I was fortunate enough to spend nearly two weeks in England visiting gardens and attending the Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is the largest flower show in the world. Gardening is a huge pastime in the U.K. No matter how small a plot people have, most have a garden and many grow their own vegetables. Their houses may be smaller than ours, but nearly everyone has a small greenhouse in the back garden. It is a very different world over there. And speaking of world, the most popular TV show is “Gardener’s World” on the BBC. Every Friday night, people are glued to their TV’s watching the host Monty Don with his two dogs working in his garden. Monty and the other presenters on the show are like rock stars to their adoring public. I must admit that my heart skipped a beat when I saw Arit Anderson standing in one of the show gardens at Chelsea presenting for the cameras. She is one of my favorite presenters.
There are many beautiful gardens across the British countryside that are destinations for the public and all contain cafes and gift stores making for a real day out. There are hundreds of such gardens in the U.K. and names of favorite gardens are great topics of conversation.
I was fortunate to visit the Royal Horticultural Society flagship garden – RHS Wisley. Wisley is enormous with lovely displays, but my favorite part was the brand new research facility named Hilltop. This is where scientists study plant DNA and plant pathology. I guess that we can blame them for the Latin name changes on various plants as they do their Ancestor.com work on plants. One new thing that has come out of the current research is the No Dig movement. I was always told to dig and then dig deeply again to totally loosen the soil and to turn the soil over. Now we find out that this damages the soil structure and all of the tiny beneficial mico-organisms in the soil. And the no dig method does not bring up weed seeds. Who knew? Dig only a hole to put the plant in and then mulch heavily with good organic matter. They use something called Strulch over there. Strulch is mineralized ground up straw. It did look good enough to eat. Unfortunately, it is not available here – yet. A girl can dream.
From Wisley we went to Sissinghurst Castle gardens and Great Dixter. Sissinghurst was the home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. I will not go into their relationship as a couple, but they had an incredible vision for gardens and the white garden is world renown. I was able to meet the head gardener, Troy Scott-Smith. His posts on Instagram was well worth a follow. What a heavenly place!
Great Dixter is famous as a teaching garden. Students from all over the world spend a year or two at Dixter and then become famous in their own right. The long border is spectacular and scientists have discovered that there is more biodiversity in the planted mixed border of shrubs, bulbs, annuals, and perennials, than there is in the "rewilded" meadow of native plants.
My favorite garden was the smallest – Denmans in West Sussex. The former residence of garden designer, John Brookes (MBE 1933-2018), an American Horticulturalist has taken over the garden, is working to restore it, and has opened it to the public. There was such a personal quality to this garden that I find it difficult to put in words. My non-gardening husband felt it as well. You are led through a series of garden rooms with your eye drawn towards something unique and beautiful whether it be a pond, a large jar, or an iconic blue bench that Brookes used as signature pieces in his garden. The owner before Brookes was a plantswoman who experimented with gravel gardening – that is actually planting in gravel. It is very popular in the UK and Chanticleer near Philadelphia has a large gravel garden. The plants appear to thrive and the weeds do not. I may try to plant one this winter. It is too hot to be hauling gravel now.
London and Chelsea were in full bloom not only for the Flower Show, but also the jubilee and floral displays were everywhere on buildings and along streets. It is a very different world to ours . Gardens are seen as not just a nice extra to have, but essential for wellbeing. Almost every hospital has a garden as do rehab centres. There are Cancer Centresa around the nation (Maggie’s Place) where patients can drop in for a cup of tea and be surrounded by a lush garden where they can work if they wish or just enjoy the beauty. I wish we could start that here. Perhaps we can.