Will Murch grows fabulous rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias for Hillier, and other garden centres throughout the UK, at his nurseries at Osberton Grange in Nottinghamshire, UK. That’s in the heart of Robin Hood country, and on the edge of Clumber Park, famous for its enormous mature rhododendrons.
Will grows the rhododendrons and azaleas which are such a feature of the Hillier Chelsea Flower Show exhibit each year: Gold medal winning plants! Will’s wife, Sarah is in the education world, and I know she’s an avid gardener. Although he’s a grower, I wondered if Will was a gardener too. I caught up with him and asked him if he’d share some of his secrets and tips on growing rhododendrons with readers of the MyGardenSchool Blog.
How did you get into horticulture and start growing rhododendrons?
I was brought up on a family farm and have always loved farming and the outdoor life, both growing crops and looking after farm animals. Some 25 years ago, father decided to diversify from into horticulture and chose rhododendrons as his specialty. At the age of 24, having gathered work experience at other nurseries I joined him. I have been growing them for over twenty years now and still no two years are the same.
So is gardening a hobby?
Yes and no, I enjoy it, I like to help my wife Sarah who is immensely keen and has a definite eye for it. I love the garden and appreciate it and am always amazed at what she has created from a bare batch in such a short time. For me I particularly like the growing side of life. I love seeing really healthy and thriving plants in their different shapes, sizes, forms and colours and trying to understand why some may not be performing fully.
Tell us a little about your garden, and what you grow?
We moved to our house 5 years ago and it was just an overgrown field with a few trees in - this was a blank canvas for Sarah who is a garden designer, and she immediately prioritized its development before any refurbishment in the house.
The garden now has an orchard, a gravel garden with grasses and perennials, a rose garden, a winter garden with cornus and hellebores, wild flower meadows, a school garden and we have built a natural swimming pool with a bog garden alongside it. We counted up the other day that we have planted around 170 trees and over 400 bare root whips, all to make the garden more beautiful but also to attract wildlife and create biodiversity.
Aren’t rhododendrons rather fussy creatures? Surely you need acid soil to grow them?
Yes you do, but we grow our rhododendrons and azaleas successfully in a sort of black land soil that has a pH of 7.5 which can be dry in summer and very wet in winter, so how do we do it? These are my three key tips:
1. Dig a large free draining hole and mix your soils with over 50% ericaceous compost. Plant so that the top of the rootball is exactly if not fractionally higher than the surrounding soil. This is key to success. If it goes lower than ground level, then ease it up and pack underneath, again check this in the first winter after planting as freshly disturbed soil often settles and sinks a little.
2. Annually apply sulphur chips. This is a very good value product that slowly releases acidification into the soil over several months, which keeps the local soil pH correct.
3. Apply plenty of mulch, preferably leaf mould every year, this keeps the roots cool and moist and continually drip feeds nutrients to the plants, it is the best slow release fertilizer
If I you had to choose your three “Desert Island Rhododendrons and azaleas” what would they be?
For a deciduous azalea, it would have to be ‘Northern Hi Lights’, creamy yellow flowers, mildly fragrant and lovely winter bronze foliage. This is a very floriferous variety and a great garden performer.
The flowers of evergreen azaleas can be long lasting in the garden; the whites are stunning in full bloom making ‘Mary Helen’ a favourite choice of mine.
My third choice is a tough call between two rhododendrons: whether to choose the deep ruby red flowers of Lord Roberts, or deep, deep purple flowers of Edith Bosley. To get the best from both these varieties, plant in positions sheltered from the wind and sun; both are absolutely stunning.
What are the main challenges you face gardening in Nottinghamshire?
North Nottinghamshire has very low rainfall so the soil can be dry in summer for the shallow rooting rhododendrons. Plenty of mulch works wonders both for retaining soil moisture and building great organic water-retaining soil structure, particularly in the early years when you are trying to get a plant established.
What are your other guilty pleasures apart from gardening?
I wouldn’t call them guilty pleasures, but I am crackers about the birds in the garden, I have plenty of feeding stations and bird boxes; we are currently building a hide and I share our fallen apples with the fieldfares every winter.
Our other family pleasure was ‘wild swimming’ in different rivers and streams in the country. This has led us to building our own natural swimming pool in the garden. This is a completely chemical free, unchlorinated pool that uses natural filtration methods and water plants to keep it crystal clear. We swim in it through spring, summer and autumn sharing it with the dragon flies, swallows and all the garden life that comes for a drink.