Chelsea Flower Show and Great Dixter

It's all about timing. My trip to the Chelsea Flower Show and gardens in the UK this year occurred after that country experienced the coldest spring in fifty years, and yet rhododendrons and azaleas were in full, glorious bloom coinciding with my visit. 

The effect of this exceptionally late spring wasn't apparent at the Chelsea Flower Show where, on the one hundredth anniversary of the event, the show gardens were as jaw dropping as ever. Organisers and participants have long ago mastered the challenges of ensuring plants and flowers are at their immaculate best for the five days of the show. It’s not unknown to use a hair dryer to encourage a tardy poppy to bloom. No doubt plants would be broiled or braised if necessary to achieve horticultural perfection.

Much was made in the media this year about the decision to allow garden gnomes a presence, having been previously banned. I expected to see hordes of the little fellas, but no, I only spotted two, and these were in the garden designed by Prince Harry and prominent landscape architect Jenny Bloom. The garden, a representation of a Lesotho village, was created to promote Prince Harry’s African Aids Orphans charity and in memory of his mother Princess Diana.

Of course, with the range of eccentric characters one sees at the show, first event of the social season in Britain, gnomes could easily have blended in with the crowds, and there were crowds. The five day show was sold out as usual with tickets online going for hundreds of dollars. Despite the number of visitors, it does not detract from the experience as this is not a rock concert crowd but a gathering of enthusiastic plant and garden lovers from around the world, full of enthusiasm and good will. No pushing or shoving, even politer than Canadians are reputed to be.

Another highlight was my first visit to Great Dixter, home and garden of the late Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd, revered by gardeners worldwide was a preeminent plantsman, garden writer, and television personality.

Now operated as a private trust with an educational mandate, this rambling yet cleverly structured garden was originally designed by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens for Lloyd’s parents, Nathaniel and Daisy, after they acquired the fifteenth century house in 1909. It is as glorious as ever, though it has never remained static. Lloyd learned gardening skills from his mother, then boldly modified and enhanced many aspects of the garden in the thirty years following Daisy’s death in 1972. After Lloyd’s death in 2006, head gardener, Fergus Garret, has continued to care for the garden.

He experimented boldly, creating unique combinations of colour and form. I saw bright crimson tulips soar through swaths of blue forget-me-knots, masses of cow parsley (yes that weed) tempering the kaleidoscopic springtime blaze of poppies, euphorbia, wallflowers, and bluebells. Soft and low boxwood hedges combine with huge ones of yew to form an erratic maze of delights connecting the many sections, or garden rooms, while giant topiary mounds topped by figures of birds, stand like sentinels. Known for his succession planting schemes that ensured colour throughout all seasons, the shrubs, climbers, perennials, annuals, and biennials in beds and mixed borders ensure something is always exploding into bloom.
Lloyd certainly had the eye of an artist, or it could be easy to believe he simply wandered about wearing an old jacket, countless seeds carelessly spilling from the holes in his pockets, accidentally creating heavenly vistas.
No matter the timing, there are always so many amazing plants to see in Britain. Meanwhile,

I’m back in my own garden, trying to sort the plants from the weeds that took advantage of my absence — bad timing!

Arizona Desert Botanical Garden

The plan was to escape the snow for once, except this was the winter without any. Regardless, it didn’t discourage me from taking a trip south in February to do a little hiking around the red rock country in Arizona. Even there at higher elevations we walked in snow, but in Sedona apple blossoms were blooming. And down in Phoenix spring was well underway, a perfect time to explore the Desert Botanical Garden under a dazzling blue sky. I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to see this extraordinary garden filled with rare and unique plants of the Sonoran desert that covers much of the South West United States and parts of Mexico.

The Desert Botanical Garden was first conceived by local people back in the nineteen thirties who saw the need to preserve their native flora. The garden has grown to 58 hectares with more than 26 under cultivation containing fifty thousand plants: yuccas with flowers on four meter stalks; huge, spiky agaves; desert wildflowers; and of course, cacti in all shapes and sizes, including a bonus — at the main entrance stands a group of priceless ones created in glass by renowned sculptor, Dale Chilhuly.

Volunteers started the garden and it is volunteers who keep it humming along, all eleven hundred of them. I met a number stationed along the trails as interpreters, happy to talk to visitors about the plants in their care. One section named the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert contains the plants that were used to house, clothe and sustain the desert dwellers of the past. Another is reserved as an outdoor classroom where cottonwood trees shade groups of schoolchildren who gather to study the plants and, with luck, grow up to be tree huggers, except hugging is not a good idea in this garden.

