Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Look, there are the newlyweds, Rupert Murdock and Jerry Hall, checking out the David Austin rose display! Wait, is that Piers Morgan? No, Peirs, you can’t take a selfie with me; I’m much more interested in the latest plant introductions.

It was press day at the Chelsea Flower Show and lucky me had my coveted press accreditation, allowing me to preview the show prior to opening to the public. This is the one day when there are no crowds. Plants and show gardens can be viewed at leisure, apart from a little jostling with dignitaries or celebrities like old Piers. The Queen also attends, but we lesser mortals were cleared out before she arrived.

To see the latest plant introductions immaculately displayed in the 1.2 hectare (three acre) Grand Pavilion and the ultimate in garden design outdoors is a jaw dropping experience for all who attend. This year there were seventeen large show gardens and thirteen smaller ones, each one a different concept created by designers with impeccable credentials. All compete for a coveted gold medal, awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society for meeting almost unattainably high standards.

Beyond gold is the most prestigious honour of all — Best in Show. It was won this year by Andy Sturgeon for his Jurassic-inspired garden sponsored by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The garden, focusing on how gardens may have to adapt to their environment and a changing climate, took ten months to design and used 80 tonnes of stone and plants from Spain, France, and Italy.

Perhaps equaling the honor of Best in Show is the People’s Choice Award, decided in a vote by the general public. It went to ‘God’s Own County — a Garden for Yorkshire’. Inspired by the magnificent medieval East Window at York Minster, it was characterized by a huge panel of stained glass made using the same techniques of the original window in 1405. The design of the window was then echoed in shape and form in the garden below.

At first glance, all the gardens can be viewed as presented — to be simply admired or inspired. They are an outdoor gallery of living art that can, like any art form, elicit a range of emotions. Sometimes the concepts are clear, in others less so.

There was no question or need to interpret the garden that greeted visitors at the entrance to the show. No gold medal this time around for designer Diarmuid Gavin of Ireland, a regular at the show who likes to shake up the judges with his surprising creations. The gardens at Chelsea may be living art, but this one was truly alive. 

As a group of musicians played the tune In an English Country Garden, in what appeared to be just that, the garden came alive as conical hornbeam trees began rotating, boxwood globes rose up slowly then lowered as a border of plants like a circus caravan circled a small cottage. Meanwhile a pair of window boxes ascended the wall of the cottage. Sponsored by Harrods department store, this was the British Eccentrics Garden. Okay, I thought, I thoroughly enjoyed that, but there’ll be some who’ll think Diarmuid jumped the shark this year.

At the completely opposite end of the ostentatious scale was a garden that I could have easily passed by. Before what I took to be a large sculpture, people were standing or crouched as though praying. This was ‘The Antithesis of Sarcophagi’ a 44 tonne granite cube enclosing a small garden, a garden that could only be viewed by peeping through small holes drilled through the walls. Soon there was a line of peeping people, and at Chelsea, people watching is almost as much fun.

If I had to choose a favourite among all the gardens, it would be the ‘Garage Garden’ a gold medal winner by Japanese designer, Kazayuki Ishihara, who is as colourful as his garden. Lushly planted, it was an odd combination of a two tier structure housing an antique car, space for an office, and a roof top garden reached by a winding stair. Surprisingly it fused all these elements into a “wish I lived there moment”. 

In fact, I wish I lived next door to the Chelsea Flower Show and could visit every day as there is simply too much to see, eleven acres of a plant and garden extravaganza to delight humble gardeners like me and Piers Morgan. 
More show images here. More Chelsea here. Hampton Court Flower Show here

Scampston and Wentworth

In 2012, I took a short trip to see family in the UK. While there, as always, I try to visit a garden or two. Many of the most popular and visited gardens in Britain are on the tourist route in the south; places like Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and Great Dixter, all conveniently within easy reach of London. But across the country are countless stately homes, mansions, and castles that have opened up their magnificent gardens to the public.

I spent my time north of London, in Yorkshire, somewhat off the beaten track when it comes garden tourism. Fall may not be ideal for visiting gardens in Britain as June is the peak time, but it has its rewards. There may have been fewer blooms and blossoms to see, but the subtle colours of early fall and the form and structure of historic gardens were present. I was able to wander at will, almost alone along woodland paths, through formal gardens, and across pastoral countryside.

I visited a couple of locations, all within an hour or so of my base. First was Wentworth castle in South Yorkshire, established in the early 18th century by the Earls of Stafford. It’s not a traditional castle, more of a massive mansion, used now as a college, but the glorious gardens are recognized for their collections of rare rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. These are set in gently sloping parkland filled with ancient trees, rockeries, stumpery, secret Victorian flower gardens, and at the head of the park an impressive ruined folly in the form of a traditional castle complete with crenelated walls and towers.

One of the four towers is intact and provides an exceptional view of the 30 hectare estate and surrounding countryside. Far below I could see Lady Lucy’s Walk, an impressive avenue of lime trees planted in 1920 in honour of Thomas Wentworth’s daughter, said to have died of a broken heart after being forbidden to marry her beloved. I guess that’s what you get for falling in love with the estate gardener, rather than a preferred member of the aristocracy. Hope they didn’t make him plant the lime trees.

