Saturday, July 20, 2019

My English garden visits

Greetings! Last month my family and I spent 2&1/2 weeks in England, and I thought I'd share a few moments from the beautiful English gardens I visited while there.

My trip wasn't all gardens: we traveled with another family we know, and it rained nearly every day we were there (apparently, it was the wettest June on record, with flooding in parts of the country). Both factors meant that I wasn't able to see every garden that I wanted to. But I did manage to make it to some of the most well-known of England's famous gardens.

Please forgive the length of this post, as I'd like to simply share a few photos from each garden in this one post and not write a series of more detailed posts over multiple weeks.


My family flew to London two days before the other family we traveled with, so that we could spend a couple days in Kent before returning to London to meet up with them. We took a train to Maidstone, where we rented a car and drove south to the tiny village of Sissinghurst, where we stayed in an ancient cottage listed on Airbnb.

Driving on the WRONG side of the road was terrifying -- my husband did the driving, but we were all terrified, all the time. And the cottage was picturesque, although the doorways were so low that my poor husband still has scars on his scalp. But it was a great adventure to spend time there, and that's how we were able to visit the first of the gardens on my list (shown in the first photo), the most famous of England's countless gardens, Sissinghurst Castle & Gardens

Here I am standing in the Rondel, the round space shown in the first
photo. The iconic Sissinghurst tower is in the background.

I've read about Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West for nearly two decades now, and it was wonderful to finally set foot in this most famous of gardens. This first day of our trip (June 6, my husband's and my 21st anniversary!) was the sunniest, warmest day of our entire two-and-a-half weeks in England, which made our visit to Sissinghurst truly lovely (although it was difficult to get good photos in the bright sunshine).

The rose gardens were at their peak and were the most beautiful flower gardens I've ever seen.

A small corner of the incredibly lush rose gardens.
My pictures don't do the rose gardens justice -- every ancient brick wall was covered with climbing roses heavy with bloom; every bed was stuffed full of roses, peonies, delphiniums and other perennials in flower. 

Here I am in a corner of the famous White Garden.

Sissinghurst wasn't as crowded as I had feared it would be on such a beautiful day. There was a coachload
of German tourists and many other visitors, but most had left by mid-afternoon, and by four o'clock, we had
the entire garden nearly to ourselves. It was a magical day, the nicest anniversary we've ever had.

Great Dixter

Because England's 2nd-most famous garden is only 20 miles from Sissinghurst, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit Great Dixter while down in Kent. Unfortunately, it rained heavily for nearly our entire visit there, so I didn't enjoy my visit there nearly as much, or appreciate the design and planting of the garden areas as much as I might have, had they been less sodden.

Here I am after the rain briefly stopped, in front of Christopher Lloyd's medieval house (now a museum), with the collection of potted plants that this doorway area is known for.

Rain on the pond in the Sunk Garden, designed by Lloyd's father in 1921.
The Long Border, 330 feet long and 15 feet deep: succession planting on a heroic scale.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

After returning to London, we met up with our friends at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of the city and did some sightseeing for the next five days. My husband and I skipped the Tower of London and instead hopped on a train to Kew Gardens, and enjoyed the afternoon's excursion to one of England's largest gardens (330 acres of gardens, glasshouses, and a research herbarium that houses the "largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world"). We couldn't see all 330 acres, but were able to take in most of the highlights of the gardens. Several of those:

In front of the magnificent Palm House, built in the 1840s.

The interior of the Palm House is filled with exotic plants.
Behind the Palm House, the rose garden was in full bloom.
My husband was dwarfed beneath this colossal chestnut-leaved oak. Planted in 1846 by Kew's
first Director, Sir William Hooker, from an acorn collected from the Caucasus region, it stands
over 120 feet tall and is the largest of this species in the British Isles. Kew's arboretum areas
are among the most magnificent in the world.

Regent's Park

My family had a good time at Winston Churchill's war bunker, but since I don't like crowded or underground places, I spent that morning stopping by the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, and then walking next door to Regent's Park. I had no idea what the park would be like -- and I found that it's 400 acres of the usual lawns and trees, with Queen Mary's Garden (opened in 1935) at its center. I quite enjoyed walking through the parkland and gardens.

Beautifully landscaped municipal park settings....

