July 23rd, 2015
Unless you count the jungle of house plants in my childhood and later college dorm rooms, I started gardening as a vegetable gardener rather than a flower or ornamentals gardener. After all, I do love food. I also come from a family in which practical and useful activities—such as fixing your own car, building a shed or growing your own food—are highly valued.
But even more than that, the intellectual part of me understands that food is grown from the ground thanks to the combination of sun, soil and rain. The romantic part of me, on the other hand, thinks that growing vegetables, herbs and fruits is somehow magic. When I grow a tomato, I can marvel at it for quite a long time before I get around to sinking my teeth into it. The cucumbers I pickle are more than mere jars of food. They are the product of my ability to do magic—to make something from practically nothing.Unlike some of my gardening friends, I have not had the advantage of a garden mentor—a parent or grandparent to show me how to stake tomatoes, wrangle rangy strawberry plants or identify which end of the bulb goes up. What I have learned about gardening has largely been gleaned from reading books and killing plants. So when I digress from my reporting of my Big Fat English Garden Vacation to sneak behind the hedge and look at the little greenhouses and poke among the uneven rows of nursery pots, just understand that I’m still trying to figure out this whole gardening business. Part of me still believes that if I can just see how these incredible gardeners do things behind the scenes I may learn some secrets that will help transform my own garden into some version of the English ideal. For me, it’s like sneaking behind the magician’s curtain.
So let me tell you about a few of the things I saw there behind the hedge.
In many American gardens I have visited, there is no obvious place where plants are started and nurtured before being set into the ground or potted up into a pretty container. In some American gardens it looks as if every flower and shrub comes straight from the nursery and gets plopped right into a hole waiting for it to arrive. In others there is a little stash of plants in nursery pots that looks as if they were shoved behind a garage or under a deck in the hurry to tidy up for visitors. But I haven’t seen a lot of potting benches and even fewer greenhouses.
In contrast, every garden we visited on my recent English garden tour has a place tucked out of sight and around a corner to propagate plants. At one small town garden we visited the gardeners only had space for a small coldframe, but most gardens had at least a small greenhouse.
As you can imagine, a few of the greenhouses were picturesque or even architectural showcases in themselves. But surprisingly, most of the greenhouses I saw—even on the grand estates—were smallish, economical and utilitarian structures. Some were well-swept, quite tidy and visitor-ready, but others were a little bit messy. Oh they weren’t oh-my-god messy, just the kind of messy that happens when there is work in progress. Many times it looked as if the gardener had just stepped away from the potting bench for a cup of tea.
A few of the greenhouses were used for growing tomatoes and cucumbers. If, like me, you are a vegetable gardener then you know that tomatoes and cucumbers like the warm summer weather that we have here in most of the U.S. I suppose the comparatively cool British summers aren’t all that conducive to growing these warmth-loving veggies in the open air, so they become coddled indoor veggies in the U.K.
Some of the greenhouses still had seed starting operations in progress while others had been mostly emptied out by the time we visited in mid-June. A good number of them seemed to have long-term plant boarders on the greenhouse shelves. One greenhouse even had a grape vine as thick as my arm growing through the potting bench, up the wall and covering the ceiling.
Near the greenhouse there were the inevitable compost bins. As with the greenhouses, some were magazine-worthy (for a certain type of magazine anyway) while others were no more glamorous than layered yard waste, but they all had a compost operation going on.
When we asked the gardeners about whether they fertilize, even single gardener said, “Yes!” A couple of gardeners mentioned special tomato food. But most often they mentioned the liberal use of fish, blood and bone. In fact, I saw containers of fish, blood and bone fertilizer in a couple of the work sheds. When I returned home and Googled around to learn about similar fertilizer combinations here in the U.S., there were none to be found. Strangely enough I did find a Miracle Grow (of all companies!) fish, blood and bone fertilizer available in the U.K.
Another thing I noticed in the greenhouses were plenty of terra cotta pots, although I didn’t see many actually put to use. The nursery plants were all in those ubiquitous black nursery pots–nothing at all fancy about that.
