That’s because it’s hard to ignore the slow slide into decline, the fraying around the edges, the fuzzy lines and good-enoughs that have crept into this still wonderfully quixotic and fascinating collection of southern hemisphere plants.
Tetrapanax papyrifer here lives in the ground from one year to the next, revealing an alarming tendency to sucker madly when happy
Ventnor is one of those places which is much too nice for its own good. It’s never charged entrance, for example; and it relies heavily on its doughty army of volunteers, ever more so since the budget cuts hit. The result is a certain rather endearing amateurishness, disguising a quite astonishing plant collection for those who know to look closer.
The garden has about £600,000 funding a year from the Isle of Wight County Council, of which £300,000 is returned through revenues like car parking tickets and plant sales. For its £300k the council gets a superb specialist staff.
The team were galvanised some years back by the arrival of Chris Kidd, who among other innovations came up with the idea of converting the previously rather worthy greenhouse behind the plant sales into the greenHouse; we’ll forgive the idiosyncratic syntax as it’s a riot. You enter from behind a crashing, deafening waterfall into a Mad Max fantasy of rusting pipework, green and steaming pools, and a central tank where fish swim among the giant plates of the Amazonian waterlilies (Victoria amazonica). Sheer theatre.
The New Zealand gully: a little obscured but still dramatic
Outside, it's less easy to find things to wax lyrical about. This has never been the best-kept of gardens: a legacy of its council funding. But it does have flashes of brilliance: the dramatic descent into the New Zealand gully, for example (though the tree ferns are perhaps a little too joyously happy here: a few years ago you could see down into the rocky canyon, but the view is now obscured).
And the new arid garden is fantastic: the best-kept (because newest) bit of the garden, it was full of treasures at best considered semi-hardy elsewhere, but in the Isle of Wight microclimate quite able to live outdoors all year round.
This means some of the specimens in the garden are mind-boggling: a glimpse of what they can do if they put their minds to it. A loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica) 20ft tall; massive, tree-scale palms; tender fuchsias towering above your head; sprawling cacti smothered in flowers and aloes you could curl up inside, if you didn’t mind the spikes.
Agave americana able to grow to the size it's meant to be
Here, Melianthus major grows into spreading thickets, fountaining dark bronze flowers; Echium pininana sends huge spires into the sky; and you’re forever finding tender-ish plants you adore but never previously knew existed. Firmiana simplex, the Chinese parasol tree, was my discovery for this year's visit: huge, foot-across dinnerplate leaves of an exquisite fresh green.
But there is bindweed taking hold among the shrubberies and the bedding is verging on the park-like to be inspiring. I spotted ragwort in the borders and most of the labels were broken or missing.
Annual bedding: quite nice, but in a garden like this, the cheaper option, and becoming all too prevalent
This is too special a place to allow to slip away. Former curator Simon Goodenough was driven away this year after 25 years to be almost immediately snapped up by the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and the remaining staff, with Chris Kidd at the helm, are fighting a brave but, I fear, losing battle against the combined forces of a council that wants to turn the place into a cheap’n’cheerful park, and a general ignorance of just how extraordinary the plants here are.
Ventnor deserves better: I just hope its fortunes improve before the slide becomes too steep for return.