Simon Goodenough, now retired after over 25 years as curator of Ventnor Botanic Gardens, is rightly proud of the magnificent job that he and his team did in designing, building and planting a masterpiece.
Nestling between the inland cliff and the sea, the gardens were once tended by patients of the former Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, namely TB, which was finally demolished in 1969. But the gardens remain and are now a verdant riot of plants from all over the globe.
“Twenty-five years ago, when I came here, I felt we were dealing with a microclimate and the climate shift has been sufficient to plant things I would never have dreamed of before,” said Simon as he surveyed the new ‘Westgate Arid Garden’ opened by HRH Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2009.
“In terms of rainfall and temperature patterns we have the nearest thing you get to a Mediterranean type of climate in the UK and plants in this area are from Mediterranean type of climates all over the world. We have a lot of stuff that’s rare and plants from California, parts of Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, South America and South Africa,” he explained.
“We have Barrel cacti from the high Andes and from the mountains of Lethoso in South Africa we have a rare and endangered red databook plant ‘Aloe Polyphylla’,” said Simon pointing out the succulent’s geometric leaf structure.
“The whole principal was to provide a garden that was first and foremost a scientific collection of plants and display them in a way that was informative but at the same time to be a recreational tourist attraction. And in amongst all that we have plants that are of conservation importance because their habitats are under threat.
“But we also had the potential to show what might happen with climate change in Great Britain,” explained Simon as he continued down into the lower Mediterranean Garden with its ancient olive trees.
“These could be 500 years old,” said Simon of the twisted and gnarled olives sitting amongst their younger relatives. “We’re just starting a program with a Sicilian nursery and this whole area will be planted as olives as in the South of England could be a viable crop.
“We now move into an area that is ever changing – a Mediterranean hillside with Upper Greensand and churt rocks,” said Simon of the rock-strewn landscape with its gouged gullies, hewn from the bedrock of the garden.
Ventnor’s famous majestic Echiums feature here with flower spikes that reach between ten and 20ft, along with feathery Ferulas – a member of the fennel family and this year the Euphorbias will be putting on a magnificent show.
Just before reaching the pond terrace, tucked away in the corner, are two of Simon’s miracles – a pair of cork oaks planted from seed that he collected in Portugal about 16 years ago.
Thriving next to the larger cork oak is a rare and slow growing Kermes Oak whose leaves look just like a miniature holly.
Formalized planting around the pond terrace garden is now complete for the summer and triangles of different onions/Alliums with purple and white flowers will be edged by Rosemary hedges and interspersed with alternate triangles of blue and white Agapanthus. A fringe of Germander will edge the front of the beds.
To the east of the pond terrace is the Palm Court: a survivor from the hospital gardens that has at its centre a palm planted by Queen Victoria. Three more surrounding palms were planted from seed that Simon collected from the royal palm.
Next is the New Zealand garden, the starting point for the geographical gardening, and a Kauri tree stands sentinel as you enter, grown from a seed that Simon brought back from New Zealand in 1989.
The Hydrangea Dell leads east from here. “Twenty two years ago we planted magnolias at the top, foxglove trees below and hydrangea bushes beneath with a few camellias and now have about nine months of flowering and doing,” said Simon.
Tree ferns and the scent of eucalyptus now herald the Australian woodland and scrub bush area that was the brainchild of Chris Kidd the Head Gardener and a stunning example of what can be created with a creative imagination.
An old coach was buried to produce the high bank that is now planted with 17 different varieties of eucalyptus and below sunken pathways, wooden bridges and ropes give the illusion of a deserted mine.
Walk up from here through the South African area and right at the top is the ancient spreading fig tree planted in 1869, which is used as a story telling tree when in full leaf.
There is far more to explore than the areas described here: the Green (Temperate) House, the Japanese gardens, the beautiful borders and semi walled gardens, the vast collection of trees around the grassed park and even the hop garden and meadows to the seaward side.
“There’s a sense of place about the garden which is indefinable,” stated Simon. “I love plants, they mean everything to me, because without plants we wouldn’t have clothes, houses, medicine or the air we breathe. Life on earth would just not exist.
“And there’s the whole spiritual aspect of it – even the most hard nosed businessman will be drawn to the solace of a garden.”Ventnor Botanic Gardens : Our Natural Masterpiece,