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!

Butchart Gardens, BC, Canada

It’s bad enough it’s barely rained in half a year or more, then so hot this month that mulch has become a fire hazard. And where was I when my garden was frying last week? Not huddled over an AC register. No, I was relishing benign weather in a garden that is almost always blessed with sufficient moisture. Lush, towering plants so tall I couldn’t see over them — well, the delphiniums were tall, but even the day lilies were a challenge. I was in Butchart Gardens, perhaps the finest garden in Canada, and to be honest, one of the finest I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s been on my list for a while and since I was on the west coast, I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to visit a garden where everything seems to grow as it’s meant to, to its full potential. I’m convinced southern Ontario is one of the toughest places to be a gardener — too hot, too cold, too wet and too dry. We’re battle hardened gardeners here. What must it be like to stick a plant in the ground and then jump clear?

Robert Pim Butchart left Owen Sound in 1904 for the west coast where he began quarrying limestone for a cement plant. He didn’t have gardening on his mind, but after the limestone was exhausted, what do you do with a big hole in the ground? His wife, Jenny, knew. She saw the potential and slowly began creating a sunken garden. To do this, she had loads of soil hauled in by horse and cart to cover the quarry floor — I dare say all the horses contributed organic matter too.

The craggy walls of the quarry are now a hanging garden, festooned with plants, while below are beds of remarkable healthy annuals surrounded by an astonishing range of lush shrubs — weeping sequoia, willows, Pieris, and Ceanothus, the latter adorned with blue flowers. The quarry also has a large fountain shooting 21 meters high, and a lily pond reflecting Japanese maples and rhubarb-like Gunnera in the still water. It brought to mind the garden of Monet at Giverny — perhaps Jenny visited it.

The lushly planted sunken garden is only a part of the 22 hectares (55 acres) at Butchart. After the factory buildings were removed, leaving only the old kiln chimney, still visible today, it freed up more garden space allowing Jenny to exercise her passion. After seeing other gardens on their world travels, she came home inspired to add more to this amazing place. She added an Italian garden, a Mediterranean garden, a magnificent rose garden and a Japanese garden. It lies on a gently sloping hillside, explored by way of a serene, winding pathway that continues on stepping stones across a shallow pond, then over a traditional red bridge.

On the approach to the gardens, Jenny Butchart imported cherry trees from Japan to line the driveway to the place she had now christened Benvenuto, meaning welcome. And welcoming it was when she opened up her garden to the public. By the 1920’s, over fifty thousand visitors a year were showing up at the gate.

Today, it’s so popular a million visitors arrive each year. Fortunately, they didn’t all arrive the same day as I did, but by midday it was busy, perhaps because it was the first sunny day in quite a while; a sunny day with a light ocean breeze, not a scorching hot, smoggy, humid day. In fact, it was a perfect day to stroll among spectacular roses at peak blooming time and be overwhelmed by the fragrance.

Butchart Gardens is still a family operation and employs about fifty gardeners who are willing to answer questions about the masses of plants growing there. Too often I was puzzled when something that might only grow to knee height in my garden is at eye level — with bigger flowers. Can’t be, can it? Butchart has to be seen to be believed and it’s on my recommended list of essential gardens to visit.

I’m back in my own garden now, trying to breathe life into plants that aren’t aware of what they could be if they didn’t have to fight to survive the blistering days of July. Rain, please.

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.

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

Thailand Tripping

I froze at the sight of the weapon pointed directly at me. It was in the hands of the ten-year-old with a gleam in her eye. She let me have it. I shrieked; she shrieked, then we both burst into laughter. It was only a water gun, a massive water gun, as big as her and fully charged. And she kept her hand on the trigger.

I was at the Songkran festival in Chiang Mei, Thailand. I should have known something was afoot when I passed through arrivals at Bangkok airport and saw travellers with water guns strapped to their bags and backpacks. Yes, people actually do fly to Thailand to participate in the Songkran festival, or at least in the world’s biggest water fight.

Before I traveled to Chiang Mei and my soaking, I first spent a few days in Bangkok experiencing a city of around ten million people that manages to absorb and sustain ten million visitors a year. Only London, England welcomes more, but Bangkok, with its reputation for the exotic intact, offers a unique experience.

