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What an amazing fortnight I’ve had, cruising right round the British Isles in the company of over 300 gardeners, and visiting great gardens along the way. The Gardeners’ World Magazine 20th Anniversary Cruise was a great success, with experts Pippa Greenwood, Matthew Biggs and garden photographer Tim Sandall at my side, providing talks and entertainment on board the MS Balmoral.
Departing from Southampton, and completely circumnavigating the country, we visited gardens at nearly every port of call. The National Trust’s Bodnant Garden near Snowdonia was a delight. Widely appreciated as a spring garden for rhododendrons and azaleas, the garden is keen to promote its year-round appeal, and certainly looked wonderful in August.
A calm overnight sailing to Dublin and a short drive through County Wicklow took us to Mount Usher Gardens. Regularly voted a favourite by Gardeners’ World readers, their knowledgeable garden team took us on an informative tour of their impressive Champion Trees – some of the best specimens you’re ever likely to see. The vision of a wide walkway arched with eucryphia in full flower will be imprinted on my memory forever.
At the very top of the country we travelled the short distance from Scrabster to the Castle of Mey, home to the late Queen Mother. Olga, the new head gardener, is just coming to terms with such an exposed garden, designed in part to provide cut flowers and produce for the house. Tall walls and dividing hedges are essential to create shelter, and new planting projects are very much in evidence despite Olga only having one other gardener to help (Bodnant has 20, plus 20 volunteers).
The highlight of my cruise was visiting The Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester, and being welcomed by the great lady herself. At a sprightly 88 years old, Beth is as passionate about plants as ever, and the garden she has created over several decades inspired our group as they neared the end of their cruise, with many getting back on board with bags full of new treasures to plant in their own gardens. Beth was particularly keen to take me into her private garden to enjoy the evergreen Itea illicifolia trained against a wall and dripping with long catkins.
Beth understands plants, and has developed a garden that works with the dry conditions she experiences near the east coast. Rainfall is sparse and infrequent, and watering costly and time consuming, so plants are chosen that relish dry conditions.
And that is one of the big lessons I’ve learned from visiting gardens during this cruise. Local conditions vary massively, and so do the gardens created in each location. By going with the flow rather than against it you can create a great garden, and make life easier for yourself!
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