Tag Archives: Travels

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.

Postcards of Normandy

Potted colour in Rouen

One wonders – well, I wonder – if the person who did the sign off in at Rouen’s town council realised the scale of the planters to be installed at that railway station. “Let’s pretty up the area with some potted colour,” I imagine somebody saying. The result was the BIGGEST examples of potted colour that we have seen. Clearly hand watered – Mark checks these things out.

Same city. Not quite like the railway station planters.

Further down towards the River Seine was an example of amenity planting without irrigation. Not even the modern style prairie plantings can get established and flourish without added water. The idea may have been good but most plants bolt to flower and seed when put under extreme stress in an attempt to ensure their continued survival. Much of Europe was experiencing a heat wave when we were there. Both in Italy and in France, locals told us that it most unusual for the temperature to be sitting well into the thirties (Celsius) in June.

Potted colour in Pont-l’Évêque

While on the subject of urban plantings, the planter boxes on the bridge at Pont-l’Évêque made up for their lack of sophistication with exuberance. It was just that we were in Pont-l’Évêque that I thought I would photograph le pont but then I worked out it was in fact les ponts – there were many bridges and I have no idea which one gave its name to the area.

A pharmacy on every corner

Our second daughter joined us in France and it was she who marvelled at the fact there appeared to be a pharmacy, or chemist as we call them, on pretty much every corner in Rouen. Why so many, she asked. I have no idea but it reminded me of a useful skill French pharmacists have. They are trained to identify edible fungi – as in wild collected mushrooms, toadstools and the like. So if you are not sure of the safety of what you have gathered, you can pop in to your friendly local pharmacy. I do not think this is a service offered at our local Waitara chemist’s shop but there are times it would be handy.

We stayed in another Air BnB place in Camembert – in this case a Norman barn that had been converted to a large apartment. Some of the conversion was a little curious but we did not electrocute ourselves and the opportunity to sleep in an adult-sized cradle created from a half cider barrel may never come my way again.

Crouttes, near Vimoutier

The whole area around Camembert and Vimoutiers was extremely charming and picturesque. However, we were puzzled at the lack of the French equivalent of country pubs and eateries and also at the apparent emptiness of many of the villages. I think it comes down to issues of personal space and population density. In areas with very dense housing such as Tivoli and Sermonetta in Italy where we had been a few days previously, everybody comes out of their apartments to socialise on the streets and the plazas, especially as late afternoon meets early evening. In the UK which also has high density housing, people are often out and about. This area of rural Normandy was more like Tikorangi – big personal spaces and homes with land attached. Given the luxury of both indoor and outdoor private space, people stay at home more. At least that is my theory.

The green circle…

We went to a garden. I do not need to name it but it was advertised on the tourist trail. The welcoming sign was perhaps a giveaway that we should not set our expectations too high. What was quite interesting about this garden was that it had all the trappings of a comprehensive modern garden – the romantic rose garden, the new perennials garden, a “Japanese” garden, a productive kitchen garden, a traditional, medieval physic garden that harked back to the magnificent old buildings that gave the place its structure, even the enclosed green circle or rondel garden such as can be seen at Sissinghurst and many imitators. It was all there. Sort of. What was missing were gardening skills and flair. Particularly gardening skills. And any eye for detail. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Posted withour comment – the Japanese garden from the aforementioned garden.

The fruit of the mandrake! Mandragora officinarum, to be botanical. This is not something one sees often. It is apparently the root that is harvested for whatever purpose one harvests mandrake, but the fruit are certainly eye-catching too. I think it was in the physic garden.

La Plume! Romantic summer France

Next post will be the summer glory that is La Plume, a modern French garden in a country better known for its historic gardens than modern innovation.

Mostly Villas d’Este and Adriana – Postcards of Italy 2.

This Italy actually exists

Cliched though this scene may appear, it is not contrived. I just came across the view as we walked from Villa Adriana to the nearest coffee shop five minutes up the road. We wanted our morning caffeine hit before we tramped the ruins. Not only were there red poppies growing wild in the barley crop, the blue chicory and white convolvulus (field bindweed) were flowering alongside the stone wall that edged the road. I probably laughed out loud in delight.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli is known worldwide as one of the great Italian gardens. Built by The Man Who Would be Pope to compensate his thwarted ambition, it dates back to 1560. It was grand then. It is still grand today and water features throughout. His land excavations to achieve this garden would have put Capability Brown into the shade.