Getting around is easy on wide, paved trails — essential, as wandering off piste is neither permitted nor advisable where the majority of plants are assertive cacti, especially the huge, ubiquitous saguaro. This is the cactus of countless old westerns, the original cartoon cactus, growing as tall as fifteen meters with multiple arms reaching for the sky. Sue, one of the volunteers, was on hand to explain how the arms sprout forth to increase production of the night blooming flowers that appear in April. These are followed by ruby-coloured, edible fruit in June.

I also learned that when birds nest in holes pecked into the side of the Saguaro, the plant then cooperates by forming a smooth callus to line the hole, making a perfect nesting box. What did surprise me was the sight of a dead Saguaro. Somehow I thought it would simply turn mushy and rot away, but not so. Instead, it resembled a bundle of split cedar rails.

The trees and shrubs of the Sonoran are designed to retain water and reduce transpiration from their leaves. The cottonwood tree there has two sets of roots — one close to the surface that spread beyond the drip line and another that drives deep into the earth to reach the water table. The creosote shrub (Larrea tridentata) is another plant with a strong will to survive harsh conditions. It has no connection with the common wood preservative, but it does have many uses, particularly medicinal, though like many herbs, dangerous if used unwisely.

It really isn’t a friendly bush. To conserve moisture, it inhibits the growth of other plants in the area, while its small, resinous leaves wouldn’t spare a hint of moisture for the thirstiest coyote. When it does rain, however, the leaves fill the air with a pungent odour, considered unpleasant by some. Volunteer Janet showed me how to sample the fragrance by simply breathing on the leaves then taking a sniff — conclusion: more a deodoriser than a designer air freshener.

As usual, there were too many plants and too little time, but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend it for anyone passing through the Phoenix area, and it almost never snows in the Desert Botanical Garden.

Alnwick Castle

In northeast England, there’s an interesting new garden. New that is, compared to most UK gardens on the tourist route there. Gardens dating back to Victorian times are the norm, others centuries older. This one, however, only opened its gate to visitors ten years ago, which made me almost first in line, relatively speaking, when I stopped by this fall to check it out.

The garden is located in the picturesque market town of Alnwick (pronounced Anick) in Northumberland. Alnwick is a busy little place, described as one of the best places to live in Britain. Just a half hour drive from the Scottish border, it’s been around for about fourteen hundred years.

The town is dominated by Alnwick castle, home since the eleventh century to a long line of powerful northern barons. Situated on the Great North Road that leads from London to Edinburgh, it was built as a first line of defence against the Scots. 

Today, the castle is home to the current Duchess of Northumberland, a serious gardener who, instead of deterring visitors, decided the castle needed a little something extra to attract even more. And so was created Alnwick gardens, designed by Jacques and Peter Wirtz, from Belgium. Up against stiff competition from other, much frequented, British gardens, Alnwick needed to be unique, and I’d say they achieved it. At most popular attractions these days, it’s a case of exit via gift shop, but at Alnwick I entered that way — kind of.

The access to the garden is through a visitor center that was designed with people in mind. Resembling a huge conservatory, it offers all the usual facilities and is large enough to accommodate a good number should fine weather not coincide with a day’s visit. In fact, the restaurant and the terrace outside offer the first view of the gardens, an impressive vista of The Grand Cascade, a massive stone water feature that flows toward the viewer down a gentle sloped bank beyond acres of lawn.

Reminiscent of the fountains of Versailles, and the largest of its kind, it is state of the art, with computers controlling a flow of thirty thousand litres of water a minute. It can be viewed from afar or close-up from windows cut into the walls of the tunnel-like hornbeam pergolas that flank the sides and echo the curves of the stone work. Above are more fountains, pools, rills, and a place to view the cascade where it begins its flow.

The Grand Cascade makes Alnwick garden unique, but there’s more. It is a working garden, too. On a small plateau at the head of the property is a walled garden growing every imaginable fruit and veg possible. It was here I discovered Strulch, finely textured mulch manufactured from wheat straw that the gardener I spoke to was happy to rave about, particularly as it appeared to provide an effective defence against slugs and snails.

