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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Bzzzz March 1st, 2015

We lost our 18-year-old cat Miss P a cou­ple of months ago. It was a very sad time around here. But I still think I see her shadow out of the cor­ner of my eye from time to time. Two months later I’m pretty sure some of the pet hair I see on my coat is hers. And I will always have the things she taught me in our time together.

There are many lessons one learns from liv­ing with a cat. Notice that I say “liv­ing with a cat” and not some­thing ridicu­lous such as “hav­ing a cat” or—most pre­pos­ter­ous of all—“owning a cat.”

You can­not own a cat. A cat may con­sent to live in your house as long as you keep the Deli Cat and tuna treats flow­ing. It helps also if you have a sunny win­dow and some fine newly uphol­stered fur­ni­ture to shred when they’re in the mood. But you can no more “own” a cat than you can own the air. Cats will be where they will be. Even cap­tive house cats can­not be told to “be” on the floor rather than on the guest bed silk duvet cover. Try explain­ing rules to a cat and see where it gets you.

Miss P in Pink sm

One of the most impor­tant lessons I learned from Miss P is to ignore peo­ple who speak harshly or say mean things. Inter­net trolls cer­tainly fall into this cat­e­gory. So do peo­ple who work at the DMV. And some elderly rel­a­tives whose social fil­ters are break­ing down.

Try say­ing some­thing mean to a cat and see how she reacts.

Gosh, Miss P! Your lit­ter box smells like a third world out­house! What have you been eating?”

Good grief, Miss P! I don’t need another dead mouse! I haven’t eaten the last one you gave me!”

A cat will look at you with sleepy eyes, del­i­cately lick a front paw and go back to shred­ding the taffeta chaise. It would no more occur to a cat to feel hurt or shame than it would for her to take up square danc­ing or col­lect Hum­mel figurines.

Oh, you might be think­ing some­thing all log­i­cal right now, such as “But cats don’t speak English.”

Dogs don’t speak Eng­lish either—or at least not fluently—and you can make a dog feel hurt or ashamed with­out even try­ing. Dogs have very del­i­cate feel­ings. Use a harsh tone of voice with a dog and it can com­pletely ruin her nat­u­rally jovial mood.

If I snap, “Darn it, Sophie! Did you send that fart cloud over here?” Sophie won’t even be able to look at me. She will hang her head in shame, tuck her tail between her legs and blink her eyes in abject apol­ogy. Sophie is obvi­ously crushed that you would speak to her in such an unfriendly manner.

It occurred to me one day when I was observ­ing Miss P that I could take a les­son from her.

I was hav­ing a par­tic­u­larly bad morn­ing because of a snippy email from a client. It didn’t even make sense that I should be upset. I already knew that this client was noto­ri­ously tone deaf to how her email com­mu­ni­ca­tions came across. Other peo­ple had men­tioned how sur­prised they were at this pecu­liar aspect of her char­ac­ter. In per­son she is a delight­ful and warm human being. She will give you a hug if you haven’t seen her in a while. She always remem­bers your kid’s name and asks after him. She is always the first to thank you for a job well done.

But give that woman an email account and she has all the sub­tlety of Chris Christie respond­ing to a heck­ler. Some peo­ple just shouldn’t be allowed to send emails.

Any­way, I was feel­ing injured and ques­tion­ing whether this client even really liked me any­more when Miss P saun­tered through the room. You know that won­der­ful cat saunter? It’s com­pletely noise­less and unhur­ried, with the front feet planted care­fully one in front of the other and the back hips rolling in sync. It’s like a small lion, but with more silk.

It occurred to me then that I could chan­nel my inner Miss P. I could look at the irri­ta­ble email, blink and go back to shred­ding the antique chaise. I could saunter over to the sunny spot on the couch and just rest my eyes and absorb the warmth. Or I could at least not let that poorly worded email launch me toward the cookie jar.

Miss P Walking sm

In my mind I know that an email from a tone deaf emailer doesn’t mean that I am worth less as a human being. I know it doesn’t mean that my work is lousy, that I’m hor­ri­bly lazy, that I should just hang up my hat on my career and try a new pro­fes­sion as a man­i­curist. Or maybe give real estate or multi-level mar­ket­ing a whirl. Log­i­cally I know that noth­ing about me has changed in the 10 min­utes since I read the email. But it feels like it does.

Shame is a pow­er­ful emo­tion. I think that we all walk around in life with a bub­ble of bad feel­ings hid­den deep inside. It’s so easy for some­one to take their sharp words and put a lit­tle nick in the del­i­cate, stretched mem­brane of that bub­ble so that the bad feel­ings begin to seep out, lit­tle by lit­tle, work­ing as a cor­ro­sive on our self-esteem.

Cats don’t have this bad feel­ing bub­ble inside. They were all born bad-bubble defi­cient. As a result, cats never feel shame because they really don’t give a damn what you think or say. Yell at a cat to get off the kitchen counter and she might jump down. But if she does, she’ll act as if jump­ing down were the plan all along.

Cats don’t do shame. They do pride. They are supremely self-confident in their cathood. Noth­ing you can say will make them feel dif­fer­ently about themselves.

Now, thanks to Miss P’s lessons, when I am feel­ing par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble or injured, I pull on my Miss P-like per­son­al­ity. I am con­fi­dent and self-assured like a cat. Like Miss P.

 

Posted In: Dogs and Cats

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