Tag Archives: Travels

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.

Thinking Small in the Big Country

We had cause to travel to Australia a couple of weeks ago for a family celebration. Fortunately, given our timing, we were in Wollongong (south Sydney) and Canberra and our paths only crossed with the 125 000 Catholic pilgrims when it came to flying out of Sydney airport. We avoided the chaos of Sydney, which also meant we missed the Pope. But as I noted the austerity of St Peter’s Square and the near total absence of any vegetation in the Vatican City when I was there a month ago, I doubt that we would have been able to discuss gardening with him.

We have never been to Wollongong before and despite it being a somewhat industrial area, we were rather taken by it. Its location ensures a higher rainfall than many other parts of Australia and the climate was almost balmy. The soulangeana magnolias were at their peak (little sign of them showing colour here) and the presence of sub tropical plants, including an abundance of frangipani, indicates that the area never gets particularly cold. The beautiful blue sky and expanses of pristine beaches had us thinking that maybe Australia is indeed the lucky land. Certainly we did not hear the doom and gloom talk of home. Mind you, that may be a superficial judgement because the TV only showed wall to wall happy, smiling pilgrims.

After a tiki tour of the area which involved much bonding with her father identifying and discussing the multitude of exotic Australian birds, Elder Daughter drove us to her second home in Canberra. I have been to that city before but it was a first for Mark and he was a little shocked at the harshness of the climate. In winter it is very dry and very cold while in summer it is very dry and very hot. He whispered to me that he much preferred Wollongong. Gardening as we know it just is not possible in Canberra.

Daughter commented that none of the Aussie TV gardening gurus she has seen appears to have come to grips with practical design suggestions for front yards. The private courtyard out the back has been done to death, but there is a dearth of ideas when it comes to dealing with the waste of space out the front. Irrigation is on a semi permanent ban so the front lawn and garden does not survive. The only alternatives appear to be green nylon lawn (!) or dyed bark chip mulch (referred to as tan bark). Daughter was suggesting that if she had a front yard, she would be looking at buying a truckload of massive rocks and establishing a rock garden (more rock than garden). Or maybe try a meadow of anigozanthus (kangaroo paws) which, being native, might fare better.

Nylon lawn at up to $120 a square metre

Nylon lawn at up to $120 a square metre. Photo Abbie Jury

Post celebrations (no, neither a wedding nor a grandchild), Daughter and her partner indulged us by taking us to the somewhat remarkable Cockington Green Gardens which had possibly more than a nodding affilation to the genre of Fred and Myrtle’s paua house in Invercargill. No paua, but scaling hitherto unconquered heights of being twee to the point where it takes on a life of its own. It was started by a passionate Anglophile model maker and has recently been expanded with an international section (mostly sponsored by foreign embassies). Leaving aside the plethora of miniature scale buildings, cricket match, soccer match and all the rest of it (and there was a lot of the rest of it including fairy garden and miniature trains), the gardening was dominated primarily by dwarf conifers and clipped and topiaried buxus. Alas we can not get that excited about masses of dwarf conifers, but it was certainly clear that in a much colder climate the conifers colour up a great deal better. The silver blues and burgundies made our few at home look very subdued.

The Treaty House at Cockington Green

The Treaty House at Cockington Green. Photo Abbie Jury

New Zealand was represented by a model of the Treaty House at Waitangi. If I remember correctly, it was the only one not sponsored by the Embassy but I think by an individual instead, which may possibly be an indication that our ambassador to Australia has better taste. After our initial amusement, we were underwhelmed by the gardening at Cockington Green but envious of the evidence of large tourist numbers. Given that Canberra is hardly a tourist hotspot, it makes you realise how few we actually get in Taranaki.