Families enjoying the lovely morning....
But then I stumbled on this.
The English sure don't do roses on any sort of small scale, do they? The huge, be-swagged, Rose Garden apparently holds London's largest collection of roses -- 12,000 of them, planted in 85 single-variety beds. And that's in addition to the other 18,000 roses planted in other parts of Queen Mary's Garden. And they were nearly all in full bloom when I stumbled on this display. I had no idea that Regent's Park is famous for its roses, so this really was quite a surprise to come upon so unexpectedly. A wonderful surprise!

Thornbury Castle Gardens

After London, we traveled by train to Oxford, then rented a car and drove south to Bath, then west to stay for two nights in Thornbury Castle (now a hotel) near Bristol. The Castle has beautiful gardens -- perhaps not commensurate with National Trust-level gardens, but lovely nonetheless -- and we had the gardens nearly to ourselves, which I think greatly adds to the enjoyment of a garden.

The tower of Thornbury Castle (built in the early 1500s) can be glimpsed beyond this part of the garden, and the ancient walls enclose the entire garden. (I don't think geraniums look this blue in the Midwest -- I don't know if it's the different quality of the light or the moist conditions, but they never look this vibrant in my gardens.)
A bee hive set into one of the ancient garden walls and surrounded by lovely roses.
Matilda, the Castle cat, liked to follow us around to keep an eye on us.

We really enjoyed our stay at Thornbury Castle.


After leaving Thornbury, we drove east to the Cotswolds area, and stayed at an Airbnb in the small village of Bourton-on-the-Hill. I wasn't sure if I'd get a chance to visit Hidcote Gardens, despite staying only 20 minutes away from England's #3-most-famous garden (no accident, that!). But the weather looked to be nice enough, and one morning my husband suggested that the two us drive there while the rest of our traveling companions slept in. I'm so glad we did!

The White Garden at Hidcote.
The famous Red Borders.
Hidcote's Long Borders. Stunningly lovely!
My husband in the area named "Mrs. Winthrop's Garden" by garden creator Lawrence Johnston for his mother.

Hidcote felt like the largest of all the gardens I visited, despite being only 10 acres in size -- but they are 10 mostly intensely-gardened areas and garden rooms, more than 30 in all. The gardens just went on and on, and we actually didn't have time to see all the areas. (It made me tired just thinking about maintaining it all!) But each room was an incredibly beautiful garden in itself, and the whole constitutes a truly great work of art. After Sissinghurst, this was my favorite English garden.

A Few Other Gardens

Being a garden-lover, and in England, I managed to find many other garden spots to enjoy while there, but this blog post is long enough already, so here are just a few last highlights:

Bourton House Garden was literally two blocks away from our Cotswolds cottage, so we all walked over on the last morning before our trip back to London to fly home. It was a wonderful garden, a hidden gem filled with topiary, garden rooms, exotic plants and a high outlook over the Cotswolds. Very enjoyable.

Chastleton House is a fascinating country house that was built in the early 1600s, which successive owners never had the money to completely remodel or update, so, unusually, most of the rooms still reflect their original design. In 1991 it was given to the National Trust, which made the controversial decision to leave it in pretty much "as-is" condition, reflecting how people lived in it during the 19th and 20th centuries. The gardens, however, have recently been restored to their 1830s layout and 1920s planting design (while the topiary in the area above is at least a century old, the flower beds had been turfed over in the mid-20th century, and were only re-planted in the concentric beds this spring).
The transportation center in Bath had this imaginative display... well as this jasmine-woven wicker chair. Heavenly!
Finally, this garden is actually a one-ninth-scale replica of the tourist village of Bourton-on-the-Water (not to be confused with the village where we stayed, Bourton-on-the-Hill). We were excited to see a model village after watching the movie "Hot Fuzz," in which a model village featured prominently in the film's sinister village. (This model village wasn't sinister at all, and was actually pretty fun to see!)

My family and I had a good time seeing places in England that we've been reading about or watching on television. As a garden enthusiast, I was so happy to finally visit a few lovely English gardens, and despite the rain, I greatly enjoyed every garden I saw.

But it's good to be back home (and the weeds certainly didn't wait for me!). It seemed strange that it was almost July already and 90°F, when it was barely June and rainy when we left. Since it was rainy with temperatures in the 60s most of the time we were in England, I've only slowly become acclimated to our Midwestern heat (hot & windy, with temps near 100°F this weekend!)

I've been incredibly busy since our return getting ready for last weekend's Open Gardens Weekend, a new event for our local public beautification charity, Project GREEN. My garden wasn't open, but I was chair of the event, and since we haven't done it this way before (any garden can open, and attending the event is free, sponsored by local businesses), we're still figuring things out. But now that it's over for this year, I can relax a bit and rest up from traveling and everything else.