Formal but not strictly symmetrical at Villa d’Este

We have looked at some of the great Italian gardens on previous visits and had come to the conclusion that it is the settings, the hard landscaping – particularly the stonework – the history, the handling of space and proportions and the symmetry that makes these gardens endure as monuments to wealth, power and sometimes grace down the centuries. It is not so much to do with the plants or the maintenance. In a moment of profundity, as we walked through Villa d’Este, I noted that the symmetry is achieved through repetition, not through slavish measurement. It is that repetition and symmetry on a large scale that makes them so pleasing to the eye.

Attention to detail is not a strong point in Italian garden maintenance. Plants are not required to be immaculate. Irrigation hoses are often visible. It is okay to have plastic pots visible inside the terracotta pots. Water quality can leave a lot to be desired. Lawns are impossible in their climate. Some coarse grass kept green by watering is the best that one can hope for. The big picture is what matters. But, should you have grand visions of creating an “Italian-style” garden at home in New Zealand, maybe be aware that there is not one skerrick of tanalised timber – be they posts or plywood edgings or pergola beams – in any of these originals. Personally, I do not think that you can be Italianate or even Italianesque and use undisguised tanalised timber as a substitute for stone and terracotta. Ditto modern ‘dragonstone’ urns. And imposing suburban New Zealand values of pristine maintenance and velvet lawns takes such gardens even further away from the originals.

The straw broom brought a smile to our faces. Regular readers may remember me posting about the making of these in China.  Sometimes there is a charm to old ways. Besides, as Mark points out, these brooms work very well. Our first ever visit to Italy was back in the early 2000s when we went on an IDS tour of northern Italian gardens. It was there we first saw the widespread use of leaf blowers and came home and bought one. These days, Mark is using ours less and less. He is a bit of a purist, our Mark, and has become concerned at how dependent we have become on the internal combustion engine to maintain the garden.  If somebody would just make him a few straw brooms, he would be a happy man.

I am sure it takes a great deal of work to look like a modern-day princess, even more so when the temperature is over 30 Celsius and the location requires walking down and then up hundreds of steps. Mark noted that she was also behaving like a princess – the one with the pea under the mattress. I couldn’t possibly comment. Even when I was considerably younger, I do not think I ever managed the princess look.

Real life nymphs at Villa d’Este

I preferred the real-life nymphs. It transpired they were American art students doing an art history semester in Italy. Mark discreetly walked past them as they sketched and reported that they were extremely competent at drawing.

Villa Adriana – just one small view of a huge complex

Villa Adriana surprised us by its scale. It is the Emperor Hadrian’s retreat dating back to 200AD. The word villa encompasses a range of building styles and scale in Italy. The one at Villa d’Este is more akin to a palace. Villa Adriana is an entire small city of largely unrestored ruins encompassing about 250 acres. What is more, you can walk amongst them. I found a Roman toilet and an ancient olive grove that was simply astonishing. More on the olive grove another time. This was the Roman empire but it had an air of abandoned desolation even today, as though the tourist plans and archaeological aspirations of even a few years ago had fallen on hard times.

There was a fair amount of statuary of the armless, legless and formerly white variety but I think most of it was more recent reproduction already in decay. Much of the surviving, original statuary and marble had been raided 500 years ago by Cardinal Ippolito ll d’Este and relocated to his nearby pad but we did not know this when we went around Villa d’Este.

The wildflowers in the ruins of Adriana had a simple charm. In those drought-like conditions, the spring rains must bring a short-lived surge of germination and growth. The plants shoot straight into flower but conditions prevent them becoming invasive problems.

Finally, fields of sunflowers on the road to Ninfa. All facing the wrong way for the picture book image with the house and hills behind. Viewed from the other side, we lost the landscape context.

The light is so different in Italy

Despatches from Camembert

This! This really is the village of Camembert. It exists and it is the origin of the cheese. It is picturesque but small these days containing a church, a carpark with two charge stations for electric cars, a museum to honour Camembert cheese that has limited opening hours and a tourist shop. And some houses, but not many.

The tourist shop sells cheeses and I am not sure that they were much dearer than the same local brands at the Carrefour supermarket in nearby Vimoutiers. European cheeses are so very good. And it is interesting that most of the local market appears to be supplied by small, local producers. We would call these artisan or boutique producers at home and pay a huge premium for their products. Our mass market, such as it is in little New Zealand, is supplied by an indistinct, pretty average range of cheese, most of which comes through Fonterra, our near monopoly dairy company.

