Since switching from full time work in horticulture to part time freelancing a couple of years ago, I’ve had more time to go garden visiting. There were quite a few really well-known gardens that I’d heard people talking about over the years but was slightly embarrassed to admit I’d never visited, so with more time at my disposal I was keen to get out and see some of them. It’s been an interesting experience and I’ve seen some great gardens, though I have to admit I wasn’t always blown away by the ones I’d expected to find exceptional. In fact, there were a couple of very highly regarded gardens which didn’t float my boat in the way they evidently do for a lot of other people. I suppose you could say that after all the anticipation, I was at times a little underwhelmed.
Of course, gardens change over time, and possibly I didn’t see some of them at their best. There’s ebb and flow in any garden. But I realised it is also a matter of personal taste. If, for instance, I stand in the famous white garden at Sissinghurst and can’t help thinking I’d like it better if someone would throw in some other colours, that might sound like sacrilege to some. There’s no point feeling that I ought to like it, though. It’s not a matter of right and wrong. Personal preference is as relevant in appreciating a garden as it is in the clothes we buy, the art we enjoy and the films we like to watch. Some people love a carefully restricted colour palette and some of us just prefer to mix it up a bit.
So which of the gardens I’ve visited in the last couple of years have really made an impression on me, and why?
RHS Hyde Hall in Essex has made an impression on me. A transformation has been wrought here in recent years with the introduction of a sinuous winter garden adding to the appeal of the huge borders that overflow with waves of colour in summer and autumn and the justifiably famed and fabulous dry garden. There’s also a gorgeous rose garden and circular kitchen garden that combines skilled growing with an education about the origins of the vegetables on display.
In Cambridge I love to go to Anglesey Abbey, home to another outstanding winter garden (also beautiful in spring and autumn) and plenty of stunning autumn colour from a spacious shrub garden, avenues of hornbeams, a sea of cyclamen and many trees in the arboretum and across the park.
Lytes Cary in Somerset was another highlight. I was so taken with the beautiful displays of late summer perennials – asters, rudbeckia, tithonia, salvias and so on – billowing over paths, buzzing with bees and perfectly matching the warmth of the architecture, that I wished I could work there. Or better still, live there.
My last choice, although there have been other good gardens, will be David Austin’s Rose Garden in Shropshire. It is relatively small, and I must admit I went there on one of those glorious, blue-sky June days that fill you with joy to begin with. But it was the roses that really made the day. Swags, drifts and mounds of vibrant colour so gorgeous I walked round the whole place twice to make sure I’d taken it all in.
And that sums up the vital part of a garden visit to me. Like a work of art, a really good garden speaks to you. For me, the plants are the stars and if they look happy, I feel happy. Simple really!
Janice Shipp’s Plant News blog is at http://janiceshipp.com