My other visit was to Scampston Estate, in north Yorkshire, and it is a delight. The principle feature is a four and a half acre (almost two hectares) nineteenth century walled garden. It lay derelict for fifty years until 1999 when the current owners, Sir Charles and Lady Legard, took on the task of renovation by contracting renowned Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf.

He created a beautiful enclosed garden made up of rooms, each one a different concept. I passed through each one, back and forth, finding surprises at each turn: a perennial meadow, serpentine hedges of yew, drifts of grasses, a Katsura grove, and the Silent Garden. It’s filled with stately pillars of yew mirrored in a pond. One corner has a conveniently placed mount designed to provide an elevated view of the whole garden.

And then I traveled through time when I passed through the garden gate into the 80 acre (32 hectare) parkland beyond, a rare landscape designed two hundred years earlier by Capability Brown. What a contrast. It’s a vista of lakes and streams, copses of trees and solitary giants planted in the naturalistic style of the time.

It may have been fall, but a blue sky filled with billowing white clouds and a soft breeze to set the grasses in motion, followed by tea and cakes in the cosy restaurant, and I knew I’d found my way to a gem of a place, a successful combination of the old and the new.

Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire, UK

On a cold January day, I find myself reminiscing about a garden I visited, where for a while I stepped back into the nineteenth century. It began when I came upon Victorian croquet players dressed in traditional white. Like ghosts, they began to emerge in soft focus from a light morning mist. This was last fall whilst visiting Brodsworth Hall near Doncaster in south Yorkshire. Both house and garden are remarkable, though not so well-known as those on the well-travelled tourist route in the south of England.

Brodsworth was built in the 1860s and has a curious history with a plotline well suited to the Downton Abbey saga. The original estate was owned by the Wentworth family until sold in 1790 to Peter Thellusson, a director of the Bank of England. When he died in 1797, his will stipulated, without explanation, that his fortune was to be held in trust for three generations, the eventual beneficiary being Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson, a great-grandson.

Wealthy Charles immediately demolished the original Georgian house and built a modern Victorian mansion complete with marvelous gardens. It stayed in the family relatively unchanged until 1990 when the estate was acquired by English Heritage, an organisation that manages historic sites. Today the house and gardens are a unique time capsule of Victorian style.

The 6 hectares (15 acres) of gardens suffered neglect for a period after WWII, but have since been restored to their original Italianate-like 1860s design, popularised in Britain after Victorians returned from grand tours of Europe.

Around the imposing, grey limestone house are spacious lawns, which were said to have been mown in earlier days by machines towed by ponies wearing special leather shoes to prevent damage to the lawns.

From a marble terrace I watched the croquet players at their game, surrounded by formal flowerbeds filled mainly with annual bedding plants. These are meticulously maintained and replanted as many as four times throughout the seasons. In September they glowed brightly with red salvia and yellow marigolds.

Hundreds of densely planted evergreens completed the vista — holly, laurel, and yew. Every single one perfectly sculpted into simple, random mounds and columns with the occasional precise geometric shape. Beyond the extensive topiary stands a backdrop of mature trees — massive pines, cedar, beech, and the unusual Chilean pine called the monkey puzzle tree. Many of these would have been planted long before the current garden was developed. Everywhere, classical statues, fountains and urns, in marble or stone, graced the pathways.

I followed one meandering trail that led me to the renowned grotto and its river of white gravel bounded by alpine plants. Masses of ferns grow on the steep, rocky sides, including palm-like Dicksonia tree ferns. Winding paths led me through short tunnels and over bridges, the parapets bordered by loops of iron chain draped with rambling plants. Each stop provided a different vantage point to pause and admire the ingenuity. 

Nearby I wandered into a pet cemetery where I spent a few quiet moments among small headstones, each one etched with the name of a treasured friend — Dash 1895, Spot 1906, Tatters 1919.

I then climbed a small hill past an ivy covered summer house, to a lookout from where, with the mist risen, I could see even more of the gardens inviting my exploration.

From the hill I made my way down into the still fragrant wild rose dell, through the walled garden, then followed the woodland pathways for a while with only the clunk of a distant croquet mallet to disturb the glorious silence of this nineteenth century garden.

It was a lovely day, but sadly, dreaming is over now as all I hear is a twenty first century snow plow coming down the street.

Hampton Court Flower Show

I finally had the opportunity to attend the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show back in July. I’ve been to the Chelsea Flower Show a number of times with groups, but never Hampton, so this time I took the opportunity while visiting family in the UK in Yorkshire to zip down the motorway to London for the show. Given the traffic jams the show generates, the zip kept sticking, but thanks to a 4:00 AM start, my daughter and I made it for opening time.

Up at 4:00 AM to see flowers? Yes, but these shows, despite the name, are about much more than flowers. They’re like Mecca for gardeners, top of countless bucket lists. They feature gardens designed by the world’s best, the very latest in new plant introductions, and more garden paraphernalia to purchase (including buckets) than one could possibly imagine.