Garden Walk Buffalo

There are three major reasons that local people travel to Buffalo: Sabres games, airport, or cross border shopping. I just discovered an even bigger reason to make the trip — Garden Walk Buffalo with 350 open gardens.

Last weekend, with a couple of other garden writers, I was invited to a preview of the gardens and was amazed at the enthusiasm and commitment to gardening in a community that is successfully shedding its image as a tired industrial city. There is now a beautiful, accessible waterfront right downtown, amazing architectural heritage just waiting to be discovered, and in July, the wonderful Garden Walk Buffalo takes place, and it is all free.

The idea for the garden walk began with a small neighbourhood association in 1993 and has grown to be the largest event in the US. It’s non-profit, run by volunteers. Any money raised by way of donations or sponsors is reinvested in gardens. A current project is a street for front yard makeovers. We visited Newman Place in South Buffalo where nine local landscape companies donated time and material to transform the properties of thirteen lucky homeowners who have been transformed into proud, happy gardeners. 

Gardeners are typically friendly and welcoming, and each one has a story. On the garden Walk we met Ellie Doherty on Summer Street who is known as the guerrilla gardener in her neighbourhood. Not content with cramming her tiny backyard full of plants, she’ll also fill any empty space in her neighbour’s gardens. On quiet, shady Lancaster Street, with its brightly coloured, Dutch colonial homes, it seemed every one had been visited by Ellie, not denying it has its own share of enthusiasts. 

At number 75 is Mary’s garden. Not big enough for Mary and her husband James, they demolished the house they owned on the next door property and filled the space with clematis, mandevilla, hydrangeas and wisteria. Sadly, Mary died soon after the garden was completed, but her name and garden lives on.

At a large Victorian house at 755 West Delavan Avenue, lives Jennifer Guercio where with her husband she embraces the era by donning Victorian dress to welcome visitors to her place. Unlike Queen Victoria, she is amused, and amusing when she tells us how she carries the huge koi from her pond in her arms down to a basement greenhouse for the winter. With the largest almost half a meter long, that is a committed gardener. Did I mention the garden — even more commitment, and truly Victorian.

We saw many lovely gardens on our short tour, but there was one more highlight, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical garden. This alone is worth the drive to Buffalo. Influential landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmsted, designer of central park in New York, also designed Buffalo’s impressive park system that threads throughout the city, and part of his vision was the Botanical Gardens.

In the garden there is a marvelous, three domed, Victorian conservatory. Built in 1897, it was modeled on the Crystal Palace and the Palm House in Kew gardens in London.

Having visited Kew, I felt Buffalo has a worthy rival that is in fact larger, with an area of one acre housing 20,000 plants, including 300 species of ivy. And it’s certainly easier to get to.
So, see the hockey game, use the airport, and shop, but do take time out to explore the new and old Buffalo, and see hundreds of lovely gardens. Learn more at

Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, Pattaya, Thailand

It may seem like a long way to go to look at plants, but with only a few adventurous crocuses attempting to lead reluctant participants in a spring parade, the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden near Pattaya, Thailand was a welcome break earlier this month. And there I was, a dazed look on my face and my mind completely boggled as I tried to comprehend one of the world’s most amazing botanical gardens. The effect wasn’t due to jet lag — with a glass or so of wine, a few in-flight movies and a decent sleep, the flight was merely time consuming.

I should have had a clue to what was awaiting me at Nong Nooch after seeing their gold medal winning display at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show, but I was unprepared for 600 magnificent acres of lush tropical gardens — and elephants. The Nong Nooch Tropical Garden was only part of a Thailand tour, with precious little time to explore, but I made the most of it by hopping on the shuttle that meanders through the gardens. It’s the most convenient option for seeing the park, and most of it can be covered in half a day, but ideally an extended stay at accommodation within the park is the way to go.

Nong Nooch is a private garden that was to have been a fruit plantation when the land was first purchased back in the fifties, but after Mrs. Nongnooch Tansacha became inspired following visits to world renowned gardens, she decided her land would be perfect for a botanical garden of her own. It opened to the public in 1980 and has deservedly become a wildly popular tourist attraction, now under the management of her son, Mr. Kampon Tansacha.

The secret of the garden’s success is its ability to offer something for everyone, but for the solely botanically minded, one of the largest selection of orchids in the country and more types of palms than I ever knew existed are there for viewing. An encyclopaedic collection of tropical plants that struggle to bloom in our living rooms and on our window sills lay before me, embraced by the fragrance of frangipani in full bloom. And for the landscape designer, an immaculate garden in the style of Versailles that had me digging around in my camera bag for another memory card.

