Bristol and the surrounding area is home to all manner of interesting gardens for keen gardeners to take inspiration from. But of course, we haven’t had a chance to visit many lately, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions.

Inspired by Visit Bath, we decided to bring a piece of some of Bristol’s best gardens to you instead, with help from the horticulturalists who care for them. Discover plants they love looking out for at this time of year as well as spring gardening advice for your own garden.

Bristol Zoo Gardens

The 12-acre botanical gardens at Bristol Zoo contain one of the UK’s most important plant collections. There are unusual trees, shrubs and plants from around the world, such as the monkey puzzle tree, tree ferns, wollemi pine and the purple-berried flax lily.

For Matthew Bufton, Bristol Zoo’s Gardens Manager, a favourite plant to look out for at this time of year is witch hazel.

“Hamamelis, also known as witch hazel, is an underrated springtime shrub. The word ‘witch’ in witch hazel originates from Middle English ‘wiche’, from the Old English ‘wice’, meaning ‘pliant’ or ‘bendable’. It's not related to the word ‘witch’, meaning a practitioner of magic. They're also not part of the hazel family (Betulaceae).

Hamamelis (witch hazel) flowers at Bristol Zoo Gardens

Image - Bristol Zoo Gardens, credit Matthew Bufton

“Folk remedies have used extracts from Hamamelis as a remedy for psoriasis and eczema as well as in modern cosmetics like aftershave. Extracts can also be used to prevent dehydration of skin and for insect bites.

“Their fantastic looking flowers appear at this time of year, before any foliage can be seen on this deciduous shrub. The flowers look like little fireworks going off and make for a truly striking addition to the garden – providing some welcomed colour after such a drab period.

“The shrub can grow up to 4m (13ft), both in height and width, and can be trained into a trailing shrub or into a tree like structure.”

The University of Bristol Botanic Garden

The University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden tells the story of plant evolution through its unique, beautifully displayed collections. With some 4,500 plant species from over 200 plant families, the diversity here is incredible. It’s like a living museum exhibiting plants from all over the world and from every environmental circumstance.

Andy Winfield, the Botanic Garden's Senior Botanical Horticulturalist, gave us his advice on inviting more nature into your own garden.

“Throughout lockdown it’s been said that people have grown closer to nature and letting it run a little wild by holding off on the weeding in your garden could bring you closer still. For example, a dandelion patch is great for bees; this plant is one of the most popular with pollinators. Other plants you can leave in the ground; clover, knapweed, wild carrot, birds foot trefoil, vetch and brambles.

Gatekeeper butterfly on knapweed at University of Bristol Botanic Garden

Image - Gatekeeper butterfly on knapweed, University of Bristol Botanic Garden

“Also, the importance of fungus is becoming increasingly apparent, so rather than tidying up sticks and fallen wood, leave a few on the ground to encourage fungal mycelium and insects into your garden. Once the insects arrive, the larger wildlife follows.  

“It’s been unusual in the Botanic Garden with no visitors, like a performance to an empty auditorium. The Garden will continue to close until it’s completely safe for staff and visitors. Until then, Bristol is already a Botanic Garden with plants sprouting from harbour walls and cracks in paving, blossom on trees and bulbs in parks, so take time out and look at them.

“As Georgia O’Keefe said, ‘If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your whole world for a moment’.” 

Bee on birds foot trefoil at University of Bristol Botanic Garden

Image - Bee on birds foot trefoil, University of Bristol Botanic Garden

Westonbirt Arboretum

At this time of year, many of Westonbirt Arboretum’s trees are at their finest. The arboretum is full of colour and scents everywhere you turn during spring, with a chance to discover some of the world’s most striking and beautiful trees.

Their team has shared a few of the spring highlights to whet your appetite for your next visit.

“The Judas tree’s brilliant purple flowers make this tree highly ornamental. They appear in clusters, before the foliage emerges in May. It's been cultivated since ancient times. Judas tree is native to the East Mediterranean region and is said to be the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself – hence the common name. It’s a great plant for sunny and dry positions, even with a poor soil.

Bright purple Judas tree flowers at Westonbirt Arboretum

Image - Judas tree flowers at Westonbirt, credit Hugh Angus

“We currently have mature specimens of four species of Empress trees (Paulownia elongata, P. tomentosa, P. fortunei and P. kawakamii). They are all spectacular trees, flowering from previous year flower buds in foot-long erected panicles. The flowers are foxglove-shaped, ranging in colour, purple and blue with some white and cream yellow.

“The Chinese parasol storax (Melliodendron xylocarpum) is a relative to snowbell (Styrax) and snowdrop (Halesia), of which Westonbirt have many in the collection. So far, we only have one specimen of this rare and very scarcely grown plant, originally from China. Its beautiful star shaped flowers can be white with pink veins or simply plain pink, showing from the end of April. The Latin name means honey tree with a wooden fruit.”

Westonbirt Arboretum is currently open to locals for exercise – bear in mind you need to book tickets in advance.

Chinese parasol storax Melliodendron xylocarpum Hergest at Westonbirt by Hugh angus

Image - Chinese parasol storax at Westonbirt, credit Hugh Angus

Jekka’s

With the internationally renowned ‘Queen of Herbs’ at the helm, Jekka’s is a sustainable family-run herb farm just outside of Bristol. They inspire people to grow and use herbs in their everyday living, as well as sharing their extensive knowledge about the power of herbs.

With that in mind, Jekka shared some advice about growing and using herbs in spring.

“When the ground is warm to the back of your hand you can sow directly outside. You could sow borage, chives, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel and sweet marjoram. Seed beds in your garden or allotment must remain just moist, so watering every second day during dry weather is essential.

Jekka's herb farm

Image - Jekka's herb farm

“With the abundance of new growth in spring, it’s also the perfect time to take softwood cuttings, but make sure you take from non-flowering shoots. Plants you could propagate are mints, oreganos and marjorams, savory, French tarragon and thymes.

“And there are some great fresh herbs available for using in the kitchen too. Our favourites are the first sprigs of mint for your mint sauce or to cook with your new potatoes, and sweet cicely to add to your rhubarb fool. Also in abundance are coriander, parsley, dill and chervil.”

Find seeds and herb plants for sale on Jekka’s online shop and get your coupons for their upcoming open days here.

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