Situated on the Whiteknights campus of the University of Reading, about two miles south of the town centre, the Harris Garden provides an important amenity for University students and staff, as well as the local community and an increasing number of visitors from further afield. The Garden also provides and important space to support teaching, conservation and recreation.
The area on which the garden was established was once the home paddock of the now demolished ‘Wilderness’, a Victorian house built in the remains of a famous landscape garden created at Whiteknights Estate by George Spencer, Marquis of Blandford (later Fifth Duke of Marlborough) between 1798 and 1819.
A small botanic garden was established here by the University in 1972 when the Department of Botany moved from London Road to Whiteknights. In 1987, the Department of Horticulture and Landscape also moved to Whiteknights and work began to extend and enhance the Botanic Garden to meet the wider teaching and research requirements of the new School of Plant Sciences. At this time Richard Bisgrove, garden historian and Director of Landscape Management at the University, drew up a plan for the garden that included features still providing interest now throughout the year.
In recognition of its new role, the garden was renamed the Harris Garden in memory of the late Professor Tom Harris (1903-1983), a distinguished palaeo-botanist at the University, and a renowned gardener.
In 2010, with the closure of Plant Sciences, responsibility for the main part of the garden passed to the Facilities Management Directorate of the University and a major revitalisation programme began. The Walled Garden is, however, under separate management and there is limited access because of its use for scientific purposes.
The large bank to the right of the Entrance was created to screen the adjacent buildings from view. Among the mature trees which include, birches, eucalyptus and a Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), a range of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, perennials and bulbs have been planted to provide interest throughout the year. In early spring daffodils and brunneras are a highlight, while three flowering cherries and a magnolia can be admired here during April and May. An area in the vicinity of a tall narrow leaved ash (Fraxinus angustifolia) and two strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) has been planted with a number of shrubs and perennials with scented flowers such as winter flowering honeysuckle, philadelphus, skimmia and sarcococca and is now known as the Fragrant Garden.
The Winter Border on the left, past the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia), contains plants that flower between November and March. Many of the shrubs and herbaceous plants have evergreen foliage, colourful bark or an attractive structure and some are scented or have persistent fruits. Shrubs include winter flowering honeysuckle, cultivars of Euonymus fortunei, and corkscrew hazel. Others like the dogwoods and willows are coppiced regularly.
The Green Border, which is opposite the Winter Border, has large Persian ironwoods (Parrotia persica) on one end and Malus sargentii on the other. Many of the plants were selected to show diversity of foliage texture and colour throughout the year. They include bamboo, evergreen viburnum and aucubas as well as perennials such as bergenias, euphorbias, hemerocallis, hostas, penstemons and persicaria. Hydrangeas add colour in late summer and early autumn.
The Ornamental Orchard, to the left of the path, contains a collection of ornamental crab-apples and includes cultivars and species with blossom ranging from white to deep pink. The spring blossom is followed by good autumn foliage and fruits. This collection was the first gift to the garden from the Friends of the Harris Garden. Beneath the trees, snowdrops, striped squill, crocus, narcissus and snake’s head fritillary together with wild flowers such as cowslips and ox-eye daisies provide a delightful tapestry from January to early summer.
The large Long Border, which is opposite the Turkey Oaks is traditional in style and was planted in 1993 with a collection of shrub roses, both old and modern, many of which are scented. A wide range of interesting herbaceous perennials, bulbs and occasional annuals are mixed among the roses and provide a succession of plants of different colours, heights and texture from spring through summer into autumn. These include phlox, peonies, poppies, day lilies, dahlias, heleniums and many others. Height is given to the border by a large evergreen viburnum and a Magnolia grandiflora that produces large cup shaped creamy-white flowers in the summer.
Older (but not much older!) visitors may remember the Stream and Pond. Following an unsuccessful attempt to rejuvenate the Pond in 1995, the opportunity was taken in 2021 to remodel these areas make them more sustainable and easier to maintain, while encouraging more insect life.
The Stream was transformed into the Flower Stream, with the planting scheme following the outline of the old stream and introducing a huge splash of colour and movement in an area alive with pollinating insects, and encouraging visitors to interact with the planting via a number of natural stone bridges. The area was seeded with wide variety of meadow species including Alcea ‘Dark Purple’, Aster amelus, Centaurea nigra, Digitalis purpurea, Geranium praetense, Linum perenne, Salvia nemorosa, Origanum vulgare, Succisa pratensis, and Teucrium chamaedrys.
The pond itself was transformed into a new Damp Garden, planted with flowering shrubs, trees and ferns that can tolerate seasonal flooding. The already existing Gunneras, a huge Caucasian alder (Alnus subcordata), a champion tree, can be found in this area as well as a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) and two swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum). To reflect the origin of the trees already present, all the new plants are near-native selections from North Eastern America, and comprise a mixture of Nyssa sylvatica ‘Wisley Bonfire’, Clethra alnifolia, Clethra alnifolia ‘Pink Spire’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, Hydrangea quercifolia, Itea virginica, ‘Henry’s Garnet’, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’, Rhododendron vicosum, Vaccinium corymbosum, and Matteuccia strutiopteris.