Conifers and buxus and a toy train at Cockington Green

Conifers and buxus and a toy train at Cockington Green. Photo Abbie Jury

As an antidote to the OTT naff nature of Cockington Green, we headed off to the botanic gardens which are devoted entirely to native Australian plants with a purity of purpose which is not necessarily a populist position with locals, who may well prefer some bedding plants and colour. And the dry, open areas were a little arid with no underplanting at all. The hardy natural flora of Australia is nowhere near as exotic as their fauna and around Canberra is heavily dominated by hardy eucalypts. It wasn’t until we reached the bushland plantings that we went: oh yes. As New Zealanders, we take for granted our lush growth, both in the natural environment and in the contrived garden. It is a concept largely foreign to those who live in much harsher environments.

Mark was grateful for the relative absence of plant eating fauna at home. We would be less than impressed to have kangaroos peering out from the understory of the garden and effortlessly hurdling our fences. Possums here are a pest but at least we can shoot them – they are a protected species in Australia. The rosellas, vast flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos, crows and an abundance of other birdlife can wreak havoc in an environment where their main of source of food includes your garden plants. And at least we never got foxes courtesy of the British settlers. We saw tree ferns (yes, Australia has a range of tree ferns of their own) where the new growth had been stripped bare by rosellas in search of the spore.

There really is no place like home and the verdant green environment that we take for granted here is really quite rare. We would rather be here than there. They may be the lucky country economically, but we are the lucky gardening land.

A Garden with a View (in Italy)

I would like to say I am fresh back from the south of Italy, but fresh might be slightly overstating the case. Safely back perhaps. I have never been to this southern area before. We didn’t find anybody who spoke English in Palermo (Sicily), either local or traveller. No English at all and no understanding of any English which gave some impetus to learning a few basic words and phrases in Italian from the back of Lonely Planet Guide.

On a previous visit, Mark and I tripped around the lakes district in the north and saw grand established gardens in the Italian tradition. I had been anticipating similar evidence of great wealth in pockets of the south at least, but if they are there, we did not find them. Sicily, it must be said, has a much hotter and drier climate, more akin to its close neighbours in North Africa, which makes gardening difficult and it remains an area of considerable poverty.

I photocopied the relevant pages from renowned garden writer Charles Quest Ritson’s weighty tome, Gardens of Europe, and following his advice, we sought out Orto Botanico di Palermo (the Bot Gardens). I had thought to find a little more than we did in terms of style and presentation. They hold a notable collection of cacti and succulents which was displayed with all the panache of a working nursery. All plants were in matched terracotta pots serried along wire shelves. If you have a passion for cacti and succulents, there may have been much of interest but I find them distinctly less than riveting.

Plants in serried ranks at Orto Botanico

Plants in serried ranks at Orto Botanico

The glasshouses were sparsely furnished with more plants on wire shelves. There were some fine trees growing amongst the dry dust outside but most looked a little hard done by. A recent planting of cycads in the tough kikuya grass was just getting established, although there were more mature specimens of both palms and cycads. A most remarkable plant was a fig tree (ficus macrophylla). Now over 160 years old, it was of enormous proportions and clearly working on a bid for total domination. It puts roots out from on high (known as aerial roots) and when they reach the ground, they bed in giving a multi stemmed effect on a rather intimidating scale.

The ficus bid for total domination at Orto Botanico

The ficus bid for total domination at Orto Botanico

The avenue of false kapok trees (Chorisia speciosa) was attractive but overall I was a little underwhelmed by Palermo’s Orto Botanico.

On the mainland, we sought out Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. It was a slight mission to get there. The public transport is frequent and cheap, but not for those of a nervous disposition. In this area, the roads are extremely narrow, bordered on one side by an unprotected drop of hundreds of metres to the sea, extremely winding with corners so tight that at times the buses have to reverse up and make more than one attempt to get around, all the while being challenged by speeding Vespas, Fiats and Smart Cars driven by fearless locals.

Villa Cimbrone was actually landscaped by an Englishman at the turn of the twentieth century on the site of a neglected Roman estate and is still hailed as a significant garden in the English-Italian style. Now a hotel, I can only say that it must have been grander in its early days. The Avenue of Immensity formed the central axis and it was certainly impressive. It was an extremely long and wide sweep which led us down under festoons of wisteria, flanked by pinus pinea and platanus orientalis, statuary and terracotta pots. It culminated in an open Doric temple leading to the Terrace of Infinity. This was a large belvedere balcony adorned by eighteenth century marble busts, with an astounding view of the Amalfi Coast and the hugely charming villages and citrus groves which tumble down the near vertical hills.