Then it was on to what our guide called Stonehenge. Perhaps it didn’t exactly replicate the original, but it was certainly impressive, and he made a point of proudly informing his passengers that while the one in Britain has been a puzzle for eons, he knew precisely when and who built this one. And besides, compared to the bleak Salisbury plain, what ancient druid wouldn’t have preferred this lush tropical setting.

I saw as much of the sprawling gardens as possible in the time allotted — a hillside dotted with temple replicas, a huge man-made lake surrounded by wafting palms, dragon sculptures, lotus flowers and water lilies, topiary tigers, and what I can only describe as the ultimate in garden art. I love terra cotta pots — even have a group cascading down my fence, and I’ve been amused and impressed by cleverly contrived flowerpot men at many a garden show, but the sight of a towering wall, sweeping arches, and a menagerie of animals, including rearing elephants, all composed entirely of plant pots had me thinking I should free up some space for at least one moose. I duly noted that a moose was not part of the Nong Nooch display
This was a botanical garden unlike any other in the world and a head shaking wonder that I’d have loved to spend days in, but there was yet more to see in amazing Thailand, and after feeding bananas to the real elephants, it was time to move on, earnest crocuses long forgotten.

Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, UK

Over ten thousand varieties of plants for sale in the plant center, said the sign. Now, I’d normally be in there scooping everything in sight, but this wasn’t any old garden centre and there wouldn’t have been much point buying plants. This was England and, sadly, smuggling rare plant material home to Canada is serious business and I wasn’t prepared to risk it. Telling a customs officer that the green stuff in your sandwich really is lettuce is one way to import a cutting, but be prepared to eat it or face a really big fine. It did cross my mind, especially when faced with some of the rarest plants in captivity.

I was at Wisley, the principle garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, same folks who put on the Chelsea Flower Show. Our group had spent a day at the Chelsea show and been as overwhelmed and amazed as ever, but now we were enjoying a more relaxing pace viewing the plants and gardens at Wisley, a world-class garden and a botanist’s dream.

This is where many of the plants that end up in your garden originate. For over a hundred years, this former estate covering twenty-four hectares has cultivated and carried out countless trials of new fruits, vegetables and flowers. Different cultivation techniques are tested, and composting is studied at the PhD level — okay, they take it very seriously. Besides being an ornamental garden, Wisley is a centre for education and research.

I didn’t actually enter the plant centre — no point. We were surrounded by flower beds and woodlands containing even more varieties and unusual specimens. Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons lining the walks were still in bloom, as were Deutzia and mock orange. There’d been a shower earlier, but now the sun was out, the air was filled with fragrance, and song birds were warbling away.

Everywhere, perennials were perfectly arrayed in bed after bed, each plant tagged with its botanical name. This made life much easier for me, the one on the tour who’s erroneously assumed to know the name of every plant in existence. Normally, when unsure, and unwilling to disappoint, I have to mumble something that vaguely sounds like Latin, but here I was pleasantly relieved of the pressure.

Toona sinensis
I did learn the name of yet another tree I’d love to grow, but alas, it isn’t quite hardy enough for my back yard. Toona sinensis 'Flamingo' is a shrubby tree from China (Sinensis) with pink leaves — hence Flamingo — and it attracted a lot of wows. With care, it might just survive down Niagara way (this is when a reader emails me to say there are lots there already).

In addition to the long established areas at Wisley, a group of new display gardens had been created by eminent designers just this spring. Unlike the more competitive and exquisite Chelsea show gardens, which are in place for only five days, these were designed to ensure interest throughout the complete garden season, different, but equally challenging.

There was so much to see, but one more highlight had to be explored. The brand new cathedral-like glass house, four storeys high, containing three climatic zones — tropical, moist temperate, and dry temperate, each one precisely controlled to ensure perfect conditions for a jungle of rare and endangered species. It was houseplant heaven with palm fronds brushing the roof, water falls cascading, and brilliantly coloured flowers.  Too soon our visit was over. A quick visit to check out the relentlessly ‘twee’ stuff in the garden store, a last stop for refreshments, and we were off to see castles, my sandwich carefully packed away.

Malaysian Borneo

After one of the coolest summers on record accompanied by too many complaints about plants not blooming and tomatoes not ripening due to a lack of sunshine, I thought, forget it, I’m taking off for somewhere a little warmer — Borneo. 

