British Garden Tours

BRITISH GARDEN TOURS – September 2013

Almost two years later, it’s the August long weekend, and I’m finally catching up on some long-postponed tasks. One of which is sharing some of my recent garden-related travel experiences and photos. First stop, London, England. I had six days in London, each day I went to a different garden.

The Garden Museum

  The museum is located in an ancient church, St. Mary-at-Lambeth.

The museum is located in an ancient church, St. Mary-at-Lambeth.

The impetus for my journey was a lecture by Dan Pearson and Piet Oudolf at The Garden Museum in early September that I desperately wanted to attend - two of my favourite design influences in one room at the same time, discussing their approaches and practices - as well as a retrospective of Dan Pearson’s work. They didn’t let me down, it was a great discussion, enlightening and entertaining, great photos, thrilling to be there amongst so many keen gardeners.

The rest of this trip was built around the lecture – I decided to focus on some of the famous gardens in and around London that are often mentioned in my British gardening magazines but that I had never visited in person: Wisley, Kew, Chelsea Physic, Great Dixter, Beth Chatto. I had also planned to tour some Piet Oudolf gardens during the second of my two weeks in England, but this was eclipsed by the opportunity to spend the whole of my second week at Great Dixter…more on that in my next entry.

Dan designed a lovely, peaceful garden that was installed in the courtyard of the Garden Museum at Lambeth Palace – it was a welcome refuge from the mad busy-ness and noisiness of London's streets.

  The planting aimed to capture the atmosphere of a deciduous Japanese woodland.

The planting aimed to capture the atmosphere of a deciduous Japanese woodland.

  And was inspired by his work in the Hokkaido woodland at Tokachi Millenium Forest.

And was inspired by his work in the Hokkaido woodland at Tokachi Millenium Forest.

  Lambeth Palace Road and the River Thames are just steps away.

Lambeth Palace Road and the River Thames are just steps away.

RHS Wisley
The big draw for me here was a chance to see the Piet Oudolf planting – we see so many beautiful and incredibly impressive photos in the press and in books, I was really excited to experience one in person. The borders at Wisley were designed to be a more naturalistic and contemporary version of traditional perennial borders, but, sadly, it proved to be a bit of a let-down. There was not much in flower in early September - I had hoped that this garden would be at its peak at the end of the summer – and parts of it were collapsing, apparently, according to another visitor, because it wasn’t being watered.

But there were unanticipated pleasures. I stumbled upon this as I was striding along on my way to the Oudolf garden. Completely stopped me in my tracks, I’d never seen such vast perennial borders.

  The late-blooming Long Borders were the most unexpected and impressive surprise at Wisley.

The late-blooming Long Borders were the most unexpected and impressive surprise at Wisley.

They led me up the grassy slope to this impressive Henry Moore sculpture. You can just make it out in the distance in the first photo – an incredible vista.

They led me up the grassy slope to this impressive Henry Moore sculpture. You can just make it out in the distance in the first photo – an incredible vista.

wisley-41-360x270.jpg

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Kew Gardens is a botanical research and education institution, founded in 1840, and is home to the world’s largest collection of living plants. I wasn’t sure what I would find here – I knew there were Victorian glasshouses, plant collections and an impressive arboretum, but I hadn’t anticipated the vast scale of the site. It was huge – 130 hectares – and it was an impossible challenge to get round it all in one day. I resorted to the train-ride as the afternoon progressed, so that I could at least say I’d seen most of the main areas. There were loads of big landscape vistas but very little in the way of traditional borders and planting displays.

  Full-to-busting with tropical plant specimens

Full-to-busting with tropical plant specimens

  Decorative ironwork staircase – which I did climb to get to the catwalk

Decorative ironwork staircase – which I did climb to get to the catwalk

  Some of the palms are more than 200 years old

Some of the palms are more than 200 years old

Chelsea Physic Gardens

Chelsea Physic Garden is a beautiful oasis in the heart of London, an amazing, enclosed, almost secret, green space to escape to. It was a private training ground for apothecaries for most of its existence - it only opened to the public in 1983 when it became a registered charity. It is the second oldest botanical garden in Britain, founded in 1673, and was an important centre of botany and plant exchange, particularly linked with medicinal plants.

  Wardian cases, rather like miniature greenhouses, were used to transport seedlings from overseas

Wardian cases, rather like miniature greenhouses, were used to transport seedlings from overseas

  massive old specimens, note the supports

massive old specimens, note the supports

  the trunk of the same tree; you can also see the thick canes of a climbing rose that grows up into it

the trunk of the same tree; you can also see the thick canes of a climbing rose that grows up into it

Dinner is served in the garden several evenings each summer and it’s an incredibly lovely setting. I, rather luckily, turned up on an open evening quite by chance and was able to enjoy dinner and sunset in the garden, as well as an extra long time to ramble round and explore the gardens.

Beth Chatto Gardens, Colchester

Beth Chatto pioneered the “right plant, right place” philosophy of plant growing on her property, which she has described as an overgrown wasteland with poor gravel soil and boggy hollows. She developed her gardens exclusively according to soil conditions, climate, rainfall and local wildlife.

  The famous gravel garden, formerly a car park

The famous gravel garden, formerly a car park

Plants are carefully placed in the garden according to the growing conditions that they prefer, and are only watered during their first year in the garden – then they have to make a go of it on their own. The gravel garden, formerly a car park, was looking great, but the rest of the garden, particularly the woodland, was fairly quiet at this time of year. A bit of a disappointment after a fairly epic journey by tube, train and taxi. Thank goodness for the tea shop where I regained my composure before venturing round the garden and then a long browse through the extensive and wonderful nursery collection. Wished I could have taken plants home!

  The ponds

The ponds

Battersea Park, London

I had seen a beautiful photo spread in Gardens Illustrated of a newly-planted Old English Garden in Battersea Park, designed by Sarah Price. As I was staying immediately behind the park, I expected a lovely garden would be close at hand.

  This is one of the photos from GI

This is one of the photos from GI

But the beds were in a terribly sad state when I arrived in September. Overgrown, collapsing, boxwoods dying.

  boxwood blight?

boxwood blight?

I’m guessing no maintenance budget? Which goes to prove that a good designer is only as good as the person who takes care of the garden!