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. I have learned about gardening largely 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 gardeners start and nurture plants before setting them into the ground or potting them 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 look 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 housed 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. 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. When no one was looking 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.
You can read more about my Big Fat English Garden Vacation at:
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