To be truthful, the trip was planned long before I felt any need for a change in weather, but I certainly found the sun and warm temperatures — and acres of blooming bougainvillea, frangipani, and orchids, orchids, and even more orchids. 

It was a lovely trip, plus any expectations I might have had before embarking were exceeded when I had the amazing good fortune, purely by chance, to see the largest flower in the world in bloom.

Mount Kinabalu
I was on an air conditioned bus travelling a mountain highway near Mount Kinabalu in the east Malaysian state of Sabah, when the driver jammed on the brakes and swerved onto the shoulder of the road. He’d spotted the hand painted sign at the side of the road — a picture of a flower with the words “Rafflesia in bloom”. 

We piled out of the bus into a steam bath wondering what the fuss was about. I can honestly say that I didn’t know much about Rafflesia, but the locals sure knew. As soon as they’d found it, up when the sign and out went the cash box. And who can blame them. In fact it’s encouraged as a means to protect this endangered species. I paid my thirty ringgits (about ten dollars), and stepped onto the trail through the forest. Fortunately, it was only a short walk along a freshly trampled track and there it was, the extremely rare Rafflesia arnoldii, protected by a hastily erected bamboo fence.

And what a curious plant it is, only occurring in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. As a visitor to the country, the chances of actually seeing one in bloom are rare — I only saw one roadside sign the whole trip. In addition to being rare, it takes months for the bud to form, poking its way up through the forest floor to bloom for only a few days, producing a flower as much as a meter in diameter and weighing as much as 11 Kg. (my plant wasn’t a huge specimen, maybe half a meter across, but enough to impress me).

It’s a brown speckled plant and looks a little like a fungus, but it is a parasitic, vascular plant with a distinct fragrance. Believe me; it isn’t called the corpse flower for nothing — not to be confused with that other corpse flower, the Titum arum, which is a larger plant, but it doesn’t rank with Guinness as the largest flower because the arum is composed of multiple florets, rather than a single bloom. The carrion odour emitted by the Rafflesia attracts the flies that provide pollination duties, resulting in a single seed.

Rothschild orchid
After taking pictures I boarded the bus and continued our journey to the botanical garden in Kinabalu National Park, where another fortuitous surprise awaited. The garden is an orchid lover’s delight, with too many in bloom to mention, but one in particular I must: The Rothschild orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum). It’s an orchid rarely seen outside its native habitat, also the most expensive — if you were to dare purchase a plant (smugglers are jailed).

This solitary specimen lay behind a chain link fence, out of reach of drooling fans. It’s found only on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, one of the world’s most important biological sites, home to 5,000 to 6,000 plant species. Unfortunately, I had to leave without seeing them all, but on the return to the city of Kota Kinabalu, the actual mountain peak appeared briefly from behind the ever present clouds, yet another gift from an amazing country. It’s been quite a summer.

Chelsea Flower and Garden Show

This year was my third visit to the amazing Chelsea Flower Show in London, England. Always an exciting adventure, it was just as (fill in your favourite superlative here) as ever. The interior of the Grand Pavilion appeared crammed with plants from every nursery business in Britain, including a yellow Streptocarpus, produced by Lynne Dibley, owner of Dibleys Nurseries. 

Streptocarpus colours follow a range through pink, blue or purple, but this one is truly unique. It took eleven years and endless hybridizations to produce a yellow variety. Naturally, I had to have one, then and there. I asked Lynne (I think it was Lynne) if they were for sale — NO. Can I buy one anywhere — NO. Will they be available soon in Canada— NO. Will you ship to Canada — NO. I left my disappointment in the Grand Pavilion and went on to view the large show gardens.

As ever, the competition is intense to win a gold medal at Chelsea. The large gardens are sponsored, and it’s no wonder considering they cost hundreds of thousands to create, and stay in perfect condition, for only five days. And I thought I went over board at the garden centre today with three trays of plants. A number of gold medals were awarded, but only one garden in each class receives Best in Show. This year it went to The Laurent-Perrier Garden Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, a winner of six gold medals at Chelsea.

Try to hire him for a front-yard makeover now — good luck. His winning design was a dreamy understatement of simple elements — large, zinc water tanks, full to the brim and surrounded by only green and white plants. Around me, I could feel a softening in the energy in the crowd around me as we gazed at an example of perfection in design. Not withstanding my level of awe, I confess, I wanted to run and soak my weary feet in one of the tanks.

