The Rhododendron, Camellia & Magnolia Group

Three groups of plants – one group of enthusiasts worldwide

South West Branch Visit to Owlacombe 17 May 2016

Long standing South West Branch member, John Jemmett, had written to me about a friend who farmed near Roborough in North Devon, and who had been creating a garden containing at least 300 rhododendrons, many of which had originally come from Nigel Wright, whose garden we had just visited. He thought it would repay a visit by our Branch. Indeed it did, and was quite amazing.

Having passed massed rhododendron bushes and a gorilla(!) we were welcomed by Rob & Ros Pickard and gathered by the side of the farm house with wonderful views across country and filled with bleating sheep and lambs in the foreground; an idyllic start. Although Rob has lived here almost all his life, he and Ros caught the gardening bug in 1993 and set about creating a garden around and below the house, creating lakes and planting a great many rhododendrons, mainly hybrids of good breeding. As gardens do, this one has expanded and now takes in a lovely wooded valley with a stream and two lakes, one at the top and one at the bottom. The top lake has an electric fence at low level to dissuade the otters from taking the prize fish. The first time I have come across an antiotter fence! They are allowed in the lower lake.

The garden was immaculate without a weed (or slug) in sight, and the rhododendrons were in good health, flowering well, and all were labelled which in itself was very informative. Much evidence of notebooks and scribbling.

The upper garden had much mixed planting of a herbaceous nature and especially noticeable were many hostas; all unholy. A hot bed was a new venture below the terrace sprouting well for later in the season. The soil is in excellent heart as silt from the fields above is washed down, and is used in making the beds. There was interesting mixed plantings around the pond below the terrace and an immaculate copper beech hedge descended the sloping lawn to another small pond and served as a colourful backdrop to the rhododendron flowers.

The valley is entered by a gate and at the top is an iron bridge built by Rob with deep foundation pillars. From here one can look down the valley stream where there were bluebells and primulas and also the unfurling leaves of gunneras. A stunning sight. There were many wood carvings mainly fashioned from the trunks of dead trees which were a tribute to Rob and Ros’s skill at carving, and in Rob’s case, the artistic possibilities of the chain saw.

More rhododendron and azalea plantings bordered the path down the valley to a large lake at the bottom. The path up the other side had a bank of bluebells, Pheasant Eye narcissi, campion and other flowers with Rhododendron luteum bushes above - a wonderful experience of both harmony in colour and scent.

Ros rushed up the path to prepare an amazing cream tea to finish our visit in delicious style. Rob and Ros claim not to be gardeners and still learning. The garden they have created speaks to them having already learned an awful lot, and is a credit to their hard work, energy and enthusiasm; and by the way, they also run the farm!

John Marston

You can download a copy of this report

A spirit of the woodland by Rob Pickard
An owl of Owlacombe by Ros Pickard
Bank of orange Knaphill azaleas
Gorilla by Rob Pickard
Group gathering before setting off
Happy trio
Lingering by the lowest lake
Looking up the valley
Mainly copper beech hjedge running down to a lower pond
Pond below the front of the farmhouse
Rhododendron fastuosum Flore Pleno
Rhododendron' Souvenir de Dr S. Endtz
Rhododendrons Colonel Coen and Ightham Yellow
Rhododendrons backed by the copper beech hedge
Rob Pickard with Rosemary Howell and Katie Dunstan
Ros Pickard
Tea Time
Unholy hostas
Wooded valley with stream and massed bluebells
Woodland path with bluebells, Azaleas and Narcissi