The shows, both presented by the Royal Horticultural Society, are similar in content though held at different times of year — Chelsea in spring and Hampton in summer — which means the floral content differs, and at 25 acres (10 hectares), Hampton covers an area more than twice the size of Chelsea. The latter is in the heart of London where it’s easier to access by public transportation, and with a capped attendance it does seem easier to get around. Due to the sprawling nature of Hampton and the afternoon crowds streaming in, we did leave uncertain that we’d seen absolutely everything, but did see plenty.

As expected, the display gardens were immaculate; colours divinely coordinated in the most surprising combinations that looked perfectly matched. Never again will I say two particular colours don’t look well together. One group of gardens used colour effectively to interpret a specific theme, that of the seven deadly sins. The theme of anger was indeed blazing mad with Japanese blood grass, the grass interplanted with reds and oranges of yarrow and echinacea pierced by golden spikes of kniphofia, all in a bed of smoking lava. 

Gluttony was amusingly represented by giant food cans used as planters, the sardine can appropriately a water garden. The concept for envy was depicted by a grassy meadow in shades of brown. On a mound in the centre, enclosed by a screen of green Perspex, a lawn of artificial grass clipped to perfection — the grass is always greener . . .

These were the conceptual gardens while others were categorized as summer gardens, large show gardens (Australia took a gold), and smaller ones described as your garden, your budget. These modest gardens were designed to demonstrate how a high quality garden can be achieved on a budget; the budgets for these ranging, ahem, from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. I may never look at a cell pack of annuals the same way.

Those attending the show with a far less restrictive budget than me had plenty of opportunity to spend wildly. I was tempted, but had to pass on the giant bronze statue of a snail and the huge stone horse trough planter due to my flight baggage limit. I left the show with only a freebie packet of seed (Ammi majus).

Beyond the gardens and market place of the show, there were wonderful learning opportunities. A number of plant societies were present offering their specialized knowledge, while a display by the RHS called the invisible garden contained a number of interactive displays with microscopes. It encouraged visitors to discover the fascinating unseen world of insects, fungi and the myriad of other creatures that are invisible, yet so essential to a garden.

There was so much to see and so little time as the zippy motorway home awaited us. It was worth the drive.

Quebec City

I was in Quebec City for a few days this summer attending the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium. I met a lot of people, attended a number of presentations, and was introduced to new garden products. It was all good fun but the best part, besides touring a number of historic gardens, was wandering about the old city. In was like a homecoming for me as the last time I was there was over 40 years ago when I hopped off a boat from England to be processed. I don’t recall much from that time, but I’m sure the city wasn’t nearly as attractive and flower filled as it is now.

Since then, the old city has been designated as a world heritage site, and it’s a delightful place. The narrow streets are filled with countless hanging baskets and window boxes. The public gardens are immaculate, particularly those in front of the Quebec National Assembly. Colour rich flower beds radiate from the Fontaine de Tourney, a massive cast iron fountain donated to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city by the Simons family, owners of Quebec City’s oldest department store.

The fountain, found in a Paris antique shop, originally stood in AllĂ©es de Tourny, Bordeaux, France from 1857 to 1960. Now fully restored, it is an impressive work of art enhanced by the quality of the gardens. To see rare plants, I recommend a visit to UniversitĂ© Laval's exceptional Roger-Van den Hende Botanical Garden, but the familiar annuals and perennials in these flowerbeds were perfectly planted and maintained, and some of the finest specimens I’ve seen anywhere.

This was also apparent in the Joan of Arc garden located on the Plains of Abraham. The garden, an elongated octagon about a couple of hundred meters long was established in 1938 to accommodate a huge bronze statue of Joan of Arc mounted for battle, a gift to the city presented anonymously from an American artist and her husband.

The garden was designed by landscape architect Louis Perron and is sunk a few feet below the surrounding area and flanked on all sides by magnificent American elm trees —  yes, elm trees. Within the garden are over 150 species of plants incorporated into a design that cleverly blends the precision of the French Classical style with the less restrained British style of gardening — mixed beds in all combinations of form and colour — which I think reflects the makeup and essence of this country quite nicely.

Thanks to the elevation difference, it allows for a two tier planting scheme along the perimeter with colourful annuals swirling and flowing in intricate patterns throughout the perennials and small shrubs. As befits a historic public garden, the plants are of exceptional quality. Even though I have many of the same perennials in my own garden —  Echinacea, Veronica, Aconitum — they seemed so much bigger more robust. I suspect this has much to do with the climate of Quebec City. Summer is a little cooler and shorter, and like the people of the city, plants make the most of it. Slightly longer days also promote more growth, but the deep snow cover that reliably buries the perennials each winter means they are well protected at root level, barely freezing.

This is so different from our corner of the country where January thaws expose our plants, frequently freezing and thawing them only to be broiled and baked in summer. Okay, I’m envious, but despite excellent growing conditions and beautiful architecture, I’m not planning to move my garden. I am, however, looking forward to another visit, and I don’t think I’ll be waiting another 40 years.

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!

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.

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.