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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Powis Castle Garden

By Jim Bishop.

This past May I attended the Pacific Horticulture tour of Wales. It featured many gardens, towns, historical sites and two garden shows that bookended the trip. The first garden show was at Royal Horticultural Spring Festival at Malvern and the second was the famous Chelsea Garden Show in London. The two shows are very different in style with one being in the country and the other in the city, however, many of the same plants were on display in both. The show gardens were better at Chelsea, but if you’d like some breathing space, I’d recommend Malvern. In between garden shows we visited some incredible Welsh Gardens including Powis Castle.

I’ve seen many photos of Powis Castle and it has long been on my bucket list of gardens to visit. The opportunity to visit this somewhat remote garden was partly why I went on the tour. At the top of the garden, where you enter, sits a medieval castle and large residence. Behind the castle is the seventeenth century renaissance terrace garden that cascades down the step hillside to formal Italian styled gardens. You follow a series of steps and ramped walkways to get to the lower gardens. The first level of the terrace takes you past some spectacularly large and old trimmed yews. Towards the end of this terrace a number of yews have grown together and have been trimmed into the somewhat famous lumpy yews of Powis Castle. The next level down gets more interesting and it here against a large retaining wall that an impressively large wisteria has been trimmed to run along it. We had our timing just right and it was in full, glorious bloom.

The next several levels also had many Mediterranean plants, though not exactly what you expect in chilly and damp central Wales, but the large south facing exposure creates a warmer micro-climate. There were a number of California natives in the mix. One of the most impressive was our own native Ribes speciosum, Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry, in full bloom. These grow naturally on our hillside here in Mission Hills, but I’ve never seen one bloom as well as the plant at Powis. There were also several Ceanothus, California Iris, Banksia rose, Cistus, European Euphorbias, Clematis and an assortment of annual and perennial plants to extend the flowering season.

Off to one side in the lower garden was a traditional-looking half-timbered home with a brick foundation and chimneys, and some impressive leaded windows and downspouts. In front of the house stretches a large lawn with traditional English borders on 3 sides. Walking through the hedgerow led to another garden room with a lawn, and several rows of half-domed arbors with roses tightly fastened them that were just starting to leaf out.

Behind these 2 rooms were 2 more large grass courts surround by hedgerows with fewer flowers. In all of the garden rooms, behind you high on the hill loomed the castle with its terraced gardens looking down on you.

Continuing on around the edge of the property, you climb up into a small hillside garden opposite castle. The garden is wooded and features large plantings of Azaleas and other woodland plants. It has some stunning views back towards the castle. As you walk down the hill and head back to the castle, after leaving the woods there is a large pond at the lowest level that also serves a reflection pool for the views of the castle.

Back up on top of the hill behind the main home is a medieval castle with an inner courtyard that is used for alfresco dining. Inside the buildings is the cafeteria, gift shop and several museums. I was running short on time and didn’t get to visit all of them. Back in the courtyard was another large wisteria in full bloom against the south-facing wall.

Many of you may be familiar with Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. It is likely a hybrid of several Artemisia species. It is frequently available at nurseries but has never performed well for me. The plant originated from a cutting that was brought to Powis Castle by the head gardener back in the late 1960s. In1993 it received the coveted Royal Horticulture Society's Award of Garden Merit. I thought perhaps there would be some notable examples of the plant in the garden, however, I was only able to find one long planting of newly set-out plants against a wall, with no label or other information. Compared to the rest of the garden there was nothing particular noteworthy about the display. I think the plant would work better when mixed with other plants in an herbal border…but I was just a visitor to the garden, not its gardener.


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