PUBLISHED: 11:54 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:54 22 September 2014
The gardens at Writtle College open three times a year to show off their superb planting schemes and students' talents. Philippa Pearson enjoys the autumn colour display
Writtle College is a special place for gardeners and horticulturists.
‘The grounds at Writtle College are basically a huge outdoor classroom for students,’ explains horticulture and agriculture tutor Tom Cole. Covering 15 acres, the gardens and parkland at the college near Chelmsford offer a wonderful opportunity for students to work with interesting plants and also get the chance to design a few areas themselves. The grounds have a mixture of informal lawns with naturalised bulbs and wildflower areas, while a large tree collection, mixed shrubs and herbaceous borders add structure, colour and interest through the seasons.
Students are allocated an area of the garden or grounds to look after each term and with around 100 students on courses, the extensive garden areas provide plenty of scope for all types of horticultural work.
‘Students really get the chance to use many practical skills in the gardens at Writtle College,’ says Tom, ‘and we spend a lot of time outdoors learning about horticultural techniques.’
For garden visitors, Writtle College has been opening its gates for the last 10 years for the NGS. The grounds are open in February, June and October to show off the best seasonal displays at these key times of the year. Late winter sees a mass of bulbs while the herbaceous borders and roses are at their peak in midsummer. ➤ October is the time to see changing autumnal hues from the extensive collection of trees and in the borders. Despite losing many trees in the devastating hurricane of October 1987, plenty have survived and new plantings are maturing and spreading into spaces left empty by the storm. Maples provide some of the most stunning autumn foliage and Acers in a range of shapes and sizes are grouped together for maximum impact.
The leaves of the giant dogwood Cornus controversa, which makes a small tree so is also a perfect feature for smaller gardens, turn purple in autumn while another tree to look out for in the ground is the Handkerchief Tree Davidia involucrata, given this name because of the large white bracts which hang down from the flowers like handkerchiefs in spring; in autumn the foliage takes on yellow and purple hues. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii or the Himalayan Birch is a fabulous tree for year-round interest. This has the whitest bark of all the birches which makes a striking feature in winter as well as when the tree is in leaf. Autumn turns the foliage a rich buttery yellow and the large groups of the tree in the grounds at Writtle is a spectacular site. In the borders, grasses bleached by the summer sun add height and interest and mingle with flowers and seed heads from perennials and hips on roses, while more autumn foliage delight comes from shrubs such as dogwoods which also have vibrant stem colour adding colour in winter.
Students and staff designed and created four distinct garden areas during the late 1980s and early 1990s which has brought structure and a formal but flowing feel to areas adjacent to the college buildings. Seating areas and a gazebo are surrounded by a clipped hornbeam hedge which turns yellowy orange in autumn. Students have also renovated planting in the deep herbaceous borders and plans for the new college term include a new design and planting for the rock garden area near the entrance and adding more contemporary and exotic planting to other borders.
‘We are also planning to let the grass grow taller in some manicured lawn areas,’ says Tom, ‘to add diversity and interest as well as giving the opportunity to put in some additional naturalised planting.’
Five trees to give a fabulous display of autumn colour and add year-round interest
Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’
A handsome Japanese Maple with interesting-shaped purple leaves that turn bright crimson in autumn. Height 5m
Cornus kousa var. chinensis
The spreading branches have showy white bracts in early summer and stunning orange, bronze and crimson foliage in autumn. Height 6m
Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia Splendens’
Large glossy leaves turn brilliant orange-red in autumn. White flowers in spring are followed by scarlet red fruits lasting through autumn. Height 10m
Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’
The glossy star-shaped leaves of the Sweet Gum tree turn a vibrant red and scarlet in autumn. Height 25m
One of the best Crab Apples for spring blossom followed by red-orange-yellow fruit which last through and good autumn foliage colour. Height 7m
Find out more
The gardens and grounds are open for the NGS on Sunday, October 26 from 10am to 3pm. Admission is £4, children free, refreshments available. Also open in February and June. Check the NGS website for 2015 open days.