History of the Garden

History

The site of the Garden was formerly the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. Founded in 1868 by the inspiration of Dr Arthur Hill Hassall, physician and naturalist, it grew within a decade to be an important institution. For 80 years it was a major factor in the life of Ventnor. With the discovery of antibiotics for tuberculosis the hospital quickly became redundant and soon deteriorated beyond economic repair. It was finally demolished in 1969.

Ventnor Botanic Garden's earliest incarnation, in 1970 as the Steephill Pleasure Gardens, was based on the original layout of the Victorian grounds, with its backbone of mature specimen Thuja, Evergreen Oak and Cupressus. The historically important plantings of Chusan Palm remain the only true garden feature from the Victorian age. The true potential of the site was recognised by the late Sir Harold Hillier, the internationally famous plantsman of Winchester. Bolstering the 22 acre site with tender plants from his nurseries, the task of building a new garden was undertaken with a subtropical theme. The limiting factors of the site, shallow alkaline soil and salt laden winds from the south and west were dealt with by a careful selection of plants and extensive windbreaks. Within two years the plantings had created enough interest for the new Garden to be officially opened and for the alteration of the name to Ventnor Botanic Garden. On 21st June 1972 His Excellency Earl Mountbatten, then Governor of the Island, performed the opening ceremony. A fruitful decade of planting then commenced, which led to the international recognition of the Garden.

During the first ten years of the Garden's life the winters were exceptionally mild and hardly a frost was recorded. Hillier's tender plants flourished and the Garden developed a reputation for notable specimens of great rarity. However the 1980s provided a very different scenario to these early successes. Firstly a series of hard winters killed many of the tender plants. The failing health and subsequent death of Sir Harold Hillier in 1985 left the Garden without direction. Shortly after this tragic loss, Roy Dore, South Wight Borough Council's parks superintendent, retired from post. By late 1985 all was not well at Ventnor Botanic Garden. Urgent action was required to stop the decline; two bold decisions were taken. Firstly to build a show house and nursery, thus enabling the production of large numbers of plants for the Garden. Secondly the employment of a full time curator with a remit to develop the show house and formulate a five year management plan for the Garden.

Simon Goodenough took up post as a curator in August 1986. Unfortunately far from taking an upturn in fortune the Garden continued to be blighted by climatic vagaries. The winter of 1986/1987 was the hardest that had been recorded on the Island for 150 years; nearly 40 per cent of the Garden froze to death. Worse was to come in the shape of the infamous storm of October 1987 that all but destroyed the Garden. The next two years were spent clearing up, only for a further storm to wreak havoc in January 1990. Almost 500 trees were lost as a result of the two storms. This effectively gave Simon Goodenough a blank canvas with which to work.

From this point onwards the curator began to refresh the site with strongly themed gardens in a style more akin to a modern botanic garden, hence gardens with plants from South Africa, The Mediterranean, New Zealand, Australia and Japan developed. In recognition of other roles of the Garden, ornamental areas were defined and traditional borders rejuvenated. Some parts of the Garden were made purely to revel in the ability to grow subtropical plants out of doors. Other parts of the Garden were themed towards use as an educational resource. Appreciation of the Garden's history is paid with traditional areas of specimen trees in lawn, the development of the Palm Garden, and a Garden that overall still has the Victorian path system.

Perhaps most importantly the Garden now is a forward-looking one, managed by Ventnor Botanic Garden CIC. Unlike many botanic gardens it is not associated with any specific academic institution. Neither does it have a deeply entrenched history of garden design. Therefore free of many of the constraints placed on other gardens there is an exciting opportunity to maximise the advantage offered by the microclimate and topography of the site, to push the boundaries of what can be grown out of doors.  It is important to note that the Friends of the Garden assist the relatively small numbers of staff both financially and by volunteering. Community involvement being paramount to the Garden's success but also a cornerstone of the ethos of the botanic garden.

No garden that is active and developing stands still, and Ventnor Botanic Garden is always different from one year to the next. At Ventnor each area of the Garden is evolving and changing. In our geographically themed areas we aim not simply to show as many plants as possible, but to show them growing in relation to how they would in the wild state, and to adapt the whole landscape to better resemble this. Specific collections under such management wax and ebb but empirical numbers of plants are happily sacrificed if the overall effect is that the garden looks natural.

Reference to the map available in the Visitor Centre shows how the Garden is subdivided today. The notes that follow give the Garden visitor an insight into the collections in each area, moving through the Garden in a clockwise direction. This suggested route is most suitable for the disabled. Please note though that the nature of the site is such that some steep gradients are unavoidable. These are indicated by chevrons on the map.