It's truly good to be back home, and I hope you've enjoyed seeing a few of the gardens I was lucky enough to visit in England. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, June 3, 2019

Why do my gardens look so good just as I'm leaving?

Greetings! I've been getting ready for my Big Trip to the UK with my family, and things are looking better than ever in my gardens -- just as I'm about to leave to go see some of England's most famous gardens....

I've been furiously trying to weed, mow and plant everything before I go, but I can't help but notice that many of my garden areas look much better than they have for years. Part of that's the relatively cool, rainy weather we've been having for the past month -- things are blooming longer because it hasn't been hot yet -- like those Japanese tree peony flowers above; part is that I've been working for the past year or two to downsize and improve my garden areas; and much of it's probably because this is the first week of June, when most people's gardens look their best. But it still makes me a bit sad to leave my beautiful gardens, even if I know the gardens I see in England will be truly magnificent.

Here are a few highlights from the past week or two:

The Long Border

My Long Border (formerly known as the Rainbow Border) is looking pretty good. I originally deigned it to be a May-June-peaking border, and even though I've  added many plants for later blooming, this border still has a good show for this time of year. This is looking down the entire length of it.
The near end of the Long Border (which is actually not as long as it used to be before I shortened it to make it more manageable a couple of years ago). The 'Red Charm' peony looks fabulous with the dark red irises, lightened up with ox-eye daisies and alliums.
A bit further down that border, alliums, a single-flowered peony, Siberian irises and white salvia surround a hardy geranium that isn't quite flowering yet.
The Siberian irises look sharp with the orange of the very early-flowering daylily.
The end of the Long Border, with alliums, Siberian irises, Baptisia and Dame's rocket. A study in purple.

The North Border:

Looking along the length of the evergreen North Border. This border is starting to look OK, as the trees and shrubs are beginning to grow in size.

The end of the North Border that I always see out of my kitchen sink window.

Paradise Garden

The roses are starting to bloom in my Paradise Garden. I have moved nearly all of the shrub roses into this area, so they can be protected from the Japanese beetles that will arrive later this month. I'll put up the Big Net (2.0) when I return.

These clematis 'Rouguchi' have small bell-shaped flowers with a light scent, and the plant has really taken off in its 2nd year.

I'm so happy these poppies opened up before I left -- I couldn't remember what color they were and wanted to buy more for this area (but I didn't want to mix colors) so I had been hoping I could see their color this spring -- and they obliged! Their papery flowers are glowingly beautiful in the sunshine.

Recent Projects

A few weeks ago, my handyman, my teenage children (under compulsion) and I built a 5-foot-tall fence around our vegetable garden -- I don't know why we didn't do this when we first made this garden. The rabbits (and some deer) have gotten worse each year, and it really took the fun out of gardening to have to fence each individual bed with stakes and wire fencing in this garden with so many beds. It was starting to look ridiculous with all the stakes -- not to mention making it hard to weed the beds too. I think my husband has gotten back his enthusiasm for vegetable gardening since we built this fence. Rabbits begone!
During the past few days, I've been working on putting most of my potted plants in one place, so it will be easy for the pet-sitter to water them all at once when I'm gone. I've been putting wooden tongue-depressor markers in some of them with sayings like "purified water only" (for plants that hate my limey well water) and "needs less watering" (in the case of my new olive plant). There are also many indoor plants still inside. I have to say that I'm pretty worried about going away and leaving all my plants and gardens....

We're leaving tomorrow evening, flying from Chicago to London Heathrow airport overnight. I'm excited to see things I've been wanting to see in England (Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, etc.), but also worried about many things: will it rain heavily every single day we're there? will my own gardens and potted plants be OK? will we miss our plane or get lost? (Don't even get me started about my fear and dread of flying...).

But I'm sure we'll have a nice time -- rain or no -- and I'm so happy to see some English gardens after reading about them for so many years. Time to finish packing!


But I can't end this blog post without mentioning the sad recent event we've experienced -- my husband's mother passed away a week and a half ago -- she was 89 years old. We visited her several days before she died, and she was very weak and couldn't walk, but she was still in her home -- the farm house she had lived in during her entire adult life as a farm wife -- with her family caring for her. 