At the crossroads, leading up to Camembert, there is an obelisk commemorating Madame Harel, or Mrs Camembert as some may call her now. That is a pretty major legacy to leave.

Mme Harel’s obelisk faces but in no way equals the startling rendition of Christ. We have seen many other statues of both Christ and the Virgin Mary in this area, reminding us that this is a Roman Catholic country. But few statues equal the grandeur and prominence of that in little Camembert.

I like travelling with Mark because he is observant so of course he spotted the bees congregating around the nether regions. What is more, be cast his eyes around the base until he found a dead bee, in order that he could determine that these are small, dark French bees of a sort we do not appear to have in New Zealand.

The roses were finished last week in Italy, still blooming beautifully in Normandie this week and we may even catch them at their peak in England where we cross to today. We saw a most interesting contemporary French garden near Rouen and a not so great garden near here, but more on gardens later. Our arrival in Camembert on Wednesday was, apparently, the hottest June day since 1945. 38 degrees Celsius. That is very, very hot. We are not expecting a repetition in England.


Plants to impress in English early summer gardens.

It does appear to us at this stage as if the seasons are early this year. Mind you, winter struck early and with a vengeance so it is only fair that spring should similarly make an early appearance. With that comes a sense of panic. Should Rhododendron Rubicon be flowering in mid September and will we have any rhodos left to flower during Festival? We have enough experience to know that these things tend to even out over time and if the flowering remains early, at least our nuttalliis and maddeniis will see us through. But it has had our thoughts turning to the plants that really impressed us in an early English summer. We may need to draw on these for future festivals.

Frilly large and pink - we can't grow herbaceous peonies here
Frilly large and pink – we can’t grow herbaceous peonies here

Herbaceous peonies (or paeonia). Big frilly, fluffy, pink herbaceous peonies. They look fantastic, they need staking to stop them falling over and they don’t grow in Taranaki. Apparently they do extremely well in Central Otago and they are happy in a continental climate (dry, cold winters and hot, dry summers – rather the antithesis of here). We just have to admire them when we travel. And they are another short term wonder where they look just fantastic but then have a rather long time “passing over” as we say.

Philadelphus, aka mock orange blossom. These we can and do grow though we don’t feature them as much as we saw in England. There are a wider range on the market there, including larger flowered forms and double forms. Facetiously, I would add they probably have forms with variegated leaves too. The Brits do love their variegated foliage and their yellow foliage. These affectations add colour and texture in their climate with its diffuse light whereas we shun them here where our unfiltered sunlight burns them. The philadelphus is known as the mock orange blossom, I assume, because of its wonderful fragrance. It makes a large deciduous shrub – most forms get to 3 metres if you don’t trim them.

Cornus kousa was great all round the country. It is the dogwood from China and Japan – a small tree with flat flowers favouring pink but can also come in shades of white, cream and green tinged. We have a nice pink flowered one in our garden though it is a little poorly these days. There were a whole range of different selections in the UK, including some very large flowered ones and some top pink forms. We need to have a closer look at kousa. The American dogwood species don’t do as well for us here (they get decimated by the puriri moth) but kousa is a different story.

In the perennials, the stand out plants were alliums, verbascums, astilbes and eryngiums. Alliums are onions, though ornamental onions in this case. Some forms put up wonderfully decorative large spheres of purple and I wanted them instantly. Alas these archetypical inclusions of the English summer border are not really any easier there than here and the bulbs are often bought in annually. What a wonderful feature plant they are, though. The famous Beth Chatto Gardens list no fewer than 21 different ornamental alliums in their 2009 mailorder list.

Tulbaghia are onion relatives. English gardeners love to amass what are called National Collections of each and every plant genus, often in private gardens. We visited one garden which proudly proclaimed itself as the holder of a number of national collections, including tulbaghia. Hah, declared Mark, commenting that he thought there were only a very few different tulbaghia species. He was right. They are a small plant family, modest in number and modest in appearance. And indeed the National Collection of tulbaghia was considerably more impressive on paper than in reality. But it did give Mark a new claim to add to his repertoire. He has since been heard to proclaim: “Ah. But I have seen the national tulbaghia collection.” We do grow tulbahia violacea here but truly it looks a little chive-like.

