Readers of this blog may not have worked out that most pieces are published first in our regional newspaper, the Taranaki Daily News. After being a garden columnist for over a decade, last Saturday the editor published the equivalent of an abbreviated school report. Extensive readership surveys had given this column the thumbs up and in fact ranked it second only to the TV review. This was attributed to my writing “informed and often devilishly waspish garden pieces” . Try saying that after a glass or two of wine. But I was enchanted. True, the TV reviewer was described as witty and wry, but devilishly waspish has such a wonderfully archaic feel to it. I read on in the hope that other contributors would be described in such terms as, say, fiendishly roguish. Maybe graciously rubenesque or coquettishly impish. But no, I alone have the sting in the tail and a persona fitting of a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer.
But it will not be the editor sitting beside this devilishly waspish woman high above the world somewhere in transit between Tikorangi and London as you read this column. English summer gardens beckon.
Given the sudden upsurge in swine flu, Mark was tempted to grasp at straws and suggest that maybe we would be better staying at home. He is not the world’s most enthusiastic traveller, my Mark. When he worked out the scope of Google street map and individual websites, he ventured the suggestion that we could do a virtual tour without leaving the sofa, experiencing even the driving through London and the countryside in actual time. Was that not why I bought my lap top, he asked. But it is all part of the game and in fact this is a trip we have long hoped to share together.
English gardens are not new to us, but gardens in June are. We have tended to be spring time visitors but spring time gardens are what we can do very well indeed at home. Most of New Zealand, and Taranaki in particular, excels at spring gardens. We have a long spring and in the period between August and November, magnolias, blossom trees, rhododendrons, spring bulbs, spring perennials and early roses fill our gardens with flowers and fragrance. As I say often, in New Zealand it only takes about 10 years to build a very pretty tree and shrub garden. It is what we do. But gardens that peak in December and January and extend through to March are much less common here. So we want to go and look at summer gardening. We know the theories, now we want to see the practices and to see which parts we can apply at home.
Planning a garden visiting trip is certainly an interesting exercise, especially when you narrow your brief. We have done enough to know that while some of the very wealthy, large, historic gardens managed with many staff and a deep public purse are interesting to visit, we learn more from private gardens managed on small budgets but encompassing high skill levels. So while we will do the odd famous garden (Wisley, Hestercomb and maybe Sissinghurst) most of the gardens on our short list are ones many readers will never have heard of.
We have been lucky to be guided in our selection by An Expert who actually visits and reviews all of Britain and many of Europe’s best gardens. He commented that we should not expect too much of some of the Big Name gardens, that standards have lifted a great deal in the past two decades and some of those gardens have not necessarily lifted their game accordingly. Over the years we have heard the odd comment from New Zealanders on pilgrimage to English gardens citing cases where they were a little disappointed, so that all figures. We also learned from our Italian foray a few years ago that we enjoy looking at private gardens and that despite the very best of intentions, when private gardens go into public or shared trust ownership in order to preserve them, the genius and creativity of the original owner disappears over time.
Our brief to Trusted Advisor was that we wanted to see private gardens which combine good plantsmanship and design, have a summer focus and are managed without an army of staff and correspondingly deep pockets. He responded with a short list of 15 to 20 in our designated areas stretching from Norfolk to Cornwall. It takes a bit of planning and juggling because once you are away from the big name gardens which open daily, many of these private gardens are by appointment only or have odd set days and times. And with dear old Telecom here charging an extortionate amount to use our mobile phone in the UK (I just about fell off my chair when I read the rates), I don’t want to be relying on ringing while we are on the move.
In due course I will report back. We expect to see perennial gardening at its best. The English do it so well. Big swathes of flowering clumping plants in a sea of foliage and colour. It disappears away to nothing in winter. We have seen herbaceous borders in England in early spring – there is literally nothing visible at all bar the occasional giant gunnera wrapped up in straw and sacking to keep it alive. Yes the very same gunnera that is on our banned list here as a noxious weed. We have only seen on TV the near miraculous transformation from winter wasteland to summer carpet that is achieved with perennial gardening in this style. We want to assess whether we can achieve a similar effect here without the winter rest period (and without the gunnera). Here we have wind, torrential downpours which can flatten soft growth, rapid plant growth and very long gardening seasons. Our conditions may be less than ideal.
A couple of weeks of non stop garden visiting may not be everyone’s cup of tea but two heads are better than one and we hope to return inspired with new ideas. One thing is for sure though. When you are travelling across the world, it certainly helps to have good advisors who are switched on to what you want to see. We don’t have time to spend looking at very average gardens or queuing for tourist attractions. We are after hard-core gardening and hard-core gardeners.