First morning in the city I hopped into a tuktuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled cab powered by a motorcycle engine and a driver who cheerfully took on the challenge of beating the regular cabs to their destination. Tuktuks are artistically and/or garishly decorated, and when tossed into the mix with orange buses and a fleet of cabs painted either flamingo pink or banana yellow, I felt as though I was riding on the assembly line at a Smarties factory.

When my tuktuk balked at a narrow gap between a tanker truck and a bus, the space was taken by a pair of motorcycles, a family of three riding on one of them. Daredevil riders from a circus, on their day off, I thought to myself, except there were hundreds of them in the traffic stream, muscling out other vehicles for the pole position at stop lights. Many motorcycles operate as one passenger taxis, mainly used by local Thai people for fast, inexpensive transportation. Young women ride side-saddle, sitting demurely, with one hand on the seat handle. My driver informed me that wrapping their arms around the front rider, a stranger, would be flouting social convention. Nerves of steel indeed.

Thailand has a unique culture, due partly to it never having been colonised by Europeans. Seventy percent of the population is Buddist and has a non-confrontational approach to life, which must no doubt account for the noticeable, and welcome, lack of honking from cars.

I arrived safely at my destination, the Jim Thompson House and museum, which is set in a peaceful tropical garden filled with glorious orchids, which are almost as ubiquitous as dandelions in Thailand.  Here I learned the story of Thomson, the American ex-serviceman credited with revitalising the hand-made silk industry in Thailand.

In 1948 Thomson, with a partner, formed the Thai Silk Company. After Yul Brynner appeared on movie screens around the world in The King and I, with the cast in Thai silk, success was assured. No more army fatigues for Thomson. He built himself an elaborate house using traditional Thai buildings which he had dismantled and transported from elsewhere in the country. He then filled the gorgeous teak buildings with his collection of antiques and rare works of art, clearly enjoying his success.

It came to an end in 1967, however, when during a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Thomson mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. The legend lives on in the museum; one of Bangkok’s appealing attractions, a charming oasis in the city and a source for genuine Thai silk. After learning the legend I felt I couldn’t possibly leave without at least a silk handkerchief — okay, it was a silk shawl and it hit the souvenir jackpot on my return.

After the quiet serenity of the museum I visited The Royal Grand Palace, the most popular tourist destination in Bangkok. Just getting past the souvenir sellers and street food vendors outside the walled compound was enough of a challenge, but then tantalizing street food alone is another major attraction of the city. I snacked — the fresh coconut with a straw was too hard to resist.

Even the souvenir stuff, which I can normally resist, caught my attention. When Noel Coward wrote “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” he was hardly being fair, as tourists of every nationality were clamouring for fans and sun hats.

Inside, the 60 acres can easily accommodate thousands of visitors, leaving all of them, me included, awestruck at the sight of the unbelievable structures. The first King Rama began construction of the amazing complex in 1782 when he chose to build a new palace. Subsequent rulers didn’t hold back, adding over a hundred halls, residences and government buildings, each more ornate than the last. Although the King of Thailand (a constitutional monarchy) no longer lives full time at the Royal Palace, it is still used for many state functions, ceremonies and royal rituals, and is the spiritual center of the Thai kingdom.

Beside giant statues of mythological demons, families were posing for group shots, while I was trying hard to avoid having Uncle Alfred and the kids cluttering my images. Fortunately, the buildings tower over mere mortals and when gazing upwards to the mosaic walls, red tiled roofs, and gilt covered towers shimmering in the sun, I settled into a sense of wonder at it all.

The wonders continued. One of the buildings, Wat Phra Kaew, is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, and a large crowd was intent on seeing it. Since I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see something so important, I followed one of the groups and found myself at the entrance where each person was taking a turn to bless their companions by dipping a lotus flower into a large, bronze bowl of holy water then shaking it gently over their heads. I was blessed, too, a sign of things to come, then I returned the favour, unsure whether I was suitably qualified.

Before entering the temple, custom requires that footwear must be removed and I added mine to the pile. Inside, despite the mix of day trippers, devoted followers of Buddha, and security people cautioning anyone holding a camera about taking pictures, I could feel the serenity of a holy place. I took a moment and prayed, mostly that I would find my shoes again on the way out.

