JARS v56n2 - Leonardslee Gardens - The Premier Woodland Garden

Leonardslee Gardens - The Premier Woodland Garden
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

In the universe of woodland gardens, certain criteria seem to dictate the potential for excellence from the very start. These fundamentals encompass location, topography, adequate rainfall and soil structure and chemistry. With regard to each of these and their fortuitous interplay, perhaps no garden in England ascends to such a high plane as that of Leonardslee.

A comfortable distance southeast of London, the temperature and prevailing winds are each within acceptable bounds. Residing in a valley (the name Leonardslee derives from the "lea" or valley of St. Leonard's Forest - one of the ancient forest lands of the south of England) with its axis extending from north to south, the 240 acres that make up the garden are dissected at its lowest point by a small stream, which at intervals is interrupted by a series of delightful ponds. An annual rainfall of about 28 inches (70 cm) is more than sufficient given the slope of the land and its canopy of overreaching trees. Facing east and west, the walls of the valley are seldom exposed to an overly hot sun. The valley, with its surrounding forest, is also greatly protected in winter from excessively cold winds blustering out of the northeast. The soil consists of a light loam surmounting a fine-grained sandstone. It is fertile with several hundred years of accumulated humus that is lime free. What a recipe for ericaceous plants like rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias, whic h have thrived here for more than a century!

Bluebells beneath Acer pseudoplatanus - Leonardslee Garden
Bluebells beneath Acer pseudoplatanus 'Prinz Handjery' - a celebrated scene in spring.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Picturing the above, it is difficult to believe that somewhat over 300 years ago, beginning in the 16th century and extending into the 17th century, this inviting valley with its accompanying woodland was inauspiciously reduced to desolation when Sussex became the epicenter of iron smelting. Ore was extracted from surface pits and trees were felled to reduce the ore as well as to produce the heat to smelt it. The stream was dammed into the ponds of today, and a series of water wheels furnished the power for hammers to crush the ore and giant bellows to stoke the furnaces. The subsequent discovery of coal in Wales led to the abandonment of this mighty industry and the gradual resurrection of this once idyllic landscape.

It took the efforts of generations to restore the trees that once flourished here. By the early 1800s the estate was only lightly wooded with natural oak, beech and chestnut with an inter-mingling of some ancient pines and stands of larch. The family responsible for the first ornamental plantings at Leonardslee were the Beauclerks in the first half of the 19th century. They, however, fell on hard times and were propelled to sell to the Hubbard family in 1852. It was into this family that Sir Edmund Loder married in 1878. He came from Handcross at High Beeches, a mere four miles distant. Recognized in its own right as a noteworthy garden, Handcross became a precipitating influence when Sir Edmund purchased Leonardslee from his in-laws in 1889. He set about forthwith to plant all sorts of exotic trees and shrubs and to install a menagerie of exotic animals, among which were the wallabies that exist to this day. Sir Edmund's mastery of design is evident throughout the estate. Taking care not to forsake the woodland character of the place, he focused his energies particularly upon rhododendrons and exotic conifers. Many rhododendrons were bred at Leonardslee under his tutelage. The best known to this day is the towering and fragrant Rhododendron 'Loderi' (a cross of R. fortunei with R. griffithianum , which produced a "grex" or group of sister seedlings with magnificent flowers ranging from pastel pinks to pure white). This occurred in 1901 so that a century of growth resides in a good number of the most breathtaking specimens.

Towering Rhododendron 'Loderi King George' - Leonardslee Garden
Towering Rhododendron 'Loderi King George'.
Photo by Peter Kendall

After Sir Edmund's death, the estate fell into the hands of his grandson Sir Giles Loder, who continued to upgrade the grounds and who lavished a great deal of time and attention on installing the captivating camellia plantings we see today. Sir Giles retired in 1981, and the garden is presently being administered by the fifth generation of Loders under the able direction of Robin Loder.

Rock Garden at Leonardslee.
View of the Rock Garden with azaleas, large
fastigiate conifers and Chusan palms prominent.
Photo by Peter Kendall

I arrived at the garden for the first time in the second week of May 1999. The bloom throughout England this particular year had been nothing less than stellar and Leonardslee proved no exception. My introduction to the garden was the exquisite Rock Garden. Laid out about 1900 by Messrs. Pulham, who were master constructors of gardens, the setting is eminently natural. The plants are principally dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas, which provide a kaleidoscope of color in the spring. Interspersed are choice dwarf conifers. Other select shrubs add a further dimension to the area. The top ramparts of this garden are dominated by some large fastigiate conifers and the rare clump-forming variety of the Chusan palm ( Trachycarpus fortunei var. surculosa ).

A wallaby at Leonardslee.
A wallaby, one of a small menagerie of
exotic animals installed at Leonardslee.
Photo by Peter Kendall

From the Rock Garden I meandered across a fenced-in grassy area where I saw my first wallabies (an Australian marsupial) which, by their foraging, help keep the grass and weeds to manageable proportions in various parts of the garden. I then reconnoitered the walls of the valley from top to bottom. I additionally skirted the stream from its beginning in the Dell (formerly the American Garden) to its termination five ponds later in New Pond in the garden's lower reaches. Throughout these delvings naturalized stands of Rhododendron luteum were ubiquitous and provided an accompanying fragrance to match their cheerful demeanor.

Bonsai R. obtusum amoenum - Leonardslee Garden
Bonsai R. obtusum amoenum , 3½ feet tall in pot, was
taken from Leonardslee nine years ago. The roots were
already extended over the stone. Training began after
two years. The plant is approximately 60 years old.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Later on I visited the Exhibition of Bonsai and the Alpine House, both of which are jewels in their own right.

I departed the garden late in the day just before closing and was fortunate to have a brief chat with Robin Loder at the time. He informed me that with the garden entrance fees, the Gift Shop, the restaurant and the greenhouse and plant sales, Leondardslee has begun to forge a self-sufficiency. The Great Storm of October 1987 which ravaged so many of England's majestic gardens was, according to Robin, a boon in disguise. Over the years the garden had become overgrown to the point where its original 200 plus acres had been reduced to approximately one half its visitable acreage. Overbearing shade had also conspired to diminish the garden. After the storm and following a massive cleanup, the garden was restored to its original proportions and today is a thriving entity.

Peter Kendall is a member of the Portland Chapter.