Invariably, tools were carefully organized and well-maintained. There was no putting away a dirty shovel or hoe in these English gardens. I can’t say if they were regularly sharpened, but I’m willing to bet that they were and that the frugal Brits know the value of tool maintenance.
Birds must be a major problem for gardeners growing berries and currants. But rather than tossing on a stiff (and often tangled) black plastic net like I do here in my garden, nearly all the fruiting plants were caged in proper, neatly constructed chicken wire houses, complete with little doors and sometimes with raised beds. It’s obviously working for them because the currents were gorgeous. We were there almost at peak picking time.
Come to think of it, the gardeners may have had their fruits protected to keep visitors like me from gobbling them right there by the bush. I mean, I had never had a gooseberry before so when everyone’s back was turned I picked and gobbled the first unprotected gooseberry I came across in one of the fancy gardens! Have you had one? It’s an interesting texture and a bit tart. But tasty. I can definitely see making gooseberry jam.
I have plenty of gorgeous photos of the actual gardens. I took 1,977 photos during my week-long tour, so it’s taking me a while to figure out how to share them. Check back!
A note about the photos: I haven’t identified the location of most of these photos. There is certainly nothing shameful about well-organized tools or greenhouses. But these photos are certainly not representative of the beautiful gardens we saw, so I’ll wait to identify the gardens with the pretty photos–to come.
July 6th, 2015
There is no place like an English garden. And as a gardener, there was no better way to spend a week away from my own garden than visiting gardens in England. So in June, off I went on—of all things—an organized bus tour.
As a practicing semi-hermit, I’m not usually enthusiastic about organized group activities. But an organized bus tour of English gardens makes a great deal of sense. For one thing, the trip coordinator was able to get us an incredibly good deal on a package that included airfare, hotel, most meals and garden entrance fees. Because we were a small group of just 25 people, she also was able to get us into private gardens that the average tourist would never be able to visit on their own. Traveling on a luxury bus meant we didn’t have to sweat the details of directions or schedules. And finally, when you travel with other enthusiastic gardeners there will always be someone nearby to help identify that splendid shrub or drop dead gorgeous flower, not to mention enjoy a pub lunch or just a little sit on a well-placed garden bench.
Over the course of a week we visited 16 gardens, 12 of them private rather than public gardens.
The English countryside is idyllic in the spring and summer. The long agrarian tradition can still be seen in the English countryside. You still see miles and miles of verdant rolling hills surrounded by stone walls and dotted with idyllic sheep, cows and goats. Drive through the small villages and towns and even the most modest homes have roses scrambling up the walls, lovingly maintained window boxes and wildly blooming perennial borders.
Old stone walls and older stone houses add to the rugged but beautiful backdrop for all the exuberant plant growth. Flowers are allowed to seed and grow in cracks and crevices. Roses are encouraged to scramble up the sides of stone fences and garden walls. The warm brown color of the stone provides the perfect pallet backdrop for both the soft pastels or the more flamboyant flowers.
One of the reasons English gardens are so spectacularly full of vigorous plants that in some cases are twice the size of their American versions is that the days are incredibly long. Located at about a latitude of 51, England sits much farther north than, for example, Anchorage, Alaska, at 61 degrees latitude. That means that in the third week of June, sunrise in West Sussex was at 4:50 a.m. and sunset was at 9:18 p.m. That’s more than 16 long hours of daylight for the plants to sunbathe and grow. Compare that to my Maryland garden, which gets a measly 14 hours of summer sunlight. As a practical matter on this trip, it also meant that the sun in England woke me up at 3:30 a.m. as it began its ascent over the horizon.
Then there is the issue of heat and humidity. I know that people in some more of the more hellish parts of the U.S. will scoff at my weather whining, but here in Maryland the summer days can easily get into the 90s and the humidity numbers hover around that same number. Dare to go outside in the late afternoon and it is like swimming in hot air. While we were in England, some of the hotel staff and even some gardeners complained about the heat. It was 75 degrees! Hah. I laugh at their heat!