The judging of gardens at Chelsea is done by professionals, but there is one award much sought after — The BBC RHS Peoples' Award, chosen by TV viewers and show visitors.  It was awarded this year to Cleve West for The Bupa garden. How do I describe a garden of pathways and colourful plants dominated by a big stone globe? Same as those who voted for it — Wow! Designed partially as a sensory garden, it was one of the few show gardens that would be moved to a permanent location, a nursing centre in Battersea, south-west London.

I did have another favourite, and if you remember the sixties fondly, this one may have been yours. Many will be surprised to learn, that the late Beatle, George Harrison, was a passionate gardener. In fact, he dedicated his 1980 memoir, I Me Mine, to gardeners everywhere. This year at Chelsea, he was commemorated in return with a garden designed by his widow, Olivia Harrison, and landscape designer, Yvonne Innes.

The garden was planned to show the stages of George’s life, beginning with a rough patch of grass reminiscent of his father’s garden plot in Arnold Grove, George’s birthplace. A mosaic path of explosively psychedelic colours wound through the garden, past a glass wall bearing an image of a contemplative George. 

His lyrics, “Floating down the stream of time, from life to life with me” were displayed beside a tranquil pool below. The garden ends at a peacefully serene, white pavilion. Imagine.

By late afternoon, I decided to explore the streets of Chelsea. I was surprised to discover Tite Street, once the home of playwright, Oscar Wilde. I don’t believe Oscar was much of a gardener, but I’m fond of a quote of his that reflects in a way what Chelsea is all about: “It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.”


As I stared at the old Mountbatten Juniper at the foot of my garden, a few words of poet and novelist, Vita Sackville-West, came to mind. An aristocratic celebrity of the nineteen-thirties with an exuberant lifestyle, Vita, besides being the garden columnist for The Observer newspaper, was the creator of one of Britain’s most famous gardens located at Sissinghurst castle in Kent. Thanks to a spur of the minute decision to fill some spare time while in London, I was fortunate enough to visit the garden this past spring.

Travelling to Sissinghurst is something of a pilgrimage for gardeners, and although it took a hastily coordinated subway, train, and country cab ride to reach the property, which is located in the heart of Kent, I’m so happy that I made the trip.

The castle at Sissinghurst is, in reality, a large Elizabethan mansion, almost derelict when Vita and her husband, Harold Nicholson, bought the place in 1930. Eight years later, the mansion was restored and the impressive gardens they designed and created were opened to the public for the first time. In 1967, it was taken over by The National Trust and is visited each year by both gardeners and lovers of history.

There are actually ten gardens, separated by hedges, arches, and moss covered walls draped with climbing roses. Each one is unique and secluded, but all share the peace and tranquility of the gentle countryside that surrounds the property. They are a joy to explore. Turn a corner and there’s gorgeous white wisteria in full bloom dominating a red brick wall. It only blooms for a couple of weeks in late May and for once I was so lucky to be in the right place at the perfect time to see it.

Pass through an archway and you’re in a walled garden with every imaginable perennial bordering a soft green lawn. In the rose garden, I discovered shrub roses with their canes cleverly turned down into the soil. The tips had been encouraged to take root, resulting in profusely blooming hoops. There’s a nuttery, a lime walk, a moat and a herb garden. So much to see and absorb, but there was more. I was able to climb the 78 spiral stone steps of the restored tower that dominates the garden and view the beauty from an entirely different perspective.

Being there on a sunny afternoon in springtime, the garden in full bloom, water flowing softly, and songbirds warbling away, it wasn’t an easy place to leave, but I hope to return some day, perhaps next spring.

Meanwhile, the spirit of Vita lives on in her words that describe the bond between those who visit her masterpiece: "These mild gentlemen and women who invade one's garden after putting their silver token into the bowl . . . are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things."

I will never have a garden anywhere near as grand as the one at Sissinghurst, but already, what I learned from Vita Sackville-West is beginning to influence the way I think about at my own modest garden. I like to think I share something with that remarkable, visionary woman. As I stood there at the foot of my garden, saw in hand. I could hear her words. She said: "The true gardener must be brutal . . . and imaginative for the future." The scraggly old juniper simply had to go.