On the left, and past the Damp Garden and the Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) on the right, a crescent shaped path leads through a small garden known as the Autumn Border. Recently the large shrubs in this area have been pruned to rejuvenate them and give more space to the Japanese acers. There is a large selection of shrubs here and flowering starts in the spring with the Japanese cherries. The young shoots of photinias and acers provide interest well before their foliage matures. Most of these plants also have good autumn colour. In late summer and autumn, a selection of herbaceous perennials, including asters, sedums, anemones and cyclamen give shades of red, pink, purple and yellow mixed in with ornamental grasses.
Further on, the All Seasons Border was planted and developed to provide all year interest, particularly Cornus Siberica with its distinctive bright red stems when they catch the winter sun. Close by is the Walled Garden which is used as a University teaching and research resource, and is not open to visitors.
In the centre of the garden are three blocks of mainly native trees planted in 1989/90 to allow students of horticulture to study the establishment of trees with woodland flora beneath. Species include oak, ash, wild cherry, birch, Scots pine, European larch, hawthorn, field maple, hazel and holly. The trees now make a fine contribution to the structure of the garden. The area is managed to produce a variety of habitats for wild flowers, butterflies and other wildlife. Also in the centre of the garden is the Lime Tree Avenue (Tillia x europaea), also known as the Memorial Avenue.
Nearby is the Orchard, consisting of different cultivars of the domestic apple (Malus domestica) and pear (Pyrus communis). The mamjority of the trees have labels displaying the name of the cultivar and the root stock onto which each tree is grafted. There are also two apple hedges.
Another feature in the centre of the garden is the Flower Meadow of approximately one hectare, which gives the garden a sense of space and has been sown with mainly native wild flowers. In 2010 around 50,000 bulbs were planted here that give a mass of colour from April to June, provided by daffodils followed by camassia and alliums nearer the Flower Stream. The meadow is mown late in the year to allow the plants to seed and the cut grass is removed to keep nutrient levels low in the soil. There are other trees in this area whose shapes add interest to the vista in winter.
The Cherry Bowl was planted in 1995. The collection of Japanese flowering cherries has been selected to demonstrate the range of flower variation as well as autumn colour. They are arranged around a circular clearing under planted with bulbs and wild flowers.
The Conifer Circle consists of a collection of upright growing cultivars of Lawson’s cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and other conifers which were planted in 2002. Their foliage ranges in colour from dark green to golden to bright green to blue grey around the circle.
The Formal Borders comprise a number of garden ‘rooms’ and borders of various sizes that are partly enclosed by hedges of beech and yew. The Borders are divided into a number of broadly themed areas.
Opposite the Red Border is a Hardy Fuchsia [G] collection, which is being developed to show off a range of hardy fuchsias including those hybridised by former graduate and staff member John Wright, such as Fuchsia ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, ‘Whiteknights Amethyst’, ‘Whiteknights Glister’, and some of his Lechlade series such as Fuchsia ‘Lechlade Magician’ and ‘Lechlade Gorgon’. See also our gallery page dedicated to this collection.
The Jungle Garden, adjacent to Pepper Lane, was established to create the impression of walking through a tropical garden, but using mainly frost-tolerant plants. The mature trees already established here, including many different varieties of holly, and eucalyptus give shelter from wind and frost. Plants with bold leaves and foliage which give an exotic effect have already been planted here. These include bamboos, palms, bananas, ginger lilies, kniphofia, fatsias, cannas, crocosmia and other perennials.
At the end of the Jungle Garden beside the new path are two small beds, with a Cornus kousa ‘Ormande’ and small rowan trees. One bed has spring flowering bulbs and the other is covered in summer and autumn by blue Geranium ‘Rozanne’.
The Woodland Borders have spring and summer flowering shrubs, shade-tolerant bulbous plants, herbaceous perennials and ferns, which have been added among the original trees. Drifts of snowdrops, wood anemones and bluebells carpet the ground. As this area matures it will provide much of interest for the visitor. The adjacent Rhododendron Border was planted in spring 2013. There are rhododendrons and evergreen azaleas on one side and mainly deciduous azaleas on the other. They provide colour in April and May. This border also contains hostas, ferns, daphne and Japanese acer.
The area for the Dry Garden was cleared in March 2012. Two large eucalyptus trees were retained and a beech hedge planted along the boundary. New trees such as Cercis siliquatrum and a young Abies marocana have been added. The under planting consists of borderline tender plants such as Aloe striatula and Fascicularia bicolor, linked together with other perennials such as euphorbias, gingers, sedums and ornamental grasses that give structure and texture throughout the year and are attractive to bees and butterflies.
Please consider donating via JustGiving to our charity to help fund the upkeep and development of this beautiful public space.