All this heat and humidity provides the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and ticks. In England, ticks are not as much a problem as in the U.S., although Google tells me that disease-carrying ticks are on the rise there as well. And when we asked one gardener about the mosquito situation in England she assured us that they may have a few but that “They only bite the animals—not humans.”
Well, how civilized!
As a visitor one of the first things that you notice is that English gardens are full. Packed full. Plants grow up and out and over and under and around. Wonderfully textured shrubs, such as cotinus or spirea, serve as backdrops against which perennials are wedged. Add some creeping vines, such as clematis, or a rambling rose scamper up walls, trellises and tuteurs so that your eye is carried upward. Maybe there will be some clipped boxwood or a nicely shaped yew to provide a bit of structure or as a foil to all the rambunctious scrambling plants.
You will see broad expanses of lawns on large estates, but in smaller gardens the swaths of green grass that make up most of American garden real estate just aren’t to be found. And I noticed particularly on this trip that even grand estates are allowing ribbons, patches and even fields of grass to grow high. Sometimes it may be just a ring around a tree. In other places the tall grass may run along an old stone fence. In one garden we visited the field was a true flower meadow in which wild orchids had taken up residence. I loved that the home owners had placed little identification cards on sticks around the perimeter so that we could find the orchids.
English gardens are all about perennial borders—really, really wide borders where the plants are jam packed in so that you can’t see even the smallest patch of soil. That means that the plants touch.
(Aside: I have heard more than one garden designer here in the U.S. laugh at clients who have panic attacks because they installed plants that touch. Well, as we learned even before kindergarten, there is good touching and there is bad touching. When plants touch, it is good touching. Okay?)
And let me tell you about the edging. Those Brits adore their razor sharp border edging. They are cut deep into the sod and are as precise as a military crease. They are meticulously groomed to keep it in tip-top shape. One gardener showed us her husband’s prized tool for this task. I was so impressed I came right home and found a similar tool for myself.
Almost every English garden I have visited has a little greenhouse, nursery beds and work staging area. These work areas are tucked away so you don’t really notice them, but I always seek them out because they tell me something about how the work gets done. Most of the greenhouses have some sort of propagation project in the works. These gardens are already packed full, so perhaps they are expanding their borders, growing for friends or maybe growing new plants that will be sold at their local garden club or other fundraiser.
English gardens are all about flowers and beauty. Vegetable gardens are quite attractive, but usually quite utilitarian and tucked away so that you must go searching for them. Tomatoes and cucumbers are often growing in the greenhouses.
Hah! We may not be able to grow David Austin roses here in Maryland, but we can grow tomatoes and cucumbers without a greenhouse!
The British rally together with their gardening spirit too, inviting the public into private gardens as part of what they call their National Gardens Scheme. I love that they call it a “scheme.” Here stateside we think of schemes as nefarious plots. The British consider a scheme a really good idea–in this case a way of raising money for charitable causes. Gardeners can apply to become a part of the National Gardens Scheme. They are interviewed and their gardens inspected. Gardeners whose gardeners are accepted into the scheme must offer some public days each year and also host private groups. Fees collected for the garden visits all go into the National Gardens Scheme coffers and are distributed to charitable organizations.
Lest you start to despair about how inadequate your garden is (I did!), let me tell you that only two of the gardens were primarily maintained—if not created—by the homeowners. At several of the gardens we visited, we were met and guided around by the full-time gardener. At one garden, the full-time chief gardener told us he had two part-time helpers—one who worked two days a week and another who worked three days a week. Both are 71 years old and, according to the young-ish head gardener, “Have a most excellent work ethic.” One of the old timers was previously in the military. The head gardener said that he could set his watch by the guy.
“His starting time is at 8:30 in the morning. At 8:31 I hear the trimmer start. His quitting time is at 4:30 in the afternoon. At 4:29 I hear him put away his tools.” Ah, to have help in the garden.
But even if you don’t have help, a container or two or perhaps a window box situated so you can see it as you scrub up the evening dishes can perk up your outdoor space. I hope you find the photos as inspiring as I do.
I’ll be sharing more. Come along on the trip with me.