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 is still evident 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 seed and grow in cracks and crevices. Roses 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 wedged-in perennials. 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 don’t exist. 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. British gardeners cut deep edges into the sod, 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. Gardeners tuck work areas out of sight so you don’t notice them. 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. Officials interview the gardeners and inspect the gardens. 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 to benefit 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.
You can read more about my Big Fat English Garden Vacation at:
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