South Wirral peninsula
Ness Botanic Gardens, owned and managed by the University of Liverpool, are situated on and around a sandstone promontory with variable soils on the South Wirral peninsula. The higher areas of the Gardens on the sandstone ridges have thin, acid, well-drained sandy soils. The lower areas are on lime-rich clays.
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The gardens owe their creation to Arthur Bulley, a Liverpool cotton merchant who had a keen interest in plants. He began the garden in 1898 with the sponsorship of expeditions of plant collectors to the Far East. This resulted in hundreds of new plants being introduced to Britain. The original site was open and windswept, but Bulley corrected this by planting lombardy poplars, holm oaks, Scots and black pines. From this beginning grew his plant and seed company, Bees Ltd. After Bulley died his daughter Lois gave the gardens, in 1948, to the University of Liverpool. It was over the years from 1957 that the gardens were changed from a compartmental design to a more natural one, led by Ken Hulme.
Science, research and plant conservation are the main focus of Ness. There are important and rare plants in the gardens. The collection includes at least 10,000 types of plants, many of whose seeds were collected in the wild. The two main categories are a horticultural collection of beautiful plants and an academic collection of documented plants. The latter collection is of interest to specialists with 90% being trees and shrubs. Most are located in the bottom field around the wildflower meadow where flowers bloom in May and June. Bees, birds, and other wildlife are at home in the meadow. Barn owls and bats also inhabit the garden.
Ness is home to the largest UK collection of sorbus (rowans, whitebeams, and allies) and most of the 49 known species of birch. Their bark is best viewed in winter. There is also a collection of maples (acer). Another interesting tree is the handkerchief tree, brought from China in 1908. Unusual conifers include the Chinese Cypress and Pinus monophylla.
Snowdrops bloom in the pine wood and woodland garden. Later camellias (in the pine woods), rhododendrons (one of the largest collections in the north-west), and around 60 magnolias take over. The ‘Diva’ magnolia (sprengeri) in the specimen lawn puts on a show in March.
Herbaceous borders bloom in the summer. A special plant at Ness is the geranium macrorrihizum var. album. It comes from Mount Olympus. Azaleas flower in late June and July. Also at Ness is a rock garden with herbaceous, alpine, and shrubby plants.
In the water gardens is a grove of Persian ironwood that produce bright colour in the autumn. Swamp cypress and red oaks are two further collections in the garden. There is a Victorian style potager with fruit trees and vegetables and an alpine house. The south-facing and sloping terraces collect the sun thus allowing plants to grow that would not survive in other parts of the gardens.
An important research project at Ness is the Grassland Adaptation and Resistance to Climate Change (Grassland ARCC) project. Ness also exchanges rare seeds with other botanical gardens through the seed exchange program.
Each month of the year Ness highlights, on its website, a particular plant chosen for its brightest and most showy blooms or as one of the most interesting or inspirational plants. Ness has its own weather station.
Ness Botanic Gardens
Ness, Neston, South Wirral peninsula
Cheshire, CH64 4AY
Tel: 0 845 030 4063
Open: daily, March-end Oct, 10am-dusk, last entry 5pm, Nov-end Feb, 10am-4.30
Visitor centre; cafe; plant sales; shop; lecture theatre; conservatory; special events; courses; family days; children’s play area; main parts of the garden are accessible; parking
Web: Ness Botanic Gardens
Text and photos © by Barbara Ballard