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RHS Garden Wisley - a spectacular glasshouse, stunning seasonal colour and gardening inspiration

PUBLISHED: 18:16 18 April 2012 | UPDATED: 15:52 10 July 2014

The stunning pre-fabricated glasshouse was designed by architect Peter van der Toorn Vrijthoff

The stunning pre-fabricated glasshouse was designed by architect Peter van der Toorn Vrijthoff

Opened by Her Majesty The Queen in June of this year, the spectacular new glasshouse at Wisley marks a fresh chapter in horticultural excellence with life-long learning at its heart. Liz Phillips paid a visit to find out more

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2007


Already regarded as Britain's best loved garden, Wisley now has a new jewel in its crown - a magnificent glasshouse providing a glittering showcase for some of the world's most colourful and tender plants.

The enormous, cathedral like structure, made of curved glass and steel, covers an area the size of ten tennis courts and rises to12.5m, the height of a mature palm tree, above a specially designed lake-reservoir in the heart of the gardens.

Inside, three climatic zones, moving from arid rock to tropical jungle, provide the backdrop for a dramatic display of more than 5,000 different cultivated plants, ranging from glossy tree ferns and lush-leaved creepers to dazzling trumpet blooms, woolly cacti and exotic water lilies.

The state-of-the-art glasshouse was developed to celebrate the RHS Bicentenary in 2004 and was opened by the patron of the RHS, Her Majesty The Queen, at the end of June.

Costing about £7.7million, much of which was raised by RHS members and private donors, it is one of the society's most ambitious projects to date.

"The new glasshouse makes a wonderful addition to Wisley and celebrates a milestone in the 200-year history of the RHS," says Jill Cherry, director of gardens and estates. "The structure offers visitors a chance to experience exotic, unusual and well-loved garden plants through a world-class display of colour, scent and texture.

"The vision for the new glasshouse is to educate, inspire and delight. While Wisley provides a stunning backdrop in itself, we invited in design experts to deliver an exciting garden experience that integrates the structure with its immediate surroundings."

Innovation in design...
Award-winning designer Tom Stuart-Smith was commissioned to create an impressive landscape setting for the glasshouse to reflect the dramatic horticultural spectacle inside. His lavishly planted scheme is designed in the style of a large amphitheatre centred on the glasshouse and lake.

"The geometry of the garden for the glasshouse has the character of a musical fugue," says Tom. "One idea begins then overlaps with another. The pattern emanates from the main entrance to the east of the glasshouse, developing into curving and intersecting paths, planting beds, low beech hedges and lawns, to create a series of interlocking sickle shapes."

Architect Peter van der Toorn Vrijthoff designed the pre-fabricated building, which makes the most of the available sunlight with supplementary heating from a gas boiler to ensure a minimum temperature of 10C in the temperate zones and 20C in the tropical zone.

Thermal shading screens unfurl automatically to retain heat at night and prevent scorching on hot days, while a misting system maintains humidity at 65 per cent. The lake also doubles up as a reservoir for periods of drought, holding over 1.3million gallons - the equivalent of more than 54,000 water butts.

To boost the appeal of the glasshouse, the designers adopted innovative ideas and techniques used in visitor attractions around the world. Surprisingly, it was a visit to the gorilla enclosure of New York Zoo that inspired the most popular and unusual display - the UK's first Root Zone Experience.

This cavernous underground exhibition has been created under the glasshouse's central rock 'mountain' and features low lighting, atmospheric sound effects, special effects photography and push-button exhibits, to enable visitors to appreciate the world of plants from an earth worm's perspective.

"In the gorilla enclosure, there was an underground room, telling people about the environment both at ground level and below ground level, highlighting the functions of macro and micro organisms," says Jim Gardiner, curator of Wisley. "The Root Zone takes this further to enable us to share the hidden half of our beautiful plants."

Environmental education...
Another 'first' for the glasshouse is the built-in Clore Learning Centre, which offers an opportunity to enjoy some hands-on environmental education, both inside in 'The Growing Lab' and outside in the teaching garden.

"Our team of educational and horticultural professionals are working in consultation with our school and adult visitors to create this new learning space," says Ruth Taylor, RHS head of education. "It has teaching materials that show how plants and gardening can bring learning to life on almost any topic in a practical and fun manner."

Stepping into the glasshouse is like entering another world but some of the exotic plants growing in it could put on an equally good display in a conservatory or on a windowsill.

With that in mind, the RHS has compiled a list to inspire visitors to get creative at home or in the office.

Suggestions range from a small woolly cactus with giant purple flowers that can cope with long periods without water, to a showy croton that will put on a dazzling display of leaf colour in an east facing window, to an elegant black-trunked Australian tree fern to lend a jungle feel to a conservatory.

From arid rock to leafy jungle, the glasshouse takes you on a journey of discovery through dramatic landscapes where familiar household favourites are combined with the rare and exotic to spectacular effect.

As the UK's leading gardening charity, the RHS believes access to gardens and growing plants enriches people's lives. This wonderful new addition to Wisley should certainly do just that.

  • RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB: 0845 260 9000


The flagship garden of the RHS, Wisley captures the imagination with richly planted borders, luscious rose gardens and the state-of-the-art Glasshouse. Gifted to the Society in 1903, Wisley has evolved over time into a world-class garden. RHS Garden Wisley is located on the A3 close to junction 10 of the M25. The nearest rail station is Woking. For more information, call 0845 260 9000 or visit



New RHS ambassador Mary Berry champions growing your own and visits to Wisley


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RHS director Jim Gardiner on his perfect Surrey weekend

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