to see the plants more closely. The backs of the borders are shaped more informally and blend into their surroundings to great effect, a good idea for gardeners to take away and use in their own gardens.

The meadows provide an informal setting for specimen plants that form part of the collections, also providing habitat for many species of wildlife that play an important part in the biodiversity management plans for the gardens

It is these planting contrasts that Director of Gardens Wolfgang Bopp is keen to maintain, ‘Each area should have its own style and character across the garden so visitors can see plants in different surroundings, some will be formal, others meandering and much more natural and informal. The Gardens should be distinct and not have the same feel everywhere.
Every season has something of interest for visitors to see – spring with Magnolias, Camellias, Rhododendrons, summer displays of the Centenary Border and pond, the autumn colour is good, even just the car park is outstanding and in the winter the four acre Winter Garden has a range of colours, textures and shapes and many winter flowering plants. A mid winter count last year revealed over two hundred different taxa flowering at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens.  
There is a large band of volunteers who play an essential part in the well being of the gardens, they are involved in many aspects that range from tree surveying, hands on practical gardening, meeting visitors. The herbarium is maintained by volunteers and they help with administration duties. There are opportunities for more people to join the volunteer team.
The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are a horticultural masterpiece where the plants are the stars. This diverse and fascinating collection has been achieved in a relatively short period of time, and with a secure future as part of Hampshire County Council this deserves to be recognised as a national treasure. 

All these amazing resource are available to visitors to see, enjoy and discover more about the world of plants.

 For further information and visitor details:
Reported by Chris Allen  

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