I left the opulence of the past and returned to the bustle of the city and of the present. Bangkok is renowned for its shopping and the Siam Paragon entertainment and shopping center exemplifies this. I slipped inside, partly to enjoy a little air conditioning, and found myself exploring six storeys of reasons why it is described as the Pride of Bangkok. All the renowned boutiques of the world are represented, and on the second floor, for those who desire a more refined mode of transport than the humble tuktuk, I discovered a showroom filled with Aston Martins, Bentleys and even Lamborghinis.

I couldn’t leave without making a purchase, and feeling relatively poor and obscure beside the car showroom, I picked up a magazine and left the rest for the rich and famous. I also passed up MacDonald’s on the ground floor where Ronald stood, his palms pressed together prayer-like, as in the Wei, the traditional Thai greeting. I opted instead for genuine Thai food on the street.

It’s impossible to avoid the amazing range of street food as friendly vendors line the sidewalks. They cook up everything that can possibly be cooked, turn it into a tantalizing gourmet meal — a little red chicken curry (panang gai) here, a little pad Thai there, and an endless supply of fresh fruit, all served with a ready smile that isn’t taught in a corporate training program. It can be a gamble, though, unless you’re a knowledgeable fan of Thai food. The level of sweet, sour, spicy, or deadly hot isn’t always conveyed as clearly as this tentative taster would prefer. My advice is to watch the line-ups and gauge the reactions.

My brief stay in Bangkok over, I took a one hour flight north to the historic walled city of Chiang Mei, the cultural heart of Thailand. It’s here that I encountered the Songkran festival in full swing. Songkran falls in mid April during the hottest time of the year and marks the start of the Thai New Year. It’s celebrated with as much intensity as our New Year, except it lasts for a week in Chiang Mei. There’s a daily parade, but not really a parade in the sense of standing and watching it pass by. Attend and you’re part of the parade, like it or not.

The festival originated with the blessing and ceremonial washing of statues of The Buddha, the water then captured and poured gently over the head or shoulders of the young and the hands of elders to bring good fortune. In addition to the water blessing, an even older tradition involves the smearing of a white paste on faces as a sign of protection, warding off evil spirits. It is to be left on until it eventually washes off of its own accord.

Before attending the parade, I took time to visit one of the many temples and watched dignitaries make speeches as a huge statue of Buddah was removed with great care from the temple in preparation for its place in the parade where it would be ritually bathed. It was a joyful atmosphere with flags and flowers, young men pounding taphons — the traditional Thai drum, young women performing elegant dances, more enticing food, and flowers in the form of garlands, worn by almost everyone present.

Within the temple grounds there was little water splashing. On the street, however, the festival of the past has evolved into the world’s biggest water fight. And yet it’s unfair to describe it as a fight when everyone is howling with laughter, the concept of non-confrontation joyfully set aside. As the parade passes by, participants and watchers merge in one glorious deluge of water, squirted, pailed, splashed, and hosed, ensuring all present are thoroughly soaked. The only limitations are no splashing of neighbouring stores and no splashing indoors. It’s relatively safe to venture out after the sun has gone down, but set foot outdoors anywhere in daytime and some wily child with pail and a water source will drench you, whether you’re walking, riding a bike, or riding in a tuktuk.

The only advice is to buy a pail and join in — after carefully storing passports and wallets in plastic bags — double bagged. I took a risk using a camera to capture the festival, but by tuning up my spidey sense and carrying a large plastic bag, I managed to avoid direct hits. My first real encounter occurred when I found myself in a high noon situation squared off against the ten-year-old — she had the monster water gun and I only had my camera. I got the camera into the bag okay, but she gleefully blessed me thoroughly. From then on it was a squishy and squelchy, but hilarious afternoon.

Amazing Thailand — truly amazing.

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.

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. 

Homeward Bound

My tree peony had a huge bud on it at the beginning of June but I never saw it bloom. In fact, I missed a lot of things happening in my garden during the first couple of weeks of the month. I didn't see the first rose blossoms or the first water lily flower, things I look forward to with eager anticipation.

I didn't mind at all missing these garden highlights as I was away on a two week garden tour of Northern England. Not a typical organised garden tour, travelling on a luxury coach, staying at five star hotels and dining with Jamie Oliver. Mine was an unorganised tour, more often disorganised. I was mainly visiting family, but found time to do my own tour on foot and in a rental car.

