PUBLISHED: 10:27 20 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:43 20 February 2013
Susanne Masters experiences a taste of Giverny at Bennetts Water Gardens in Weymouth
Susanne Masters experiences a taste of Giverny at Bennetts Water Gardens in Weymouth
The tranquil ponds at Bennetts Water Gardens in Weymouth contain over 150 varieties of water lilies, which constitutes not only one of the three National Plant Collections of Water Lilies (Nymphaea) in the country but also the International Plant Collection of Water Lilies. National Plant Collections preserve and develop a group of plants for the future by cultivating and propagating garden cultivars including those that have fallen out of favour. These collections are important because when cultivars are lost not only do the properties of that plant disappear but also the social, cultural and horticultural history that surround them.
Bennetts cultivars came from the same nursery that Claude Monet obtained his water lilies from
An example of the cultural value embedded in the water lilies at Bennetts is that they are in fact cultivars from the same nursery that Claude Monet obtained his water lilies from. So if you see one of Claude Monets water lily paintings of his gardens at Giverny (he painted around 250) you can then go and see the real thing at Bennetts.
There is only one species of Nymphaea native to Britain: the European white water lily (Nymphaea Alba). Garden cultivars are created by crossing species native to other countries. The results create a range of plants of various colours and sizes from which any gardener can select a suitable one for their garden. Water lilies range from pigmy, with a leaf span of barely a foot, to water lilies with leaves the size of dinner plates.
Colours range from pink, red and yellow to exquisite variable water lilies whose colour varies with the age of the flower. One of the cultivars bred by Bennetts in 1991 is the award-winning Weymouth Red, which is perfect for small ponds.
Bennetts Water Gardens was set up by Norman Bennett in 1959 on the site of the old Putton Brickworks in Chickerell. Norman discovered the potential of the site when he was cycling past. The removal of clay to make bricks had created pits that naturally filled with water. Norman went on to become one of the founder members of the International Water Lily Society and created many new varieties including the beautiful Pam Bennett, named after his wife, who supported his lifetime passion for aquatic plants.
When I met Angie Bennett, who is married to Normans son, John, I discovered that the gardens remain very much a family business. Our son, James, is mainly responsible for growing the plants; he is really green-fingered, she says proudly. Also, with his experience as a web designer, he has built up our mail order service. I know that the grandchildren will become involved too because they are already interested.
As we stroll through the 8 acres of beautiful gardens, which also includes a tropical house, woodland walks and a museum on local history, Angie tells me about the thought that went into creating the tranquil scene. The seats are put into the garden so that they have a view. She indicates a seat set next the willow arch. Its angled to look through the arch towards the gazebo and with ponds and flowers in the background youve got it all. I just love it.
We thought we would offer the chance to get married in the gardens
While the water gardens are floriferous and a delight for people to visit they are also an important habitat, as Angie explains. We work closely with Dorset Wildlife Trust as the gardens are a site of nature conservation interest mainly because of the plant species including grasses. We have great crested newts, little egrets and most of the species of dragonfly found in Britain. When I visited the gardens with a friend we saw a water vole scurry across the path and plop into the water.
Not surprisingly the gardens are also a prime site for artists. Lots of artists and art clubs come to visit. The inspiration for putting the bridge across the lake was a Monet exhibition in London. The Japanese bridge at Bennetts was constructed using photos of Monets Japanese bridge and we try to keep the original water lilies around the bridge. So Weymouth is home to a replica of probably the most famous aspect of Monets garden at Giverny, although far less crowded.
Another big group of visitors to Bennetts are wedding parties. For the last six years, Bennetts has been licensed for marriages and civil partnerships in its gazebo, as Angie explains: People started coming to the gardens for wedding photos and marquee receptions after a church wedding. So we thought we would offer the chance to get married in the gardens too. People come from all over the country because of the natural surroundings and thats what is so special about the gardens. In fact James was the first person to be married at Bennetts.
Angie appreciates the input water lilies provide for a garden. Water lilies work so hard. They flower from May to September, the leaves last 2-3 weeks and each flower lasts 3-5 days. Providing you get the right water lily for your size and depth of pond they are hardy. Once youve got a water lily youve got it forever. The key principle to keep in mind with water lilies is that its all about reflections. If they grow unchecked you loose the reflections that show the beauty of the flowers. Also ponds need weeding so that the flowers can be enjoyed. This means weeding out excess water lilies but this, as Angie points out, needs to be done with care and consideration for any aquatic residents. Weeds should be left in a pile by the waters edge so that animals can creep back into the water. Its also easier to carry the weeds to the compost heap when they are dry.
In terms of general care water lilies are relatively easy. They grow in soil and are usually contained in baskets so that you can place them in your pond. They will eventually grow out of their basket so they need lifting every three years so that the plant can be divided. Then, simply replant the divisions, says Angie, or you could give them away to friends with water features. Possible issues include leaves being eaten by insects, though this doesnt hurt the plant, and theres also crown rot, which can be exacerbated by putting chemicals into a pond.
As well as appreciating water lilies in their wild state in the garden they can also be brought indoors as cut flowers. Put them in a vase on the first day that they open. In the evening the flowers will close and open again for the next few days. I asked Angie about the Victorian gardeners technique of keeping the flowers open by using wax. She explained how to do this by putting a drop of wax under each petal. The flower will then stay open but it is very labour intensive.
With the Bennett familys experience of growing water lilies now spanning three generations, the National Plant Collection is in safe hands. The gardens are the perfect place to visit for aquatic gardening inspiration, and in August the water lilies will be at their very best. I am sure Monet would approve.
Selecting your water lily
Pigmy or Tiny water lilies have a leaf spread of about a foot. Their little leaves and flowers make them ideal for small containers such as a bucket or bowl.
Small water lilies will spread to about 2ft. They can be planted in a half barrel or in a pond so long as there is a maximum of only 1ft of water above the top of the basket.
Medium water lilies will spread to 3ft and have bigger leaves. They should be planted in ponds and can have 1ft of water above the top of the basket.
Vigorous water lilies are really only suitable if you have a lake as they will spread to 4ft wide or more, with leaves the size of dinner plates. They can grow with a depth of 3ft of water above the top of the basket.
Growing Water Lilies
Lilies are usually grown in an aquatic basket filled with neutral loam-based soil or aquatic compost. By using a basket, which will also help to contain their growth, they can be placed at the correct depth by raising the basket up with bricks. Feed water lilies with special aquatic plant fertiliser tablets and repot every three or four years. Water lilies will tolerate a small flow of water but are likely to fail if situated underneath a fountain or waterfall. They perform best in full sunlight though some varieties will flower in more shaded conditions.
Visiting Bennetts Water Gardens
Open: April to September, 10am-5pm daily except Saturdays (when the garden is closed for private functions)
Where: Bennetts Water Gardens, Chickerell, Weymouth, DT3 4AF. 01305 785150
Entry: Adults 7.25 (concessions 6.55), child 3.65 (up to 16 years old, or free if under 4), family ticket 19.50. Discount for groups or visitors who present a bus ticket for travel to the garden.
More information: Visit www.waterlily.co.uk where you will also find an online shop for water lilies and aquatic plants or e-mail email@example.com