Verbascums put up tall spires of flowers, typically yellow or white, with a rosette of leaves at the base. Great Dixter used self seeded verbascum spires as a repeated flower motif throughout the garden so we felt we were in good company as we too have a large flowered yellow form which is a biennial through our rockery. But we only have two forms and there are more than that which we will be tracking down for summer displays. We have tried and lost the most impressive verbascum, a splendid grey felted rosette with an impressive flower spire. Time to try it again.

Miss Willmott achieves immortality - eryngium giganteum
Miss Willmott achieves immortality – eryngium giganteum

Eryngiums are sometimes called sea holly and are mostly somewhat prickly. We have a lovely blue form in our rockery and it was because one was planted too close to the pathway that I discovered they have phenomenally deep and sturdy taproots. It makes them difficult to move. Eryngiums were used widely in English gardens, being tolerant of dry. There is a large form of the plant, eryngium giganteum, now called Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Said Miss W was a fine gardener but possibly a cantankerous old biddy who was a law unto herself. Allegedly, she made a practice of secretly scattering seed of eryngium giganteum in gardens that she visited so that the large, silvery plants would rise, ghost-like, long after her visit. Apparently eryngiums will seed down and many are biennial so only last two years. All I can say is the one I have in our rockery is a deciduous perennial and it has never yet self seeded, though I would be pleased if it did.

Astilbes. I fell in love with astilbes and the national collection of these at Marwood Hill in Devon was worth looking at. Big fluffy plumes in shades of white, cream, pink and rusty reds, all happy in damp areas but also preferring some shade with our harsh sun here. We visited Hollards Garden in South Taranaki last weekend and noticed their dell held the promise of a good display of astilbes later in the season. We can grow them here in the north, but they just don’t like being built up in nursery conditions (weevils seem to sniff the pots out from afar and move in) so we need to be more organised and build them up in the garden, not the nursery.

We were greatly taken with aruncus as soon as we saw it. Aruncus is a rather like a giant creamy astilbe on Eastern European steroids, ideal for wild or natural gardens. It needs space, at least a metre and a half across. We fell out of love with it equally quickly when we realised it had a short season and its beautiful creamy plumes of flowers turned brown and hung on, so it just looked burned. We noticed Persicaria polymorpha filled the same niche and a skilled gardener confirmed that this plant passed over more gracefully.

The stand out beautiful garden plant was a grass at Beth Chattos. I have now lost the piece of paper where I wrote its name down but I am sure it was a stipa. It is rather academic anyway because if there is one plant group that we will never be allowed to import new family members into this country, it will be ornamental grasses. Oh, and the ornamental thistles which looked great. The most truly awful plant we saw was widely grown, though goodness knows why. It was a thoroughly nasty spirea. Clumping yellow leaves (may even have had some sort of variegation to make it worse) contrasting with a yukky mauve pink flower. It was a good argument for glyphosate.

Letter from England

Greetings from a Cornwall fishing village where we are currently in residence in an oh-so-cutsie-pie antique fisherman’s cottage, suitably renovated to bring it up to the level of comfort expected in 2009. The thatched roof has been replaced with slate tiles and actually I think thatching may be a great deal better in photographs than in reality. Not only does thatching have a limited lifespan and require a trained thatcher to replace (probably elderly, meticulous, speaking in a thick regional dialect but charging for the new millenium), it provides a cosy habitat for all manner of insect, rodent and bird life. Mark has even spotted a duck nesting on a thatched roof.

But I digress. We made this trip specifically to look and learn from English summer gardens and we placed a strong emphasis on private gardens of high quality, rather than the better known historic gardens. You will have to wait for another fortnight to get a more detailed analysis of what we have seen but suffice to say that we are abandoning that earlier plan and returning instead to an itinerary heavier on the known historic and estate gardens. We have been a little underwhelmed by the calibre of many of the private gardens that had been recommended to us. That is fine – it allows us to establish benchmarks and comparators – but now we want to see the best of English garden tradition and it appears we will find that in the trust and public gardens.

We have been particularly impressed by the country lanes where, thank goodness, glyphosate is clearly never used and hedgerows are valued. Of course many of our weeds in New Zealand are native to England (think of the Flower Fairy books) so completely at home in the natural environment here. And the lanes are natural wildflower environments. This is not territory for large cars or urban tractors and oft times, even very small cars such as we are driving have to reverse up to allow an equally small car travelling in the opposite direction to gain passage. Once away from the motorways and main arterial routes, the English summer countryside is simply charming. It makes our farming practices at home look very industrial and the green desert we inhabit is not environmentally rich in any way at all. We only get away with a clean green image because of a very small population and areas of considerable natural beauty, not because of any great sensitivity to environmental matters. Mark has long been railing against the District Council and Transit practices of spraying out wide areas of natural growth with weedkiller. It looks really bad and it is really bad practice.