Yorkshire moors, heather in bloom
I made numerous serendipitous discoveries of remarkable gardens simply by leaving my sister's house and wandering around the village. It's located in the Holme Valley, which extends upwards from an old industrial city onto moorland in the heart of the Peak District, Britain's first national park — hilly country where farmland is crisscrossed with dry stone walls. In the numerous villages, older houses are stacked on top of each other,  complete with front yards, some of reasonable size, though often barely large enough for a planter. But if there is room for one, it will be there. Not every front garden is worthy of a magazine feature, but the sheer number and variety of styles is remarkable.

While driving, I frequently turned a corner only to slam on the brakes, astonished at the sight of a garden perched in the strangest of places, while hearing cries of  "Not again Dad" from the back seat. The excitement of discovery was only surpassed by the thrill of driving on the wrong side of narrow, steep, twisty roads that were designed for horses and asses, not motor vehicles, and it's no surprise to find that many asses are now driving cars — often stopping suddenly to leap out for closer looks at front gardens. Stop signs are rare and when yield is occasionally suggested by a rusty sign or couple of dotted lines across the road, it's only a vague concept. When oncoming traffic approaches, it becomes  a matter of squeezing the car against a stone wall on the left while allowing side mirrors to air kiss as they pass.

York Gate
I also travelled beyond the valley to visit two gardens that are open to the public, both of which were worth the whole trip. I first visited York Gate near the city of Leeds. It is a masterpiece, considered by many as one of the best small gardens (one acre) in the world. Created by the Spencer family between 1951 and 1994 on a property that was formerly a farm, the garden is based on the "garden room" concept popularised by Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote. There are fourteen "rooms" with enticing names like Dell, Canal, Nut Walk, Sybil's Garden, Pinetum, Fern Border, and Old Orchard.

Each one is unique, meticulously designed, and yet travelling between them was seamless, even though every garden feature you can possibly imagine has been somehow included. I passed along pathways through a sequence of scenes, each culminating in yet another focal point, be it an eight foot high sundial, a grouping of bonsai, a labyrinth — even a compost heap. Everything, including the potting shed with its collection of vintage garden tools, was perfectly situated. At every turn, I discovered rare and unusual plants, including a favourite — a blue Himalayan poppy — made my day.

The garden wasn't at all crowded with visitors, but at an arch beside the greenhouse, I had to wait my turn to get a closer look at a crinodendron in full bloom. Each scarlet-red flower looks like a tiny, perfect lantern, and the shrub was covered with enough to light a whole street. Across the pathway on the gable of the eighteen century house a Pyrocantha was growing, so dense and perfectly espaliered, it resembled a green brick wall. Around the corner, I bumped into a ceanthus — blooms as blue as blue eyes and buzzing with bees. I have the perfect place for such a shrub in my garden, but alas, like many of the rare plants in this garden it will not survive our climate.

I spent most of an idyllic afternoon exploring, sipping tea in the tearoom and chatting with the volunteers who help out. On Sybil Spencer's death in 1994, York Gate passed into the care of Perennial, Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, a charity that will continue to maintain the garden in accordance with Sybil Spencer’s wish that it will continue to attract visitors for both education and pleasure.

The second garden I visited was at Parcevall Hall, a gardener's heaven of thirty acres located on a remote hillside near the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. Like York Gate, it was originally a farm, the farmhouse turned into a country home in 1926 by Sir William Milner and is now run as a private retreat house.

Parcevall Hall
A few hours wasn't enough to explore everything the garden offered, but we tried, galloping up and down the terraces and through a wood with the magical name of Tarn Ghyll, darting between the Camelia Walk and the Chapel Garden. I can't begin to describe the beauty and tranquility of this place. The collection of plants is immense, including many rare ones that have never been marketed, particularly rhododendrons. No runty looking shrubs here. They were the size of large garden sheds covered in blooms in the most amazing colours from yellow through pinks and reds to purples.

From the formal gardens, we followed the meandering woodland pathways upward to emerge at the cliff walk gasping, not so much from the climb but at the reward, a stunning view across the surrounding countryside, of green hills far away, laced together with limestone walls, the deep valley of Trollers Gill below. Sir William chose wisely when he set his garden in an area of such natural beauty, but only by visiting during all four seasons could this paradise be fully appreciated.

I'm home now, pulling the weeds that have taken advantage, deadheading spent blossoms, and happy to see that there's still one unopened bud on my tree peony.