Punch Bowl Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park

By Patricia Craven, Supervisor of the Valley Gardens

If you were to Google Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park no doubt many of the images would be of the Punch Bowl. The Valley Gardens comprises of a huge array of hardy plants, intelligently landscaped over some 250 acres, the Punch Bowl remains one of our most visited and photographed areas of the Valley Gardens.

The story of the Punch Bowl begins with John Barr Stevenson of Tower Court, near Ascot. Stevenson was a close gardening friend of King George VI and was influential in the development of the Valley Gardens. He, along with Eric Savill (creator of the Savill and Valley, Gardens Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park between 1937 and 1959) noted one area of the Valley Garden that was a natural amphitheatre. With its semi-circular shape, steep fall of about 12 metres, it was sheltered but open to the South. Recent plantings of conifers, larch and noble fir provided the framework for the development.

Stevenson agreed to provide the stock plants of the Wilson 50, which when propagated would be planted in this site. These were a selection of Kurume azaleas selected by Ernest Wilson on a trip to  Japan in 1918. Whilst the stock was being built up the area was cleared of an overgrowth of bracken, brambles and seedling trees which were all dug out by hand. In 1948 the first batch of two year old plants were ready for planting. By 1951 the planting was completed. It was estimated that over 50,000 azaleas were planted to create one of the most spectacular landscape planting schemes . This also included the addition of woody shrubs such as Enkianthus campanulatus, specimens of Styrax japonica, and Japanese maples which provide soft greens and vibrant reds to complement the planting.

The amphitheatre site prepped for planting, 1947
A view looking west of the Punch Bowl, late 1950’s. Kurumes in flower with Japanese maple in the foreground
The Punch Bowl in flower, May late 1990’s. The kaleidoscope of colour provided by the Kurume azaleas. The colours vary from white (‘Yorozuyo’) through to soft pink (‘Kasame Gaseki’) to ruby (‘Hinode No aka’). Stems of the Abies procera ‘Glauca’, and green hues of the Japanese maple in the foreground

In the autumn of 2016, John Anderson, the new Keeper of the Gardens, Windsor Great Park made a decision to begin a restoration programme for the Punch Bowl and adjacent areas.

 “The work we are planning to carry out is about ensuring good horticultural practice. If we start tackling these problems now we can ensure we are keeping the Punch Bowl thriving and looking its best for generations to come as well as our current visitors who we know love walking their dogs here and enjoy the Azaleas and the trees.” John Anderson, December 2016

Plans for the renovation of the Punch Bowl would take approximately five to seven years to complete. The azaleas had by this stage in their lifecycle now layered, and spread, some reaching over 2 metres tall, resulting in very narrow pathways. This decision also included removing the remaining Abies procera ‘Glauca’  trees, which were showing signs of decline and stress and replacing them with new ones. Drainage issues needed to be addressed in the grass areas that extend below the Punch Bowl to ensure trees such as a prominent oak, would remain healthy. Bracken was now a pernicious weed that needed to be eradicated as it was growing prominently amongst the azaleas.

The Abies procera ‘Glauca’ were removed in January 2017, by the Crown Estate Forestry and Aboriculture Team. This also include removing the huge stumps of these trees. Some serious forestry machinery was needed.  

Removal of the Abies procera

The drainage system has now been given an overhaul, with the installation of a herringbone system, and this has vastly improved conditions.

The azaleas were hard pruned in May 2017 after flowering. This was a joint Windsor Gardens Department effort, comprising of teams from Savill, Frogmore, Valley and Propagation. The pruning took two weeks, and on a number of days during period temperatures of 26℃ were recorded.

The Kurume azaleas have been propagated (from plants within the Punch Bowl, and elsewhere in the collection i.e. Savill and Valley Gardens) with the first batch of replanting done this autumn to replace the cavities vacated by the Abies. These cavities were layered with leaf mould prior to planting. Over the next few years, there will be a continual programme of propagating Azaleas that will be planted in the Punch Bowl.

Post flowering last year, May 2019 we pruned the azaleas with hedge shears, this shortens the main leaders and encourages new side-shoots, thus increasing the production of flower buds for the following year. This is a practice that we will continue to do annually.

A view of the Punch Bowl in flower, April 2020. The mower provides an indication of the scale of the area

The next proposed phase of the renovation will be to plant an area east of the Punch Bowl in front of the Blue Cedars with Kurume Azaleas to extend the Punch Bowl and opening a view towards the lake. Additionally there will be a second viewing platform installed, and further plantings planned in this area.

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All images: Patricia Craven