Garanish (Ilnacullin), Ireland

Like cat's whiskers, the side mirrors on the coach I'm in brush the hedgerows as it cruises the narrow roads of Southwest Ireland. Round a bend and the mirror on the right sweeps impossibly close to the opposing one on a dump truck that materializes out of the mist.

Passengers on that side of the coach instinctively squeeze inwards. Our driver doesn't flinch. He's obviously an ex formula one driver and this is just an amusement ride for him. I have faith that he'll get us to our destination: we've already survived the rural driveway that masquerades as a two-lane road around the Dingle peninsula, where cliffs above and below substitute for relatively benign hedgerows.

Our destination is the peace and serenity that lies just ahead on the small island of Garanish. However, Ilnacullin is the name is preferred by the Office of Public Works which has administered the island since it was bequeathed to the Irish people in 1953. It lies in Bantry Bay, just a short, fifteen-minute ferry ride offshore.

On the trip over, the ferry detours to allow its passengers a of view of seals posed on tiny, rocky islands. The rapid clicking of cameras has the sound of an ancient Remington churning out an annual report; we're ignored — seen one tourist; you've seen them all. I could say the same about seals, but it isn't the seals we're here for — it's Ilnacullin.

The ferry docks and our group escapes to explore the island, an Irish Eden of rare beauty that attracts gardeners and horticulturists from around the world. It covers an area of only 15 hectares so there's little chance we'll lose anyone.

The gardens have a reputation to live up to, and I'm not disappointed. Ilnacullin used to be little more than a barren rock covered in heather and gorse surmounted by an old Martello tower. It was built in 1805 to keep an eye on possible incursions by Napoleon looking for a back door into the empire. Still in place, it makes a perfect vantage point to view Bantry Bay and the low rocky hills that surround it.

Back in 1910, a fellow by the name of John Annan Bryce, a Belfast businessman with ferry loads of cash and an impossible dream bought the island. He then commissioned the architect and horticulturalist Harold Peto to help him spend his money by designing and building a garden there.

Over three years, a hundred men blasted rocks, laid pathways, built a walled garden, and numerous structures, including a partial Casita. It's a style of Spanish mansion in the fashion of a folly, now draped with wisteria and acting as a shelter overlooking the gorgeous Italian garden.

After the hardscape was in place, countless barrows of soil were wheeled across the island to create flowerbeds. And then they planted — and how.

In the early years, the initial plantings suffered from the gales that sweep in from the Atlantic, but when Scottish gardener Murdo Mackenzie took over in 1928, he planted shelterbelts of Scots and Monterey Pines. These eventually transformed the gardens into a micro-climate within a micro climate that exploded with lush growth.

Atlantic gales not withstanding, conditions are ideal compared to what we have to put up with in our own gardens. Temperatures are moderate, warmed by the Gulf Stream. There is little frost and summer sun never scorches the ground. Plants that we would place in shade or semi shade grow in full sun as most days are often a little "shady". Humidity levels are high and there's plenty of rain — watering restrictions, hah! The annual mean rainfall is 1850 mm, occasionally as much as 2540 mm (100 inches).

And how do the plants like these conditions? With long summer days and no dieback in winter, plants reach their true potential. The crocosmia in my garden are barely knee-high; at Ilnacullin they look down on me. I get into a staring contest with a dahlia with a flower head almost as big as my own — it won. All about are numerous varieties of abutilon (flowering maple) the size of large shrubs. I saw my first Abutilon megapotamicum — the blooms have a red calyx surrounding yellow petals that in turn have a red throat. What a delight.

The range of plants is overwhelming. Australian wattle (Acacia pravissima), Kauri pine from New Zealand, and Cassia corymbosa from South America; magnolias, camellias and huge fuchsias (these grow wild in masses along the hedgerows). Think of an exotic tree or shrub and chances are it grows on Ilnacullin.

Beside the pool in the Italian garden sit planters of bonsai, one containing a larch claimed to be three hundred years old. Had our visit been during spring, we'd have been happily overwhelmed by the azaleas and rhododendrons that abound.

There is simply too much to take in during the few hours we have at Ilnacullin; I feel I could spend days there, wondering what the chances of a job are if I resurrect my British passport and apply under European Community rules. I'd settle for being a seal minder if I could hang about in the garden.

Sadly, though, all accounted for, we have to leave this seductive place as our coach is waiting. We have a rendezvous to keep with other gardens, old ruins, and more hedgerows to brush. I'll be back someday.