When I packed for our English trip, I packed for an early English summer. That is to say that I anticipated a temperature range in the vicinity of 12⁰ to 22⁰. Not 32⁰ which is what we ended up in – soaring even higher as we crawled the M25 in a car which was not air conditioned.
England is generally regarded as a moderate maritime climate, lacking extremes experienced by inland continental areas. But as we looked at extensive snow damage to large conifers at Hidcote Garden in Gloucestershire, bone dry conditions in East Anglia and Surrey where the annual rainfall is a mere third of what we get here and thin, poor soils on top of chalk in many areas, it made our conditions look easy. And bunny rabbits may be native to England, but it does not make them any easier to cope with. We have been complaining about a minor population explosion at home but believe me, it is nothing to what we saw over there. Super bunny is fearless and everywhere, grazing at will. Pretty well all plantings outside urban areas need rabbit protection. Even hedgerow plants all went inside individual plastic sleeves. Add in voracious grey squirrels, invisible but destructive moles, badgers who insist on excavating their own version of the Clyde dam, marauding foxes and various birds of prey. At times, nature seemed rather more savage in that well tamed country than we expected.
Over a period of a couple of weeks, we visited about 30 gardens. By the end of that, we felt we had a reasonable grip on a range of gardening practices particularly with regard to herbaceous plantings but you will have to wait for my next column for any analysis. While I blithely deny jet lag, the brain is still a little woolly. So this week is edited highlights, Hidcote, Beth Chatto Gardens and Wisley.
“Go to Hidcote,” urged our Oakura friend and colleague, Glyn Church, “it is my all time favourite garden.” Having been ever so slightly disappointed in most of the Cornish private gardens we had seen, we headed up to Gloucestershire and hoped Glyn was right. He was. Hidcote was quite simply everything to which we aspire.
I have gone on record before saying that there are measurable and definable standards for gardens. That whether you or I like a garden is a matter of personal taste but whether it is a very good garden is not just opinion. Hidcote excelled across the board. It was very well planted, it was managed with sensitivity, it showed excellent design and structure, the maintenance was top quality. But more than that, for us Hidcote was on a scale we can relate to (it is a defined 10 acre garden) and quite simply, it set the standard for the genre that we like. It was the complete, all round domestic garden. To visit it was gardening nirvana.
Apparently Hidcote has not always attained this standard in recent years and it is nearing the end of a £3 million makeover (yes, that is three million UK pounds) so it should be looking good. And with about 10 qualified gardeners on the staff, the skilled labour component is well beyond what we can ever hope to reach. It is owned by the National Trust and it must be a flagship for quality management of what was a private garden created on a domestic scale (narrow paths and entranceways) now coping with very large visitor numbers. But the garden has not lost the intimacy or detail that defines a private vision. It was one of the early Arts and Crafts gardens, using rooms or defined spaces to mark changes of atmosphere and plant types. Photos are all very well, but to actually visit was to experience the gifted use of vistas, borrowed views, green rest areas between busy plantings, different types of plantings and all the other layers that go together to make a brilliant garden. The red mixed border was terrific. We walked out after several hours like stunned mullets.
The famed Beth Chatto gardens in Essex on the same site where she has gardened for many decades. We were privileged to have close to half an hour with her personally taking us around part of the garden and although she is now elderly, she has lost none of her mental sharpness and still appears to be very active managing what is now a pretty massive machine in terms of large, intensive garden, nursery, tea rooms and a constant flow of visitors. Beth Chatto is synonymous with perennials, both as a writer and a gardener. Her reputation is such that even my late mother (who died several years ago at an advanced age herself) always regarded Mrs Chatto as The Expert. And her gardens were so good that we had to go around twice, once going one way and then in reverse. Decades of intensive skilled gardening show in plant composition, plant health and management. Putting together combinations which are eyecatching and effective even without any flowers is not easy with perennials. Avoiding the scruffiness which can come with herbaceous material past its peak, keeping very tight weed management and restricting the movement of invasive wanderers, stopping it all looking the same – there was so much to learn from these gardens. It is not as if there was much hard landscaping and I can’t recall garden ornaments or sculptures – this was a brilliant garden that was all about plants and plant combinations.
Wisley was our third garden that provided a completely satisfying experience. It is the flagship for the Royal Horticulture Society – over two hundred acres of property encompassing pretty well every aspect of gardening that you are ever likely to encounter. Its scale is astounding and so is its quality. It must surely rank up amongst the very top public gardens in the world.
We were in the extraordinary position of having access to Wisley out of hours, after the thousands of visitors had gone home. Wisley is not just about plant collections and public gardens. It has a strong educative and comparative research function and to this end they have display frames of all fruit trees that they can grow, including different cultivars. We were worried that nobody appeared to be sufficiently rigorous with the assessment trials of the ripe cherries in particular, as well as the berry fruits. Left alone in the gardens, we spent some time working out how to gain entry to various netted cages but decided it would be all too embarrassing to be caught stealing fruit so we had to settle for the pieces we could wheedle out through the protective layers which reduced the efficacy of our assessments.
What Wisley showed us (besides the fact that stolen fruit does not always taste the best – Mark encountered the sour Morello cherries) was a whole range of different approaches to herbaceous gardening with examples by a number of different designers over a period of years, including very modern plantings around the new glasshouse. It gave us a series of reference points for what we now think is a continuum stretching from wild flower meadows through a range of styles and eras to an end point of herbaceous plantings best characterised by the massed utility grasses on motorway embankments. And for our thoughts on that, you will need to wait another fortnight.