COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: The English cultivate a love for horticulture

By Marianne Binetti

The English are the best gardeners in the world. OK, I admit that I’ve seen beautiful gardens everywhere I’ve traveled, from New Zealand to Sicily, but the sheer number of floriferous masterpieces in Great Britain puts them at the top of the list when it comes to great gardens and great gardeners.

England is the only country I know of where young people compete for the honor of studying horticulture; where garden writers and nursery owners have fan clubs; and winning a prize at a flower show is something your grandchildren will brag about. Gardening is not just a national pasttime in England, it is a national obsession fanned by none other than Prince Charles himself, who was ahead of the curve when he started to promote the benefits of organic, home-grown vegetables decades ago.

Now the whole world is listening as England continues to promote allotment gardening space so that even apartment dwellers can grow food and flowers. Side note here: In England it is mostly men folk that tend the allotment gardens and our local guide pointed out the logical reason. A makeshift shed is erected on most allotment lots and this is the traditional place to stash a gallon or so of “bitters” or other liquid refreshment. There may be a decline in the number of British pubs, but the community watering hole is often replaced with the community weeding party, as gardening in a community allotment can quench a number of thirsts.

Viewing lovely gardens is a fine sport but on our September tour of Scotland and England our observant group brought home more than bone china tea cups and Scottish butter cookies. Here’s a practical list of what you, too, can learn from The Great English Garden:

Royal Botanical Gardens of

Scotland – Have fun with a theme

This huge public garden includes conservatories, borders, ponds, a Japanese garden, streams and perennials. But our favorite was the walled garden dedicated to “The Queen.” Every plant and design has something to do with Her Majesty. Even the neatly-clipped boxwood maze hedges were designed to form a series of “E” forms grown back to back and side by side in honor of “Elizabeth.” The roses had names either from the royal family or royal history, including the Lady Diana rose. Perennials and vines were only varieties such as the “Prince Charles clematis” or “Royal purple smoke tree” and even groundcovers had to prove their connection to royalty with their Latin or common name. The pathways, walls and garden features were all chosen from limestone slate or rock quarried from palace grounds and with royal symbols used as a decorative feature. So how does a mere commoner adapt this idea? You can personalize pathways with your family’s initial, use plants that are named the same as family members or choose from a variety of other themes, from sports to literary masters and just grow for it. This garden reminds us all that creating an outdoor space should be fun – and personal.

Sudely Castle The Cotswold’s: Lesson Learned – The color Purple

This once-abandoned castle and its magnificent gardens had us the moment we saw the blooming roses climbing up the ruins of a castle wall. The formal gardens, knot gardens and chapel gardens were worth the awards they’ve won but it was the secret garden, tucked behind a brick wall, that shared the secret to take home. This late summer garden was a vision in purple. Deep garnet vines of the ornamental grape “vitus purpea” hugged the walls with the rich wine tones of asters, mums and russet “Sedum Autumn Joy” filling the front of the beds. But there was more: clematis vines were allowed to spill on top of the flowers like long-blooming arms embracing the perennial beds with more purple blooms. Splashes of silver from artemsia and exclamation points of white from stark anemones added contrast. Forget about golds and orange for my fall garden: drink a toast instead to a garden of rich burgundy, claret and merlot. Purple gardens are not just for royalty – but it would be nice to have some ruined castle walls or a medieval tower as a backdrop.

Sissinghurst Castle:

The Garden Room

This is perhaps the most famous garden in all of England, due to the writings of Vita Sackville, who created the first “all white” garden. Sissinghurst does boast a spectacular theme garden that glistens with pale white blooms and foliage plants with variegation in the leaves. But Sissinghurst has a 13th century tower where one can view the entire layout of the landscape and the lesson here is the division of the space into different outdoor rooms. Even if you garden on a small city lot, you can use a low hedge or bamboo screen to create a sense of mystery, division and destination in your landscape. Perhaps because Vita was a poet, she designed her garden with a rhythm that unfolds from walled spaces to open spaces with vistas and views evenly arranged that lead the guest from one area to another. Imagine your own backyard with a pathway that links a small herb garden, a tiny rose garden and then at the end of the pathway you can place a simple bench. Next sit on this bench at the back of your own garden and look straight ahead. Now, this is where you position a birdbath, a focal point, a spot for your eye to rest. There, you’ve just channeled your inner Sissinghurst.

Welcome to the English garden style.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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