This summer it’s all change for the azaleas that live on the bank between Moat Walk and the Nuttery. Long overdue a complete overhaul, the azaleas received the equivalent of a military haircut in June. This has caused quite a stir amongst visitors who are shocked at the slightly decimated look of the Azalea bank but in reality, there is nothing to fear from this sort of treatment especially when the history of the bank is understood.
The Azaleas were planted in 1948 following much discussion between Harold and Vita. Vita thought that they would be an ideal choice for a bank that was essentially coffin-shaped as they would, in time, disguise the awkward shape. Harold, though, was absolutely adamant that the azaleas would look too ‘suburban’, writing to Vita in 1947 with these thoughts – “No, darling- I do not agree about the azaleas. And why is that? First because I don’t feel that azaleas are very Sissinghurst in any case. They are Ascot, Sunningdale sort of plants. Not our lovely romantic Saxon, Roman, Tudor Kent.” But Vita got her way anyway planting an assortment of old Ghent azaleas all bred before 1900, as well as the golden yellow Rhododendron luteum and R. mollis hybrids. Some of the Ghent hybrids were particularly violently coloured with a whole range such as salmon pink, cerise, violet rose, salmon red, carmine red, dark pink and brilliant orange all being planted next to each other. It’s difficult to imagine that they ever looked good together. We are not sure why Vita chose such a challenging colour scheme or if she even liked the clashing colours. However, since those early days, a more pleasing colour scheme has evolved, consisting of golden yellow, bronze orange and apricot colours. These colours work perfectly with the bluebells which flower at the same time as the azaleas. It was Pam and Sibylle, Vita’s Head Gardener’s from 1959-2004 who began this process of ‘editing’ the azaleas.
By the 1970’s the azaleas had become crowded and were not flowering well. Pam and Sibylle looked upon this as an opportunity to improve the azalea ‘situation’ and commenced on an ‘Azalea Improvement Scheme’ much as we are doing this year. They thinned the over-crowded azaleas by removing some of the more clashing colours and then renewal pruned the others, removing many of the older and unhealthy branches in order to stimulate fresh new growth. Over a period of about 5 years the azaleas returned to full flowering health.
After Pam and Sibylle’s retirement in 2004, Sarah Cook took over as Head Gardener and continued refining the colours of the azaleas. Some of the gardeners remember her unorthodox methods, describing how she would pinpoint any particularly brash azalea during flowering time and tie a label around its trunk with the word ‘yuck’ on it. In the winter, when the azaleas were pruned, any azalea with a condemning label attached to it was duly given the ‘chop’.
But what of the azaleas now? They are more than 60 years old and we know that for the past 20 years very little significant pruning has taken place. This has caused the azaleas to not only grow enormous but has adversely affected their flowering too. In addition, their size has created a dense area of shade which is having a detrimental affect on the other plants growing there.
In this situation, drastic action is much more effective than a little bit of snipping. Renewal pruning involves removing old branches from the base leaving the younger stems to form the new structure of the shrub. New growth will also occur from the stumps of the old stems when dormant buds under the bark are stimulated into growth. We have just completed this project at the end of June.
The azaleas have been watered and mulched and although they look rather forlorn now, by next year, considerable growth will have occurred and it won’t be long before they are looking their best again. Come back and have a look at them next year.