The Terrace of Infinity at Villa Cimbrone

The Terrace of Infinity at Villa Cimbrone

But that was as good as it got. The brochure claimed “an infinite variety of exotic flowers and plants” beside the Avenue of Immensity – but these were mostly agapanthus, with, from memory, some cleomes. The Seat Of Mercury, a large bronze statue of the gods’ messenger at rest, was set in a dirt bowl. The rose terrace was so poor it was ludicrous. Even allowing for the fact that it was only late spring, I could not believe that the roses were ever going to impress and row upon row of pink and red bedding begonias are too municipal altogether.

The gothic crypt (now a functions centre) was magic. I do like the gothic style. The cloister was attractive – a Norman-Sicilian-Arabian courtyard. The traditional Italian statuary fitted right in to the whole environment and gave me cause yet again to reflect that it is no wonder that it looks so out of place in New Zealand gardens where we lack the history and the tradition which anchors this ornamentation in context. But it is the architecture and the setting which are the redeeming features of this garden, certainly not current gardening practice.

In terms of gardening, the most charming sight I saw was a simple scene of wildflowers at the Palatine in Rome and that was clearly serendipity.

Serendipity at the Palatine in Rome

Serendipity at the Palatine in Rome

I did feel a little vindicated on another score. A month or two ago, I wrote a column debunking the myth of Marlborough’s vineyards being romantic and evocative of rural Italy, an opinion which caused a colleague to take umbrage. The vineyards, olive and citrus groves I saw in Italy bore no resemblance at all the sterile mono culture of Marlborough with its rows of tanalised posts and wires and not a single stray plant allowed to creep into the environment. Italy does not appear to have our obsession with Round Up so there is a profusion of growth and the vineyards and orchards are small, mixed and cheek by jowl. Instead of milled, tanalised timber, supports were crafted from branches which looked similar to our native manuka. While I may not have been impressed by the formal gardening efforts I saw on this visit, the agriculture and rural landscape were impossibly romantic and about as far from New Zealand practice as you can get. Given that Italy has been that way for a very long time, I suspect that their approach is considerably more sustainable than the green desert technique we favour in our own countryside.

Earl Grey or Assam?

Elder Daughter gave me a pedometer one birthday and I was a little surprised to find that in the course of a normal day, I cover around 8km. When I come to London, I am deeply grateful that I am used to being on my feet. It prepares me in some way for the great distances I end up walking.

With a few days before London daughter and I brave Ryan Air (even more budget than EasyJet) for a flight to Sicily, I decided to follow up some of the private gardens open under the National Gardens Scheme. We have followed this with interest on the Living Channel, where the programme Open Gardens charts the process of assessment, selection and open day.

There is real status in being accepted by the NGS, even though it is entirely charitable and garden owners may open for as little as three hours on one particular day of the year. On Sunday afternoon, I braved pouring rain and shoes that leaked to find my way to Chiswick on the banks of the Thames where there was a cluster of four gardens open for the afternoon. I think this enclave of antique real estate is referred to as a mews. Highly valued terrace houses. Terraced housing means that the only access to the rear garden is … through the house. Fortunately the rain stopped. It certainly gives opening one’s garden to the public a new dimension, having a few score of people tramping through your home. This being London, the gardens are the width of the house – in other words, as little as one room and a passageway wide or maybe five to seven metres. One garden was serving teas in a miniscule back plot where six people were a crowd. But old style. Nobody asked here if you wanted gumboot tea or Earl Grey. No, in a line which I must store away for future use, I was offered Earl Grey or Assam.

Earl Grey or Assam?

