Bzzzz 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.

Down Place Greenhouse

Green­house at Down Place

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.

greenhouse at The Grange


greenhouse at Old Erringham Cottage

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.

garden work area2

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.

vine in greenhouse

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.

fish blood and bone

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.

Potting Shed

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.

tool garage

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.

red currents

Berry house at Nyewood House

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:

About Those Eng­lish Gardens

Did you enjoy this post? Please leave me a com­ment! I love to hear from readers.



Posted In: Gardening, Travel


Bzzzz 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.

Old Erringham Cottage 2

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK

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.

English Countryside


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.

Plants in Steps

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!

Old Erringham Cottage

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


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.

Garden House at Parsonage Farm

Gar­den House at Par­son­age Farm, Kid­ford, Sus­sex, UK

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.

The Grange

The Grange, Sus­sex, UK


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.

Arundel Castle aliums and lavender

Ali­ums and Laven­der at Arun­del Cas­tle and Garden


(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.

Rose at Sandhill Farm

Climb­ing rose at Rose­mary Alexander’s Sand­hill Farm, Sus­sex, UK

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.

Arundel Castle Garden

Arun­del Cas­tle Garden


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.

Old Erringham Cottage Poppy Field

Poppy field at Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


I’ll be shar­ing more. Come along on the trip with me.

You can read more about my Big Fat Eng­lish Gar­den Vaca­tion at:

Behind the Hedge

Did you enjoy this post? Please leave me a com­ment! I love to hear from readers.


Posted In: Flowers, Garden Design, Gardening, Gardening Life, Travel

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