When we visited, I brought her a small bouquet of the earliest Japanese tree peony blooms, iris, columbine and lily-of-the-valley. I had to hold it for her, and she brought it to her face and for nearly a full minute she breathed deeply of the scent of the lily-of-the-valley flowers with her eyes closed, like she couldn't enjoy them enough. I'm so glad my gardens were able to provide a small moment of enjoyment in her last days. It's hard to believe the matriarch of our family -- 11 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild -- isn't with us any more.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Spring Garden Improvements

Greetings! Hard to believe we're in May now, after waiting for spring for so long -- we've had a few warmer days, but this has been a relatively cool spring overall, and I now understand why our British gardening friends love tulips and spring ephemerals so much -- they are wonderful when they can be enjoyed for more than two days before hot blasts of wind shrivel them up and blow them away!

This English weather is preparing me for the trip to England that my family and I are taking next month -- I'm excited to finally be able to see a few famous gardens like Sissinghurst and Great Dixter that I have read about for so many years. Our 2&1/2-week trip to London, Kent, Bath, Oxford and the Cotswolds won't be all gardens (sadly), as my family wants to see the historical sights too -- but I'll do my best to sneak away to sit in a few local gardens when I get the chance.

But before I leave, I've been working on a few small improvements in my garden areas:

Delphinium Bed

The delphinium bed back in 2016. The nasty runner grass that infested this bed can be spotted. :-(
In the past I had a lovely display of delphiniums that looked great for nearly five years. But the bed was slowly taken over by nasty runner grass that I just couldn't dig out, no matter how many times I tried. I not only had to clear the entire bed itself, but it wasn't until I made the Paradise Garden right behind this bed last year, eliminating the lawn that was the continuing source of the runner grass, that I have been able to get things under control.

I've kept the bed clear for two years now, and finally I judged that it was safe to start a packet of delphinium seeds this spring. But first I had some repair work to do:

We had so much snow this past winter that we had to call a neighbor with a snow plow to clear our driveway several times. He must have backed into the edge of the border and I needed to fix it before I could plant anything here.
With the edging restored to an orderly state, I planted the delphinium seedlings under white metal mesh baskets that I found at the dollar store for $1 apiece. I planted a couple seedlings not under baskets and they went MIA by the next morning.... Grrr. Rabbits!

I also planted three Veronica 'Royal Candles' there, as I think they will look nice with the spikes of blue delphiniums. I really hope that I will be able to enjoy delphiniums again, as I really miss their impressive display. I hope to be able to remove the baskets when the plants get a bit larger (and when there is more for rabbits to eat elsewhere -- delphiniums are listed as deer- and rabbit-resistant plants, but perhaps the tiny seedlings are irresistible).

New Bench Area in Paradise Garden

The "Stairway to Nowhere" could be seen at right, back in March.
In my last post, I discussed how last month I removed the stairs that had formerly led to my front porch before we had it enclosed into a sunroom two years ago. I wanted to put a bench in that sunny, south-facing location, for enjoying the garden on sunny, cool days.

This is what I found under the wooden steps: one concrete step that was probably original to my 1924 house. Rather than try to remove such a huge piece of concrete, I decided to cover it.
I filled the area behind the step with gravel, added leveling sand on top, and laid pavers on the sand.

I still need to have my handyman cut a piece of siding board to match the white pieces above the lattice panels on each side. I might paint the concrete behind the bench too, I haven't decided yet. But it's nice to have a sunny spot to sit in on cooler days -- the bench is much more comfortable than sitting on the decaying steps.

A Few Flowers

There have been a few things flowering recently, such as the bulbs I planted last fall in the Paradise Garden. I planted mostly things that had associations with Turkish gardens, such as lily-flowering tulips, hyacinths and narcissus.

'Purple Dream' Lily-flowering tulips, mixed hyacinths, grape hyacinths and 'Tete-a-Tete' narcissus made a brilliant display.

The 'Purple Dream' tulips from above, showing their interesting star pattern.

'Woodstock' purple hyacinths with orange wallflowers. Zowie!

Stripey 'Marilyn' lily-flowering tulips. The dianthus on the right edge of the bed mostly survived the winter, but the 12 lavender 'Ellagance Blue' plants that I planted last spring have not made it. Time to dig out my receipts....

Anyway, I'm finishing a few last improvements, moving plants around before it gets hot and before I leave for 2&1/2 weeks in June -- does the thought of leaving your gardens for such a long stretch make you nervous? It sure makes me feel that way! I probably need to get out more....

I hope you are enjoying lovely warm days in your gardens, with many flowers to brighten your days and good weather for finishing garden projects. Thanks for reading! -Beth