I was interested in the whole process of assessment and selection of the NGS gardens (it can be a bit of a thorny issue, that one, as some of us know well in Taranaki) and also to set benchmarks and establish points of comparison for our festival gardens, both on that Sunday and the following day when I travelled to another small garden which opened by appointment. As a garden visitor, I certainly felt privileged to gain entry to private gardens which would otherwise be closed to me. These are domestic gardens which don’t even pretend to sit up alongside the renowned top end UK gardens of private origin, such as Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. And what can I say? It was a privilege. They are different to gardens at home. Our Rhododendron Festival gardens can hold their heads up high. I will say no more.

I had planned to finally make my pilgrimage to Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Gardens south of London. Their website showed much improved public transport links but once here, I realised that even so a day visit was going to involve five hours of travel and multiple changes. I was not that determined after all. Fortune may favour the bold but I am not suicidal so I won’t drive in London and from the tranquillity of home in Tikorangi, I tend to underestimate the effort it takes to travel across and through this city, let alone heading out to farther reaches. So I compromised with a return visit to Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens which are easily reached by public transport.

I doubt that Kew could ever disappoint. They are botanic gardens on a grand scale. The British were great collectors and while I feel uncomfortable at some of the museums which represent acquisition and at times pillaging and theft from around the world on a scale which defies comprehension, the plant collecting and botanical classification work is much safer territory.

Walking in the tree tops at Kew

There is something for everyone at Kew. On an early summer’s day when the forecast was for temperatures around 25 degrees, it was in fact closer to about 12 degrees but the place was still teaming with people, including many children (it is mid term here) most of whom seemed to be called names like Oscar, Imogen and Henry and who were extremely well behaved. However, Kew is very spacious and can accommodate large numbers of people, although I probably met a goodly proportion of them on the newly opened treetop walkway. Treetop walkways are remarkable feats of engineering and Kew’s one has apparently been installed with minimal damage to the environment, avoiding even the visually polluting oversized pylons which seem to be a feature in others. For mild sufferers of vertigo such as me, they lose a little impact because one avoids looking straight down, preferring instead the safety of long views, and they are perhaps more novelty than revelation. But Kew must be leading the way in making public gardens and parks educative and everywhere the drive to inform and to conserve is threaded through the garden visitor experience. I can understand the use of some novelty and gimmickry if the outcome is positive. The importance of places such as Kew, set in incredibly overcrowded and hyped cities, can not be overstated, let alone the contribution to global conservation through the botanical research and collections.

The Kew experience

I was most delighted by the woodland plantings of herbaceous material, by the alpine gardens and, surprisingly, by an open air photographic exhibition. The International Garden Photographer of the Year is available at www.igpoty.com if you want to see some lovely imagery. The alpine gardens are interesting because our climate at home is just too warm and humid to manage this restrained style of display but the woodland and herbaceous plantings are an area where I gathered ideas and learned from established practice.

And nothing to do with gardening, but I was amused to see Harter and Loveless Solicitors on Caledonian Road. I wonder if Mr Harter does matrimonials while Mr Loveless is forever destined to do neutral conveyancing?

Gardening in Greece

Greek gardening. Now there is an oxymoron. Combine arid, poor, stony soils, six months with no rain at all during very hot summers and some islands with no fresh water – the range of plants that can be grown is pretty limited. That is not to say that people do not surround themselves with some foliage and flowers but it hardly warrants the term “gardening”.

In late September, the flowers were almost exclusively oleanders (I recall admiring these in flower in Gisborne one January), bougainvillea (I hadn’t seen the golden orange form before but I remain unconvinced that it is of great merit), hibiscus, jasmine and geraniums (99% the common red one). Second Daughter, who was travelling with me, commented that she had never liked the red geranium before she went to Italy and now Greece, but it is wonderfully evocative of Continental summertime. If my memory serves me right, prominent Taranaki gardener, Gwyn Masters, used red geraniums in terracotta pots in her Italianate garden created in a disused swimming pool. It helps to have the panache of Mrs Masters to avoid it merely looking cliched or tatty in our gardening environment.
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