08 July 2007

Great Britain. Land of fox hunts, polo matches, afternoon tea, Big Ben, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, the Loch Ness Montster, and the Secret Garden, among others. Now that I've been six times in the last five years, it's easy to see why such inspired works of art and lore come from the little island. It's an amazing place, which is why I keep going back.

England is the gardener's Mecca. Gardening isn't just a hobby in England, it's the national religion. Try to imagine a major national US news broadcast highlighting the public outcry over a medal winner at a flower show in Los Angeles. Yeah, right. The RHS Flower Shows at Chelsea and Hampton Court receive as much press coverage as Wimbledon, if not more. At least with the flower shows there's the near certainty that a Brit will win.

Gardening certainly didn't start in England, but most of the Western world sure behaves as though it did. Here on the West Coast, most of the gardening mags on the shelves are photographed and published back East. Given the East's proximity to the UK, it's no wonder there's such a heavy English influence on the pages. When one utters the term "English Garden", one automatically imagines thatched cottages engulfed in roses and foxgloves. Not true, I'm here to say. There are quite a few English Gardens, that is gardens in England, that are far from the stereo-typical cottage garden most envisage.

One such garden is on the desolate stretch of sea coast in Dungeness. Derek Jarman, film-maker, poet, artist, and gardener, managed to coax a garden out of the shale. Sharing beds with the native plants are follies of sea-rusted chains, garden tools, boat parts and shells. There are those who wouldn't call it garden at all, but it's an eclectic collection of plants that not only grow but thrive in this harsh environment, keeping company with relics and artifacts of the fishing trade.

Another one is Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden, which, when I first saw it, made me think I'd been magically transported back to Southern California. Every plant in Mrs. Chatto's Gravel Garden would not only do well in So Cal, they would positively flourish without the obscene amounts of water So Calians insist on throwing at their lawns.

Gardeners can learn a lot from the English, particularly the plantsmen and women who make it their life's work to study plants, seek and try out new ones, experimenting with combinations and arrangements that some might find shocking (one such plantsman actually received an irate letter from a visitor to his garden, stating that one cannot possibly combine pink and yellow in the same border. So glad the plantsman didn't listen).

Every time I travel to England, drooling over its gardens, I'm amazed at how many plants I see that will do well in my corner of the world given the quite dramatic difference in environment. Every year I come home with a list of new "English" plants to add to my garden. I'm not trying to create or copy an English garden, I'm just collecting a palette of plants that will work in my own backyard (or plants that I'm determined to make work; I'm stubborn that way)and that carry meaning. Each time I look at my Geranium maderense, for instance, I am reminded of the container arrangement that greets visitors at the entrance to Great Dixter. Snorting a Philadelphus's cinnamon and bubblegum scent will forever remind me of The Courts. The stately globes of Allium 'Purple Sensation' calls to mind my first trip to Kew Gardens (a band of marauding ginea fowl is the favorite image of my second visit). Don't even get me started on the monstrous Kifstgate Rose. All plants that will grow in my garden, and some of them are.

It's exciting to be blessed with the means to travel, to meet other plant freaks who share my passion. I never dreamed an interest in growing things would throw me into the circles it has, and what circles they are (we're not talking just your average, every day garden labyrinth, either!).

Now, if only my Dipsacus would hurry up and do something!