Road verges along a Cornwall lane

Road verges along a Cornwall lane

So we are delighting in the hedgerows which team with insect and bird life and Mark is fast becoming very competent at identifying native birds and butterflies. And we also admire a society which has rediscovered the importance of allowing some of the natural environment to regenerate and where not everything in the countryside is sacrificed to the speedy passage of the internal combustion engine.

The current vegetable garden craze is by no means limited to New Zealand but in a society where dense population means that most people live cheek by jowl with minimal space, the allotment has taken on new importance and status. Allotments are areas of public land which are allocated on request. It appears that the right to allotment space is enshrined somewhere in law here, although the wait time in high demand areas can be up to 40 years. The line up of allotments down the road from our London hosts near High Barnet used to look very tatty and unloved when I first looked at them 18 years ago. Not so today. Now they are high producing areas much loved and tended by their leasees, in this case mostly Italian. It is a sign of the times, alas, that they are also surrounded by high security fencing. We spent a pleasant half hour chatting to Bruno, who was indeed Italian and in memory of his homeland, he had a fairly large number of fig trees, 18 as I recall. He also had every other fruit bush and tree (on dwarfing stock) that he could grow there, along with extensive crops of vegetables. I think he had managed to get down on a double allotment. It was from Bruno that we learned about the difficulty of gardening in competition with the squirrels. He had come down one morning to pick his pear crop, only to be disappointed. From being laden the previous day, there was not a single fruit left. He ferreted around the base of the tree and found a neat stack of pears, each one with tooth marks and damage, stored by the squirrel against winter famine.

Bruno in his London allotment

Bruno in his London allotment

Here in Cornwall, we tracked down the allotments in nearby Gerrans where we chatted to a young German woman who now lives locally and tends her allotment. She told me that Germany also has an allotment system but, being German, they were subject to tight controls prescribing what proportion of land must be devoted to food production, rather than ornamentals, and the standard to which your allotment must be maintained. She much preferred the more relaxed English model. She was watering in her leeks as we chatted. This being the UK, the allotments in Gerrans had what was probably a million pound view – literally. It is part of the wonderful contradiction that is England – an overheated property market with extremes of wealth and historic country cottages that are under-used holiday homes way out of the financial reach of local residents. The local council responds by allocating allotment land and building subsidised affordable housing, as it is called here, on a prime spot of coastal land with an astounding view out to sea. In rural Cornwall, none of these allotments were fenced but clearly a code of courtesy prevails. While being extremely impressed by a crop of peas which eclipsed anything we have ever managed to grow at home, we were sufficiently well mannered to resist the temptation to pick one to eat.

the impressive pea crop in a Cornish allotment at Gerrans

the impressive pea crop in a Cornish allotment at Gerrans

Allotments are different to community gardens. The former are individually rented (about $50 per annum in Gerrans, $100 in London) whereas the latter are managed collectively, also on public land. Keen gardeners tend to like individual allotments, community minded people and do-gooders lean to the latter option. In our very own Waitara, as I recall, the residents in Battiscomb Terrace wanted allotment rights whereas Mayor Pete preferred the more PC community garden approach. But part of the identity of allotments (or indeed community gardens) is that aesthetics do not enter the equation at all. While there may be increasing pressure to keep a tidy, productive allotment and to go organic, it is fine to cobble together a scruffy old shed, plastic water butt, rough paths and piles of accoutrements which may at some point possibly be useful, or not, as the case may be. Frankly it would not appeal at all to the conformist types who wanted Battiscomb Terrace residents to have tidy and preferably matched front fences.

Allotments are not usually aesthetically pleasing.

Allotments are not usually aesthetically pleasing.

Apparently being allocated an allotment is now a triumph worth boasting at dinner parties in Mayfair and even Ma’am is supervising the installation of an organic allotment plot at Buckingham Palace. Admittedly it is facing the wrong way for the sun, part shaded by a mulberry tree, hard up against a hedge and in less than ideal conditions, but it is the thought that counts and garden space is at a premium at The Palace.

In search of summer gardens

Plenty of detailed planning

Plenty of detailed planning

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.