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 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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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.
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.
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
Tags: Miss P